Alpine Warfare: 10th Mountain Division in WWII

Recently we received a re-supply of these WWII-era Foster Grant Goggles, and I thought it time to investigate some of the unique history behind them.

Each pair were manufactured by the Foster Grant glasses company specifically for the 10th Mountain Division, the specially-trained mountain fighters of the U.S. Army.

Small numbers of these Goggles are still occasionally found in the wild, which is a rarity for something made over 70 years ago.

 

Foster Grant Mountain Division Ski Goggles
A pair of the goggles, sitting on my desk

 

Certainly one of the reasons many pairs of these Goggles still exist is the very late introduction of the 10th Mountain Division into the conflict in Europe. The unit arrived on the shores of Italy in the winter of 1944, less than 6 months before victory in Europe would be declared.

While many pairs of these Goggles were issued for training purposes, very few probably made it to Italy.

Military Mountain Training Gets a Slow Start

The United States has long been home to civilian enthusiasts involved in skiing and other mountain sports. Unfortunately the adaptation of those skills to war took much longer to develop.

Many countries in Europe had traditional mountain units. But for the U.S. Military, the idea of specialized mountain-fighting troops wasn’t taken seriously until a contemporary event proved their value.

On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union undertook a massive invasion of the newly-independent nation of Finland. Despite being severely outnumbered in raw troops, aircraft and tanks, Finland mounted a determined defense causing severe Soviet losses.

 

Finnish winter-camoflague ski troopers
Finnish ski troopers in snow camouflage

 

Using the snowy and mountainous terrain to their advantage Finnish guerillas out-maneuvered Soviet troops, forcing them to split into smaller disorganized pockets which they then attacked from all sides.

The Finns easily managed the steep mountain slopes and used skiis to quickly move between engagements to get the most value out of every fighter.

Eventually the Soviets prevailed by sheer numbers. But not before the world had taken notice of how the Finns had used their naturally formidable homeland to resist their invaders.

One of those who took notice was Charles Minot Dole, the founder of the first national network of ski rescue organizations across the U.S.

By 1940, Dole was petitioning U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall to create a specialized mountain warfare division of the U.S. Army.

The 87th Mountain Regiment

This new mountain-fighting force was finally made reality on December 8, 1941, only a single day after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japanese forces. With America now in the war this new unit, officially the 87th Mountain Regiment, finally had a name but no soldiers.

Working closely with the civilian experts of the National Ski Patrol, the U.S. Army chose to fast-track the process by recruiting experienced skiers from many clubs, schools, and isolated communities across the U.S., and then train them further in military tactics and survival.

 

10th Mountain Division during training
10th Mountain Division during training (many of them wearing Foster Grant Goggles)

 

What started as a single battalion eventually grew into a larger force. Reorganized as the 10th Mountain Division, this elite group of alpine fighters came complete with their own camouflage, specialized skis, gear for surviving in harsh winter weather, and even specialized snow vehicles such as the M29 Weasel.

Driving the Germans out of the Mountains

By the winter of 1944 when the 10th Mountain Division finally landed on Italian shores, much of the country was already in Allied hands.

The remaining German resistance lay in the Apennines Mountains of Northern Italy. With heavy artillery and experienced crews covering every significant point of advance, they had slowed Allied movement to a crawl.

On February 18, 1945, a regiment of the 10th Mountain Division climbed the cliffs of Riva Ridge and took the long-untouchable German defenders completely by surprise.

Shortly afterward, additional regiments of the 10th continued onward to strike the German units holding Mount Belvedere, overrunning the defenders in a surprise bayonet charge.

Over the next 3 days, the 10th held off repeated German counter attacks as Allied forces strengthened their positions.

By April, soldiers were able to move into the Po Valley to cut off German forces from resupply and prevent any escape.

All told, the 10th Mountain Division had suffered 1,000 deaths and over 4,000 wounded. But without a doubt, they were able to prove the effectiveness of specially-trained ski troops in mountain conditions and carve their own distinctive chapter into the history of World War II.

10th mountain division recruitment poster

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7 Responses to “Alpine Warfare: 10th Mountain Division in WWII”

  1. Charles Runyan

    My Father and his two brothers . All served in the 10th mountain division. During ww2 Charles R Runyan. Charles J Runyan and Cleveland J Runyan. They were volunteers from Yaak Montana.

    Reply
  2. stuart peet

    As climate change occurs and the polar caps melt the legacy of the tenth mountain division will become of import as the U.S. prepares for winter warfare.

    Reply
  3. timothy j mcphillips

    the weasel was developed for the 10th it was to be used to drag skiers behind it so they could move more quickly

    Reply
  4. Richard Reber

    My father was in the 10th, until they reached Italy for training and they found out my father spoke fluent German. They then pulled him out and put him in charge of 190 German POW’s. I have a picture of my father drawn by one of the prisoners mounted on my wall along with his dog tags. He past away in January of 2018 at the age of 96.

    Reply
  5. Buford Hudgins

    My uncle William Guthrie Jr. served in the10th mountain division in WW11. He is pictured in the photo. Unbelievable! I was shocked to see him. Thanks for your article.

    Reply
  6. Keith Odom

    My father also served in the 10th Mtn Div during WWII.

    Reply
  7. WITOLD WILK

    having been assigned to the 10th light mountain division, i can say the only light thing about it is the fact that they don,t have any vehicular support,and everything has to be carried on the backs of the soldiers.and as far as the ‘winter war’ between finland and the soviet union, the finns used the terrain and weather to devastate the soviets.the finns were grossly outnumbered inequipment and manpower and yet made the soviets pay dearly for their foray onto the finnish peninsula.

    Reply