The Last Ridge — Another (good) 10th Mountain Book

Post by blogger | July 6, 2011      

If you’re a history buff and alpinist you’ve probably got what you think is a pretty good sense of the 10th Mountain Division’s role in WWII. Or do you?

The nascent “10th” of the 1940s was an oddity. Somewhat of an experiment instigated by an amateur skier, the Division became one of the most over-hyped aspects of WWII when they trained for three years in the U.S. under worshipful media scrutiny — not seeing meaningful combat until the last days of the conflict in Italy.

Because the Division has been so heavily glorified, you might have wondered if their fighting might have been subject to hyperbole as well. Most books and film I’ve studied about the 10th don’t help answer that question. Instead, they seem to focus on three years of mountain training in Washington and Colorado, while avoiding the details and grit of the Italian conflict. Or else they’re very personal accounts, which while amusing or fascinating don’t truly convey the big picture.

In his 255 page work “The Last Ridge” (first published in 2003) author McKay Jenkins attempts to go beyond the vast but sometimes cursory body of work regarding the 10th Mountain Division, and succeeds. He does so by mixing a well researched narrative chronology of the Division, combined with first person accounts gleaned from well written letters and compelling oral history.

But what truly sets “Last Ridge” up as a definitive 10th book is the detailed descriptions of their combat. Beginning with the awful debacle of Kiska (when the only men killed in combat were shot by their fellow soldiers) all the way up through the justifiably famous and tragically brutal combat in the Italian mountains, you receive a first-hand account of exactly what went on through the eyes of men who fired the weapons, were grievously wounded, and frequently died.

One such casualty, (I won’t give away the name and ruin the read) is a sensitive young man who sends beautiful letters home that form a compelling sub-plot detailed by Jenkins. You’re drawn into the soldier’s story, wondering if he’ll return to his loved ones. He doesn’t. And around a thousand others do not as well.

Lest we forgot, battles such as The Bulge (around 19,000 Americans dead) and Omaha Beach were heroic and tragic on a much greater scale than the 10th’s stint in Italy. Nonetheless, the fact that these were our first specially trained mountain soldiers resonates with any of us who dabble in alpinism. Thus, getting the details is wonderful, (not to mention good motivation for any pacifistic tendencies you may have, as honest first-person infantry combat accounts tend to be).

Oh, and by the way, Jenkins is careful to note that while 10th soldiers did patrol and do a modicum of combat using ski gear, they did not use skis during their major actions and battles. More, he clarifies the fact that nearly all the Division’s specialized mountain gear was left in the U.S. by the military bureaucracy, and that their work on the steep Italian terrain was done with improvised equipment such as mattress covers cut into jackets, ropes tied around their feet for backcountry snow and ice traction, and ski gear borrowed from the Italians. Regarding such, Jenkins writes “Even without their fancy gear, the men had deep reserves of alpine intelligence.” I love that sentence, as it speaks so clearly to what we all know to be true, that your mind and spirit are what get you through the mountains safely, with gear only acting in support.

Highly recommended, well indexed and footnoted (e.g., Jenkins used more than a thousand pages of personal letters during his research).

Note that Jenkins also wrote the excellent (though somewhat depressing), The White Death: Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone.


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19 Responses to “The Last Ridge — Another (good) 10th Mountain Book”

  1. Jonathan Shefftz July 6th, 2011 8:54 am

    I thought they didn’t use skis on patrol in Italy because skiing on the firm spring snowpack create too much noise so as to betray their presence?

  2. Lou July 6th, 2011 9:16 am

    Jonathan, lots of apocryphal info out there about 10th. I’ve studied the ski issue and I’m certain from my research that they did use skis on some patrols and the Germans were using skis occasionally as well. According to first-person account in Jenkins book, fighting did occur during these patrols. Main thing is that skis did NOT play any sort of pivotal role in the Italian operations, and indeed where probably found to be more problematic than they were worth (not to mention the only skis they had were borrowed, so it couldn’t have been that many pairs in comparison to the 15,000 men who shipped to Italy). Also, by the time they assaulted the mountains around there in the middle of February, it was not the height of winter any more and from everything I can tell moving on foot worked fine.

  3. Lou July 6th, 2011 9:19 am

    One thing Jenkins doesn’t mention. He does a bit of glorification of the Division’s use of mules and horses. First person account to me from Bil Dunaway about this said the livestock was next to useless, especially because they don’t duck and take cover during artillery assault like soldiers do and soon get totally wiped out from shrapnel.

  4. brian h July 6th, 2011 9:48 am

    The 10th has become a crucial component in our latest conflicts. It’s my understanding that they have been the most deployed unit (into combat) since 9/11. I heard recently that some of the 10th will be the first to come home from Afghanistan.

  5. byates1 July 6th, 2011 2:09 pm

    i am lucky enough to know a 10th mtn guy at the golf course where i work. al soria is his name, he is 85 and looks like 73 or so. really good guy, but when asked to speak to other members about his time in the war, he wanted nothing to do with it. i can understand. i have read a few passages where he is mentioned, and some real bad stuff went down.

    still, nice to pal around and talk with such a neat part of history. when i mentioned skins he said “seals?”. let’s you know some have been getting after it a bit longer than most of us.

  6. Lou July 6th, 2011 3:34 pm

    I met a few of those recalcitrant guys when I was researching WildSnow, one who’d been on the Trooper Traverse but wouldn’t say a word about anything. I totally understood…

  7. Tim M. July 6th, 2011 4:20 pm

    your figure for american dead in the battle of the bulge is inflated (by 400 percent or so). no need to post this, but a head’s up.

  8. Lou July 6th, 2011 5:29 pm

    Tim, thanks, my mistake, that must be casualties rather than dead, or else a typo. Really appreciate you catching that. I’ll change immediately. Lou

  9. Njord July 6th, 2011 5:45 pm

    10th MTN DIV is one of the busiest divisions… just none thier movements in Afghanistan is on skis. They really do like the CH-47 Chinook helicopter for transportation instead!

  10. brian h July 6th, 2011 10:30 pm

    It would be cool if some of those folks could someday jump out of a heli and ski pow instead of getting shot at. There are a lot of efforts underway to show appreciation for our returning soldiers. Maybe one way would be to take them skiing. Way back in ’03 Powder magazine interviewed a lieutenant in the modern 10th. He mentioned that the eastern Afghan mountains have potential. Maybe someday. Look at Gulmarg.

  11. chase harrison July 7th, 2011 6:56 am

    I read the book in 2 days. Could not put it down. Great read. The 10th, in my opinoin,
    is the burlliest div. in the armed forces..

  12. Lou July 7th, 2011 8:59 am

    Hey Chase, I’m glad you got a good read out of that. I’d never known how brutal some of their combat was, really opened my eyes.

  13. Randonnee July 7th, 2011 10:11 am

    The WWII Italy 10th Mtn vet here in Leavenworth that I know just sort of downplayed all of the glory. He was there on the line and said he never fired his rifle- there was action to left or right but not where he was. He said that everyone got plastered by the artillery.

    Like my dad the Guadalcanal Marine, the 10th Mtn soldier from the Italian campaign did not want to really go into it, and did not hold it up as a glorious experience.

    But thanks to those guys for stepping up and standing in the breach to save freedom! We are indebted to the WWII Greatest Generation, regular folks who stepped up and did extraordinary service

  14. Matt Kinney July 7th, 2011 12:32 pm

    FWIW time…The US Signal Corp established Fort Liscum in Valdez as part of the WW1 and WW2 efforts. This remote Corp skied actively and extensively from Valdez over Thompson Pass on skis to maintain the communications link and strategic supply line to Fairbanks. They had no choice as skis became the only practical way to travel in the snowiest places on earth. Snowshoes sucked.

    There is ample photo evidence of military XC ski patrols in Valdez as early as 1917. They also trained on glaciers, a US military first? The ocean-layed radio cable from Seattle came through Valdez. It was a strategic and actively patrolled area during both wars. AK was actually invaded and battle waged in the Aleutians in what became known as “The Forgotten War.” The fort was abandoned after WW2 and is now the site of oil tankers loading bbls of black crude, The 10th get a lot of deserved attention, but the military use of skis has considerable roots in of all places…Valdez. Of course this all needs more research and a small book, but I would rather spend that time skiin’…. :mrgreen:

  15. Jernej July 8th, 2011 1:21 am

    Does the book mention that they were so bored at the end that they eventually decided to have a ski race? June 3, 1945 on Mt. Mangart above Bovec in Slovenia.
    Out of 76 only 25 managed to cross the line 🙂

    Some more reading about the event:

  16. Lou July 8th, 2011 6:53 am

    Soldier, bored? Never happened. (grin)

  17. Njord July 8th, 2011 6:48 pm

    My personal observations were that the snowpack in Eastern Afghanistan was pretty shallow… Badakshan might hold more promise, but then you might as well check out China.

  18. Mark W July 8th, 2011 9:18 pm

    McKay Jenkins is a fine writer. I’ve read White Death at least twice, as it chronicles some of the pioneering climbers of Montana where I grew up. Can’t wait to get ahold of this one.

  19. brian h July 9th, 2011 11:50 am

    Hey Njord- yeah, I wouldn’t know myself. I think the angle of that old article was to show readers that we still have “ski troops”. The Lt. that was interviewed mentions the Takur Ghar with altitudes above 10,000 and the Shah-e-kots. The Lt. is a skier with time in Colorado and Europe. The skis in the photo look pretty old school….(Powder vol. 31 no.5 2003, which was the photo annual of that year).

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