Mountains of Honor
photorgraphy: Courtesy Regional History Department of the Community Library
(page 3 of 3)
After Riva Ridge, American forces continued to drive the Germans north through the Apennine Mountains. For the remainder of March and into the first of April 1945, the 10th re-supplied, rested, and received replacement infantryman. The combined Allied forces of northern Italy, of which the 10th was an integral part, were gearing up for Operation Craftsman, a final offensive to push the Germans across the Po River. It would prove to be the bloodiest part of the war for the 10th.
On April 17, in the midst of a heat wave, infantry soldiers from “L” Company, 3rd Battalion, 87th Regiment, led by Captain Duncan of Sun Valley, had orders to “mop up” in the valley beyond Madna di Rodiano. Duncan’s “L” Company, along with most of the 87th regiment, had recently made the “breakthrough” out of the mountains and was feverishly driving north, sometimes bypassing an increasingly disorganized and retreating German army.
The rapid pace combined with the hot weather caused several men to collapse from heat exhaustion; but by early afternoon “L” Company had arrived at the town of C. Costa, which was surrounded by open, rolling fields and stone-walled lanes. From their vantage point, the men of “L” Company could see German artillery firing on northbound tanks and trucks. One gun was also firing on their position.
Captain Duncan dispatched a patrol to locate the artillery piece and knock it out while he, his runner, a radio operator, and a lieutenant from “M” Company moved to exposed observation point to offer the patrol what support it might need. Shortly after, a shell struck nearby, killing Duncan and fatally wounding the lieutenant.
Captain George F. Earle, in his book History of the 87th Mountain Infantry, wrote, “Captain Duncan’s death removed a brilliant and inspiring leader from our ranks; his continual regard for his men’s welfare and his repeated personal heroism won not merely the respect, but the love, of his men and associates. His loss was greatly mourned by all, even at a time when there were so many fine men to mourn for.”
Two days later, on April 19, just a few miles south of the location where Duncan perished, “E” Company, 2nd Battalion, also of the 87th Regiment, was moving north when artillery fire killed Private First Class Leo T. Handwerk, also of Sun Valley. At the time, Handwerk was in the company of several regimental officers who were unharmed.
In the next ten days, the 10th pursued fleeing Germans across the Po River and all the way to Lake Garda at the foot of the Italian Alps. The Division was given orders to leapfrog its regiments to cut off the German retreat at Brenner Pass. On May 2, 1945, in the midst of what German commander Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin of the 14th Panzer Division called a hopeless strategic situation, the Germans finally surrendered.
After the war, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division figured prominently in the growth of the American ski industry, playing various roles in the founding or development of ski resorts and ski schools across the nation.
In 1948, Andy Hennig, a decorated 10th Mountain Division vet and once again ski instructor for the Sun Valley School, published a ski-touring guidebook called the Sun Valley Ski Guide. In it, he honors Duncan, Bromaghin, and Handwerk by naming three local peaks after these local heroes. It seems fitting that men who trained for war on skis and stone should have a lasting legacy in these craggy peaks, which figure prominently in Hennig’s guide as standout spring ski mountaineering objectives.
It is also fitting that we remember these men, the dozens of others from the Wood River Valley who also served in the 10th Mountain Division, and indeed all who have died serving their country. Climbing a mountain is generally an act of self-gratification: the motivations are most often personal, and the rewards rarely extend beyond the first person. A moment of tribute atop these peaks is a small but important gesture, acknowledging the part their namesakes have played in our ongoing freedom to enjoy the same mountains today.
Erik Leidecker is co-owner of Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides and a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine. He lives in Hailey with his wife, Gretchen, and their two children, Sascha and Svea.