SI Vault
William Johnson
February 08, 1971
Men of steel and sons of Mars, Under freedom's stripes and stars. We are ski men, We are free men, And mountains are our home. White-clad G.I. Joe, We're the Phantoms of the Snow, On our ski-boards we're the mountain infantry, Happy-go-lucky; free. And from Kiska to the Alps, Where the wind howls thru our scalps, With a slap slap slap Of a pack against our back, We will bushwack on to victory! —A song of the 10th Mountain Division
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February 08, 1971

Phantoms Of The Snow

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It has often been noted that 1940 was not a good year for the planet Earth. War was everywhere, and there was much to be feared for the future. Already the German blitzkrieg had bowled over Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and France. Luftwaffe bombs burst through the night and much of London burned. There was, logically enough, a certain amount of anxiety along the East Coast, some of it stirred by the prospect that once England fell the next Nazi objective might well be the U.S.

And where would the Germans strike? U-boat sightings and imaginary rubber-boat flotillas were reported with almost every nighttime flood tide that year from Plymouth Rock to the Roney Plaza. There also was an unusual amount of discussion in New England about how an honest-to-God blitzkrieg just might work coming along the same route the British took in 1777—moving along the St. Lawrence River, down the Champlain Valley, through the Adirondacks and down the Hudson. Panzers in Poughkeepsie! And if any of it should happen in winter what was to stop them? What kind of snowbank mountain warfare was the U.S. Army equipped to mount? The War Department had been careful over the years to schedule nearly all Army maneuvers either in the gumbo mud of Louisiana or on the frying-pan misery of Texas at full summer heat. One might well have got odds in 1940 as to whether the U.S. Army could hold its own in the snow even against flintlock and cocked-hat British Redcoats, let alone a mountain-trained Panzer division or two. There was, of course, more American awareness of a wintertime war than usual, for the sinewy little army of Finland was then fighting hopelessly against the overwhelming invaders from the Soviet Union. On silent skis and shrouded in white garments that made them all but invisible against the snow, the Finns would swoop in on a Soviet column, attack with ferocity, then glide off to some slick frozen surface of lake or canal. There they would remove skis, strap them to their backs, slip into a pair of Hans Brinker clamp skates and escape off across the ice. The Finns were crushed, of course, but their tactics were fascinating—at least to the millions who saw them on newsreels in the darkened Roxys and Bijous of this land.

Such was not the case at the War Department. Early in 1940 the National Ski Association offered its services to form a full-fledged U.S. ski troop. It was put down with a "thank-you-very-much-for-your-patriotic-suggestion" form letter from Washington. But then the War Department encountered a patriot named Charles Minot Dole. He was a lean, Establishment Bostonian out of Andover Academy, Yale and the New York insurance business. He also represented the primitive world of recreational skiing—when rope tows were powered by Model T Ford engines and the toe strap had just been replaced by a binding known for good reasons as "the bear trap." He founded the National Ski Patrol System after being stranded on a chill Vermont mountainside with a broken ankle. Minnie Dole (as he came to be known by U.S. brass up to and including Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and F.D.R. himself) was distinctly not a modest or retiring type. He felt no compunction about placing his views on military tactics before the U.S. top brass—beginning with a personal letter to President Roosevelt. As he put it in his autobiography: "I was excited by my vision of American troops trained under conditions similar to the Finns, ready to fight wherever snow was. And I persisted in my dream."

The War Department was not entirely unaccustomed to the I-persisted-in-my-dream school of unsolicited advice. One of the first junior officers Minnie Dole encountered in Washington told him that his idea for ski troops was approximately equivalent to the ever-popular suggestion that the Army should create guns that could shoot around corners. But that did not deter the persistent dreamer. Soon he had arranged, through Yale connections in Washington, an audience with George Marshall. And soon General Marshall had pretty much swallowed the Dole sales pitch and ordered up a unit of mountain soldier-skiers. By December 1940 something called the Winter Warfare Board had been formed to start equipping the troops.

Unfortunately it was basing its recommendations on a dog-eared old government catalog—Alaskan Equipment, Revised Edition, August 1914. Minnie Dole was properly scornful: "'God, it was all furry boots and dog harness and mukluks and polar-bear harpoons and damfool things like that." It was suggested, at one point, that this select corps of military skiers wear G.I. overshoes and use skis with toe straps in combat. Minnie Dole stepped right up and told the Army: "Goddammit, that is a damfool waste of money, and you might as well send a bunch of flatland farm boys wearing rubbers as equip our men that way." Nowadays when Minnie Dole, white-haired and perhaps a trifle stooped as he nears 70, puts his name in a copy of his autobiography it is neither surprising—nor even too overweening—that he would also include his title: "Minnie Dole—Founder of the N.S.P.S. & So-called Grand Daddy of the 10th Mt. Division." Without Minnie the Army might well have fielded a full division of harpoonists wearing mukluks or, worse yet, dropped a wad of taxpayers' money trying to shoot around corners.

In November 1941 Dole's dream became true flesh. Surprisingly, recruiting for the unit had been generally delegated to the civilian-operated National Ski Patrol System. To guarantee the pure breed of clear-eyed, mountain-directed, right-thinking, frostproofed schussboomers the Army felt it deserved, the NSPS demanded that each volunteer submit three letters of personal recommendation. Family minister, athletic coach, headmaster, friendly neighborhood ski champion or home-town mountaineer would be required to vouch for a young man's prowess on skis or in the woods, as well as for his sanitary character and flawless view of sin. (Later, these notes from home came to be known as WCTU slips.)

Oddly enough, the system worked, though it could not be enforced with unvarying rigidity. Minnie Dole recalled that one candidate applied with just one letter of recommendation: "This nominee will not become lost if there is no sun to go by. He will not starve if he has no rifle with which to shoot game. He will not freeze if he has no cover and snow is on the ground. I know because I teached him myself. Signed/His Big Brother, Hiram." The man was accepted.

Recruiting large numbers of skiers in America back then was not so easy as it would be now. Skiing was an exotic pastime in the '30s, unknown to most Americans and considered a sport best practiced by the leisure class, something a little like fox hunting or squash.

Thus many men who volunteered for the unit were necessarily either the Dartmouth Outing Club variety of collegian or one of the dozens of European-born expert skiers who had come to live in the U.S., such as Swiss-born Dartmouth Coach Walter Prager; Peter Gabriel of St. Moritz; Torger Tokle, the brilliant Norwegian ski jumper; Herb Schneider of St. Anton; and Friedl Pfeifer, who was to become U.S. Olympic coach.

It was an elite unit. When the 10th was fighting in Italy a Yank magazine correspondent described the division this way: "It is very swank. With skiing the high-salaried sport it is in peacetime—the kind of sport where it costs two dollars for a lift up a hill—most of the volunteers are from well-to-do families.... Some of the things about the division will seem like story-book stuff to GIs who have been slugging it out steadily and undramatically here for 18 months, things like the Pfc. who comes from a swank Chicago suburb and carries the same .45 and holster his dad—an officer—carried in France in '17. Little things like regimental orders decreeing crew haircuts for every man. And widespread singing while they work." (It also was written that the men of the 10th yodeled as they advanced in combat. This was roundly denied.)

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