Duke Watson in the Columbia Icefields, 1942.
  Duke Watson  
  Part 3  


Friedl Pfeifer training at Camp Hale.
Friedl Pfeifer training at Camp Hale. Courtesy Duke Watson.
Ouke’s time at Paradise was short. Offered another shot at officer training school, with assurance that he could return to the 87th Regiment after receiving his commission, he seized the opportunity. When he returned from Fort Benning, Duke and another young officer were dispatched to a secret mission in the Canadian Rockies. Their task was to lead a detachment of men to support the Studebaker Corporation, which was developing an over-snow vehicle called the Weasel. From July until December, 1942, Duke commanded the high camp on the Columbia Icefield, where daily tests refined the Weasel, from which the Bombardier and other post-war snow machines later developed. After V-E Day, it was revealed that the Weasel had been designed for a British plan, favored by Winston Churchill, to attack a Nazi heavy-water plant in Norway. The Weasel was to be dropped by parachute from an airplane, along with three men and 500 lbs. of explosives. The Norwegian government eventually convinced the allies to let Norwegian guerrillas do the job. Duke’s color slides from the icefield depict men working among the great peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Scenes of glaciers are crisscrossed by curious tracks—but no Weasels. Photos of the top-secret vehicle were strictly forbidden.

When he returned from the Canadian Rockies, Duke joined the growing ranks of the mountain troops training at newly constructed Camp Hale in Colorado. Three regiments, the 85th, 86th and 87th, totaling over 12,000 men, ultimately made up the 10th Mountain Division. As a platoon leader, Duke was assigned a “rookie platoon” that included a 19-year-old soldier named Fred Beckey. Beckey and his younger brother Helmy had made mountaineering history a few months earlier with the second ascent of Mount Waddington in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. Duke’s platoon completed rigorous maneuvers on foot and by ski in the Colorado Rockies throughout 1943. These outings included a ski ascent of Homestake Peak with 75 lb. field packs, a ski traverse from Camp Hale to Vail Pass and back, and a nine-day traverse from Camp Hale to Aspen, again with full army packs.

Training recruits at Seneca Rocks.
Training recruits at Seneca Rocks. Enlarge Courtesy Duke Watson.
In the spring of 1944, Duke, now a Captain, was given command of the Army’s Seneca Rocks Climbing School in West Virginia. The school and its associated Maneuvers Area offered brief, intensive mountain training for standard infantry regiments. Duke’s staff of 60 instructors included a Who’s Who of American rock climbers. David Brower, who made the landmark first ascent of Shiprock in 1939 and later became America’s leading conservationist, was second in command. Raffi Bedayn, another Shiprock veteran, was supply officer. Duke recalled, “We were exposed to the best techniques known to climbing at that time, and most of the more proficient climbers in the country were either members of the 10th Mountain Division or advisors to the division working closely with us.” The exchange of ideas between climbers from different parts of the country and the equipment developed for them by the Army Quartermaster would transform American mountaineering after the war.

Late in 1944, after almost three years of rigorous training, the 10th Mountain Division finally got their overseas assignment. Morale had been low for months. Newsreel and print publicity had made the division almost embarrassingly well known, but the men had begun to doubt they would ever contribute to the war effort. In December and January, they shipped out to Naples, Italy, and were inserted into the front line in the Apennine Mountains. There, the Fifth Army had tried and failed three times to capture Mount Belvedere, the first of a series of hills that held the key to the Germans’ Gothic Line. The 10th, with their specialized training, was chosen to make another attempt.

Instead of attacking Mount Belvedere directly, as previous attempts had done, the 10th first attacked nearby Riva Ridge, from which enemy fire could be directed against U.S. forces operating on Belvedere. The Fifth Army had considered Riva Ridge unclimbable by combat soldiers. Working at night, climbing patrols established five routes up the ridge over a period of several days. Before dawn on the morning of February 19, 1945, men of the 86th Regiment crept up Riva Ridge and surprised the enemy. The Army had expected a 90 percent casualty rate, but instead they met surprisingly little resistance. The following day, the 85th and 87th Regiments attacked and seized Mount Belvedere. The ultimate goal of this offensive was Mount della Torraccia, a few miles to the northeast along a line of rounded hills. On February 21, the attack on della Torraccia was started by a battalion of the 85th Regiment. Within two days, the battalion was decimated. On February 24, General George Hays ordered the 3rd Battalion of the 86th Regiment to take over the attack. At 0700 hours, Capt. Duke Watson of I Company led the battalion forward onto the mountain.

“I had taken my radio operator ahead,” Duke recalled. “The artillery observer attached to our company was killed shortly after jump-off. So we took his larger artillery radio and I had my radio man use it.” After several hours of intense fighting, Duke’s company seized the summit. “We got up there and saw that the men were digging in and firmly entrenched. I went over to a subsidiary knoll where there was a good observation point and began to call for artillery fire. Well, the German observer spotted the taller artillery mast and began to zero in on it. There was one round that came in as an over, and then a short, and I said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’ I knew what was happening. They were bracketing us. And I no sooner said it than the round for effect came in right on top of us.” A 170mm German howitzer shell exploded a few feet away.

“I remember this tremendous concussion,” Duke said. “I don’t remember actually being hit. I remember feeling as though I’d been picked up and slammed to the ground and sort of knocked the wind out of me. Then I realized I had been wounded.” Duke’s radio man was unscratched. Duke ordered him to get over the hill with his radio. Then Duke crawled over the hill into a trench. He passed word to his second-in-command to take over the company. “I could see that I’d taken a few pretty good shards in my gut,” he recalled. “I had no idea how bad it was, but I knew intestinal wounds were very dangerous if not treated quickly, and so I started down.”

Duke Watson in Italy.
Duke Watson in Italy. Courtesy Duke Watson.
The battalion’s operations officer found Duke in the trench and administered first aid. Duke began to crawl, then walk, back toward the American lines. He passed through a reserve company that was moving forward into action. “I must have been a grotesque sight going back through them. I had lots of oozing blood and a big bloody bandage around it, which was not an encouraging sight for troops going forward. But I got back pretty well under my own power to the final ridge, behind which lay our command post and medical help. Going up that slope—it was a steep one—the artillery began coming in pretty heavily. I was getting weak by then, and probably…might not have made it…except one of my fellow officers came running over the hill.” Ralph Bromaghin, who had become Duke’s closest friend since they met on Mount Rainier, had come to help.

“He had seen me coming and he just packed me bodily over the ridge and got me back to the road head,” said Duke. Mules were waiting with stretchers on either side. After a bumpy ride on a mule and a jeep, Duke arrived at a field hospital. “I remember I was moved forward in a line of patients and finally got the ether. I welcomed the ether. It was a great relief.”

The war was over for Duke, his life saved by his friend Ralph Bromaghin. But the fighting on Mount della Torraccia continued. Two days later, when the division’s first victory seemed at hand, a mortar shell landed ten feet away from Bromaghin as he was heating coffee on a mountain stove with Chaplain Henry Brendemihl. Bromaghin collapsed and died in the Chaplain’s arms. “I got the report right after it happened,” Duke remembered. “I was told that a chunk of mortar shell hit him right in the abdomen and he called ‘Medic!’ and just keeled over and that was it.” Duke added, “They were relaxed. It was sort of a break between heavy action. It was a random round that came through.”

A week later, the division advanced a few miles farther to Mount della Spe. Then in mid-April, Operation Craftsman, the long-awaited push northward through Italy, commenced. The 10th Mountain Division spearheaded the drive, breaking out of the Apennine Mountains on April 20 and racing northward across the Po Valley, far ahead of other Allied divisions. They had reached the foot of the Alps below Brenner Pass when the Germans surrendered in Italy on May 2, 1945.

During the Italian offensive, the 10th Mountain Division had effectively crippled or destroyed nine German divisions and taken more than 20,000 prisoners. They suffered one of highest casualty rates in the Italian campaign, more than 1,200 killed or wounded per month. Fortunately, the division did not have to fight long, so total casualties were less than many other Allied units. British Field Marshal Harold Alexander said later: “The only trouble with the 10th Mountain Division was that the officers and men did not realize that they were attempting something which couldn’t be done, and after they got started they had too much intestinal fortitude to quit. The result was that they accomplished the impossible.”

Military Chronology

1941, March
Duke Watson drafted into the Army, requested transfer to the new mountain unit. Early in the winter of 1941-42, Duke trained with the 87th Mountain Regiment at Mount Rainier.

1942, July-December
Duke commanded Advance Camp on the Columbia Icefields developing a top-secret over-snow vehicle, the T-15 Weasel. The task for which the Weasel was conceived was ultimately carried out by Norwegian guerillas, as told in the book Skis Against the Atom.

1942, November
Camp Hale, Colorado became the training site for the new 10th Mountain Division, which eventually grew to 12,000 men as the the 85th and 86th Regiments were created and the 87th was fully outfitted.

1943, March-August
Duke served as a platoon leader for the 10th Reconnaissance Troop, which included the division's top instructors. One of Duke's young recruits was a climber named Fred Beckey.

1943, September 3
The Allied invasion of Italy began when four divisions of the U.S. Fifth Army landed at Salerno, in the ankle of the Italian boot, while two British divisions landed on the toe and heel.

1944, May-July
Duke, now a captain, commanded the Army's Seneca Rocks Climbing School in West Virginia. Duke's staff of 60 instructors included a Who's Who of American rock climbers.

1944, November 24
Three battalions of the Fifth Army made an unsucessful attack on Mount Belvedere in the Apennine Mountains. After reaching the summit, Allied troops were forced off by artillery fire directed from nearby Riva Ridge. Two weeks later three Brazilian battalions tried and failed to take Mount della Torraccia.

1944, December
10th Mountain Division assigned to Italy.

1945, February 18-19
700 men of the 86th Regiment captured Riva Ridge after a daring night climb and assault. One day later, the 85th and 87th Regiments attacked Mounts Belvedere and Gorgolesco. Orders were to use only grenades and bayonets until first light. By dawn the positions had been taken.

1945, February 24
Duke Watson led I Company of the 3rd Battalion, 86th Regiment, which captured Mount della Torraccia. Duke was wounded on the summit.

1945, April 14
After a pause in the fighting, the Fifth Army launched its spring offensive. Within a week, the 10th Mountain Division broke out of the Apennine Mountains and raced across the Po Valley in pursuit of the Germans. The pursuit continued to the foothills of the Alps near Lake Garda.

1945, May 2
The German army surrendered in Italy. Fighting continued in northern Europe until May 7, when Germany unconditionally surrendered.

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