The Battle of Riva Ridge and the triumph of the 10th Mountain Division, 75 years later
Attack on Feb. 18, 1945, was one of the keys that helped unlock Allied victory in Europe during World War II
Heroes look like these guys: Bill “Sarge” Brown, Bob Parker, Pete Seibert, Sandy Treat, Dick Over, Hugh Evans and so many others from the 10th Mountain Division who helped win World War II and, while building the peace, also built the ski industry in the United States.
It was 75 years ago on Feb. 18, 1945, that the men of the 10th literally climbed to one of history’s most miraculous military victories, the Battle of Riva Ridge, in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy.
“After the war ended there were about 260 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, many of them Europeans, who started the ski resorts you see now, all across the country. They started ski patrols, ski schools. They were instrumental in building the industry as we know it today,” Hugh Evans told the Vail Daily’s Tricia Swenson in March 2018.
In “Us” vs. “Them,” they were us. They were Dan L. Kennerly from rural Georgia, and a guy from New York who said before arriving at Camp Hale, between Red Cliff and Leadville, that the tallest thing he had ever climbed was a Fifth Avenue bus.
Hollywood loved them. The troops from the 10th made several Time magazine covers. Film crews prowled around Camp Hale to chronicle their exploits. They were college graduates, high school dropouts, a world-record-holding ski jumper, skiers, mountain climbers, trappers, and outdoorsmen. If they weren’t outdoorsmen when they arrived at Camp Hale, already, they soon would be.
War, though, is probably worse than you imagine, and certainly worse than movies, newsreels and other media portrayed at the time.
It was March 23, 1945, when a clearly frustrated Sgt. 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.”
The reality of Riva Ridge
Yes, Riva Ridge is Vail’s longest ski run. It was also the name of a famous racehorse, which won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, owned by longtime Vail resident and 10th Mountain Division veteran Jack Tweedy and his wife, Penny.
What Riva Ridge really was, though, was one of the keys that helped unlock Allied victory in Europe during World War II.
The German Gothic line stretched across the top of Italy’s boot eight miles deep and 108 miles wide. The Germans controlled the high ground in the Apennines and could prevent the Allies from moving into the rest of Europe.
War can be uncomplicated. The Nazis held the high ground and were ordered to die to hold it. The 10th Mountain Division soldiers were willing to kill to take it. The Gothic Line was Hitler’s last stronghold in Italy and he ordered his mountain troops to hold it at all costs. For the Allies to win in Europe, the Gothic Line had to be broken.
“The Germans held all the high ground, and one felt like he was in the bottom of a bowl with the enemy sitting on two-thirds of the rim looking down upon you,” Lt. Col. Henry J. Hampton wrote in an Army report at the time.”There was about as much concealment as a goldfish would have in a bowl.”
Many other Allied units had tried and failed to clear the Germans from the Mount Belvedere ridgeline. But they hadn’t tried anything like the 10th was about to attempt.
In mid-January 1945, 10th Mountain Division soldiers moved quietly into small villages around the area. Each soldier carried a 55-pound pack and four blankets. Sleeping bags were not available, Hampton wrote.
Hampton decided on absolute secrecy and surprise.
For weeks, patrols secretly scouted routes up the mountain, climbing the sheer rock faces of both Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere. They installed ropes, pitons and anchors so they could climb quickly when it came time to attack.
The Germans didn’t expect anyone to climb those cliffs. The 10th Mountain Division had trained for years in Camp Hale to do exactly that.
The enemy was estimated to be 40 to 50 men manning dug-in positions. Their well-placed machine guns could stop an entire column along any of the narrow routes, Hampton wrote.
Darkness was full when the attack on Riva Ridge kicked off at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, 1945, with 700 soldiers climbing between 1,700 and 2,200 feet up the vertical cliff.
The Germans suspected no threat and moved back into their dugouts, leaving no one to provide observation, Hampton wrote. The Germans believed that the steep slopes and cliffs of Riva Ridge could not be climbed and the ridge was unassailable.
As the 10th’s soldiers worked their way up in the darkness, carrying weapons, ammunition, climbing gear, and provisions, a fog set in and concealed their positions. Still, they expected the worst.
Riva Ridge veteran Dave Rankine was worried. “Normally we have just one medic with us. And this time, we’ve got about five or six medics, and I thought, ‘They’re expecting a lot of us to get wounded and killed.’”
Howard Koch recalls his anxiety that “we just went up in a single file, and therein lied the danger — that if we were discovered before we got up there, it could’ve been a very disastrous situation because we didn’t have room to deploy …”
Lt. General John Hay said that when the men pushed up over the ridge and began their attack, “the Germans were back in dugouts sleeping and our troops took the guns over, turned them around and went down and threw hand grenades in their sleeping quarters and that’s the way they woke up. The Germans were awfully surprised at the American soldiers ascending from a side that had been declared ‘unclimbable.’”
German counterattacks were inevitable, so Allied engineers designed a tramway system to evacuate wounded soldiers and transport supplies and ammunition to the troops. For five long days, the 10th held off Nazi counterattacks that killed 17 and wounded 51 Americans.
The day after the assault on Riva Ridge, six additional infantry battalions, 13,000 men, began the assault on Mount Belvedere. Inch by inch they fought their way up for six days in the face of withering machine gun and mortar fire. Finally, on the sixth day the soldiers from the 10th took control of the Mount Belvedere ridgeline. On the seventh day, they rested.
Allied commanders had expected the battle for Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere to last at least two weeks.
For the next two and a half months, the 10th pushed north through the Apennine Mountains. After five days of heavy combat, the 10th was the first unit to reach and cross the strategically important Po River, forcing the German army to retreat. As the 10th fought forward it liberated several Italian towns from the Germans, and captured Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s villa on Lake Garda and the headquarters of his Italian Social Republic government in Salo.
Of the nearly 20,000 10th Mountain Division soldiers who fought in Italy, nearly 1,000 were killed and nearly 3,900 were wounded in six months. Pfc. John Magrath was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
On May 2, 1945, the Germans stationed in Italy surrendered, although the fight in Europe was not over.
The 10th Mountain Division was called back to the U.S. in July, to begin preparing for the invasion of Japan, planned for Nov. 2, 1945.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945, following a massive firebombing attack and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It smelled like a slaughterhouse
No one knows war like those who’ve lived it. No one knows history like those who’ve made it. Books and movies are written about the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II heroics.
Warren Miller Films’ “Climb to Glory” is one of the best and most comprehensive.
Maurice Isserman’s book “The Winter Army” lets the soldiers tell their own stories, drawing from letters they wrote home during the war.
Dan Kennerly worked with both Isserman and McKay Jenkins who wrote “The Last Ridge: The Epic Story the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division and the Assault on Hitler’s Europe.”
“I’ve never seen an authentic war movie. One of the reasons is that you don’t have the odors and the blood in the movie that you have in real life,” Kennerly said in an interview with National Public Radio’s Scott Simon.
Reading from his diary, Kennerly described the horror of war.
“We went through the saddle where some of the hardest fighting was. The evidence is clear as to what happened to C Company. Their bodies are everywhere, frozen in all sorts of different positions. Some of their arms and legs sticking straight up. They all have a pale, yellow waxy color, like artificial fruit. There’s a smell in the air. I cannot place it. But now it comes to me. It’s the odor of a slaughterhouse. What I’m smelling is blood. At the low point of the crest is 11 bodies in a row, chopped to pieces, frozen in every type of grotesque position. One has the top of his head shot off, his brains spilled out onto the ground. Glancing into the cavity I recognize the stump of a spinal cord. It reminds me of a watermelon with all the meat gone. Now I understand the terrible nature of infantry warfare. The stark brutality overcomes me. I feel completely vulnerable. Surveying the gory scene I think to myself, ‘This is not playing out a childhood fantasy of mountain warfare, or sitting in a theater watching a war movie. This really happening and I’m a part of it. I tremble. I want to drop all of my equipment and run to the rear, but I know I can’t.”
“What does that do to the rest of your life?” Simon asked.
“It makes me appreciate it. Every morning I wake up, I think my lucky stars,” Kennerly said.
“Make the best of your life, whatever it is. It’s your attitude that’s the key,” Evans said. “You get knocked down, you get back up and start over again.”
Win the war, but time wins all
You can win wars, but you cannot beat time.
“We used to travel to the different resorts by the busload, then the van load, and now we don’t need a very big car,” Evans told the Vail Daily’s Swenson in March 2018.
The Colorado Snowsports Museum’s “Climb to Glory” exhibit captures the 10th Mountain Division’s history. That history of the 10th is the history of skiing, Evans said.
There was this one time that a 10th Mountain division reunion was in Vail at the same time as the Vail Veterans Program. The younger vets treated Evans like the hero he is. Evans earned a Silver Star for valor in combat, and several other honors.
Pete Seibert Sr. didn’t talk much about the war, his son Pete Jr. said.
“They were so young,” Pete Jr. said.
Pete Sr., one of Vail’s founders, started talking more about his war experiences toward the end of his life. After he’d published “Triumph of a Dream” about founding Vail, Pete Sr. started work on a book about war experiences. Each World War II veteran would have his own chapter.
There was this one story he liked to tell. They were in Italy, and at the opposite the end of a valley they could see a battle 10 miles away. They couldn’t do anything about it, so they cut some saplings to make racing gates and had a ski race.
More than once he was asked, “Did he ever shoot anyone?”
Pete Jr. said his father smiled and answered, “I ran around trying not to get shot.”
Pete Seibert survived Riva Ridge but was hit later at Mount Terminale.
The 10th is still out front. Today’s 10th Mountain Division was the first called upon to fight in the Afghanistan mountains. In Operation Enduring Freedom, the 10th was the first in and the last out.
Sources for this story
Information used in this story came from a variety of sources. Among them:
- The Colorado Snowsports Museum archives
- The Vail Daily
- David Leach’s 2005 senior thesis for Middlebury College, “The Impact of the Tenth Mountain Division on the Development of a Modern Ski Industry in Colorado and Vermont: 1930-1965”
- “Fire on the Mountain,” First Run Features/Gage & Gage Productions, 1995
- “The Last Ridge,” Abbie Kealy, 2007
- U.S. Army’s “Bootprints In History”
- National Public Radio
- “The Winter Army” by Maurice Isserman