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Beth and George Gage - Fire on the Mountain
This film includes interviews with a remarkable collection of 10th Mountain veterans. Several of these veterans have died since the film was made, underscoring its importance as an oral record. The 10th was the only U.S. infantry division recruited by a civilian organization and the only created as the result of a sport--skiing.
The film begins with a look at skiing in the 1930s. Ralph Lafferty, John Litchfield, Friedl Pfeiffer, Dev Jennings and John Woodward offer their impressions. It describes the founding of the National Ski Patrol System by Charles Minot Dole following a ski injury in 1937.
In the winter of 1939, Dole and several friends discussed the need for U.S. soldiers trained in winter and mountain warfare, impressed by the success of Finnish troops battling the Russian invasion. The Finns would ambush Russian troops on skis, race through the woods, change to ice skates, and escape on frozen rivers. David Brower recalls that the Sierra Club, American Alpine Club, and National Ski Patrol all tried to persuade the U.S. Army to begin training mountain troops. Dole wrote to President Roosevelt offering the services of the Ski Patrol to the War Department. Dole continued his campaign for 1-1/2 years until notified by George Marshall that the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment would be activated at Fort Lewis in November 1941.
Paul Lafferty, former University of Oregon ski coach, was the first officer in the new unit. His younger brother Ralph, John Hurst, John Jay, Dick Wilson, Newc Eldredge, Chelton Leonard and Robert Parker offer their impressions and describe their desire to join the ski troops. The 87th included famous skiers such as Torger Tokle, Toni Matt and Friedl Pfeiffer. It also included prominent mountaineers such as Paul Petzoldt of the 1938 American K2 expedition.
Equipment for U.S. mountain troops had not been updated since 1914. The Army began experiments with a wide array of equipment. The Mountain Training Group was responsible for teaching mountaineering techniques to new recruits. The film includes excellent footage of training activities on Mt Rainier and impressions by Robert Parker. John Jay describes the "first winter ascent" of Rainier by mountain troops, which included camping in the crater. The date of the ascent is not given, but it's clear that the mountain troops were not aware of earlier winter climbs of the mountain.
After Pearl Harbor, with mountain troop ranks swelling, a larger camp was needed. In April 1942 construction of Camp Hale began in the Pando Valley of Colorado. On 15 July 1943, the 85th, 86th and 87th Infantry Regiments were combined into the new 10th Division. David Brower, John Jay, Oley Kohlman and Morley Nelson describe the lack of the usual military hierarchy. This segment includes some great skiing footage.
John Skillern and David Brower describe how mountain troops were trained in rock climbing and how they learned to take care of themselves in rugged terrain. Paul Petzoldt explains that the clothing developed for the mountain troops was excellent, but that many didn't know how to use it properly. Petzoldt demonstrated to 12,000 troopers how to properly protect themselves from the elements.
The first snowmobile, motor toboggan and snow-cat were created for the mountain troops. Bill Bowerman describes the Weasel, the over-snow vehicle developed by Studebaker, able to transport solders or carry a machine gun and capable of speeds of 30 to 40 mph.
Hugh Evans describes the espirit de corps in the 10th and the importance of songs in building it. Most of the 10th Mountain Division songs were parodies of current hits written by Ralph Bromaghin.
From the end of 1941 through the end of 1944, the men of the 10th spent most of their time training. The D-Series division-level maneuvers at Camp Hale were carried out by 12,000 soldiers over six weeks, with high winds, blizzard and -30 F temperatures at altitudes sometimes over 13,000 feet. On one day, over 100 cases of frostbite had to be evacuated. Ben Duke and Steve Knowlton give their impressions.
In December 1944, the division, now under General George Hays, was deployed to Italy to assist General Mark Clark's 5th Army. The 5th Army had three times attempted and failed to take Mt Belvedere but had never tried to take Riva Ridge, from which enemy fire could be directed against U.S. forces. General Hays convinced his superior, General Truscott, to allow the 10th to try to take Riva Ridge. Five routes were scouted up the ridge. The film describes the assaults on Riva Ridge and Mt Belvedere from February 18-23, 1945. Howard Koch, Hugh Evans, Bob Nordhaus, Robert Parker and others describe the fighting and the effect of combat on the soldiers. The push across the Po River to Lake Garda and the surrender of Italy by the Germans are also described. Out of over 14,000 soldiers in the 10th, 992 were killed and more than 4,000 wounded.
After the war, 2,000 former troopers became ski instructors, while others designed ski resorts, built lifts or developed ski equipment. Sixty-two American ski resorts were founded, managed or had ski schools directed by 10th Mountain Division men.
The film describes the role of Friedl Pfeiffer and others creating Aspen and of Pete Seibert and Robert Parker developing Vail. It also describes 10th veterans who became involved in outdoor pursuits not related to skiing. David Brower became the Sierra Club's first executive director and America's preeminent conservationist. Morley Nelson worked to save eagles from extinction. Fritz Benedict created the 10th Mountain memorial trail and hut system in Colorado. Paul Petzoldt founded the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and the Wilderness Education Association. An unnamed 10th veteran created a skiing program for disabled Vietnam veterans. Bob Lewis established a nature trail for the blind. Bill Bowerman, a track coach, popularized jogging and with Phil Knight built the Nike shoe company.
In 1988, 10th Mountain veterans helped create the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers, including their former German adversaries, dedicated to world peace. On February 18, 1995, fifty years after their assault on Riva Ridge, 10th Mountain veterans re-enacted the Riva Ridge climb and together with German and Italian mountain soldiers dedicated an international peace trail there.
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