Nelson Bennett '40 began his life on skis on a hillside dairy farm in Lancaster, N.H. As a boy, he would awaken at the crack of dawn to round up the cows for milking before heading off to school—and in the afternoons, he strapped the staves of a hogshead barrel to his boots and headed down the farm's snow-covered hills. By high school, he was making a name for himself on the Lancaster Academy ski team and the local winter carnival circuit; at UNH he competed in downhill, slalom, ski jumping and cross-country, the central disciplines of a sport still very much in its U.S. infancy.
By the time the dark cloud of World War II cast its shadow over the United States, Bennett had already graduated from UNH with a degree in agriculture and was head of the elite ski patrol at Sun Valley, Idaho. Drafted in December 1942 and recruited with his brother, Edmund, for the Army's Officer Candidate School, he chose instead to join the new 10th Mountain Infantry Division. A specialized "ski infantry," the 10th Mountain was modeled on a band of Finnish skiing soldiers who had repelled a Russian invasion in 1939 by outmaneuvering the larger force. With the war effort stalled in northern Italy, where the German troops were dug into position in the Apennine mountains and the Alps, skiing soldiers seemed like the Allied forces' best chance to break the stalemate and clear a route into Germany.
"Edmund and I figured the 10th Mountain was where we could do the most good, and had the greatest chance of surviving," he explains. But survival would prove be especially challenging for the 10th Mountain's soldiers. The training alone often turned out to be dangerously ill-advised. By the war's end, the division would suffer tremendous casualties, with 25 percent of its troops wounded or killed.
On the theory that it was easier to train skiers to become soldiers than the other way around, the 10th Mountain started its recruiting efforts with high school and college ski teams and the National Ski Patrol. Richard Mansfield '49, '50G was in his first semester at UNH when he heard the call to join the 10th Mountain. A chemistry major from Newport, N.H., he was just settling into the groove of life in East Hall, juggling homework assignments and hours in the chem. Lab with ski team practices on Beech Hill, when he put down his books to enlist. Richard McCrudden '48, Francis Crowley '49, Curt Chase '44 and Thaddeus Thorne '51, a high school senior and skiing standout, all joined as well.
All told, more than a dozen UNH students and alumni joined an eventual corps of some 14,000 skiers, snowshoers, mountain climbers and outdoor enthusiasts who would be sent into critical battles at Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and della Torraccia in hopes of hastening the end of the war. But first they had to survive the very training designed to prepare them to fight.
In 1942 and 1943, 10th Mountain soldiers trained at Camp Hale in Colorado's Rocky Mountains, 9,200 feet above sea level and near the towns of Pando and Leadville. At altitude, faced with rugged terrain, sub-freezing temperatures and snow up to 12 feet deep, soldiers by the thousands learned rock climbing, snowshoeing, skiing and "winter survival," in addition to standard infantry combat skills—all while carrying 100-pound rucksacks. The conditions would come to seem hospitable compared to the war front, but there was no shortage of casualties during the two years the 10th Mountain trained and grew, the original 87th regiment spilling over to the 86th and finally the 85th.
Chief among the challenges faced by the new recruits was the cold. Temperatures regularly fell to minus 30 overnight, and some soldiers, like McCrudden, spent all night outside on maneuvers. "Because I had done a lot of rock climbing, I was assigned solo maneuvers, ice climbing by myself from dark until first light," McCrudden says. Lacking adequate protection from the elements, he lost more than 45 pounds over the course of several months and ended up hospitalized for hypothermia and exhaustion, missing the division's eventual deployment. "For a while," he says, "I wasn't sure I would make it out of training alive."
Thorne also experienced a "Camp Hale diet" when he volunteered for an exercise called the Pemmican Experiment. For three weeks he and several other soldiers lived in a snow cave on a summit, consuming nothing but water and dried deer meat, to see if the rations would be sufficient to sustain soldiers on the front.
"Pemmican is very nutritious, apparently, and you could carry a lot without it taking up too much weight or space," Thorne says. The experiment was a less-than-resounding success, however, and 65 years later the lanky veteran still grimaces as he recalls the tough—and hairy—rations he chewed until his jaws ached. "The other fellows and I lost a good 15 pounds apiece. After it ended and we ate our first real meal again, the whole lot of us got sick as dogs."
As the training wore on and the soldiers undertook grueling exercises like the infamous "D-series" that had them on maneuvers in the snow for six weeks straight, Camp Hale became widely known as "Camp Hell." The recruits also suffered the indignity of being mocked by other Army divisions as lightweights—college playboys who would rather schuss than shoot.
"Morale got pretty low," recalls Crowley, who served with the 85th regiment. "We would come across soldiers from other divisions on our days off and endure a lot of heckling. For a while, there were a lot of guys who transferred out of the 10th Mountain and a whole bunch more who wished they could."
A low point came in 1943 when soldiers of the 87th regiment were sent to Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands, which the Army believed was being held by Japanese troops. Unaware that the Japanese had evacuated, and disoriented by high winds and heavy fog, the 87th fell into chaos, losing 23 soldiers to land mines and friendly fire. Then, in 1944, the entire 10th Mountain was transferred to Camp Swift, Texas—a shocking change of climate and altitude that saw several soldiers die from heat prostration in the first week.
The official word for the move was that the 10th Mountain needed additional, flatland training, but both Mansfield and Crowley remember it differently: "There wasn't a general who was willing to take us to the front," Mansfield says. For all their training and specialized skills, and despite the desperate need for additional troops, the 10th Mountain's reputation as gadabouts who couldn't fight had stuck. "They didn't want us," Crowley adds. "They didn't have any idea we could fight."
Finally, the war
But fight they would. After almost seven months of languishing in Texas, the 10th Mountain Infantry shipped out to Italy in December 1944 and January 1945 under the command of Gen. George Hays. The division's mission was to break the so-called "Gothic Line," a 120-mile stretch of Italian mountainside controlled by the German Army that blocked the Allies' critical route to Berlin. Two previous attempts to take Mount Belvedere, the key peak in the Gothic Line, had failed, and upon surveying the terrain Hays immediately understood the first step would be to gain possession of a different peak to the west, a sort of lookout the Germans were using to observe their adversaries.
Bennett, Mansfield, McCrudden, Crowley and Thorne were not among the troops charged with securing Riva Ridge—Thorne and McCrudden, as a matter of fact, weren't in Italy at all—but all five men can tell the story of the bold surprise assault by the 86th regiment on the ridge during the dark early hours of Feb. 19, 1945, and Mount Belvedere in the following days. Bennett, whose company was across the highway from Riva Ridge, describes the 2,000-foot face of the ridge as a series of verticals of varying heights covered with ice.
"We might have been recruited as skiers, but rock climbing proved to be the essential skill in that battle," he says. The 86th had to make its move at night because there were no trees to provide cover for the soldiers scaling its face, and one of the keys to the maneuver's success was the element of surprise. "The Germans were completely caught off guard," Bennett says. "They didn't have any idea our troops could make such a difficult climb."
Ironically, in the end, a talent for skiing was the least of the skills that saw the 10th Mountain through the grueling fight for Belvedere and neighboring della Torraccia, and from there down the northern Apennines and into the Po Valley, where in mid-April they cleared the way for the U.S. Fifth Army to advance, securing Germany's defeat. Instead, the relevant tools were rock and mountain climbing, winter survival skills, quick thinking, determination and luck.
Mansfield, whose company was in reserve for Riva Ridge and Belvedere and led the attack on della Torraccia, acknowledges more close calls than he can count. Once a German bullet took off his belt buckle; his pants fell down and he tumbled into a trench on top of a dead German soldier (he still has the soldier's belt he took to refasten his uniform, the legend Gott mit uns in capital letters across its age-tarnished buckle). Another time he fell asleep on his feet, forehead against the trunk of a tree, barely registering the bullets that whistled by as he slid lower and lower, exhausted to the point of oblivion after fighting for three days straight.
"We made our first ascent of Belvedere toward della Torraccia at night, with German machine guns on our right side and snipers on our left," the 86-year-old recalls. "The cook, right in front of me, was shot dead. Men right behind me were killed, too. The fact that I wasn't ..." Mansfield, who earned a Bronze Star for his bravery at della Torraccia, shakes his head. "It was luck."
A different enemy
Bennett, too, narrowly missed death in the Italian Alps, but he faced a very different enemy. Suffering from bleeding stomach ulcers, he had become progressively weaker and thinner until by February he was no longer able to lift his rucksack. "My brother, who was in an adjacent company, found me in a foxhole and literally pulled me out, insisting I be taken to a hospital," he recalls. Down to 120 pounds, Bennett later realized his brother had saved his life. He was given a three-month medical leave and then an honorable discharge; 10 years later, his perforated ulcers were finally removed--along with 75 percent of his stomach--in a hospital in Italy, of all places. "I still joke that when I say I never got shot during the war, I mean not from the outside, in any event," he says with a laugh.
If Bennett was out of the line of fire, however, Thorne was even farther away. Although he had been hand-picked by recruiters to serve as a ski instructor at Camp Hale, because of a clerical error, he ended up being sent in January 1945 not to Italy but to Japan. He served out his commission in Shimizu, overseeing the disposal of Japanese munitions, which rolled in on as many as 100 freight cars a day. While his comrades in Europe clawed their way through the Apennines, Thorne fished for trout outside Shimizu and skied Mount Fuji---a contrast in circumstances that bemuses him even today. "I had a hell of a time," he admits. "There aren't too many other guys who could say that and mean it in a good way."
Indeed, the toll the war took on the 10th Mountain was staggering. Over the 114 days during which the division was actively engaged in battle, nearly 1,000 soldiers were killed and more than 4,000 were wounded (including Crowley, the late Andy Hastings '46, '50G and the late Ralph Townsend '49, '53G), one-third of the total American casualties in Italy. Sobering in their own right, these numbers would prove to be the heaviest losses ever sustained by a full U.S. division for that length of time in combat.
The heroics of the 10th Mountain Division did not go unnoticed by Gen. Mark Clark, the Allied commander in Italy, who called the 10th Mountain the greatest unit to ever fight in that country. They also did not go unnoticed by the German Army, which saw nine of its divisions defeated on the 10th Mountain's march across the Apennines and through the Po Valley. At the German surrender, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Germany's ranking officer in Italy, singled out the 10th Mountain as "outstandingly efficient." Gen. Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin, commander of the Northern Italian Front, accepted the Allies' conditions of surrender only after adding a condition of his own: "I will only surrender my saber to the commander of the 10th Mountain Division," he wrote, "because of all the divisions I ever fought in World War I or II, they are the finest combat division I ever met."
Outstandingly efficient, the finest combat division. In the end, the 10th Mountain Division would not be remembered as gadabouts or playboys on skis. Far from it, they would be known as the young men who were asked to do the impossible--and succeeded. ~
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