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Mountains of Honor

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In June of 1943, the 87th regiment headed to Fort Ord in California for amphibious training, and then to Kiska Island in the Aleutian chain to fight a force of 6,000 Japanese that had been occupying the island. Unbeknownst to American and Canadian military commanders, the Japanese had already left the island, many by submarine. On August 15, 1943, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 87th regiment, along with several commando units, attacked Kiska. In confusion caused in part by foggy conditions and lack of communication, American troops fired on each other. Later, a booby-trapped artillery piece killed more soldiers. It was a rocky start, but combat experience for the 10th Mountain Division had begun.

During the latter half of 1943 and the first half of 1944, training continued in the mountains of Colorado. Soon the Division evolved into a fighting machine that was, in its own eyes, ready for deployment. Military command didn’t see it that way, however, and amongst rumors that it might be turned into a regular infantry division, the 10th was sent to Camp Swift, Texas, a far cry from the mountains of Colorado.

Morale began sinking in this group of skiers forced to live in a hot and humid environment; but things were about to get better, starting with their official reorganization and naming. The men received patches saying “Mountain,” which went above the crossed bayonet insignia worn on the shoulder that had come to represent the division. Next came their deployment orders—although the location wasn’t disclosed until they were halfway there.

In December of 1944, the 10th arrived in Italy, bound for the Apennine Mountains, a key strategic sector where the German army held the high ground. The Italian front had lost many of its divisions in the invasion of France, and although Allied forces had pushed the Germans north out of Rome and through much of the country, the enemy was still deeply entrenched in the mountains south of the Po River Valley. Military commanders knew that if the Germans could be driven from the Apennine Range, it would be relatively easy to take the valley.

After years of training, the “Ski Troops” of the 10th finally came to a mountainous theater of war, the terrain for which they had been prepared. The Riva Ridge (a spine of five peaks about three and a half miles long) and Monte Belvedere were among the areas where ski patrols conducted reconnaissance and intelligence work. Monte Belvedere had already been attacked several times by American forces, but they had been unable to hold their ground. A successful attack would first require that the Americans capture Riva Ridge, the east flank of which comprises steep, sometimes vertical terrain fifteen hundred feet high.

The patrols determined locations of German positions and established four different routes by which troops could ascend the ridge. Then, during the night of February 18, 1945, the 1st Battalion, 86th regiment started climbing. Early in the morning, the first platoons made contact with the Germans, who weren’t anticipating an attack from the rugged east side. The 86th took the ridge, held off German counterattacks, and then supported the 85th and 87th regiments, which successfully attacked and held Monte Belvedere the following day.

The offensive lasted until the end of February as the 10th drove the Germans off a series of peaks to the northeast, culminating in Monte della Torraccia. It was there, on February 26, that Captain Ralph Bromaghin, 86th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, HQ Company, was killed. The 3rd Battalion had taken Monte della Torraccia, but the Germans, who weren’t about to give up easily, shelled the peak relentlessly with over a thousand rounds of artillery during the night. After the onslaught, a German unit expecting the Americans to roll over instead encountered a well dug-in and still motivated 3rd Battalion. The Germans had little choice but to surrender. >>>

 

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