Don Linscott still shivers when he recalls his most vivid memory of serving with the 10th Mountain Division in the early 1940s.
He was training at Camp Hale, high in the Colorado Rockies.
“We had to go 8 miles over the Vail pass, and it went from 30 above to 30 below in about a half-hour,” Linscott said. “We froze solid. There were guys crying, and their tears froze right on their faces. That was the most difficult time I ever had in my life, surviving that day.”
Linscott made it out of the pass and can still feel the sweet warmth of a fire that he and the other soldiers built to thaw out their frozen limbs.
Linscott, who now lives in Alburg, Vt., and five other members of the 10th Mountain Division shared their memories and answered questions during a Veterans Day talk at the Vermont Ski Museum in Stowe.
“I was in the National Ski Patrol, and I knew they needed people for a new division that was being formed,” Stowe resident Ted Lockwood told a captivated audience. “I went in and volunteered — just in advance of getting my invitation,” referring jokingly to his draft papers.
The 10th Mountain Division specializes in cold-weather, high-elevation warfare.
The Tenth was a far cry from other divisions in the military. For starters, men had to apply for admission, sending three letters of recommendation with their application forms.
Every member of the division had a unique reason to be there.
Bill Osgood, now of Shelburne, remembered dressing in white sheets as a kid and skiing around, pretending to be an elite Finnish ski soldier. The Finns became legends in the late 1930s when they defeated an invading Russian tank division.
When the Tenth was formed, that’s where Osgood knew he belonged.
Bob Traynor, who now lives in Barre, was choosing between the Navy and the Tenth. When he heard that the 10th Mountain Division boys were fed well, he made his decision immediately.
“But when I got there, we had hot dogs the first night,” Trainer said. “Then we had hot dogs the second night, too.”
Trainer did remember one excellent meal: steak, on a night that an actor came to visit the troops.
It took a unique man to make a 10th Mountain solider, the veterans said. A large majority of the recruits were tough New Englanders with at least some college under their belts. Dozens of Dartmouth College boys signed up, along with many of the finest ski racers of the day.
Most of the men arrived in the division’s training center at Camp Hale (also known as “Camp Hell”), at an altitude of 9,200 feet, high above Leadville, Colo.
Their equipment was far different from the recreational gear they used on the ski slopes back home. Thick, 7-foot-long skis designed to carry soldiers and 75-pound packs over deep snow were heavy, awkward and hard to control. The bear-trap bindings were cumbersome and didn’t release if a soldier fell; a lift from a fellow solider was often the only way a soldier could get back up.
The rudimentary skins they attached to the ski bottoms to help them climb were often slicker than they were helpful; some kept them on to descend the mountain.
The no-ski Tenth
Oddly, the 10th Mountain Division soldiers never fought a battle on skis in Europe. In one of the complexities of war, the division’s equipment was never sent to the European war zone.
The soldiers made only a handful of patrols on skis, and they had to borrow those from other Allied soldiers or steal them from the Germans.
So, they went on foot —something Albert Tozloski will never forget.
Tozloski, who’s from Stowe, remembers his first day of combat in Italy:
“We were traversing an area that was rather open. I was in the machine gun squad. The riflemen were out front.”
Mines that had been hidden in small wooden boxes and placed in the underbrush detonated around him as American soldiers stepped on the explosives.
“They’d take your legs right off,” he said. “ The sergeant I was with was hit. And I remember thinking it was just as though this was a different world.”
The Tenth was instrumental in World War II, including the daring and dangerous nighttime attack on Riva Ridge, which led to the taking of Mount Belvedere. From there, the division broke through the German’s Apennine Mountain line, opening the way to the Po Valley and driving the Germans to the coast.
Ted Lockwood narrowly avoided becoming a casualty himself.
“We made this fast dash to the Po River, and it was very scary because we realized there was no one around us,” Lockwood said. “We stopped in a little village and they started shelling us. I dove under a Jeep and watched as each tire went flat from the bomb shrapnel, so I got pinned underneath it. That was what really saved my life.”
The Tenth had one of the highest casualty rates of any American division during World War II — 999 men killed, 4,154 — more than 40 percent — wounded.
Building a sport
Veterans of the Tenth were largely responsible for making skiing into an industry after the war.
Ex-soldiers from the Tenth laid out ski hills, built ski lodges, designed ski lifts and improved ski equipment. Some of the vets started ski magazines and opened ski schools.
Famous ski areas — Vail and Aspen in Colorado, Sugarbush in Vermont, Crystal Mountain in Michigan Whiteface Mountain in New York — are among the resorts built by veterans of the Tenth.
Gordon Lowe of Stowe headed the Dutch Hill Ski School in Heartwellville, Vt., after the war. He eventually moved to Stowe to work for Mt. Mansfield Co., where he became vice president before retiring in 1975.
More than 43,000 Vermonters served in World War II. In November 2003, the Vermont Ski Museum Hall of Fame inducted 260 members of the Tenth who served in the war.