Early in World War II, the world heard about two heavily armored Russian divisions invading Finland, only to be crushed by Finnish troops on skis. Charles “Minnie” Dole, then the president of the National Ski Patrol in the U.S., afterward convinced the War Department that the U.S. Army should work to develop a similar unit, and the Army created three mountain warfare divisions, training troops in rock climbing, skiing, and mountaineering. Only one, the 10th Mountain Division, saw combat in World War II. In four months, the division had one of the highest casualty rates of any in the war.
The 10th Division deployed in late 1944, in the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy, where the German army had held its ground on top of Mount Belvedere against the U.S. for almost half the year. On February 18, 10th Mountain Division troops climbed and took Riva Ridge, in the dark, surprising the Germans-they’d assumed that at night no one would be able to negotiate the snow and ice-covered terrain below. The day after, more than 1,000 of the 13,000 10th Division troops would be lost, but the U.S. would take Mount Belvedere.
The war ended six months later. Soldiers and officers from the 10th Mountain Division returned home, many to the mountains. In the decades following, they pursued different paths, building ski resorts, outdoor education programs, shoe companies, and even the Sierra Club. Here are some of notable 10th Mountain Division veterans.
1. Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon, Nike
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bill Bowerman joined the Army and a year later was assigned to what would become the 10th Mountain Division. He fought in Italy, receiving a Silver Star and four Bronze Stars. He came back to the U.S. and coached high school track in Medford, Oregon, and then at the University of Oregon, where he experimented with running shoe design, famously ruining his wife’s waffle iron making an outsole. 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.
2. Werner von Trapp and Rupert von Trapp, The Sound of Music
Austrians Werner von Trapp and Rupert von Trapp, their parents and five siblings, the famous Von Trapp Family Singers, refused to perform at a birthday party for Adolf Hitler, and then fled Austria after Germany annexed the country. They later emigrated to the U.S., and Werner and Rupert enlisted in the Army and both served in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division. The family, as you already know, was the inspiration for the musical The Sound of Music.
3. David Brower, The Sierra Club
David Brower, a mountaineer and climber before World War II, helped write and edit literature to train mountain troops for the war. He was a lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division and saw action in Italy, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. When he returned, he became involved with the then-fledgling Sierra Club, editing the club’s bulletin and managing trips. He became the Sierra Club’s first executive director in 1952, and led the club in its early political battles, including the fight against the proposed Echo Canyon Dam in Dinosaur National Monument and the eventual Glen Canyon Dam. He had a tumultuous, almost-half-century relationship with the Sierra Club in various roles, eventually parting ways in 2000.
4. Paul Petzoldt, NOLS
In 1924, 16-year-old Paul Petzoldt became the youngest person to ever summit the Grand Teton and began a mountaineering career that would take him to the Alps and the first American attempt on K2. He fought in Italy with the 10th Mountain Division, and after his return to the U.S., was involved in both the creation of Exum Mountain Guides and the first Colorado division of Outward Bound. In 1965, he started what would become the U.S.’s other famous wilderness education program, the National Outdoor Leadership School.
5. Fritz Benedict, 10th Mountain Division Huts
Architect Fritz Benedict studied under Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin and competed nationally as a ski racer before he was drafted into the 10th Mountain Division for the last three years of World War II, serving in Italy. When he returned to civilian life, he bought a ranch near Aspen and over several decades designed more than 200 buildings built in and around Aspen, as well as 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.
6. Toni Matt, Ski Racer
Born in Austria, Toni Matt moved to the U.S. in 1938 and the next year became a skiing legend in the Mount Washington Inferno, when he couldn’t see where he was going and shot straight down the headwall without turning, winning the race in under six and a half minutes. His top speed was estimated at 85 mph. After winning the U.S. Downhill Ski Championships in 1939 and 1941 he served in World War II in the Aleutian Islands as a lieutenant in the 10th Mountain Division.
7. Walter Prager, Olympic Ski Coach
Swiss-born Walter Prager won two of the first three downhill skiing World Championships and moved to the U.S. to coach the Dartmouth ski team in 1936, where his crews produced more than a dozen Olympic skiers. He was drafted into the U.S. Army and became one of the first 10th Mountain Division soldiers, and fought in Italy. After the war, he returned to the U.S. and coached the 1948 U.S. Olympic Ski Team and went on to design and build the Dartmouth Skiway, and plan trails at New Hampshire’s Cannon Mountain.
8. The Men of Colorado Skiing
Colorado skiing would likely look a lot different if it weren’t for 10th Mountain Division veterans who returned from the war with dreams borne from their love of skiing. A few notable examples: Larry Jump discovered and developed the terrain that became Arapahoe Basin, and his fellow 10th Mountain Division veterans stepped up to help with the ski area’s early years: Wilfred Davis designed the trail layout, Earl Clark volunteered to lead the mountain’s ski patrol, and Merrill Hastings worked on the construction crew. Davis also helped establish Loveland as a ski area, where 10th veteran Pete Seibert became general manager before going on to found a resort called Vail in 1962.
Earl Clark went on to work on the ski patrol at Loveland, Berthoud Pass, and Winter Park. Fellow 10th Mountain Division Veteran (and native Norwegian) Harold Sorenson organized the first Winter Park Ski Jump School in 1958. Curtis Chase organized the Aspen Ski Patrol a year after the war ended, and fellow 10th vet Ted Ryan built Aspen’s first ski lodge. Austrian-born 10th veteran Freidl Pfeifer ran the ski schools at Sun Valley and Aspen in the 1950s, and finding the terrain at Aspen too tough for beginners, built Buttermilk, which opened in 1958.
Also notable: Legendary skier Dick Durrance and climber Fred Beckey trained 10th Mountain troops, and climber Fritz Wiessner served as a technical advisor.