Dr. McKay Jenkins, University of Delaware professor and author, addressed an audience of Fort Drum Soldiers and Civilians on June 28 about the origin of the 10th Mountain Division and the men who first filled its ranks.
Jenkins has written extensively on environmental issues – ranging from the use of algae to treat municipal water to pre-natal exposure to pesticides – and his book “The Last Ridge: The Epic Story of America’s First Mountain Soldiers and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe” was his first venture into military history.
“I’m not a military historian, but what I’m mostly interested in is the environment,” Jenkins said. “A lot of what has happened to protect the environment in this country was done by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division. So I came into learning the military history of this division because of its post-war history, which is an equally proud legacy.”
Jenkins explained that the book, published in 2004, was inspired while writing on an entirely different subject.
He authored a book called “The White Death” about five young men who attempted to scale the north face of Mount Cleveland in Montana and were buried in an avalanche. Jenkins said that many who attempted the rescue were WWII veterans, and he wanted to know how they had learned these technical alpine skills. He discovered that they were part of an elite group of warfighters who trained on skis and used special equipment to climb great heights to fight the Germans. They were 10th Mountain Division Soldiers.
Jenkins said that what makes 10th Mountain Division history so unusual is that it was the only military unit that was essentially founded by civilians. Members of the National Ski Patrol System, led by Charles Minot Dole, offered their services to the Army to develop a unit of mountain fighters and field test the special skiing and mountaineering equipment needed.
In the 1930s and 1940s, skiing was considered an upper class recreation and a sport only affordable to Ivy League athletes. However, if the U.S. were ever attacked in the Northeast – considering that Germany had three mountain divisions and one mountain corps headquarters and European militaries had been fighting in mountains for centuries – the American Army would be at a great disadvantage.
He said that it took a lot of lobbying on Dole’s part to convince the War Department that a division of ski troopers was tactically relevant. However, Jenkins also wrote that most Army strategists at the time believed that a Soldier should be able to fight anywhere, and so special units, overly trained for narrow purposes, were not needed. When the division was finally approved, Dole began a recruiting campaign that enlisted some of the top professional skiers and mountaineers in the world.
The new mountain troops immediately caught the nation’s attention. It was unusual to see American Soldiers dressed head to toe in white winter combat uniforms racing down slopes and scaling a mountain cliff.
“Suddenly, the country began to think that we had a whole new generation of super heroes,” Jenkins said. “You saw a 10th Mountain Division Soldier on the cover of Life magazine in 1942, two and a half years before they would ever see any action.”
Jenkins said that he spent several weeks in the Denver Public Library reading personal letters, newspaper articles and official documents relating to the 10th Mountain Division’s involvement in WWII.
“I said that I wanted to read the letters from the best writers that came out of this division – the ones who wrote the most vivid descriptions of their experiences during the war, and then the librarians gave me amazing access to all these things – big boxes full of books,” he said.
One of those prolific writers was Dick Wilson, whose mortar platoon had made it nearly to the summit of Mount Belvedere when a shell burst three feet away and lifted the New England skier 10 feet into the air. Jenkins wrote how Wilson saw his wrist hanging from his arm by an inch of skin. A medic gave him an injection of morphine and a tourniquet, then Wilson refused a litter after seeing men with shattered legs. He decided to hike down Belvedere to the aid station, where doctors had twice decided to amputate Wilson’s arm before finally finding a slight pulse indicating it was worth saving.
Jenkins said that he was also impressed by the writing of Denis Nunan.
“He was this very charismatic Irishman from New Jersey, who wrote in a letter to his mom that the highest he had ever climbed before joining the 10th Mountain Division was to the top of a New York City bus,” Jenkins said.
He said that Nunan also had the luck of the Irish working for him during the crossing of the Po River.
“He thought it would be a great idea to stand up in the boat and start taking pictures,” Jenkins said. “Suddenly, a German shoots the camera out of his hands.”
Nunan wrote home about how “war spares nothing” in this excerpt:
“The little home with its red tile roof, white walls and blue door is hiding an 88 that will blast your foxhole by night. Now, instead of rebelling within at the sight of seemingly wanton destruction, we beg the artillery and air corps to lay waste to even the innocent structure. … So you see Mother and Daddy, in my short time in combat my heart has hardened and my soul grown bitter. I have killed and I shall continue to do so without flinching until peace comes to the world of war.”
Dan Kennerly was a football player from Georgia who had never seen snow before joining the division, Jenkins said.
“I will tell you that in the 20 or 30 years of writing and interviewing lots and lots of people, he is the best storyteller I have ever come across,” Jenkins said. “He’s also a farm boy, and after surviving all the training in Colorado, he goes to Italy and during one of the many marches they did, he sees a cow. He goes over to the cow, pulls off his helmet and begins milking the cow.”
Jenkins said that his friends thought he was crazy, but Kennerly would take the cow with him for days and whenever someone in his platoon was thirsty, he would serve up some milk.
Kennerly was part of a machine gun platoon and, ironically, the nighttime assault on Mount Belvedere was initially designed to be a silent one. The Soldiers were told not to fire their weapons, even when taking fire. They were to use only bayonets, knives and hand grenades so as not to give away their position. At one point, Kennerly stumbled upon German propaganda that said “Men of the 10th Mountain Division: Welcome to Italy. You have come a great distance from Colorado to die.”
Jenkins noted that 10th Mountain Division Soldiers did what no other unit was able to do before when they secured Riva Ridge, even though it was not a technical climb as many people would believe. Jenkins wrote that the mountain troops executed one of the most important strategies of war: Arrive late, fight hard and leave early. In doing so, the division was able to take Mount Belvedere from the Germans, essentially ending the campaign in Italy.
Despite their specialized training and skill set, mountain troopers were no more impervious to mortar shells and bullets than any other soldier. There were casualties – 975 to be exact – during the Italian campaign, along with 3,871 wounded and 20 prisoners of war.
However, Jenkins said that because so many of these Soldiers were well-known before they enlisted, their deaths were incomprehensible to their comrades. Torger Tokle, a Norwegian record-holder and considered to be the world’s greatest ski jumper, successfully led his platoon in the assault on Riva Ridge. He later died in a bunker that was hit by a mortar. When his body was found covered in shrapnel, the loss was devastating.
“When he died, it sent a shockwave throughout the division because they thought he was invulnerable,” Jenkins said.
Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, said that it was the author’s ability to capture Soldiers’ stories throughout the division’s campaign in Italy that makes this book a must-read for anyone interested in military history.
“When I read ‘The Last Ridge’ I emailed Dr. Jenkins right away and told him this was the best book I’ve read about the 10th Mountain Division, and I’ve read everything I can get my hands on,” he said. “It really is, and I think it is the way he came at writing a book about the 10th Mountain that makes it so special. His objectivity, his research comes out in the book. If you want to learn how tough it was for the folks who established this division and built the legacy that we have since extended, read this book.”
“I think any professional who has ever served or has been associated with the 10th Mountain Division will gain from it as I did,” he added. “I felt even prouder coming back here to serve this great division.”