Book Review: “The Winter Army,” By Maurice Isserman
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 318 pp. $35.00
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
On a tempestuous February evening in 1940, six months after the opening shots in the Second World War had been fired, four friends gathered around the hearth at the Orvis Inn in Vermont, sipping hot rum after a strenuous day on the ski slopes. At the time, halfway around the world the Finns were fighting a gallant but ultimately futile battle against the Soviet Union, and after having overrun Poland, Hitler’s armies were massing in obvious preparation for an assault on Western Europe. The members of the group, all of who were highly accomplished skiers, debated an interesting if somewhat implausible hypothesis: what if the Nazis were to eventually take control of Canada, and then subsequently launch an invasion of the northern Unites States ? How would America defend itself ?
Though it would be nearly two full years before the Day of Infamy at Pearl Harbor, everyone knew that the possibility that the United States might eventually be drawn into the war was an ever-present threat. The problem was, had the scenario envisioned by the four skiers ever come to pass, their nation would have been defended by an Army that was virtually devoid of any experience in winter warfare. At the time, most of the U.S. Army’s units were stationed in either the southern part of the country, or offshore in tropical locales like Hawaii, Panama, or the Philippines. Two members of the group had attended the 1936 Winter Olympics in Bavaria, where they had had an opportunity to observe first-hand the capabilities of Germany’s highly trained mountain soldiers. The friends agreed that amid the winter conditions that prevailed for a good part of the year in the northeastern United States, the average American fighting man of the era would likely be no match for the hardcore German troopers.
Believing that this was a critical weakness that had to be corrected, one member of the group, Charles Minot Dole, embarked on a crusade to convince the U.S. government of the need for alpine troops. The eventual result of his efforts was the creation of the storied 10th Mountain Division, a unit that distinguished itself in Italy during the closing months of the war, and that in modern times has acquitted itself equally well in such diverse theatres as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In The Winter Army, historian Maurice Isserman recounts the story of the division’s origins, and describes its experiences fighting in the forbidding terrain of Northern Italy in the months leading up to the final Allied victory.
“Minnie” Dole, as he was affectionately known to his friends and colleagues, was a prominent and influential figure in the U.S. ski community. A Yale graduate who had served briefly during the First World War, Dole had established the National Ski Patrol in 1938, and would continue to serve as head of that organization until 1950. At the time he and his friends chatted at the rural lodge in Vermont, approximately two million Americans participated in skiing. The sport had rapidly grown in popularity in the wake of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and many universities and colleges had organized ski clubs. Dole reasoned that, rather than investing the time and resources teaching the Army’s existing soldiers how to ski, the most expedient way of accomplishing his end goal would be to recruit already proficient skiers into the armed forces, and teach them the military skills they would require to wage war against the Germans.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Dole’s initial efforts to convince the military bureaucracy of the merits of his proposition fell on largely deaf ears. But eventually his tenacity paid off. His first breakthrough came in September 1940, when he was able to secure a brief meeting with General George Marshall, the Army’s no-nonsense Chief of Staff, who listened intently to his arguments. As a result, the service agreed to conduct some initial trials with ski training, which showed promising results. Meanwhile, as the war continued to progress in Europe, events there demonstrated what trained alpine troops could do. Finally, in late 1941 the Army authorized the creation of a designated mountain infantry regiment, and assigned the National Ski Patrol responsibility for recruiting and screening prospective candidates, a mandate that had never before been given to a civilian organization.
Dole and his colleagues quickly set to work, putting out the word for prospective recruits through university ski clubs and other outdoor organizations. At first, the response was underwhelming, but after the shock of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war, inquiries snowballed (pardon the pun). Initially, successful applicants began training at Fort Lewis in Washington, and in the fall of 1942, the soldiers moved to a new, purpose-built installation located near the former mining town of Aspen, Colorado.
From the outset, in many ways the unit that would eventually become the 10th Mountain Division was distinctly different from other more traditional Army formations. For one thing, because so many new trainees were drawn from university and college ski teams, they tended to be more intelligent, and far better educated, than typical new recruits into the Army’s ranks. Because of the high quality of this group of recruits, as the new men gained experience and developed proficiency with their military skills, many of them quickly showed impressive potential for leadership.
Given the unit’s highly specialized mission, the nature of their training was also significantly different, and this in turn fostered the emergence of a unique culture within the ranks. Unlike the monotonous routine of drills, exercises, and menial tasks that was the typical fare for most Army recruits, prospective mountain troopers devoted much of their time to perfecting their skiing abilities. In contrast to the emphasis on conformity and obedience to orders which were the hallmark of conventional basic training, the ski soldiers were encouraged to think for themselves and exercise initiative as the situation called for it. One of the important byproducts of this process was a focus on results as opposed to protocol, and a blurring of the rigid hierarchical distinctions that set men of different ranks apart. After a hard day of training on skis, it was not uncommon to see newly-enlisted privates critiquing the finer points of officers’ and NCOs’ alpine techniques.
Because they were also preparing for a type of warfare that had never before been waged by the Army, as they went along the mountain troopers were also obliged to improvise and come up with sometimes ingenious solutions that were suitable for their mission. They soon discovered that much of the Army clothing and gear that was standard issue at the time was monumentally unsuited to the environment in which they would be expected to operate. As one example, it quickly became apparent that the two-man nylon tents that were in widespread use throughout the Army were effectively useless in cold weather conditions. The soldiers eventually discovered that much warmer and more comfortable shelter could be had by either constructing igloos or digging snow caves.
Likewise, the logistics of keeping the unit supplied and ready to fight had to be adapted to meet the realities of conditions it could expect to encounter. Conventional Army units throughout war were kept fed, clothed, and stocked with fuel and ammo by the ubiquitous “deuce-and-a-half” trucks that had first been introduced in 1940, but it soon became clear that these vehicles had limited ability to navigate the treacherous roads and passes over which the mountain troopers would have to travel. To carry their supplies, the men turned to an alternate solution that, while somewhat homely and cantankerous, was nonetheless tried-and-true – the sturdy and fearless mules that had been in service with the Army since the time of George Washington. Some 14,000 of these animals would be used to support the 10th Mountain Division while it was fighting in Italy.
As the mountain fighters relentlessly trained within the secure environment of stateside bases, the war continued to rage on both sides of the globe, with the tide of battle turning slowly but inexorably in the Allies’ favour. Towards the end of 1944 the moment the men had been eagerly awaiting for many months finally came, when they were ordered to board trains to New York and then embark aboard ship to set sail for a destination that was as yet unknown. By that time, the recently redesigned 10th Mountain Division had a new leader of proven ability in the charismatic Major General George Hays, and its members proudly wore a distinctive blue and white tab on their shoulders that signified the unique nature of their mission. Just before Christmas the first elements of the division landed in Naples, where they were soon astonished to see the devastation the war had wrought.
When the mountain warriors first went into action in January 1945, the Germans were hanging on the ropes, and only a few more months of war remained. Even so, the final stretch to V-E Day proved to be both demanding and eventful. As part of the U.S. Fifth Army, the division’s most important objective would be to help the Allies break through the Germans’ heavily fortified Gothic Line, thus clearing the way into the industrial heartland of the Po Valley in northern Italy, from which an attack into southern Austria could then be made.
Notwithstanding their lack of combat experience, once they were thrust into the crucible of battle the men of the 10th Mountain Division quickly showed that they were up to the challenge. One of their most impressive successes came after little more than a month in combat, when on February 18 they were ordered to assault Riva Ridge, a heavily fortified German position. Securing the ridge was critically important, because taking out the Germans would provide essential cover for a much larger American attack that was due to be made on the adjacent Mount Belvedere.
To take control of the ridge, the mountain troopers were required to climb in single file up steep, ice-covered trails in the dead of night. Weapons were left unloaded to prevent accidental discharges that might alert the enemy, and the soldiers advanced in complete radio silence. In the early hours of February 19 the Americans caught their adversaries by complete surprise, and accomplished their mission with only one man wounded. It was a remarkable feat of arms for the relatively inexperienced mountain warriors, and one that, as Isserman puts in in his book, was certainly “not bad for still green troops.”
Over the next ten weeks the men of the 10th Mountain Division continued to aggressively take the fight to the Germans, although they weren’t always as lucky as they had been at Riva Ridge. During one five-day period in late February, over 200 of their number were killed, and hundreds more were wounded. Nevertheless, the ski soldiers pressed on unrelentingly, and continued to display extraordinary skill and courage on the battlefield. In a cruel twist of irony, some of the heaviest fighting they would encounter would come during the final three weeks of the war, starting in mid-April when the Americans launched a major offensive that would be the last of the Italian campaign, and one that would be spearheaded by the division.
On April 14, the division suffered its worst-ever losses in a single day, with over 550 soldiers killed or wounded. Among the dead was Private First Class John D. Macgrath, who would become the unit’s first Medal of Honor winner, and the only one to receive that award during the Second World War. When the fighting finally ended in early May, their commander, Major General Hays, was lavish in his praise. “The nineteen days between April 14 and May 2 will go down in history,” the General proclaimed. “I’m proud to be associated with this fine body of troops.”
In reading this book, a couple of important larger themes emerge. One relates to the importance of the role that the “citizen soldier” plays in fighting a nation’s wars. One of the defining characteristics of the 10th Mountain Division was the fact that, apart from the small cadre of officers and NCO’s who were tasked to oversee its initial training, none of the men who volunteered to serve in the divisions ranks had been professional solders. Nevertheless, what they did bring to their role, and qualities that would later became invaluable, were an above-average level of intelligence, a resilient and resourceful character, and perhaps more important than anything else, a high level of motivation to prove themselves in combat.
It might be argued that the troopers’ lack of previous military experience may actually have been a valuable advantage, in that they were not constrained by hidebound thinking or outdated notions of how wars should be fought. This gave them the opportunity to experiment with new and untested ideas, and determine by trial and error what kinds of methods and tactics would be best suited to accomplishing the mission they had been tasked with. In this respect, it struck me that there were probably many similarities between the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division and the men of the Canadian Corps, who had acquitted themselves so remarkably well in the Great War 25 years earlier.
The other theme that runs throughout this book is the importance of the need for military organizations to be willing to innovate and embrace change, and as a corollary to this point, the importance of the value that can be gained through effective military – civilian collaboration. Although many if not most of the U.S. Army’s senior leaders in 1940 had seen front-line combat in the First World War, none of them apparently foresaw the need for trained alpine infantry, even though several European armies were already well-equipped with such troops. It was only after persistent lobbying by Minnie Dole that the Army leadership finally relented, and agreed to support a pilot project to evaluate the concept. And even after the early trials showed potential, the service relied heavily upon the support of the National Ski Patrol to help recruit the manpower that would be needed to bring the division up to fighting strength.
Even though its time at the frontlines was comparatively short, the 10th Mountain Division nonetheless ended the war with an impressive record of accomplishment. Members of the division received over 8,000 decorations of various kinds, one of which was the Medal of Honor that would be posthumously awarded to Pfc. Macgrath in the summer of 1945. But these achievements also came at a heavy price: in just four short months, nearly 1,000 men were killed in action, and over 3,000 more were wounded, taken prisoner, or went missing.
After the war, the 10th Mountain Division was deactivated, and its surviving members returned to civilian life, where many of them pursued successful careers in a wide variety of fields. The division was reactivated in 1985, and since 2001 it has been the most deployed unit in the U.S. Army, participating in over 20 different missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and winning five different Meritorious Unit Commendations. At present, the division continues to soldier on from its home base in Fort Drum, New York, guided by its illustrious history and its hard-earned and well-deserved motto, “Climb to Glory”.
Today, 80 years after Dole and his companions savored their libations on that fateful February night in Vermont, we may all be thankful that their fears of a Nazi invasion of the United States never did come to pass. The division they were instrumental in creating confronted the Germans not in the St. Lawrence River Valley, but rather in the harsh and frigid terrain of Northern Italy. The Winter Army provides a comprehensive and engrossing account of the origins and early years of a new and unconventional formation that would make an important contribution to the Allied victory, and that would subsequently go on to become one of the most respected and accomplished units in the U.S. Army.