For the first time in nearly 70 years, an active-duty unit from the 10th Mountain Division (LI) set forth on a mission in Northern Italy – albeit a very different one this time around. Near the end of World War II, the North Apennine Mountains and Po River Valley became the consecrated ground upon which the division would fight its first battles, suffer its first losses, and gain distinction for its Soldiers’ skill and bravery in the face of insurmountable odds.
Soldiers of 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, currently on a rotational deployment in countries throughout Europe, embarked on a tour throughout this historically significant area, learning about the battlefields and memorials from Florence to Torbole, Italy, Oct. 1-3.
"Army Europe’s unique proximity to many of the battlefields that defined our nation’s commitment to democracy and sovereignty – and Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges’ continued support to the unit staff ride programs – afforded our Soldiers the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from our past and apply lessons to how we train and fight, even still today," said Col. Clair A. Gill, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade commander.
The first day of the group’s journey symbolically set the stage for the division’s entrance into WWII, introducing the Soldiers to the rugged landscape found throughout Northern Italy. A visit to the Gotica Toscana Onlus museum brought to life the uniforms, weaponry and even the everyday items Soldiers used, like toothpaste. Remarkably, everything on display was donated by families or excavated from local sites.
After the museum, facing the slopes of Monte Altuzzo and later climbing to its peak, the necessity of having Soldiers during World War II who were acclimated to the challenges of fighting on mountainous terrain began to set in.
"It didn’t take very long after we arrived to get a real appreciation for how demanding these missions were on the Soldiers," said Spc. Travis Nelson, a command group driver with Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. "The further we traveled, the more we understood just how hard they had to fight for every inch in that terrain, not to mention the effort it took to sustain their push forward."
The first day ended with a visit to the pristine grounds of the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, where 5,807 American Soldiers are memorialized on these protected and sovereign U.S. grounds. The 10th CAB Soldiers solemnly visited the graves of every division Soldier buried there, carefully taking down their names and the dates that they fell. These notes would serve as a reminder of the lives lost for the remainder of the tour, taking time at each stop to verbally memorialize who had made the ultimate sacrifice there.
As "To The Colors" and "Retreat" played, the sun began to dip toward the horizon, casting long shadows on the grass. A formation of Soldiers saluted stoically while others retired the flag. Visitors stood still as each Soldier rendered honors to the sacrifices of their comrades before the group departed for the day.
In a new town, on a new day, the group added a new member, Elio Pasquale, an 83-year-old local Italian man who was a 9-year-old boy when U.S. forces came to liberate his town from German occupation.
"He scaled Monte Belvedere with us and told us firsthand accounts of the fateful days in the late winter of February 1945, remembering it like it was yesterday," Gill said. "To this day, he proudly wears a 10th Mountain Division ball cap to commemorate the heroes who gallantly fought for his free way of life."
Many familiar with the division know that "Climb to Glory!" is its motto. On the peak of Mount Belvedere, high above the cloud ceiling, sweat-drenched Soldiers understood the motto’s significance. As the elevation leveled, Soldiers found a large stone monument, adorned with the 10th Mountain Division insignia and inscribed with words of remembrance for the fallen.
Gill led the Soldiers in a moving ceremony dedicated to those who were lost, and then, collectively, they exclaimed "Climb to Glory!" and "To The Top!" with such strength and force that the echo could be heard traveling far throughout the valleys below.
As the group turned to assemble for a photo, Italian hikers had suddenly appeared while the Soldiers had been paying their respects. The tour’s historian, Dr. John L. Clarke, professor of leadership, management and defense planning at the George C. Marshall Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, quickly explained the connection between this place and the Soldiers. The hikers smiled, exclaiming words of joy and applauding.
They had likely hiked this path before, passing the 10th Mountain Division monument, but today, they happened upon the comrades of the fallen, the distant relatives of the faceless heroes honored here.
Sites such as Mount Belvedere or Po Valley are memorialized in the names of streets, buildings or in halls throughout Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division (LI). The next stop of the tour called for another climb, this time to the top of Mount della Spe.
Here, Soldiers stood with widened eyes when, using the names gathered at the cemetery on the previous day, a near-endless list of those who had fallen on those grounds was given. The site, despite having the familiar 10th Mountain Division monument at its peak, was largely unknown to everyone, even the most seasoned Soldiers present.
"The visit to Monte della Spe was an eye-opening experience that allowed us to see how the Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division scaled the side of a mountain to defeat the enemy, pushing back after multiple counterattacks," said 1st Sgt. Daniel N. Ray, first sergeant for HHC, 10th Combat Aviation Brigade. "Seeing the crosses with the names of the Soldiers who died in their fighting positions, defending Monte della Spe, made a real impression on all of us. We left feeling a need to bring this history back to Fort Drum and ensure it is properly represented in their honor."
The second day concluded in a valley below, on a field now used for farming. The group visited the location where Bob Dole, former U.S. senator and 10th Mountain Division second lieutenant, was wounded during battle. Dole’s example of bravery in the midst of great loss, fighting on while wounded, earned him two Bronze Medals and a Purple Heart.
On the third and final day, the group descended into Po River Valley. Stopping first at the Bomporto Bridge, the group found the same intact structure crossing the Panaro River that their comrades had almost 70 years earlier. An intact bridge at that time in the war was a rarity, most having been demolished as the Germans retreated north.
The tour group gazed upon the structure, seeing the same rarity, but for a different reason. Construction crews had nearly finished erecting a replacement bridge behind the original, dilapidated bridge. The group gathered on the original Bomporto Bridge for a photo, knowing it would likely be the last time active-duty division Soldiers would stand upon it.
Pushing onward along the exact route followed by their WWII brethren, the Soldiers’ next stop was the Po River itself, a wide body of water that, unlike the Panaro, did not have an intact bridge to cross. Clarke explained that 10th Mountain Division Soldiers had reached this point ahead of schedule and ultimately used amphibious trucks and inflatable boats to continue their quick assault northward.
Hours of reflections passed aboard a tour bus, skirting along the shores of Lake Garda, headed for the final destination in Torbole, Italy. Lake Garda is a famous tourist destination featuring 32 miles of fresh water, flanked by picturesque mountain ranges, its shores peppered with summer homes and sunbathers.
It was here, in such a traveler’s paradise that the famous founder of the U.S. Army Rangers and recent addition to the 10th Mountain Division, Col. William O. Darby, lost his life. Shortly after his death, 25 of Darby’s Soldiers drowned during a nighttime amphibious assault across the lake. In a pristine square in Torbole, memorials inscribed with the men’s names stand, honoring their sacrifice and, yet again, solidifying 10th Mountain Division’s storied history and connection to Italy.
"Seeing the magnitude of the mountains and Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere only furthers the audacious reputation and daring accomplishment of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division," Gill commented. "It brought realism to the men who defied the odds to fight uphill at night and overwhelm a formidable foe who was well entrenched."
Indeed, in each location, with each new monument or look of awe in a local resident when they were introduced to 10th Mountain Division Soldiers, it became clear to the group just how the division is connected to the Italian people. To many Italians, these memorialized Soldiers are the heroes of the stories they have been told since their youth. They are the men who bravely liberated Italian families and the land from oppression.
To the Soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, Italy and the battles fought there can seem like distant, intangible memories whose fragments can only be seen in a museum or memorialized on signs and monuments.
The group’s trip dispelled all that was intangible and brought history to life, putting names to faces, dates to places and feeling into the stories of the past.
As the Soldiers left Italy, they carried new, invigorated memories with them and, inevitably, left a piece of themselves behind, forever connected to their fallen comrades who are eternally on the "Climb to Glory."