A ski trooper’s tale of dreams
When you think of the 10th Mountain Division, you think of ski troops and the gallant statue at Gondola Plaza. Ironically, the ski troops never engaged the enemy on skis. They trained on skis, and they were a brotherhood of skiers, but they never skied to war. The fantasy image of mountain troops schussing into battle is tempered by Harry Poschman’s book “A Skier’s War.” I’m honored to be editing the book in its final draft while discovering the truth about an almost mythic army division.Poschman, now 92 and a former Aspen resident, was an avid skier long before the war. When he signed up as a young man, he assumed that the life of a mountain trooper would be one grand adventure. Wrongo! During his first real action in Italy, ski dreams were dashed by the grim specter of war. Poschman was inducted in 1941. He bounced around to various training camps, the most formidable of which was Camp Hale, located near Leadville, just a few hours’ drive from Aspen. The troopers got to ski, but it was no picnic.Winter training at 30 below was a brutal ordeal of frostbite and physical discomfort. There were no fiberglass skis, no Gore-Tex, no lightweight gear. The men relied on leather, wool, down and wood in a fully organic contest with hard-core winter.In 1943, the 10th troopers were sent to secure the Aleutian Islands. The Japanese had abandoned this chain of coastal mountains just days before the 10th arrived. During a long, dull, cold, damp occupation, the troops gazed at snow-clad peaks with a skier’s envy but never strapped on boards.Poschman writes about a reconnaissance patrol along the rugged coastline when his squad came upon a river teeming with spawning salmon. Like grizzly bears, the troopers waded into the stream and began catching the salmon by hand. Fresh salmon steaks were a major improvement over C-rations, even at the expense of wet feet.Once the Aleutians were secured, Poschman, a sergeant, was attached to the newly organized 10th Mountain Infantry Division, which was sent to Italy to fight the Germans. Here the 10th firmly established its fighting reputation – not on skis, but on boot leather and raw courage.Because of its specialized training in mountain terrain, the 10th was sent into the lower Apennines to Mount Belvedere. Poschman reflected that this country was too beautiful for war, too sublime for killing.Poschman’s straight-from-the-shoulder description of hunkering down in foxholes while manning machine-gun positions dispels any glamour of the war and any romance of the mountain troops. Skiing was a recurring dream, but survival was the waking reality.Poschman often fantasized of skiing the Alps that spring, an image he carried through a blitz of shells and rifle fire. When he and his troops were pushed farther to the front, their expectations of a quick campaign fell apart like the ragged uniforms they wore.Marched to exhaustion, the soldiers of the 10th killed and were killed in turn. They became hardened and unrelenting in their pursuit of the enemy. Poschman, who led a squad with a potent weapon – the Browning .30-caliber water-cooled heavy machine gun – gives ultimate credit to the riflemen who spearheaded each deadly assault.Visiting Italy years after the war, Poschman marveled at how thoroughly the ravages of war had been erased from the mountain landscape. Sadly, it could never be erased from the lives of the gentle local farming people or the minds of soldiers who paid for each foot of bloody ground.Poschman’s book paints a picture of men who loved mountains and then had to fight in them. Sublime mountain redoubts became death zones.What appeared as serene beauty often morphed into a blood-stained nightmare. Through it all, ski dreams prevailed. Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.