In late February, NRA American Warrior was afforded a rare and rapidly vanishing opportunity—an invitation to attend the reunion of a World War II unit. We’d be the first to argue that there aren’t “any old units” in this remarkable generation, but there was no confusion at all about the group we joined in Vail, Colo.: veterans of the famed 10th Mountain Division.
The 10th needs no introduction in our neck of the woods, and indeed not to many who ski in North America. The brainchild of National Ski Patrol President Charles “Minnie” Dole and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall in 1940, it was inspired by the 1939 decimation of two Soviet armored divisions at the hands of lightly armed but ski-borne Finns.
Originally a battalion-strength unit trained at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and on the slopes of Mt. Ranier, these first U.S. “alpine” troops returned from the Kiska, Alaska, Campaign to form the core of the 10th Light (Alpine) at Camp Hale, Colo., in 1943. Training at 9,200 ft. in all weathers hardened members well beyond Army standards for the day. The famed blue and white “Mountain” tab was granted the Division in November 1944.
Their grueling mountain training—not just in skiing, but all facets of mountaineering —was soon put to the test. In Italy’s rugged Apennines, two steep ridges guarded the Allies’ entrance to the strategic Po River Valley. Three previous attempts had failed to take and hold the opposing Axis positions. Only lately arrived in theater, the 10th daringly stole into a series of small villages in the valley between the German-held high points to stage their assaults. On the night of Feb. 18, 1945, 700 soldiers scaled Riva Ridge up routes that the defending Germans considered impassable.
Feb. 19 saw a follow-on assault of nearby Mt. Belvedere. Robbed of support from Riva Ridge, German defenders were forced to retreat. A bayonet attack succeeded in taking the mined approaches and, eventually, Belvedere’s summit. Displaced German defenders counter-attacked seven times over the next two days, but the 10th held. A breach in Field Marshal Kesselring’s “Gothic Line” had been opened.
Historically, it isn’t saying too much to mark Riva Ridge as the beginning of the end of the war in Italy, with five elite German divisions falling to the 10th Mountain in their 114 days of continuous combat.
Inevitably, the years have robbed us of all but a few 10th Mountain Division veterans. Vail Mountain host manager Jeff Wiles put the reunion in almost tear-drawing perspective: “Vail was started by 10th Mountain veterans … It’s only fitting we hold this event every year.”Vail was started by 10th Mountain veterans … It’s only fitting we hold this event every year.
Three were in attendance on our glorious February morning: Hugh Evans, Jim Nasser and Dick Dirkes. All in their 90s, they nevertheless came in true 10th fashion—to ski. Patriarch and historian (his book “Bad Times and Good Times” is still in print here) Evans had injured a foot a few days earlier (you guessed it—while skiing). But Nasser and Dirkes lead two dozen or so friends, Vail representatives and multiple generations of 10th Mountain “family” members down the slopes, with a first stop at “Sarge’s Tree.”
A few dozen photos later, Dirkes and Nasser guided the troop out to a mid-mountain luncheon in their honor. Their route? Vail faithful will know it in a second: Riva Ridge.
The 10th Mountain Division was by no means the only light, highly mobile and unusually trained force to reach the battlefield in World War II. Indeed, units and specialties that form the heart of modern Special Forces were all formalized in the same era: Airborne (1940), Rangers (1942), and the Amphibious Scouts and Raiders (1942) to name a few. In a nod to both practicality and history, the 10th’s Mountaineering Detachment still trains and instructs nearby. It’s no surprise, then, that nearby Ft. Carson, Colo.—home of the 10th SFG—had several modern “10thers” on hand.
In the best moments of the day, the 90-somethings of yesteryear and 30-somethings of today traded experiences and anecdotes like real-time comrades, and a few very fortunate outsiders caught a glimpse of what makes them so special—and our nation so very, very fortunate.