Monday, April 25, 2011

From the Pages - History of the 10th Mountain Division in World War II

Excerpted from 10th Mountain Division by Fred Pushies

Chapter 2: 10th Mountain Division—World War II

With the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, combat in Italy was relegated to the background. For the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division fighting in the Apennine Mountains, it was far from the “forgotten front.” For the German Army as well, the battles in the Italian Alps were as real and lethal as those their comrades were facing in France. During the campaign the mountain soldiers of the 10th would do battle with nine German divisions that were well entrenched and occupying the high ground. By the end of the campaign, five of the nine German divisions would be totally destroyed as effective combat units. The men of the 10th Mountain Division not only had to fight the Germans, but also had to deal with the environment and elements—the jagged mountains, cliffs, rivers, lakes, and towns. In early January 1945, the 86th Infantry Regiment arrived at the frontlines near Mount Belvedere in the North Apennine Mountains of Italy.

By January 20, 1945, all three regiments of the 10th had arrived in Italy and were positioned along the Serchio Valley and Mount Belvedere. The 85th was commanded by Col. Raymond Barlow, the 86th by Col. Clarence Tomlinson, and the 87th by Col. David Fowler. Here, the division was up against the German positions that were positioned along the five–mile-long Mount Belvedere–Monte della Torraccia Ridge. General Lucian Truscott Jr., who had just taken command of the Fifth Army, informed General Hays of his strategy for dealing with the enemy. The plan called for the 10th to first capture Mount Belvedere, which served as an enemy observation post. The artillery observation post provided the Germans with a view of Highway 65, which was one of the main routes into the Po Valley. Protecting Mount Belvedere were more Germans on Riva Ridge toward the west.

In order to capture Mount Belvedere, the division would first have to assault Riva Ridge. Riva was a code name for the ridge that, from north to south, included the peaks Pizzo di Campiano, Mount Cappel Buso, Mount Serrasiccia, Mount Riva, Mount Mancinello, and Le Piagge. The 1st Battalion and Company F, 2nd Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry, conducted the assault on Riva Ridge, which was a sheer mountain face that required the soldiers to make a vertical assent of nearly two thousand feet. The Germans believed that the cliffs were not scalable and so had manned the mountaintop with only one battalion of soldiers. The mountain soldiers of the 10th were the ones who were tasked to make the assault. Riva Ridge was to the 10th Mountain what Pointe du Hoc was to the U.S. Rangers.

Harry Coleman, an infantryman with the 10th in Italy, related his part in this pivotal battle. “Headquarters expected a lot of casualties. Normally, we had one medic; for this operation we had five or six. I was carrying a BAR, which was almost as big as I was. My first sergeant, Ed Thivridge, took the BAR away from me and gave me an M1 to carry in its place. We arrived on the night of February 17 and were trucked down to a staging area, where we took over a farmhouse at the foot of the ridge. They told us that nobody was to leave the house. If we had to use the outhouse, we had to put on the farmer’s coat. When it came time for us to head up the mountain, we were ordered to remove all the ammunition from our guns. We were told to put the ammo in our pockets and keep it handy. The commander did not want to take the chance of an accidental discharge, which would have alerted the enemy. General Hayes told the men, ‘Stay in touch with the man in front of you and we’ll all meet at the top.’ Seven hundred men converged on Riva and began the hard climb under the cover of darkness. There were no ropes or pitons; we did it the hard way. I pushed the guy in front of me and pulled the guy behind me.”

After a great deal of scouting, it was determined the assault would be at night, and on February 18, 1945, the soldiers of the 86th began their climb. The attack caught the Germans by surprise, enabling the mountain infantrymen a complete success.

After the successful attack on Riva by the 86th, Mount Belvedere was the next to be assaulted. Mount Belvedere was heavily manned and protected by minefields. On February 19, soldiers of the 85th and 87th regiments fixed bayonets and began their assault on Mount Belvedere. As had been the case on Riva, the mountain soldiers took the enemy by surprise. The attack was hard fought, but they captured the mountaintop. The Germans mounted several counterattacks over the next two days but were unable to retake the valuable real estate. With the successful capture of Mount Belvedere, the 10th was in a position to breach the German’s Apennine Mountain line, take Highway 64, and open the way to the Po Valley. On April 14, 1945, the final phase of the war in Italy began as the Fifth Army drove toward the Po Valley with the 10th Mountain Division spearheading the force.

On April 20, 1945, lead elements of the 85th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division were the first American units to break out into the Po Valley. Joining the 10th in an ad hoc task force would be tanks and tank destroyers. Task Force Duff, commanded by Brig. Gen. Robinson Duff, drove north to the Po River. As the unit advanced through the valley, the soldiers had to battle through several strategic German positions, including trenches and foxholes, and they endured fighting in the towns and villages. The task force continued to press their attack even though both of their flanks were exposed. By nightfall Task Force Duff had captured the bridge crossing the Panaro River at Bomporto. On the morning of April 23, the 10th was the first division to reach the Po River. The 1st Battalion of the 87th Mountain Infantry, the original mountain infantry unit, made the crossing in fifty lightweight canvas boats while under enemy fire. By the end of the day on April 25, all elements of the task force had crossed the Po River.

Lieutenant General Von Senger, commander of the 14 Panzer Corps, told General Hays that the 10th had completely broken through two panzer corps forcing Von Senger, his staff, and many of his soldiers into the cold water of the Po River. During his surrender Von Senger said the 10th Mountain Division had proven to be a most worthy adversary.

The final combat for the 10th Division took place in the vicinity of Lake Garda, a canyon lake at the foothills of the Alps. On April 25, the 1st Battalion of the 85th Infantry Regiment moved out toward an airport near the town of Villafranca di Verona. As the 85th headed out toward their target, another task force, Task Force Darby, headed out with orders to capture the town of Verona, located ten miles northeast of Villafranca. The task force, commanded by Col. William Darby, consisted of the 86th Infantry Regiment, three tank battalions, a battalion of field artillery, and a handful of engineers. By the end of the day, Task Force Darby had achieved its objectives and linked up with the 85th.

On April 27, 1945, the first troops reached the south end of Lake Garda, cutting off the German Army’s main escape route to the Brenner Pass. As the 10th pressed their attacks, they were met with challenges because the German had destroyed several tunnels and created roadblocks. Undaunted by the enemy’s delaying tactics, the 10th used amphibious DUKWs, the obstacles were bypassed, and the towns of Riva and Tarbole at the head of the lake were captured. On May 2, 1945, any sign of organized resistance had ended, and the German Army in Italy surrendered. Five days later Germany surrendered to the Allied forces.

On May 20, 1945, the 10th relocated to northeastern Italy, to Udine, where they linked up with troops from the British 8th Army. Their new mission was to prevent any western movement by Yugoslavian forces under the command of General Tito. Harry Coleman related an incident in which a Yugoslavian tank rolled up to a schoolhouse in the area. The tank edged nearer and nearer until the large cannon was dangerously close to the building. There was no guessing what the tank commander had in mind. One of the 10th’s officers approached the vehicle and had a talk with the tank commander. Shortly thereafter, the tank withdrew and drove away, without firing a shot.

In July 1945, the 10th was ordered back to the states to begin training and preparation for the invasion of Japan. As the mountain soldiers traveled across the Atlantic, they heard about the atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima, Japan. The 10th Mountain Division would not be going to the Pacific. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945. By September, the 10th was back home after a thirty-day furlough, and on November 30, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division was deactivated.

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