Forming the 10th Mountain Division
The 10th Mountain Division of the United States Army began on November 15, 1941, with the activation of the 87th Infantry Mountain Regiment. The War Department desired defensive measures against possible invasion over the U.S. northern border so they prioritized training soldiers for combat in mountain conditions. During the War of 1812, enemy soldiers invaded the United States through the Champlain Valley in New York and Vermont. From this experience, the US military leadership desired trained soldiers who could defend the Green Mountains of Vermont and the Adirondacks of New York from potential German invasion during World War II.
One of the most influential figures in the creation of a mountain force was Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole. Dole, the head of the National Ski Association saw the potential for skiers and mountaineers to contribute to national defense. He lobbied hard for training troops in mountain combat, and eventually he and other expert skiers served as advisors to the Army. Thanks in large part to Dole and his efforts, the Army created the 10th Mountain Division, which became known as “Minnie’s troops.” The first regiment of ski troops, the 87th Mountain Infantry, was formed at Fort Lewis the following November. Army units in all parts of the country sent their crack skiers to the new regiment.
Recruitment and Training
As part of Dole’s involvement, the National Ski Association was the only civilian organization approved for Army recruitment. Relying on three letters of recommendation per applicant, they recruited skiers, mountaineers, and outdoorsmen from across the country. They wanted people who had some of the skills needed to be part of a mountain division and the willingness to train in tough mountain conditions. The idea of being a soldier on skis carried quite a bit of glamour for recruitment, resulting in a high number of college-educated men. Some who could have been officers in the Army chose instead to be privates in the 10th Mountain Division. Publicity films used for recruitment showed ski troops in their white uniforms on beautiful slopes.
Despite the recruitment of men with prior experience, the 10th Mountain Division required additional training. Soldiers needed to be trained in downhill and cross country skiing and climbing, as well as basic training in weapons and combat. Training for rough conditions was essential. Most of this training took place at Camp Hale in Colorado, at an elevation of 9,000 feet above sea level. The high altitude was brutal for many soldiers, especially while carrying 90 pounds of gear.
Veterans in the Post-War Ski Industry
The 10th Mountain Division was one of the best trained divisions in the Army with the most elite skills, training for a total of three years before entering the war. The division was the last to be deployed to action. Fighting in the North Apennine Mountains in Italy in 1945, they obtained decisive victories. Of the 14,000 men who fought, 992 were killed and 4,154 were wounded. Their contribution was brief, but meaningful.
After the war, a number of these well-trained veterans came back to the United States and developed the ski industry. Veterans developed the ski resorts at Vail, Sugarbush Valley in Vermont, and Crystal Mountain in Washington. Some of the veterans entered the ski or sports technology industry. In Sun Valley, one of the early head’s of the Ski School was Freidl Pfeifer. The post-war manager of Bald Mountain was Nelson Bennett for many years before he went on to manage White Pass ski resort. 10th Mountain’s Bill Bowerman was another who went to be an entrepreneur. In 1964, he and a former Oregon runner named Phil Knight started a little company called Blue Ribbon Sports, which would later become a little company called Nike. Veteran Fritz Benedict, a ski racer who served in Italy, was a Frank Lloyd Wright protege, When he returned to civilian life, he designed the master plans and other design work for several Colorado ski resorts, including Breckenridge, Vail, Snowmass, Winter Park, and Steamboat. His best-known contribution to ski culture came to fruition in the early 1980s: The idea for a an American hut system in the Colorado mountains-the 10 huts linked by ski trails, known as the 10th Mountain Division Huts.