Mountains of Honor
photorgraphy: Courtesy Regional History Department of the Community Library
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It isn’t every day that climbers stop to wonder how the peak they’re scaling may have gotten its name. Mountaintops are associated more with lunch breaks and admiring spectacular scenery on a clear day than with history lessons. Consumed with the difficulties of reaching the top and anticipating the prospect of their descent, most climbers wouldn’t give the subject a moment’s thought. And perhaps the last thing on their minds would be the whistle of 88mm German artillery shells, explosions, and young lives cut short—but that is the bittersweet truth behind the names of three prominent peaks in the Sun Valley area.
Bromaghin Peak in the Smoky Mountains, as well as Handwerk and Duncan in the Pioneers, were named for three Sun Valley men who joined the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and were killed on the front lines as they helped drive the Germans out of Italy. Their story is worthy of pause, whether atop the spectacular summits that now memorialize them or by the comfortable light of a winter’s wood fire.
In his 1992 book Soldiers on Skis, Flint Whitlock writes, “Ski schools from resorts across America emptied their faculties into the 10th, [including] Glenn Stanley, Friedl Pfeifer, and Florain ‘Flokie’ Haemmerle from Sun Valley.” In fact, several dozen mountain types from the Wood River Valley signed up for the 10th—Ted Handwerk, Ralph Bromaghin, and Jonathan Duncan among them.
The Division was unique in the history of the military, the first fighting unit born from a civilian organization. At the outset of World War II, Charles Minot Dole, founder and chairman of the National Ski Patrol, recognized that if the United States were to be drawn into the conflict, troops skilled and trained in mountain warfare would be required.
Together with Roger Langley, president of the National Ski Association, Dole gained the ear of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, in part by citing the success of Finnish mountain soldiers on skis against a much stronger Soviet invasion during the winter of 1939-40. When ten thousand unprepared Italian soldiers froze to death in the mountains of Greece and Albania, Marshall’s attention was fully engaged. He eventually authorized the planning for three mountain divisions, although only the 10th would ever be formed.
Three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 4, 1941, the 10th Mountain Division was created of twelve officers and one enlisted man who were called the 87th Infantry, Mountain, First Battalion. The commanding officer at the time wisely chose to fill his ranks with skiers and mountaineers, and then train them to become soldiers—not vice versa. The National Ski Patrol system acted as a recruiting agency. Initial volunteers included some well-known icons of the skiing and mountaineering communities in the United States and Europe, such as Paul Petzoldt (founder of Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming and the National Outdoor Leadership School-NOLS), David Brower (founder of the Friends of the Earth and former executive director of the Sierra Club), and a cadre of famous European ski racers and mountain guides.
Originally based in Fort Lewis, Washington, the fledgling 10th Mountain Division often trained on Mt. Rainier, where the first recruits were utilized as skiing and mountaineering instructors. Then, in 1943, the 10th moved to Camp Hale, Colorado, where it would eventually grow into three infantry regiments: the original 87th plus the 86th and 85th, with associated artillery, tank, and engineer battalions. Whitlock writes that at Camp Hale, in addition to standard infantry training, the men were taught “military skiing, snowshoeing, snow-freighting, trail breaking for toboggans, mountain rescue work, avalanche prevention, rock climbing, mule packing, forest-fire fighting, dog-sled operations, and snow-cave building-in short, everything needed to fight and survive at high altitudes, in varying terrain, and in extreme weather conditions.” >>>