Warriors of Winter

Seventy years ago, a group of elite ski troops went to Europe to liberate a nation and change the way we enjoy the outdoors forever.

By Justin Franz

Courtesy of the Denver Public Library

On an icy cliff several hundred feet above the Dardagna River in northern Italy,Orville Bjorge looked toward the dark sky and silently questioned whether he could make it.

It was the night of Feb. 18, 1945 and Bjorge, a 21-year-old from Hot Springs, was one of 700 soldiers ordered to climb nearly 2,000 feet – in the cover of darkness – to the top of Riva Ridge. As Bjorge pondered his next move, an M-1 rifle poked him from above. A fellow soldier told him to grab on to the barrel so he could lift him up the next few feet. Once hauled up to the ledge, Bjorge straightened himself and continued the steep climb. The soldiers continued the ascent under the weight of a pack loaded with 96 rounds of ammunition, twice the normal amount.

By dawn Bjorge and the rest of the troops had reached the top of Riva Ridge and dug into position. Hours later the German forces, which had held the high ground for months, realized they were not the only army perched above the Dardagna River. A bloody weeklong battle ensued. By the end, 21 American soldiers were killed and another 52 wounded.

“There were a lot of casualties,” Bjorge said. “Many of my buddies are still over there.”

As Bjorge tells the story of Riva Ridge, it’s hard to imagine that the 91-year-old man slouched in his recliner is the same one who climbed a 2,000-foot cliff in the middle of the night 70 years ago. But Bjorge was a member of the U.S. Army’s legendary 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division trained to survive in the worst alpine conditions and the only one taught how to fight on skis.

Seventy years ago, in December 1944, the 10th Mountain Division was deployed to Europe to help liberate Italy in the final months of World War II. But its influence on history continued long after the war ended. Hundreds of soldiers from the Tenth went on to play major roles in the world of sports, conservation and recreation. One became the first executive director of the Sierra Club. Another had a hand in creating one of the world’s largest footwear companies, Nike. Still others helped build ski resorts from Vermont to Montana, including the Flathead Valley’s own Whitefish Mountain Resort.

“They created the ski industry,” said Larry Wilson, son of a 10th Mountain Division member and president of the Big Sky Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division. “They were key in putting together a lot of the major ski areas and they made it an everyman sport.”

The story of America’s ski troops begins in Finland in November 1939 when the Soviet Union invaded the small Nordic nation. Russians viewed it as an easy target, but Finnish troops on skis held the invading army at bay for three months, killing 50,000 Soviet troops and wounding many more.

Although the Finns eventually succumbed to their invaders, the David and Goliath battle made headlines around the world and caught the attention of Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole, a Connecticut man who organized one of America’s first ski patrols. Dole believed that the United States should prepare for winter warfare, especially as Adolf Hitler’s Nazis invaded more of Europe. Dole thought: What was stopping Hitler from setting his sights on North America?

For the next two years, Dole and a small group of skiers wrote letters to military leaders urging them to organize a division that could fight in snow and ice. After a year of campaigning, the War Department reluctantly agreed to establish a division of winter warriors and activated the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington, not far from Mount Rainier. The National Ski Association played a major roll in recruiting ski troops because, in Dole’s words, “it is more reasonable to make soldiers out of skiers than skiers out of soldiers.” The 87th Regiment would become the core of the Tenth and would later be joined by the 85th and 86th regiments.

While the 10th Mountain Division began training in Washington, the Army looked to build a permanent base for its mountain troops. The Army’s first choice was near Yellowstone National Park, but the site turned out to be the breeding ground for an endangered trumpeter swan population. It instead settled on a remote location in the Colorado Rockies near Pando called Camp Hale. The first troops arrived in late 1942 and quickly began intense winter training that some troops said was more difficult than the combat they saw two years later. Besides downhill and cross-country skiing, the 10th Mountain Division became proficient in rock climbing, rappelling and cold-weather survival.

That training was finally tested in the summer of 1943 when the 87th Regiment was deployed to a pair of American islands in the Bering Sea that a year earlier had been taken by Japanese forces. But the Japanese had already left by the time the Tenth arrived. Most of the division returned home, but a few soldiers, including Austrian downhill skier Toni Matt, who would later run one of the first ski schools on Big Mountain in Whitefish, stayed in the Aleutian Islands to teach at the North Pacific Combat School.

The 10th Mountain Division would spend the first part of 1944 back at Camp Hale training in the mountains before heading to Texas. While manpower was needed in Europe, the military kept the specially trained mountain troops home until it found a worthy objective. That was found in the mountains of northern Italy, where the Germans had held off the Allies since September 1943. On Dec. 11, 1944, the 86th Regiment departed Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia bound for Naples, Italy. The 85th and 87th regiments followed a few days later.

Among the men of the 10th Mountain Division sailing to Italy were John Cramer of Missoula and Orville Bjorge of Hot Springs. Cramer had grown up skiing near Marshall Creek and had received three letters of recommendation to join the mountain troops. Bjorge, who grew up on a ranch, enlisted in May 1944 and was stationed in Utah and California before being assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Swift in Texas.

After arriving in Italy, the 10th Mountain Division moved to the front lines, not far from where the Nazis were bunkered down on Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere. For the next month, the division prepared for its most daring mission. Meanwhile, occasional patrols on skis would survey the German defenses. While the troops had been trained extensively on skis, these few patrols would be the only time their skis would be used overseas. While waiting for the assault, Cramer had the unique job of delivering messages between commanders, a duty that often put him in harm’s way as he traveled close to the front lines. On his routes Cramer said German snipers shot at him on several occasions as he delivered the secret messages.

“He wasn’t a very good shot at a thousand yards away but he’d occasionally pop one by my ear,” Cramer said last week at his home in Big Arm. “He kept me moving, that’s for sure,”

Cramer said the Germans believed it was impossible for any army to take away their high ground. But that is exactly what happened on the night of Feb. 18, 1945 when 700 men in the 86th Regiment made a daring nighttime climb of Riva Ridge. Bjorge said it was a nerve-racking assault that had to be completed in total silence to maintain the element of surprise. The soldiers even outfitted their M-1 rifles with bayonets so that they could fight the enemy in hand-to-hand combat without firing a gun and alerting others.

The day after the assault on Riva Ridge began, the 85th, 87th and parts of the 86th regiments began the assault on nearby Mount Belvedere. Leading the way was Cramer, who had been selected to go out ahead of the troops in the pre-dawn hours to cut trip wires for landmines.

“You had to hold the wires just right to make sure it didn’t blow up,” Cramer said. “It was probably the worst job for a poor old infantry guy.”

By the end of February, the 10th Mountain Division had taken both Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere, but it came with a high price. On Belvedere, 192 soldiers were killed in action, 730 wounded and one was taken prisoner. On Riva Ridge there were 73 killed or wounded, including Bjorge, who was shot in the right leg on the second day of battle and spent the next six months in an Army hospital.

As the division moved north, its losses increased. Of the 19,780 men who served in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy between January and May 1945, 975 of them, or about 5 percent, would be killed in action. Nearly 4,000 were wounded. Although the division was only in active combat for less than five months, it had one of the highest casualty rates of any division in Europe.

In May, the German army surrendered. A few days later, upon hearing the news, General George Price Hays let the mountain division soldiers, who had since reached the Austrian border, drink cognac and Champagne taken from local warehouses.

Fewer than two months after the Germans surrendered, the 10th Mountain Division returned to the United States to begin training for the invasion of mainland Japan. The invasion, called Operation Downfall, was expected to be the largest amphibious operation in history. Some military brass estimated that 1 million American soldiers would be killed or wounded in the attempt to take the island nation. So sure of massive casualties, military officials ordered nearly 500,000 purple hearts – so many that they are still issuing medals from that batch today.

But before the 10th Mountain Division returned to American soil, two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and soon after the country surrendered.

“It would have been a total disaster,” Cramer said of the plan to invade Japan. “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today if we had.”

The 10th Mountain Division was disbanded on Nov. 30, 1945 and the nearly 19,000 troops who served in Italy returned to civilian life. Most of them couldn’t stay away from the outdoors for long.

David Brower, who served in the 86th Regiment, became the first executive director of the Sierra Club in 1952. Paul Petzoldt, who made his first ascent of Grand Teton when he was 16 years old and served in the 85th Regiment, founded the National Outdoor Leadership School in 1965. And Bill Bowerman, who served in the 86th Regiment, became a legendary track coach at the University of Oregon and co-founded Nike.

But the 10th Mountain Division made its biggest mark on the ski industry and 38 veterans from the division were inducted into the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame. After the war, the former troops helped establish ski resorts across the country, including Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain.

Toni Matt, who had stayed in the Aleutian Islands to teach at the North Pacific Combat School, came to Big Mountain to run the ski school for a number of years before handing it off to another 10th Mountain veteran, Karl Hinderman. One of the school’s instructors was Ole Dalen, who had been involved with the Hellroaring Ski Club before the war and was already making runs on Big Mountain in the late 1930s. Dalen lost his right arm at Riva Ridge, but returned to Big Mountain in the late 1940s and 1950s and became the first certified ski instructor in Montana.

“There was a whole contingent of guys like Toni Matt, Ole Dalen and my dad (Karl Hinderman) who served in the Tenth and then came back and were very involved with the early days of Big Mountain,” said Tim Hinderman, executive director of the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation. “But the same story can be found at just about every major ski resort across the country.”

Larry Wilson, the president of the Big Sky Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division and son of Lt. Col. Ross J. Wilson, said the ski troops were a special breed of soldiers. Unlike other divisions that saw soldiers come and go, very few left the mountain division once they arrived.

“The biggest thing that made them different was the fact that they stuck together through their training and through combat,” Wilson said. “They stuck together.”

Wilson said the number of 10th Mountain veterans is dwindling and it’s likely, within a few years, they will all be gone. Five veterans and three widows attended a reunion this fall in Missoula hosted by the Big Sky Chapter; a small group of people who remember the challenges they faced 70 winters ago on the front lines of Europe.

“It was a tough time,” Bjorge said last week. “But it was an honor to fight with them.”

This story appeared in the Flathead Beacon.