77 years after its creation, 10th Mountain Division’s story continues to unfold for some
Breckenridge resident Christie O’Neil paid close attention to every detail as retired U.S. Marine Colonel Thomas Duhs relayed historic tidbits during his 90-minute presentation on the World War II history of the 10th Mountain Division.
O’Neil was one of more than 50 people who filled the room at the Summit County Library in Breckenridge for Duhs’ presentation — just a few miles from Camp Hale, where the original 10th Mountain Division trained both as soldiers and skiers beginning on Nov. 15, 1941.
But unlike most all other Summit County locals and visitors at Duhs’ Wednesday talk, O’Neil has a direct connection to the division. Her father, Robert Irving O’Neil, was one of the 3,000 cold weather, mountain soldiers U.S. Gen. George Marshall requested in 1941 when the 10th Mountain Division was founded. Their eventual purpose? To conduct the kind of mountain-terrain fighting U.S. forces needed to defeat the Axis powers in the Alps.
So O’Neil sat in the crowd and listened to 100 slides worth of details from Duhs’ novel “Sempre Avanti: Always Forward.” It’s a 344-page book that traces the creation of the 10th Mountain Division. It covers everything from what the ski industry was like in the U.S. before Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany to how filmmaker John Jay spread the word of the division through propaganda films and how the division eventually took Riva Ridge in Italy.
FILLING IN THE BLANKS
For a descendant of the division like O’Neil, it’s novels like Duhs’ that help piece together details that remain missing. Several attendees at Wednesday’s presentation shared a similar reality: Veterans of World War II are sometimes reluctant to share war details with family members.
O’Neil knows some details, such as how her father went by the name “Snuffy” at Camp Hale. He was a cartoonist who drew caricatures for his fellow soldiers. He also illustrated some of the handbooks for the 10th. What she doesn’t have are all the details about her father’s time in the division, and she left Duhs’ presentation Thursday with more answers than when she arrived, though questions linger.
“My dad didn’t talk about it all that much when we were growing up, but I certainly heard all the names and met a lot of the people back in the 1960s,” O’Neil said. “It was fascinating to me to get the background from the beginning. I mean, I kind of knew that he volunteered and taught mountaineering, but seeing it brought to light (by Duhs) was fantastic.”
A LIFETIME AGO
It’s been nearly eight decades — 77 years — since what would become the 10th Mountain Division was conceived in November 1941, just three weeks before America entered the war after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Seventy seven years — it’s a lifetime ago. Back then, Robert Irving O’Neil never made it overseas, as Christie O’Neil said he suffered a severe back injury while training his subsidiaries on how to rock climb while at Camp Hale. But Duhs’ presentation filled in the gaps as to not only how her ski-loving Californian father came to Camp Hale, but also as to how Christie came to be conceived.
The connections all come back to Colorado’s ski towns, which were largely shaped by 10th Mountain Division men post-war.
“My parents met and I was conceived in Aspen in 1949,” O’Neil said. “My father, he knew (the founder of the 10th Mountain Division Charles) ‘Minnie’ Dole personally and sent a letter and got three recommendations, just like the rest.
“This has spurred me on to want to do some research,” she continued, “and I have some of his artifacts that I want to go back and look at, like his discharge papers from the Army.”
On Wednesday, O’Neil learned Dole was the ringleader behind the group that her father joined. And it came to be on Nov. 30, 1939, when the idea for the 10th Mountain Division hatched after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland. To Dole, then the head of the national ski patrol, Finland’s successful defense against the Soviets told him that the U.S. needed to figure out a way to fight in the cold weather of the mountains. The best case scenario was that the U.S. could build a mountain division that could have the success the Fins had in the winter of 1939, when they defended their 900-mile border at eight different locations, killing the Soviets at a rate of 40-1.
“The Fins don’t have an air force. They don’t have much artillery. They don’t have much of anything else. But they know how to ski and they know how to handle themselves in the cold weather and in snow,” Duhs told the crowd in Breckenridge.
Entering World War II, the Fins weren’t the only country with cold-weather, mountain-specific divisions. Though the U.S. had none, the Germans entered the war with three and ended the war with 14. This uptick in numbers, even before the U.S. entered the war, influenced Dole to believe there was a chance Germany could invade the U.S. first through Canada and then through the Champlain Valley of Northern New York and Vermont. Scared by this possibility, Dole pleaded with Marshall for a mountain division. So Marshall asked Dole to go to 93 different ski patrols across the country to recruit.
The rest, as they say, is history — history that continues to unfold for 10th Mountain descendants like O’Neil. History like that of the time Dole explained to Marshall that they’d need to target skiers rather than shooters.
“‘Ok, I’ll do it,’” Duhs described Dole as having said to Marshall, “‘but you are going to have to cut the red tape. I’ll get skiers to join up to the army and you’ll have to train them to be soldiers, because it’s easier to take a skier and make him a soldier than it is to take a soldier and make him a skier.’”
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