10th Mountain Division

We take a look at the infantrymen who lead the charge up some of the world's harshest terrain
Hero 10th mountain header

Feb 24, 2015 | By Thomas McDermott

uring the November 1939 Soviet invasion of Finland, an outnumbered and outgunned company of Finnish soldiers on skis managed to destroy two armored Russian divisions. By using the harsh weather and steep terrain to their advantage, the Finnish soldiers proved the combat value of a highly manueverable light infantry unit trained for mountain warfare. Seeing how deadly effective the Finnish troops were, Charles Minot Dole, the president of the National Ski Patrol, began to lobby the War Department for a similarly trained regiment of U.S. soldiers.

In September 1940, Dole presented his case to the Army Chief of Staff, George C. Marshall, who approved a "mountain unit" for combat operations in harsh terrain. Initially, there were plans for 10 mountain units to be created, but personnel shortages led to only three being formed, and only one — the 10th Mountain Division, was brought to active duty.

Under Dole's supervision, the Ski Patrol assisted in training the soldiers, and Army Planners began recruiting experienced skiers from universities across the country, so that the division would be comprised of soldiers who possessed a good amount of confidence on the mountain. 

On December 8th, 1941, the 87th Mountain Infantry Batallion was formed at Fort Lewis, Washington. This was the first mountain warfare batallion in U.S. military history. The 87th trained in some of the harshest conditions possible, including Mount Rainier's 14,411 foot peak, which provided the perfect proving ground for the young soldiers. Olympic skier Rolf Monsen initially led the training for the division, and by late 1942, there was a fully dedicated Army Mountain Warfare School established at Camp Carson. 

With World War II now well under way, the 10th Light Division was constituted on July 10th, 1943 and was activated just five days later. Since the 10th Division only had 8,500 of the 16,000 soldiers it needed, the remaining spots were filled by transferring troops from the 30th, 31st, and 33rd Infantry Divisions.

From the start, the 10th faced significant challenges. Morale was low, and the transfers were damaging to the cohesion and sense of camaraderie within the division. But as training went on, everything slowly started to come together. Soon, the 10th were being outfitted with specialized winter camouflage, and trained to manuever the M29 Weasel. That's when orders came down that the 10th were headed overseas to join the fight against the Axis in Italy.

The 10th were immediately sent to the front lines upon arriving in Italy. Fighting alongside the 1st Brazilian Infantry Division, the 10th Division destroyed German artillery positions by climbing the nearby Riva Ridge during the night and mounting an attack on mound Della Torraccia. After four days of intense firefights, the 10th had cleared all of the peaks and continued their push north of Canolle.

The 10th were extremely successful, capturing Mongiorgio and securing Gargnano and Porto di Tremosine in short order before the Germans surrendered in Italy on May 2, 1945. Although there were plans for the 10th to join the fight in the Pacific, Japan also surrendered before the division could be re-deployed. All told, the 10th lost 992 men during action in WWII, with another 4,154 wounded, all in just 114 days of combat. 

The 10th Division wouldn't be reactivated with their distinctive mountain status until February 13th, 1985. Their first combat engagement since WWII would come in 1993, when Task Force Ranger and SAR Team became pinned down in a firefight during the Battle of Mogadishu. Soldiers from the 10th Division fought alongside the UN quick reaction force that was sent in to rescue the stranded teams. Two 10th Division soldiers were killed during the mission, which was the longest sustained firefight since the Vietnam War. 

More recently, until their return home in February 2014, the 10th Mountain Division had been utilizing their specialized training to fight on the steep cliffs of Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. The 10th pushed into previously untouched areas of operation such as Chakh Valley in Wardak Province, and Charkh Valley in Logar Province, hunting down members of the Haqqani Network. With their long and storied history, and their specialized training in mountain warfare, it seems that the 10th will continue to take the fight to the most remote places on earth for many years to come. [H]


Thomas McDermott is an Editor at Huckberry.
He likes big mountains, a good laugh, and breakfast food.
You can follow his latest adventures on Instagram.

Images ©: 1, 2. Center of Military History; 3, 4. Unit History Collection; 5. Staff Sgt. Samuel Bendet — U.S. Department of Defense; 6. Sgt. Kyle Davis — Council on Foreign Relations