Not long after he joined the Army early in World War II and was posted to steamy Fort Knox in Kentucky, Nick Hock opened a magazine and saw a photo of a white-parka'd mountain soldier on skis leaping off a cliff into a sea of powder. The soldier belonged to the new 10th Mountain Division. That was enough for Hock. He requested a transfer.
Love of skiing was at the 10th Mountain's core. At least half of the 14,000 men who joined the Division came through the National Ski Patrol system. Like Hock, they dreamed of defeating the Germans with their skiing skill, perhaps in the Alps or Norway, or the Japanese in Alaska.
It never happened. The 10th Mountain troops didn't need hickory boards or their iconic white ski suits when they were shipped off to fight in early 1945. In Italy's Apennines, there was little snow to ski on...only mud and cliffs to climb. The assignment was to dislodge German soldiers dug in high on Riva Ridge. In what has by now become an almost mythic battle, the men of the 10th scaled the cliffs and drove Hitler's soldiers off the strategic high ground.
That the 10th never did use skis in battle shouldn't be surprising. Skis, in fact, have rarely been employed in a fight. In 1940, after the Nazi government persuaded citizens to send 1.5 million pairs of skis to the frigid Eastern Front to fight the Russians, the soldiers instead burned them to keep warm. During World War I, Austrian and Italian mountain troops employed climbing and tunneling skills, not skis, to savagely fight one another in the Sud Tirol.
When skis have seen action, results have been mixed. Historian John Allen reports a 1915 skirmish by 40 French troopers who schussed with fixed bayonets in a downhill attack. They were mowed down by German riflemen. The most famous success was the homeland defense by skiing Finns against the Russians in 1939, but the outmanned Finns suffered great losses.
Yet, for 150 years, armies have favored training ski troops. And for good reason. The soldier who is a skier is fitter than the general recruit. Moreover, skiers enjoy a camaraderie that's ideal for shaping an elite force. No better example exists than the men of the 10th. They didn't fight on skis, but the skiing in their hearts may well have helped win the battle.