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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The tone of the Yank article was furiously disputed, and the magazine was put on display around the unit latrines. It was true, however, that the 10th had a bearing that other outfits of the Army simply could not match. Because of the heavy influx of collegians, the unit totted up a particularly high average of I.Q. scores. A mark of 110 qualified any enlisted man for Officer Candidate School: one regiment of the 10th had no fewer than 64% of its troops ranked at or above the OCS level, and 92% ranked above the Army's average score of 91.

When drunk, men of the 10th tended to do what they knew best, such as donning a pair of crampons, taking a coil of rope and—starting from one wall of a lodge, lobby or bar—crawling flylike up the wall, across the ceiling and down the other wall. Or they would climb out of a hotel window—the higher the better—and simply rappel down several stories of sheer brick to be received by the gawking crowds on the street below.

At first this act stirred attention outside Denver's Brown Palace Hotel during the 10th's Colorado training phase, but later the crowds actually seemed to get used to it. But at a downtown hotel in Austin, Texas it suddenly became death-defying when performed for the lowland pedestrians, most of whom could scarcely bear to watch.

It also was true that when there were mountains to climb or slopes to schuss many men of the 10th would actually choose those recreations over everything else, even a weekend pass. Francis Sargent, the good-natured and frank-spoken governor of Massachusetts, was a member of the 10th, and he recalled, "My God, half of the sonuvaguns in the outfit would rather go climb some rock than go down to town and look for booze and broads. I remember thinking it was the damndest thing for soldiers to act like that. But, of course, when the 10th got a few drinks under their belts they'd go into their hotel-climbing act, which no other outfit could top. And there never was anything wrong with the 10th when it came to girls, come to think of it—not once they came down the mountains and got their skis off, anyway."

There are many other recollections by 10th Mountain men of scenes that could scarcely have occurred in any other division of the Army. Of a university professor-private first class gently reading aloud to his bunkmates from Dante in 14th century Italian. Of a barracks in which there were only artists—talented young artists. Of the professor-platoon leader who suddenly halted his hypertense squad as he was leading them across the dank and fogged terrain of Kiska. "Look!" he whispered hoarsely. As men all around him fell to the ground expecting Japanese rifle fire, he pointed toward a small tree and said gently, "It's a Peale's falcon, very rare, very rare."

During the ferocious weeks of combat the Blizzard, an uncommonly literate publication, published information about the distinctive bouquet of various wines made in different regions of Italy, certainly not the sort of information one might expect in a service paper, but just the right touch for the division gourmets. The paper also carried declensions of Italian verbs for those who wished to learn the language. Earlier, when the division was stationed in Texas, the men of the 10th got all involved in a watercolor-painting contest and, later, a poetry competition. The best poems were published in a thin pamphlet titled Brief Bugle. This was no exercise in locker-room doggerel. Many were exceedingly sensitive. One poem, called The Captains and the Kings Depart, was written by a Pfc. C.K. Moore and read in part:

What becomes of them,
The action lovers?
Benders of nature,
Extroverts of the will,
Determined of mind,
Of body,
Not to be subdued,
Not to be thwarted
In their prime:
When their years are light
As April rain,
Do they die in a spurt
Of orange flame over Stuttgart—
50th Mission "incomplete"?
Or is life full for them
As a brimming glass
At a little flat in the East 50's,
New York City,
When the wife is at a matinee
And Jeff and Ruthie are sophomores
At Park Lane High?
Is it all over
But the shouting?
Are they dead—the action lovers?

The 10th Mountain Division was an amorphous entity during much of its brief and curious life. For months its headquarters was an office in the Graybar Building in Manhattan. Then, at last, the first volunteer arrived at Fort Lewis, Wash. He was a former captain of the Dartmouth ski team, with his skis on his shoulder and orders freshly cut to join the 87th Mountain Infantry, which was the forerunner of the full 10th Division. He was greeted with cold amusement. No one at Fort Lewis had heard of any ski troops; the MPs laughed and told him he had made history, because he was the only man ever to serve all by himself in an Army regiment. But soon enough others arrived, mostly three-letter men (as their NSPS recommendations had led them to be tagged); but many were no-letter men of the regular Army, appalled at the prospect of spending a winter in the snow. Among those arrivals were those paragons of transportation without which any mountain unit is all but useless: mule skinners and their mules.

Perhaps one of the more extravagant surprises awaiting the three-letter men who volunteered to ski was the revelation that they would be required to learn the care, feeding and friendly persuasion of mules.

The unit spent the winter of 1941-42 on Mount Rainier, where the annual snowfall sometimes totals 500 inches; at times snow was banked as deep as the eaves of their barracks, and the men used a network of tunnels in the snow to get about the place. Often there were eerie, opaque fogs that obliterated all sense of place or time, and powerful winds shrieked for endless hours during blizzards upon the mountain. The regimen was desperately hard, but most of the men thrived on it. Even the drawling young men of the South came to revel in the joys of the snowplow and the stem Christy, even though they persisted in slurring references to skis as bed slats, or "tawtchah boads."

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