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10th Mountain Division

Posted by Richard on August 2, 2007

They came together at Camp Hale, high in the Colorado Rockies near Leadville, to participate in the largest ski school ever. Many had never seen snow. They became one of the most storied and gloried military units of all time, one that played a critical role in defeating the Axis in Europe:

Following two years of rigorous training, the Tenth Mountain Division was ordered to Italy in 1945 to spearhead an advance of the U.S. Army. In a series of actions that included Riva Ridge and Mt. Belvedere, the Tenth Mountain Division breached the supposedly impregnable Gothic Line in the Apennines and secured the Po River Valley to play a vital role in the liberation of northern Italy. By the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, 992 ski troopers had lost their lives and 4,000 were wounded. This was the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division in the Mediterranean. 

Actually, I believe it was the highest casualty rate of any U.S. division, period — more than 30 percent. The 10th also earned more medals than any other division. 

After the war, members of the 10th Mountain Division created the U.S. ski industry. Among their numbers were Monty Atwater (Alta, Utah), Friedl Pfeifer (Aspen Mountain), and Pete Seibert (Vail). And a fellow named Bob Dole, who'd been badly injured and thus had an excuse for pursuing the law and politics instead of a more honorable winter sports career.

Several hundred of the remaining WWII veterans of the 10th are gathering together one last time in Denver today through Sunday:

The final reunion for the first division in the country to specialize in mountain warfare begins Thursday at the Denver Marriott Tech Center. But Tripp and Kentz already had their final meeting in the spring.

Kentz's 84-year-old heart gave out in May. The nearly 88-year-old Tripp drove up to Tennessee Pass near Leadville to place a wreath for his friend at a memorial to the 10th Mountain Division. The last thing he hopes to do for him is to make the long climb to the top of Mount Sopris this summer with Kentz's family to scatter his ashes.

"We are dropping like flies," Tripp says of a division that once numbered nearly 16,000 but has dwindled to 1,500. The surviving mountain soldiers range in age from 81 to more than 100.

They're dying at the rate of one a day. The National Association of the 10th Mountain Division put it this way:

 … This will be the last official National Reunion organized by the WW II Veterans. Future reunions may be organized by the Descendants, veterans of the Division serving after WWII or others. We are hoping most of our WW II Veterans will attend this special reunion

The Last Ridge by McKay Jenkins tells the story of the 10th, and has earned high praise. Now, there's a documentary of the same name based on the book. It's being broadcast on PBS stations, and a DVD is available (the link has both air dates and DVD ordering information).

But this Saturday, August 4 at 2 PM, the Colorado Historical Society is presenting a special showing of The Last Ridge at the Colorado History Museum. McKay Jenkins and film producer Abbie Kealy (a 10th Mountain descendant) will speak and sign copies of the DVD and book. Tickets ($7 or $15) include museum admission, so you can also see the Soldiers on Skis exhibit. A pretty sweet deal for anyone near Denver who's interested in military history.

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One Response to “10th Mountain Division”

  1. Walter in Denver said

    I’ve always had a lot of respect for those guys. I got to know Pete Seibert and Martin Brusse, and talking with each was a thrill.

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