History Professor Maurice Isserman provides a fascinating chronicle of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, formed at the outset of World War II to serve as an alpine fighting force. Drawing largely from the soldiers’ letters, diaries, and memoirs now housed in the 10th Mountain Division Archive at the Denver Public Library, Isserman brings the 10th to life from the inside.
Initial recruits were drawn from the ranks of championship skiers and mountain climbers, and they trained in the mountains of the American West. Isserman offers a treasure trove of engrossing information about how the army learned to equip and feed men for mountain warfare.
Although the skills of the 10th weren’t always used in actual combat, the men were able to draw upon their alpine training in the peaks of the North Apennines in Italy, where they moved “always forward” (their informal motto) to help drive the Germans from the Italian war theater. Isserman reports that “in terms of the percentage killed per day in combat, the 10th suffered the highest casualty rate of any US division in the campaign,” impressing both their American superiors and their German opponents with their skill and ferocity.
History buffs will delight in the way the 10th took Riva Ridge in the Apennines, using the same logic and techniques as the daring and unexpected ascent of the cliffs over the city of Quebec in 1759 by the British during the French and Indian War. There is pretty much never a dull moment in this account.
When the war was over, the surviving veterans of the 10th had no less interesting lives. Some of them went on to play leading roles in the outdoor winter sports industry. Isserman explains that “literally thousands of 10th veterans were employed one way or another, in the postwar ski industry,” whether as coaches, instructors, ski resort operators [both Aspen and Vail were developed as ski resorts by veterans], or ski equipment designers and promoters.
One veteran, told he would never walk again from his injuries in Italy, came to Aspen, resumed skiing, and in 1948 finished third in the giant slalom event at the US national ski competition. He and other veterans developed Vail, with ski runs named after men and events from the wartime experience of the 10th Division. “Riva Ridge” is one of the more challenging black diamond runs at the Vail Ski Resort today.
Evaluation: This unique and inspiring fighting force deserves to be better known. In addition to sharing their history, Isserman also includes a number of valuable insights from a wider perspective, such as about the role of momentum in war that can drive campaigns regardless of rational calculation; the importance of camaraderie in compensating for deficiencies in wartime; what “really” goes on under fire versus media accounts for the home audience; the rude awakening about the costs of war for the young men focused on adventure; and the sometimes selfish motives of the generals who determine their fate. The book excels as sports history as well. Photos and maps are included. I enjoyed it thoroughly!
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019