Engaging biography of one of the US Army’s most celebrated WWII units.
But does the 10th Mountain Division deserve its renown? Jenkins (English & Journalism/Univ. of Delaware; The White Death, 2000) has no intention of diminishing the accomplishments of the 10th, a unit dissolved in 1945 but then reconstituted in the ’70s for action in places such as Somalia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. Still, he wonders why “so many civilians with no particular interest in military history seem to know the division’s story,” a story that involves only limited (if certainly bloody) action in Italy in the winter of 1944–45. Chalk it up, he suggests, to a couple of joined facts: the 10th Mountain Division’s veterans went on to found or operate nearly every major ski run in the country, becoming famed among ski enthusiasts in the bargain; and more than a few of them—including Sierra Club director Edward Brower—in the unit went on to write memoirs of their time in battle, giving the 10th publicity out of all proportion. Jenkins traces the 10th’s origins to a handful of ski bums who had trouble convincing the military brass that a specialized unit trained in the rigors of mountain warfare could be of much advantage in Europe’s difficult terrain; so uninterested was the Pentagon, in fact, that National Ski Patrol head Minnie Dole came to seem like a Revolutionary War patriot “offering to round up the farmers and teach them to use their squirrel guns to fight the British.” When junior officers including Mark Clark convinced the War Department that the worst that could happen was that the army would add another division, the brass gave the go-ahead, only to keep the unit in training for most of the war. Brought into action against nearly impregnable German defenses in the mountains of northern Italy, the 10th quickly destroyed the foe, doing just what it was designed to do. Yet it was just as quickly deactivated—a better fate, Dole reckoned, than seeing the 10th “become purely another division of flatland character.”
A fine account, for WWII and outdoor adventure buffs alike.