Alpenglow Ski Mountaineering History Project Home

R. Duke Watson - Personal Communication

Taped interview, 13 February 1986
by Don A. Schmechel
Notes by Lowell Skoog

Duke Watson gave me a copy of this interview (on three CD-ROMs) on 21 September 2005. The interview covers Duke's early life in detail. The interviewer went into more depth than I did in my later interviews with Duke.

Disk 1

Duke was born in Alton, Illinois, an industrial town of about 30,000 on the Mississippi River, a few miles north of its confluence with the Missouri. The nearest large city was St. Louis. Duke's father died when he was very young and Duke and his younger brother, Ed, were raised by their mother. Duke lived in Alton until he graduated from college. He attended Western Military Academy instead of public high school, from 1930-33.

Duke was active in the Boy Scouts and got his Eagle Scout badge from Dan Beard, the "grand old man" of U.S. scouting, at a camp in Pennsylvania. His early interest in the outdoors was stimulated by Huck Finn style rafting trips on the Mississippi River with friends, starting when he was about 12. They built the rafts themselves and did the trips for several years without their parents' knowledge. (Their parents thought they were doing hiking trips.) In summer, Duke and his family escaped the heat and humidity of the Mississippi Valley by travelling to northern Michigan and Wisconsin and later to Colorado and to the Far West. During layovers in Seattle on some of these trips (by train) Duke fell in love with the Northwest and decided to live here.

Duke majored in Forestry at the University of Michigan, hoping this field would offer him the best chance of employment in the Northwest. After graduation, he came west in autumn, 1937. He described in some detail his experience working in the Skagit Valley in the waning days of old-time railroad logging, using steam-driven skidders, slack lines, and inclined railways. He moved around some and took a job in Everett in autumn, 1939. He recalled that he arrived in Everett the day England declared war on Germany.

Disk 2

Duke was drafted into the army in February 1941. He described the process by which he got transferred into C Company of the 15th Infantry, 3rd Division, at Fort Lewis under Capt. Paul Lafferty. Duke was the first man recruited by Lafferty into his outfit at that time, closely followed by Walter Prager (former Dartmouth ski coach) and several other ski racers and instructors. Charles McLane (former captain of the Dartmouth ski team) arrived shortly thereafter, the first man with orders directing him to the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment. The regiment existed only on paper at that time. McLane was on his own for a while, and he often hooked up with Lafferty's men of the 15th Infantry.

Duke described skiing at Mt Rainier with Paul Lafferty the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. They made a number of weekend ski trips that autumn. Some of the sergeants in the 15th Infantry, which was full of West Pointers, disapproved of buck privates fraternizing with their company commander. McLane had just left Paradise on skis for Camp Muir when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor on the car radio. When they got back to Fort Lewis everything was blacked out and the men were bivouacking outside the base. They had a hard time finding their unit. Paul Lafferty and his executive officer, John Woodward, were immediately sent to the new 87th Mountain Regiment. The sergeants in the 15th Infantry gave Duke and his friends every unpleasant duty they could think of as payback for their cosy relationship with Lafferty. It was a big relief when they finally got transferred to the 87th.

The 1st Battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment moved to lodgings at Paradise early in January 1942. Facilities at Paradise were still open to the public on weekends. Duke recalled, "We started a daily program of ski activity and it was truly Paradise, relatively, for army existence." Duke trained at Paradise for only about three weeks. Then he and Joe Hearst were sent to officer's training school at Fort Benning, GA. Duke described the process of getting back into the 87th after officer training, with the help of Col. Onslow Rolfe and his former executive officer, Col. Cochran.

About a month after returning to Fort Lewis, Duke and Joe Hearst, both newly minted 2nd Lieutenants, were sent on a secret mission to the Columbia Icefields in the Canadian Rockies to help the Studebaker Corporation test the Weasel over-snow vehicle. Duke commanded the men at the icefield camp. His commanding officer stayed at the Banff Springs Hotel. He returned to the 87th Regiment in December 1942. The 87th moved to Camp Hale, CO around New Years, 1943, and trained there until August 1944. Duke was at Camp Hale about nine months, then went to advanced officer training, emerging as a Captain. He was sent to Elkins, WV, from December 1943 to July 1944. He returned to the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Swift, TX, in August 1944.

Disk 3

Duke described his deployment to Italy during the winter of 1944-45, discussing the strategic situation and early activities near the front lines. Duke was wounded in action after the famous Riva Ridge attack, which he did not participate in. He was hit by German medium artillery while calling in artillery strikes with his radio man (Track 5). "They managed to nick me but didn't get the radio man, although he was right with me. It was just a fluke. I was wounded, perhaps severely, but certainly was quite aware and able to carry on to a certain extent." Duke got into a slit trench and "lay around for a while." He was able to communicate with his battalion commander and his second-in-command, who took over the company activity. After some delay, he decided not to wait for medics to come for him. He began to crawl, then walk, back toward the American lines. He got assistance from the battalion intelligence officer, who put sulfanilamide in his external wound and also put on a bandage.

He recalled, "I remember passing through a reserve company who were being committed to action. I must have been a grotesque sight going back through them because I had a rather bloody forefront with 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 battalion command post and a road head and definite medical help. Going up that slope--it was a steep one--and the artillery began coming in pretty heavily--and I was getting weak by then, and probably, might not have made it--except one of my fellow officers, who was our battalion adjutant, came running over the hill. He had seen me, he was a big chap, and he just packed me bodily over the ridge and got me back to the road head. There there were waiting mules with stretchers on either side. So I was put on a stretcher with some other patient on the other stretcher, balancing on the mule, and went down the mountain trail by mule. It must have been a mile or a mile-and-a-half down to the road head where our battalion medical officer had set up his little aid station."

The mule ride was not too uncomfortable. At the aid station, Duke was diagnosed, given a drink of water and a shot of morphine. Then his stretcher was put on a jeep for transport to a field hospital. "That was a rough ride," he recalled. "Even with the morphine it was much worse than the mule ride had been--very, very bouncy and very uncomfortable. When I got to the field hospital I was put into a production line of waiting patients. I remember I was moved forward and finally got the ether. I welcomed the ether. It was a great relief." Duke remained out of action, following surgery, for the remainder of the war. V-J day came before his convalescent leave was up.

Video interview, 8 May 1986
by Don A. Schmechel
Notes by Lowell Skoog

This two-hour interview covered much of the same ground as the one conducted three months earlier by the same interviewer. Duke talked at length about his family background and his early life in Illinois. The first half of the interview is all pre-WWII. There is a break, and the second half discusses World War II and Duke's later outdoor activities.

Duke described Capt. Paul Lafferty as "a fish out of water" in the old-line 15th Infantry. Lafferty was an ROTC graduate, not a West Pointer. He had been hand-picked from Washington D.C. to lead the 15th Infantry's ski patrol which was active during the winter of 1940-41. Apparently, the ski patrol was disbanded after the winter, because Duke said he was the first man recruited by Lafferty into the cadre that he was assembling in the fall of 1941, made up of skiers and mountaineers. Most of the other men had strong skiing backgrounds, while Duke's background was mainly in mountaineering. Duke had the opportunity to either join the newly forming mountain troops or go to officer training school at Fort Benning. He chose the former and his commanding officer said, "Watson, you're crazy."

By the summer of 1944, after more than two years of training, most of the men in the 10th Mountain Division were itching to go overseas and get into action. They finally shipped out in December 1944, months after D-Day, near the peak of the German counter-offensive which was taking place at the Battle of the Bulge. The war in Italy had stagnated and Duke thought the Germans would have been happy to let it continue as a low intensity war of attrition. Instead, the 10th was used to kick off the offensive into the Apennines, which began the final drive in the Mediterranean theatre.

Duke was wounded while leading his company on Mount Della Torraccia. The artillery forward observer attached to his unit was killed shortly after jump-off. Duke took his radio and tried to direct artillery fire himself, normally the job of the forward observer. He was on the enemy side of a ridge, visible and exposed to rifle fire, the only place he could get a good vantage point. He and his radio man had been directing effective fire toward the enemy when a German medium artillery shell found them.

"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. I told him [the radio man] to get over the hill with his radio." The man was not scratched and he did as he was told. Duke crawled back over the hill into a slit trench. His unit's intelligence officer gave him some first aid. The entry wound was near his hip and it was difficult for Duke to inspect it.

As Duke started back toward the American lines, he encountered a reserve company that was being moved forward into action. "I remember giving a few words of support to these oncoming troops," he said. "I knew all of the officers. They expressed commiseration for me, but of course, they were intent on their job." Duke named Ralph Bromaghin as the man who ran over the last ridge and carried him to safety. Bromaghin was killed three days later, Duke recalled.

Regarding the influence of the 10th Mountain Division on post-war mountaineering, Duke recalled that the division contained a Who's Who of American climbers and skiers. "We were exposed to the best techniques known to climbing at that time, and we had probably most of the more proficient climbers that were either members of the 10th Mountain Division or advisors to the division working closely with us. So we all got steeped in mountain lore, including the latest techniques, all of which seems rather rudimentary by the advances in mountaineering, as in all sports today."

Asked about the appeal of climbing, Duke said, "The mountains have always been sort of an epitome of the natural terrain that I like. They seem to be the ultimate scenically, as far as interesting terrain is concerned. In my case, the appreciation of physical topography is sort an aesthetic thing with me, and I think this is true of quite a few climbers. [...] There's a great challenge and satisfaction over being able to make a technical ascent. I really found the mountain travel and the satisfaction of being in remote country and maybe making a hard endeavor to get into the country more satisfying than getting into the more specialized aspects of scaling cliff walls and pure rock engineering, which has become a sport of its own now and highly specialized."

Duke mentioned his involvement in the founding of Crystal Mountain and his ski mountaineering trips in the Cascades. He said his most satisfying skiing experience was getting in on the ground floor of helicopter skiing in Canada. He knew Hans Gmoser before Gmoser came up with the concept of helicopter skiing. Gmoser's venture was possible because helicopters were used in Canada for mineral exploration in summer and skiing provided a way to keep them busy in winter. Duke spoke briefly about his Canadian canoeing experiences and noted that the Hudson's Bay Company ended their canoe rental program in about 1985. The tape recording ends abruptly.

Transcribed interview, 25 April 1994
by Stella Degenhardt (Mountaineers Oral History Project)
Notes by Lowell Skoog

Stella Degenhardt gave me a transcript of this interview. The subject was the 10th Mountain Division with special emphasis on any relationships that the Mountaineers club had to it. Duke discussed briefly the genesis of the mountain troops and some of the civilians from the climbing community, including Ome Daiber, who contributed. Duke was drafted in February 1941, ten months before Pearl Harbor. He described how he heard about a special mountain unit being created and how he got himself transferred to the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis under Capt. Paul Lafferty. Duke mentioned other early inductees into the 15th and the 87th Mountain Infantry, which was activated that autumn. On December 7, 1941, Duke was skiing at Paradise with Lafferty, Charles McLane and Ralph Bromaghin when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Duke also mentioned briefly the 41st Division Ski Patrol and John Woodward.

During the winter of 1941-42, the 87th Mountain Infantry trained at Paradise. "It was the dream of everyone in the unit at the time," said Duke. "We were living the Life of Riley." That spring he left for officer training at Ft. Benning, GA, and fortunately was able to return to the 87th. From July until December, he was selected to help lead a detachment of men to the Columbia Icefield in the Canadian Rockies to test the first feasible over-snow vehicle, the Weasel, from which the Bombardier later developed.

Duke discussed other prominent skiers and climbers, both inside and outside the Mountaineers, who were associated with the 10th Mountain Division. He described basic training briefly and discussed patrols and fighting in the Apennine Mountains of Italy. He discussed outdoor gear developed for the mountain troops, particularly boots, tents and clothing. Contrary to glamorous wishes and expectations, the snowshoers (in the heavy weapons platoons) held their own very well with the skiers (in the more lightly loaded rifle platoons). During the winter of 1943-44, Duke commanded the Army rock climbing school at Seneca Rocks, WV.

Taped interview - A walk in the woods, 4 May 2001
by Lowell Skoog

At Pete Schoening's invitation I joined Duke, Pete and several others on a day hike to Dirty Harry's Balcony, west of Snoqualmie Pass. I brought my tape recorder and both Pete and Duke talked about their ski mountaineering experiences. Pete mentioned during the drive up that Duke is best known among his outdoor friends for his extensive canoe trips in Canada, spanning several decades. Duke and friends would canoe entire river systems, in stages, sometimes over a period of several years. Pete said Duke had canoed over 20,000 miles in Canada.

Crystal Mountain Ski Area

Everett ("Spike") Griggs, II, and his wife Mary Lea were the early spearheads of the effort to develop a ski resort at Corral Pass. Duke said that Mary Lea was the driver, and Spike went along with it. Spike was president of the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company and on the board of the Rainier National Park Company. Mary Lea recruited people she knew, mostly from Seattle. They included Duke, John Graham (and Walt Little, who worked for Graham), Warren Spickard, Ted Watkins, Mel Borgersen, Fran LeSourd and Joe Gandy. Leo Gallagher was from Tacoma. They formed a corporation to develop the ski area. Spike's cousin Chauncey Griggs, who at one time operated the ski areas at Paradise, Snoqualmie Pass and Mt Baker, was also involved. Father Leo Gaffney was an ardent booster of the Corral Pass site and was keenly disappointed when the group shifted its attention to Crystal Mountain.

Duke remembered a scouting trip with his brother-in-law Bill Black, Ted Watkins and Walt Little, to "Silver 3," which they had spotted from Corral Pass. "We were sitting up there on this beautiful spring day and we looked over and said, 'What is that?'" They were looking at what is now Crystal Mountain. They got out the maps and quickly concluded that that was the place they should be scouting. A few weeks later they made an overnight trip into the area to check it out. They immediately switched their focus to upper Silver Creek. Corral Pass had good upper slopes, but would have required a long access lift from the valley to get up to the ski terrain. "It just didn't pencil out," recalled Duke. Duke said that Walt Little "did as much as anyone" to carry out the Crystal Mountain surveys.

We talked about ski areas in Washington that were proposed but never built. Duke recalled that he and his friend John Woodward were on opposite sides of the Muir tramway controversy at Mt Rainier. Duke was against the tram. They both testified at the public hearings. During the 1960s, Jim Whittaker got excited about the idea of building a ski resort on Mt Hinman and got Sen. Henry Jackson interested. Duke thought it was a bad idea. The mountain had a lot of poor weather and although the upper snowfields looked great for skiing, there were cliffs below that restricted access, much like Corral Pass. Also during the 1960s, Pat Goldsworthy, Duke, and other board members of the North Cascades Conservation Council met with the Harold Criswell, supervisor of the Mt Baker National Forest, to discuss proposals for about a dozen ski areas in the North Cascades. Duke and the others said that none of the candidates were practical, either for environmental or technical reasons, except Sandy Butte (Early Winters). They would have opposed Sandy Butte if the North Cascades Highway had not already been under construction. During our hike, Svein Gilje mentioned efforts to build a big ski resort in the Olympic Mountains, but offered few details.

Miscellany

We talked briefly about Duke's time in the mountain troops in World War II. He recalled training at Paradise in the winter of 1941-42. "Here we were, the best duty in the U.S. Army, on Mt Rainier. Most men were getting drafted right and left. 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."

Duke has kept records (dates, but not details) of each of his mountain trips, and he said he would provide these records for me. His canoe journals are extensive and detailed. Duke said his most memorable skiing experiences were in Canada. In the 1960s, he went touring in the Cariboos with Hans Gmoser. They skied Mount Sir Wilfred Laurier from its summit to Valemont over several days, with powder all the way.

Phone conversation, 22 May 2001
by Lowell Skoog

In a short phone conversation, Duke discussed the role of ski mountaineering in the 10th Mountain Division. He said the mountain troops trained for it, but skiing didn't play much of a role once they got to Italy. The Apennine mountains are relatively low and it had been a mild winter. They were afraid they'd have to fight their way over the Alps, which certainly would have involved skiing, but that didn't happen. There were a few ski patrol actions early in the campaign, with isolated skirmishes. Duke sent out some night ski patrols and they took some prisoners. Fortunately, he didn't lose anybody. By the time of the big push, the snow was gone so there was no skiing required.

Taped interview, 11 June 2001
At Duke Watson's home in Seattle, Washington
by Lowell Skoog

I met with Duke at his home after reviewing his outdoor record. Duke was born in November 1915. He grew up in the Midwest and fell in love with the Northwest after childhood trips here. After graduating from University of Michigan in 1937, he came west and found logging work in the Skagit Valley. He participated in steam-powered railroad logging before truck logging became pervasive. He moved around a bit during the next couple years, then got a more permanent job with the Sound View Pulp Company in Everett. He worked there until he was drafted into the army in March 1941. He was discharged from the army in May 1946 and returned to work at Sound View. He requested work in the woods and spent summers in the Green River watershed and winters in the Skagit. The industry had shifted to truck logging by then and Duke witnessed the transition from the old hand saws ("misery whips") to power saws. Duke was married in June 1948 and took a job with Weyerhaeuser in Oregon and southwest Washington. In 1953, he got the opportunity to work in lumber wholesaling in Seattle. He ran his own company until he retired. He was associated with the Seattle Cedar Lumber Manufacturing Company in Ballard (his wife's family's company) until it shut down. The company ran the largest cedar mill in the world, specializing in clear cedar, which is no longer available.

Crystal Mountain Ski Area

Don and Gretchen Fraser, who joined the April 1953 scouting trip to Corral Pass, were friends of Spike and Mary Lea Griggs and probably would have been involved in the Crystal Mountain development if they had been living in the Puget Sound area instead of Vancouver, WA. I mentioned reading something that said interest in Corral Pass dated back to the army ski troops. Duke said he had no knowledge or recollection of that.

Duke met Chuck and Marion Hessey during a Crystal Mountain scouting trip. Duke's party skied from Highway 410 over Silver Saddle where they met a couple (the Hesseys) on skis. Chuck asked, "Who has discovered my secret area?" Duke's group introduced themselves and Chuck said, "Darn it, the word's going to get out. We've always had this totally to ourselves." Duke and Warren Spickard came up with some of the names now associated with Crystal Mountain, such as Silver King, Silver Queen, The Throne, and Three-way Peak.

For a time, Walt Little was doing all the planning and layout of the ski trails at Crystal, but he had trouble compromising or delegating responsibility, according to Duke. Eventually he got frustrated and dropped out of the effort. Duke said that at various times one individual or another has been credited with being the founder of Crystal Mountain. But there were about a dozen people on the board of directors, and they all contributed. Duke was responsible for recruiting Ed Link, an old army colleague, to be Crystal's third general manager. (Mel Borgersen was the first.) Link was manager at Crystal for many years. Duke mentioned the political struggle to get the Crystal Mountain road built. The regional head of the bureau of public roads was totally against using any public money for building the road. Fran LeSourd had some political connections that helped turn the tide.

Duke was on the board of the North Cascades Conservation Council for many years. "For being a lumberman, I was very much an environmentalist," he admitted. Most of the time he found it best to keep his mouth shut. But he and his brother-in-law Alan Black testified in favor of the Wilderness Bill at public hearings in Seattle. Afterward, the Seattle papers ran headlines that said, in effect, "Lumbermen testify against the logging community." The next day, Duke's timber manager walked into his office, threw down the paper and asked, "How am I going to account for this when I go to buy logs on the peninsula?"

Mountaineering Trips

Duke recalled that his 1947 ski descent of Mt Dickerman with Harold Sievers went from the summit down the north or NW side into Perry Creek. They walked down some of the steep woods near the valley bottom and followed the creek back out to the road. In later years, looking down the steep, avalanche-prone slope, he thought he must have been a "damn fool" to have skied it.

His 1959 ski of the Emmons Glacier on Mt Rainier was a partial ski descent. They left skis at the bergschrund near the top, walked to the summit, then skied down. In those days, skiing roped on glaciers was the accepted practice. Dave Wessel led their rope, followed by Duke in the middle, with Warren Spickard last. Spickard was a big man, and not the most nimble, and on his first turn he veered wildly and almost lost control. Duke and Dave had only their ski poles to make an emergency belay, if one should be needed. Spick's second turn was no better, and after he came to a stop, Wessel said, "Let's unrope." They had an uneventful descent after that.

Warren Spickard was one of the prime movers in the Crystal Mountain development in the early days. He died in 1961, descending from the NW summit of Mox Peaks (Twin Spires) in the Cascades, with Duke and Phil Sharpe. The trio had come in from Ross Lake via Silver Lake and had made a good climb of the north ridge, with Spickard leading. They were downclimbing during the descent, and Spickard was descending last when a hold came loose and he toppled over backward. Both Duke and Phil had solid belays, but after Spickard tumbled out of sight, there was only the slightest tug on the rope. Duke guessed that the loose rock cut the rope, possibly sparing Duke's and Phil's lives.

The 1962 ski trip to Big Chiwaukum Mountain with Tony Hovey was made from Wildhorse Creek. They camped on a bench north of the peak, then climbed to Deadhorse Pass and crossed the divide. They traversed the east slope of the mountain and circled around Snowgrass Mountain to Frosty Pass, then returned down Wildhorse Creek. The 1965 Snowgrass Mountain ski ascent was made from Frosty Pass, circling around to the SE side of the peak.

The 1963 Snowking Mountain ski ascent was made from the Cascade River via Kindy Ridge. Duke remembered that they crossed the river on a big cottonwood. Some party members carried their skis using the "Hossack A-frame," with the tails shoved through the shoulder straps of their packs and the tips lashed together. Others fastened their skis to the side of their packs using the ski loops provided for that purpose. Hans Zogg loaded his skis horizontally under his pack flap and got horribly tangled in the branches. Somebody suggested a better way and Zogg's Swiss temper really flared up. They had a shouting match. Ski conditions were wonderful on the mountain and they skied right to the top.

The 1967 Ruby Mountain ski trip with Tony Hovey was made from Fourth of July Pass. It was a long day trip and they returned down the trail after dark.

Miscellany

Duke remembered night skiing at Hyak on the Milwaukee train. They used to run a ski train three or four nights a week. He said that the photo on p. 69 of Soldiers on Skis shows his company on patrol in Italy. He commanded Company I, 3rd Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry. He was promoted to Major shortly before he was wounded on Mount della Torraccia.

Taped interview, 20 October 2004
by Kevin Daley of the National Park Service
Notes by Lowell Skoog

Duke Watson gave me a copy of this interview (on three CD-ROMs) on 21 September 2005. The interviewer was mainly interested in mountain troop training on Mt Rainier during World War II.

Disk 1

Duke's father was an attorney. Duke discussed his early life and trips to the West organized by his mother after his father died. When Duke was a sophomore at the University of Michigan he and his fraternity brothers bought Northland hickory skis and practiced ski running and jumping (Track 9). He spent several weekends in college trying to learn downhill ski techniques. After he moved to the Northwest, he spent almost every winter weekend skiing at Mt Baker or Mt Rainier.

Duke described his early work in the Northwest timber industry and his entry into the Army in the winter of 1941. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, Duke and the other men at Fort Lewis bivouacked in the woods for a week before moving back into camp. The 3rd Division was one of just two full-strength divisions in the U.S. at that time. Duke and others from C Company of the 15th Infantry were worried that they would get sent overseas right away rather than being moved into a mountain outfit. In mid-January, 1942, about 1000 men of the 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment occupied lodgings at Paradise on Mt Rainier. They took over all the buildings except the Paradise Inn, which remained open to the public on weekends (Track 22). Duke briefly discussed training at Paradise that winter, equitation training at Fort Lewis, and officer training school.

Disk 2

Duke described the work done by his detachment to enable Studebaker to test the Weasel over-snow vehicle on the Columbia Icefield during the summer and fall of 1942. After V-E Day, it was revealed that the Weasel was designed for a British plan (urged 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 (as described in haukelid-1989).

In January, 1943, Duke and other men of the 87th Regiment moved into Camp Hale, where the new 86th Regiment was being formed. Duke recalled that the table of organization for the mountain division called for 5,998 mules and just a handful of vehicles, although it didn't work out that way in the end. (It was to be a mule operated division.) Duke recalled some of the maneuvers he participated in at Camp Hale. During the winter of 1943, the troops spent 9-10 days testing new equipment from the Mountain and Winter Warfare Board and Quartermaster's Office on Homestake Peak. This included newly developed rations, neoprene coated tents, and sleeping bags. The typical rifleman's pack weighed 75 lbs. Climbing on skis under such a load was very difficult, but Duke was proud that his platoon was first to reach the summit (Track 9).

In spring, Duke's outfit marched on skis from Camp Hale to the future site of Vail and back, about 30 miles each way. The weapons platoon marched on snowshoes. Duke recalled that the rifle platoons on skis would pull ahead on flat terrain, then the weapons platoon would pass them when the skiers stopped to put on climbers at the base of a hill. The skiers would catch up on the downhill, but get passed again later. "At the end of a day, the weapons platoon would always get to our destination first," said Duke. "That was tough for the skiers to admit, but it was a fact."

In June, 1943, when the 87th Regiment was sent to Kiska in the Aleutians, Duke was transferred to the 10th Recon troop. He was executive officer under John Woodward. Duke recalled a summer march by the 10th Recon from Camp Hale to Aspen. In autumn he attended battalion commander training and in December he was sent to Elkins, WV. When Duke commanded the Seneca Rocks climbing school, there were about 60 instructors. Of these, probably 40 were among the top rock climbers in the U.S. (Track 12). When the 10th Mountain Division was moved to Camp Swift in Texas, the members of the 10th Recon troop were dispersed throughout the division and the unit was reconstituted with cavalrymen. Duke described the arrival of the 86th Regiment on the front line in Italy, early patrols, and the attack on Riva Ridge.

Disk 3

Mount Della Torraccia was the final objective on the line of hills that included Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere. A previous attack had been thrown back and I Company of the 86th Regiment, commanded by Duke, was assigned to lead the next attack. The combat story in this interview is the most detailed Duke has given. The attack began at 0700 with a massive U.S. artillery barrage. Duke found it amazing that anyone could survive atop the mountain under such a barrage, but that was what foxholes were for. (Late in the war, the U.S. developed ordinance with a "proximity fuse" that exploded above ground, showering shell fragments into foxholes from above. Fortunately, the Germans never developed such ordinance during World War II.)

"After this tremendous barrage," Duke recalled, "the minute came for the kickoff and I gave the signal. By careful planning, a certain platoon went forward directly. Another platoon swept around on their left. My third rifle platoon remained in support. Our weapons platoon, with their mortars and machine guns, started firing immediately, and we had constant artillery support ahead of it. This was rolling barrages."

"I had spent a couple of nights in foxholes with severe pounding going on around me, but now we were in the thick of it. But I don't recall--and this was true of both officers and men for the most part--all of us had so much to think about and do that in the most intensive parts of combat, contrary to what's often told, fear wasn't a major element. You were so busy thinking about your responsibility and what you had to do, there was simply no time to be frightened. Whereas lying in a foxhole all night with artillery pounding around you is when fear really comes in."

"But anyway, this was a very intensive jump-off. The one thing I can be proud to say is that my company reached the division objective, which was the summit of Mount Della Torraccia. And just about the time our first elements got on top I was rather severely wounded (Track 2)." Duke recalled the impact of the artillery shell, moving to a slit trench, then lying in the trench for a half hour before starting to crawl back to defilade. He described his rescue by Ralph Bromaghin and his transfer to hospitals for surgery and convalescence. Following Duke's combat story, the interviewer asked some specific questions, indexed below:

Taped interview, 29 August 2005
At Duke Watson's home in Seattle, Washington
by Lowell Skoog

Duke Watson graduated from the University of Michigan in June 1937. He spent that summer travelling across the U.S. and visiting national parks. He settled in Washington in autumn 1937. Much later he established his one-man lumber wholesaling business, called R.D. Watson Lumber Sales. When he phased out of that business in the late 1960s, it enabled him to spend more time on his outdoor activities.

Mountain Troops

I brought notes from The Boys of Winter (sanders-2005) and asked Duke some followup questions. On Pearl Harbor day he went skiing at Mt Rainier with Capt. Paul Lafferty and others. Lafferty's wife was tinkering with the car radio at Paradise in the morning when news of the Pearl Harbor attack was broadcast. The group was just putting on their climbing skins to head up the hill. The impact of the event didn't register at first. Lafferty just said, "Well fellows, there go your Christmas furloughs to Sun Valley." The group continued their tour, with some in the party climbing to Little Africa and some all the way to Camp Muir. That evening, they stopped for dinner at the Green Parrot Inn on old Highway 99. They were all in civilian clothes, permissible up to that time, but forbidden after Pearl Harbor. Lafferty was wearing only his captain's bars. The waitress said, "Captain, shouldn't you be back at the post?" Fort Lewis was under complete blackout and they were moving equipment and weapons out of the camp into the woods, afraid of a raid. At that point, Lafferty, Duke, and the others realized that they'd made a big mistake not returning to Fort Lewis immediately when they heard the news.

I brought a copy of Off Belay magazine (offbelay-1973-apr-p25) and asked about the Army's Seneca Rocks climbing school. Duke recalled that in the spring of 1943 Paul Lafferty went to West Virginia to set up a maneuvers area in Elkins, probably bringing Ed Link with him. The idea was to bring in ordinary infantry regiments and give them quick doses of what it would be like to fight in the mountains. They worked on tactical maneuvers in the area. There were also specialty instruction groups such as an engineering detachment, medical teams, and a rock climbing school. A certain percentage of officers and non-coms from each regiment would undergo training. The rock climbing school ran about 2 weeks and was detached from the maneuvers-area headquarters at Elkins (about 100 miles away).

Ed Link ran the rock climbing school during the summer of 1943 (jay-1944-p109), then was sent to Lebanon to do instruction with a British outfit. Lt. John McCown replaced Link at Seneca Rocks in the late summer or fall. Duke went to Elkins, WV in late December 1943, and spent about a month working on tactical training with one of the regiments that came through. Paul Lafferty had moved on to other projects and Col. Bob Works was in charge at Elkins. Works gave Duke, a Captain by this time, command of the rock climbing school, replacing McCown. Duke's assistants were Lieutenants David Brower and Raffi Bedayn, veterans of the first ascent of Shiprock in the late 1930s. Duke thought the Seneca Rocks climbing school gathered about 80 percent of the proficient rock climbers in the country as instructors. Brower was later the S2 Intelligence Officer (as a 1st Lieutenant) of Duke's battalion in the 86th Regiment.

I asked about Ben Thompson in the 10th Mountain Division. Duke recalled: "He was constantly getting in trouble. Ben was really an amazing guy. He was a golly sort, nothing ever bothered him. One of the most outlandish things he ever did was the day the 10th Recon went up to a remote mountain valley not too far away from Camp Hale. I'd have to look up the name on a map. It was a big cirque, riddled with old mines. One of the days we were up there [John] Woodward assigned each platoon to practice ice axe arrests and that sort of thing on the snow fields around the cirque. This was in summer. In mid-afternoon there was all of a sudden a great cry from across the basin from where Ben Thompson's platoon was. We saw there was this old cable that went up to a shaft up there, a tunnel. And here was an old mining cart with a guy on it that started careening down under this cable and was headed right down on our headquarters or very nearby. It happened at the same time Col. Fowler, who was the commander of the Mountain Training Center, came up to check on us. Woodward was expecting him. He was driving up the valley in a jeep and he saw this poor figure careening down in this cart. It got to what had been an old entry to a smelter or something and came bashing...it must have been going 90 mph...and the lumber just flew apart. I said, 'We've got to get down. We're going to have a funeral here.' And when we got there it was all mirth and hilarity. Thompson had spent the whole day rigging up a dummy. Even Col. Fowler thought it was pretty funny. He didn't give Thompson hard duty, but he confined him to quarters for the next two months, I think. Thompson constantly got into that kind of trouble."

Duke and Ben Thompson where in the 10th Recon together. Every division had a reconnaissance troup (the size of a company) attached to the division headquarters, just as each regiment had an I&R platoon. John Woodward was the commanding officer of the 10th Recon. Duke eventually became Woodward's executive officer, replacing Ed Link. Before Camp Hale was completed, the 10th Recon was under control of the Army's Mountain and Winter Warfare Board, instead of the division.

As an aside, Duke recalled that his roommate at the military academy he attended for prep-school was Paul Tibbets, who later flew the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan. Enola Gay was the name of Paul Tibbets' mother. Duke recalled that Tibbets' career backfired after that because he was forever linked with the Hiroshima bombing. "But he did his duty," said Duke, "and he did what he had to."

I asked Duke about ski patrols in Italy and specifically about the Mt Spigalino patrol by Don Traynor, Cragg Gilbert and others (whitlock-1992-p68). Duke said that Traynor was not in his battalion, but was commander of the 86th Regiment's I&R platoon, which was under the regimental headquarters. Traynor led and participated in a lot of patrols. Duke sent out patrols from his company but didn't do any himself. One of his ski patrols brought back over a half-dozen prisoners from an old ski area near Alpe Tre Potenze. There were a few "isolated incidents" in which skis were justified for patrolling, but they weren't used much. Duke knew Cragg Gilbert but not William A. Long.

About the attack on Mount Della Torraccia, Duke recalled: "There had been two previous attacks but they [the 85th Regiment] were the one immediately preceding us. They were just about devastated because their battalion commander placed them...for overnight, they occupied forested terrain. The German scouts spotted them and started firing into the timber. They got these tree bursts, which mean that the shell fragments would go down as well as up and over, and the foxholes didn't protect you anymore. I know G Company of that battalion was almost wiped out. It was just a terrible thing. We took our reconnaissance the next day. The battalion commander and his company commanders, we walked through the area. That battalion, their morale was just so pitiful at that point. It put the fear and reason into our minds because we realized we had to play things right. But then we were well prepared, we had wonderful support, so our attack did achieve the objective and we felt good about it."

Duke led his company to the summit. "I had taken my radio operator [Bob Comer] ahead. Each infantry company, in an attack mode, has as an attached officer a lieutenant from the artillery corps, a forward observer who goes along with the company commander or his executive officer to call back for artillery support as things progress. The forward observer that was attached to me was wiped out almost immediately. So we took his radio and I had my radio man use his larger artillery radio. As we achieved the objective, one of my platoons occupied the summit, we got up there and saw that they were digging in and firmly entrenched. I went over to a subsidiary knoll only 50 yards away where there was a good observation point. We 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. They got me and didn't scratch my radio man. He had a charmed life. He had a near miss three times. That was the first one. He came through the war just fine."

Ralph Bromaghin was Duke's closest friend in the service. As Duke was descending, wounded, from the summit of Mount Della Torraccia, Bromaghin came to his aid. I asked whether Duke felt that Bromaghin had saved his life. He replied: "I feel he, in all likelihood, did. Who knows? I was running out of steam, but I probably could have made it the last few yards, but, not sure. There was lots of artillery coming in. He was about your height, a little huskier. And he just packed me on over his shoulder and we went back into defilade. He got me on a stretcher. And then he was killed the next day. Just a freak accident. I think it was a mortar shell that landed nearby. He was killed almost instantly."

Duke felt that The Boys of Winter deviated somewhat here, because of Chaplin Brendemihl's account of the event. Brendemihl said that Bromaghin recited the Lord's Prayer as he died. Duke and Ralph Lafferty both considered Bromaghin their best friend during the war. They got to know him well and didn't feel that he was a religious man. The chaplain's account provided comfort to Bromaghin's family. "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 further recalled: "They were relaxed. It was sort of a break between heavy action. It was a random round that came through."

Mountaineering Trips

In 1939, when Duke was working for the Sound View Pulp Company, he had an opportunity to take a horse packing trip along the Sauk and Whitechuck River valleys when the area was still wilderness, with trails only. The Everett Chamber of Commerce was planning the Mountain Loop Highway as a tourist attraction and the Forest Service wanted to explain its logging plans in the area. Duke felt very fortunate to visit the area when it was so primitive. At the time, the Monte Cristo Railway was wholly owned by Sound View and the tracks were still in place. Duke thought it was a tragedy that the railroad was not preserved as a historic and tourist attraction.

I asked about Duke's 1945 trip to the Selkirks with Andy Kauffman and others, just a few months after being wounded in Italy. He recalled that it was a great trip, about three weeks, and he was "back to feeling quite fit by then." Duke's 1947 attempt on Mt Hozomeen with Fred Beckey was his first civilian trip with Fred. Duke was Fred's platoon leader for a time in the mountain troops. They lost touch before Duke went to Italy, after Fred got a medical discharge from the army, but they got in touch again after they both returned to Seattle after the war. Fred organized the Hozomeen attempt, which failed due to poor weather.

In 1953, after Duke moved from Longview to Seattle, he attended an American Alpine Club meeting where he met Warren Spickard for the first time. Spickard invited Duke on a climb of Silver Star Mtn that summer, which was the start of a very close friendship. Spickard became Duke's doctor. They climbed "Glacier Peak of the North" (later renamed for Spickard) together in 1955. Spickard was more powerful than agile, a good belayer but not a rope leader. He wanted to lead on the NW summit of Mox Peaks in 1961. They had been planning to attempt the SE summit the following day. Duke had a "cast iron" belay, anchored to a big block, when Spickard fell during the descent. Duke wondered whether he would have been cut in half by Spickard's fall if the rope had not parted.

Following Spickard's death a group of his doctor friends started a movement to formally rename Glacier Peak in his honor. Duke recalled that Spickard was "definitely opposed to what he called 'eponymous names.'" When they were on the Crystal Mountain board of directors together, Walt Little proposed naming peaks and basins in the Crystal Mountain area after members of the board. Spickard and others voted him down. Little was overruled on other issues as well and eventually resigned from the board. Duke and others felt that Spickard would not have approved of the renaming of Glacier Peak, but Spickard's doctor friends could not be dissuaded.

In 1955, Duke, his wife Marillyn and others did a ski-climb of Mt Saint Helens with Rob Quoidbach of Longview. Duke recalled that Rob and Val Quoidbach were interested in only two mountains, Saint Helens and Hood. The weather was sunny but cold and the snow never softened during the climb. They carried skis to the top and began their ski descent by linking kick-turns. After a few kick-turns, Quoidbach got impatient. He tried a stem turn but his skis immediately slipped out from under him. He took off, sliding down the slope toward the rocks of the Dog's Head. Duke thought he must have fallen 1000 feet or more. He had the curious impression that Quoidbach wasn't falling, just getting smaller. Fortunately Quoidbach didn't tumble and when the slope eased near the Dog's Head, he was able to stop. The rest of the party continued making kick-turns until the snow softened lower, then enjoyed good skiing from there.

Duke thought his 1956 outing with the SOYPs (soyp-1936) may have been his first. David Whitcomb single-handedly organized the SOYPs ("Socks Outside Your Pants") in the 1920s. Several Rainier Park superintendents were honorary members. The group is still active but it is now strictly a skiing organization that meets at various resorts each year. When Duke became a Tyee there was still a tradition of taking an Indian name from the Mt Rainier quadrangle. Unused names were in short supply and Duke chose Katsuk, which regularly elicited howls of laughter from his fellow SOYPs.

The 1958 ascent of the north face of Golden Horn with Fred Beckey was a weekend climb from Mazama, approaching up the Methow River below Azurite Peak. Duke remembered it as not a difficult climb. Later that summer Duke and friends climbed in the Northern Pickets, making the first ascent of the West Peak of Mt Fury. Spickard described the climb with great satisfaction as "the last great first" in the North Cascades.

During their 1959 Mt Waddington expedition, Duke's party did not reach the true summit. They had a beautiful summit day but it was windy and the summit was festooned with giant ice feathers that were falling constantly. In 1965, Duke and friends made several minor first ascents in the Mt Monarch area, but they didn't summit on Mt Monarch during that trip. The 1960 trip to Washington Pass in which Wamihaspi Peak was named and the West Peak of Black was climbed for the first time was a family horse packing trip. Duke's kids hiked to Wing Lake, where they found plane wreckage.

The 1963 first winter ascent of South Twin Sister was once again Fred Beckey's idea. The trip was uneventful, but Duke recalled that Vic Josendal forgot his crampons. Duke had an extra pair of army crampons (notorious for being flimsy) but somehow they got left on the roof of the car and fell off during the drive up. On the way home they found the crampons on the road, smashed flat. Beckey laughed, "A perfect tire flattener!"

Looking through Duke's outdoor record, I noticed a day in 1979 when he climbed Mt Si 3-1/2 times (at age 63). He said a friend had previously done it three times in a day and one of Duke's sons suggested that Duke go for four. After his third round-trip, Duke started up again but realized he didn't tell his wife to expect him late, so he turned around about half-way up. In 1992 (at age 76) Duke hiked the "I-90 Triple," Granite Mtn, McClellan's Butte, and Mt Si (11,408 feet of ascent) with Hal Williams. Duke said his most satisfactory climbs were an ascent of Sunset Amphitheatre on Mt Rainier and a climb of Redoubt Peak in the Ramparts of Jasper Park in Canada.

Skiing and Conservation

Duke was with Maury Muzzy on the autumn ski trip when he met Chuck and Marion Hessey for the first time at Crystal Mountain. They found nice powder snow, but no base. Muzzy sat on a rock and gashed his butt during the trip. He made it out under his own power but required about 30 stitches later. I asked about the 1958 scouting trip to Crystal Mountain in which future Washington governor Dan Evans was caught in an avalanche. Duke said that Evans went on several of those scouting trips. Near the end of our meeting, Duke, Marillyn and I watched a copy of Glacier Peak Holiday (see hessey-movies) that I'd brought along.

Duke was on the board of the North Cascades Conservation Council (N3C) early, but he said Pat Goldsworthy and Phil Zalesky were much more active than he was in the North Cascades campaign. Doug Devin, whose father was a former Seattle mayor, talked Duke, John Woodward, Henry Simonson, Bill Black (Duke's brother-in-law), and several smaller contributors including Jack Nagel, into investing in the proposed Sandy Butte (Early Winters) ski area. They got Aspen Corporation interested. Aspen employed a full-time engineer who lived at the site for two years. Then environmental opposition became aroused. Once the opposition got going, some N3C board members who had previously said they could live with Early Winters switched to the opposition. Duke noted that weather and snow conditions at Early Winters have proven not as good as originally hoped. The area is better suited to cross-country skiing. Duke recalled that George Senner worked for Doug Devin's Griffin Envelope Company.

After Duke resigned from the N3C board, Pat Goldsworthy talked him into becoming president of the North Cascades Foundation, a position he held until "about five years ago." Duke didn't remember his 1963 Northwest Skier letter in support of the North Cascades National Park (nwskier-1963-nov-1-p2). Duke has recently been a supporter of the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway. With Tom Miller, he has hiked the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway and the John Wayne Trail from the Puget Sound basin to the Columbia River.

After my tape ran out, Duke said he met Hans Gmoser at the Peruvian Lodge at Alta, Utah. Gmoser was working to develop hut-to-hut skiing and guiding in Canada. Duke bought bonds to help Gmoser get the Bugaboo Lodge going.

Northern Travels

Duke made two memorable canoe trips into the Boundary Waters of Minnesota in 1935-36. Back then the Boundary Waters were wilder than the Far North is today, due to the absence of aircraft. After moving to the Northwest and being involved in the 10th Mountain Division, Duke's outdoor experience became oriented to the mountains. Canoeing stayed on the back burner for many years.

Duke's interest in canoeing was rekindled in 1967 when he and several friends had sons about to head off to college. They discussed doing a father/son trip, but concluded that backpacking or climbing would be nothing special, since their sons had been brought up on mountain trips. Dick Crooks suggested a canoe trip instead. Evans Wyckoff, III, was agreeable and they planned a wilderness trip to Hudson's Bay. In those days, the Hudson's Bay Company would spot a canoe for you at any of their posts in Canada. You could rent canoes and return them to any other Hudson's Bay post. They invited Jack Docter, a physician, along as a fourth father and had a very successful trip on the Churchill River. This trip led to two more in subsequent summers. The sons were eventually satisfied by these trips but the fathers kept at it. Duke was the most persistent.

Duke read an article by Eric Morse, the dean of Canadian canoeists, which suggested that one could begin at a height of land in the middle of Canada and head west all the way to the Pacific Ocean via the Yukon River. Duke and Eric Morse became correspondents and friends and Morse eventually completed the journey. It became a goal for Duke as well and he began working on it in stages. "Even as I was still working on it," recalled Duke, "fitting in these trips by sections, it occurred to me, why stop at that? Why not do it all the way across the continent, which was a much bigger ordeal. I had to figure a way of going down around the bottom of Hudson's Bay, because I wasn't about to try to paddle across Hudson's Bay. I've paddled across James Bay, which is the little foot of Hudson's Bay, but even that can be a little spooky if the wind comes up. In any event, I laid out this pattern. In the winter I'd spend many a night and weekends doing the kind of research you're doing now, looking up all kinds of old records of trips and so on, trying to figure the best routes. That was the background of it all. It all finally came to its achievement."

It took Duke 14 years to complete his trans-Canada canoe crossing. This is documented in Volume 1 of his Northern Journals. This led to all sorts of side trips, which are covered in Volume 2. One trip went from Duke's house on Puget Sound to the Arctic Ocean. Additional trips not done by canoe are in Volume 3. Duke donated a copy of his Northern Journals, along with photographs and movies, to the University of Washington. (He also gave me a copy of his journals.) Recently, Duke's nephew Hunter Black has been working with him on an illustrated volume, scanning photographs and putting them on DVD.

Duke recalled that the first trans-Canada canoe crossing was done over two seasons in the 1930s. Duke's route was different than those done before, generally staying farther north where there was more wilderness. "A trans-continental trip has been done in a consecutive fashion in one long season," he said. "It's been done two or three times now, I think. But the route has always been a more direct and more-or-less a non-wilderness route, much farther south. For instance starting on the Hudson River and staying on a more southerly course. I purposely wanted to stay as far north as feasible and it meant going through some crazy-quilts of landforms and crossing minor divides many times with much, much portaging and so on. But it was a more satisfactory route doing it that way."

Duke designed the final segment of his trans-Canada crossing to be the one reaching the Pacific Ocean. His wife Marillyn accompanied him on this trip. After my tape ran out, Duke described this trip. When they finally reached tidewater, Duke, in the back of the canoe, just kept paddling straight out into the Bering Sea. It seemed to Marillyn, perhaps, that he was headed for Japan. Somewhat exasperated, Marillyn asked, "Duke, will you ever stop?" In retrospect, they thought that was a pretty good summary of Duke's life of outdoor adventures.

Phone conversation, 12 October 2005
by Lowell Skoog

Ben Thompson was about five years older than Duke, which means he was born around 1910.

Doug Devin got Aspen interested in the proposed Early Winters ski area on his own. Aspen's involvement was not related to Duke's 10th Mountain experience with Aspen founders such as Friedl Pfeifer and Percy Rideout. The founders were no longer involved with Aspen at that time. Devin invited Darcy Brown, Aspen chairman, to the Methow Valley one winter and he and Duke took Brown up Sandy Butte. Brown was sold on the area and convinced the Aspen directors to buy out the Devin group's interest, subject to the findings of Jerry [Blann], an engineer sent to evaluate the site more thoroughly.

Phone conversation, 8 May 2006
by Lowell Skoog

I had a conversation with Duke after he reviewed my article about him for the 2006 Northwest Mountaineering Journal. Duke said that Ralph Bromaghin arrived for duty at C Company, 15th Infantry a few days after Duke did and Walter Prager arrived a few days after that. I had the order of Bromaghin's and Prager's arrivals reversed.

On Mount Della Torraccia, Duke was given first aid by Ernie Field, his battalion's operations staff officer, before he left the slit trench to return to the Allied lines. Based on information in other interviews, I had concluded that David Brower (the battalion's intelligence officer) treated him, but that was not correct.

Duke was recruited by Pat Goldsworthy to become a very early member of the North Cascades Conservation Council, but he was not a "founding" member.


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Last Updated: Thu Oct 12 15:50:01 PDT 2006