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.