Ski troopers training at Paradise in 1942.
  Duke Watson  
  Part 2  

Ohey have been called the Greatest Generation, the men and women who fought World War II and launched an era of unprecedented prosperity and progress in America. The war generation transformed civic life in the United States. They also nurtured the sports of mountaineering and skiing from infancy to maturity. Veterans of the 10th Mountain Division are renowned in the Rocky Mountains and New England for their contributions to downhill skiing and technical mountaineering. Ironically, they are less well known in the Northwest, where the 10th was born on the slopes of Mount Rainier. Northwest men were key members of the division and after the war they contributed to outdoor recreation in this region just as they did elsewhere in the country. One of the earliest recruits into the mountain troops was Roe Duke Watson.

Duke Watson at the Columbia Icefields, 1942.
Duke Watson at the Columbia Icefields, 1942. Courtesy Duke Watson.
Duke was born in November 1915 in Alton, Illinois, near the banks of the Mississippi River. His father, an attorney, died when Duke and his brother Ed were very young. Growing up in Mark Twain country, Duke’s interest in the outdoors was stimulated by raft trips on the Mississippi, Huck Finn-style, starting when he was about twelve. Duke and his friends made their own rafts and did the trips for several years without their parents’ knowledge. (Their parents thought they were hiking.) To escape the heat and humidity of the Mississippi Valley in summer, Duke’s mother took his family on railroad trips to the Great Lakes and later to Colorado and the Far West. During a layover in Seattle on one of these trips, Duke fell in love with the Northwest and decided to live here.

Duke studied Forestry at the University of Michigan, hoping this field would offer him the best chance of employment in the Northwest. After graduation, he moved to Washington in the fall of 1937. He found work in the Skagit Valley in the waning days of railroad logging, using steam-driven skidders, slack lines, and inclined railways. During the late 1930s and 1940s he witnessed the transition from hand saws (called “misery whips”) to power saws and from steam power to truck logging. He began climbing in the summer with Everett members of The Mountaineers. In winter he took up skiing at Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. In March 1941, while he was working for Sound View Pulp Company in Everett, he was drafted into the army.

Mountain Soldier

After the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Blitzkrieg into Western Europe in 1940, American involvement in World War II seemed inevitable. In the winter of 1939-40, Soviet armored troops invaded Finland. The Finns, outnumbered in some cases forty-to-one, held off the Russians for over three months. In the woods of central Finland, squads of Finnish skiers, cloaked in white and following hidden forest paths, launched daring “road cutting” operations against the invading Russian columns. A road-bound column would be encircled and the road blocked. Then the skiers, aided by the brutal winter weather, would starve, freeze, and ultimately hack the enemy to pieces. Although the Soviets eventually overwhelmed the Finns in conventional fighting farther south, the skill and bravery of Finnish ski troops inspired the U.S. War Department, lobbied by the National Ski Patrol, to experiment putting American soldiers on skis.

In the winter of 1940-41, the Army created two experimental ski patrols in the Northwest, one from the 41st Division stationed in Spokane and the other from the 3rd Division at Tacoma’s Fort Lewis. Both patrols trained on Mount Rainier, evaluating equipment and testing whether soldiers could be taught to ski and maneuver in winter. The experiment was a success. After the patrols were disbanded in the spring, Capt. Paul Lafferty of the 3rd Division ski patrol was ordered to begin recruiting men for a larger cadre of skiers and mountaineers. Duke Watson heard about the new unit through the grapevine and asked to be transferred into it. Given the opportunity to either attend officer training school or join the nascent mountain troops, Duke chose the latter. His commanding officer told him, “Watson, you’re crazy!”

At Fort Lewis, aspiring mountain troopers, mostly expert skiers but also mountaineers like Duke, began to trickle in. Ralph Bromaghin, a member of Seattle’s Ptarmigan Climbing Club and a Sun Valley ski instructor, arrived shortly, followed by Walter Prager, a former Dartmouth ski coach and world champion downhiller. When Charles McLane, the first man assigned explicitly to the new 87th Mountain Regiment, arrived in November, he was told, “Lad you are the Mountain Infantry. You’re a one man regiment!”

Ralph Bromaghin on skis. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Ralph Bromaghin skiing shortly before World War II. Bromaghin would become Watson’s best friend in the army and play a role in saving Duke’s life. Enlarge. Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.
Lacking a unit of his own, McLane hooked up informally with Paul Lafferty’s men. On December 7, Duke Watson, Charles McLane, and Ralph Bromaghin, all buck privates, joined Capt. Lafferty for a day of weekend skiing on Mount Rainier. As they prepared for a tour to the Muir Snowfield, their car radio crackled with news of a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Returning to Fort Lewis, they found the base blacked out and the men bivouacking outside the grounds.

Formation of the new mountain regiment accelerated. Within weeks, nearly 400 men of the 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment moved into quarters at Paradise on Mount Rainier for winter training. Thus began the “song and story” period of the mountain troops. The spirited band was composed largely of college-educated skiers and mountaineers who felt they had landed the best duty in the U.S. Army. “Men were getting drafted right and left,” Duke recalled. “But on weekends we had from Saturday noon until Monday morning as sort of free time. Gas rationing hadn’t started yet and all these snow bunnies, these gals, would come up on the weekends. We were having the time of our lives there.”

The lighthearted spirit of the new recruits was captured in a song composed by Duke’s friends McLane and Bromaghin to the tune of “I Love to Dance” from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

A happy lad and just eighteen,
I got into the Army
By official “poop” to the mountain troops,
Where the Axis couldn’t harm me.

Ho hum, I’m not so dumb,
The Mountain Troops for me.
Other guys can fight this war,
But I would rather ski …


Early Years
Born in Alton, Illinois.

Started rafting the Missisippi River, Huck Finn-style.

Moved to Northwest. Found work in logging.

Late 1930s
Began climbing and skiing with Everett Mountaineers.

Birth of the 10th Mountain Division

1939, September 1
Hitler invaded Poland, unleashing war in Europe.

1939, November 30
A million Soviet troops invaded Finland supported by tanks, aircraft and naval forces. Finnish troops, outnumbered in some cases forty-to-one, held off the Soviets for over three months. Newsreel films made the white-cloaked ski warrior the symbol of Finnish resistance.

1939-40, Winter
The National Ski Patrol and American Alpine Club urged the War Department to introduce mountain warfare training in the U.S. Army. A few officers within the Army were already working along these lines.

1940, November 5
The War Department ordered the formation of experimental ski patrol units in sixth northern divisions, including the 3rd Division at Fort Lewis and the 41st Division in Spokane, WA.

1940-41, Winter
The 3rd and 41st Division ski patrols trained on Mount Rainier under Capt. Paul Lafferty and Lieutenants John Woodward and Ralph Phelps. At the end of their training they crossed the Olympic Mountains on skis and traversed the Cascades from Snoqualmie Pass to Naches Pass.

1941, November 15
1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment activated at Fort Lewis. During the winter of 1941-42, 400 men of the new regiment trained on skis and snowshoes at Paradise on Mount Rainier.

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