Maurice Isserman’s new book ‘The Winter Army’ is a masterwork in letting 10th Mountain Division soldiers tell their own stories

Author, historian hosting book signings set for Friday, Saturday

If You Go …
  • What: “The Winter Army” author Maurice Isserman will host two book signings.
  • Where, When: 3 p.m. Friday at the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail. Noon Saturday at the Bookworm in the Edwards Riverwalk.
  • Cost: The events are free. The books will be for sale at both locations.
  • Information: Isserman’s new book is based on letters from soldiers who served in the 10th Mountain Division, creating a first-hand look at the fight for northern Italy in World War II.

No one knows war like those who’ve lived it.

No one knows history like those who made it.

Historian and author Maurice Isserman’s new book, “The Winter Army,” captures the sights, sounds and smells of the war fought by the 10th Mountain Division through the thousands of letters the soldiers wrote home during World War II.

“Soldiers of the 10th were determined to accomplish the nearly impossible task of giving civilians safe at home a clear idea of what it was like to endure day after day of the hardship and horror of battle. The collective account of their wartime experiences amounts to the first, and in some ways the finest history of the 10th Mountain Division,” Isserman wrote.

‘The odor of a slaughterhouse’

It was March 23, 1945, when a clearly frustrated Sergeant Denis Nunan wrote in a letter to his mother, “Thanks to the failure of the press and to the stupidity of Hollywood, the Home Front has no real conception of war, and only by letters home can the truth be made known.”

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Isserman said he was working through mountains of letters from 10th Mountain Division soldiers when Nunan’s stopped him cold. It changed the way he was writing “The Winter Army,” turning him away from tired Hollywood clichés and toward the soldiers’ own observations, culled from approximately 20,000 letters and hundreds of other documents.

To Dan L. Kennerly from rural Georgia, the corpses of soldiers along the Mount Belvedere ridgeline looked like “artificial fruit, a pale yellow, waxy color.”

And then there was the smell.

“At first I cannot place it, now it comes to me, it’s the odor of a slaughterhouse. What I’m smelling is blood. Near the low point of the crest are eleven bodies in a row. … Their bodies have been chopped to pieces and lying in every type of grotesque position. One has the top of his head shot off, his brains have spilled out onto the ground. Glancing into the cavity, I recognize the stump of the spinal cord. It reminds me of a watermelon with all the meat gone. This is the most horrible sight I’ve ever seen,” Kennerly wrote in one of his letters.

At the start of World War II, the U.S. Army had two cavalry divisions and no mountain troops. The German Wehrmacht boasted several well-trained and battle-hardened mountain divisions, some blocking the Allied advance in the Italian campaign.

In response, Isserman wrote, the U.S. Army developed the 10th Mountain Division, recruited from a mix of Ivy League students, park rangers, Olympic skiers, and European refugees. After training in Camp Hale, between Leadvillle and Red Cliff, the division deployed to Italy at the beginning of 1945.

War can be uncomplicated. The Nazis held the high ground and were willing to die to hold it. The 10th Mountain Division soldiers were willing to kill to take it.

The Apennine Mountains held a range of defenses the Nazis called the Gothic Line. It was Hitler’s last stronghold in Italy and he ordered his mountain troops to hold it at all costs.

The cost in human life was terrible: 975 10th Mountain soldiers killed and another 3,900 wounded. But the men of the 10th took the high ground from the Germans and laid the groundwork for the Allied victory in Italy. They had stories to tell and told them in their letters.

“The men of the 10th were a well-educated and well-read bunch, many of them dropping out of college to volunteer for service with the mountain troops,” Isserman wrote. “They wrote with passion and candor, and a determination to share with those at home what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called ‘the incommunicable experience of war.’”

Isserman teaches history at Hamilton College and like great historians and storytellers, he lets his historical subjects tell their own stories. “The Winter Army” is the work of a master craftsman.

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