It isn’t every day that climbers stop to wonder how the peak they’re scaling may have gotten its name. Mountaintops are associated more with lunch breaks and admiring spectacular scenery on a clear day than with history lessons. Consumed with the difficulties of reaching the top and anticipating the prospect of their descent, most climbers wouldn’t give the subject a moment’s thought. And perhaps the last thing on their minds would be the whistle of 88mm German artillery shells, explosions, and young lives cut short—but that is the bittersweet truth behind the names of three prominent peaks in the Sun Valley area.
Bromaghin Peak in the Smoky Mountains, as well as Handwerk and Duncan in the Pioneers, were named for three Sun Valley men who joined the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and were killed on the front lines as they helped drive the Germans out of Italy. Their story is worthy of pause, whether atop the spectacular summits that now memorialize them or by the comfortable light of a winter’s wood fire.
In his 1992 book Soldiers on Skis, Flint Whitlock writes, “Ski schools from resorts across America emptied their faculties into the 10th, [including] Glenn Stanley, Friedl Pfeifer, and Florain ‘Flokie’ Haemmerle from Sun Valley.” In fact, several dozen mountain types from the Wood River Valley signed up for the 10th—Ted Handwerk, Ralph Bromaghin, and Jonathan Duncan among them.
The Division was unique in the history of the military, the first fighting unit born from a civilian organization. At the outset of World War II, Charles Minot Dole, founder and chairman of the National Ski Patrol, recognized that if the United States were to be drawn into the conflict, troops skilled and trained in mountain warfare would be required.
Together with Roger Langley, president of the National Ski Association, Dole gained the ear of Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, in part by citing the success of Finnish mountain soldiers on skis against a much stronger Soviet invasion during the winter of 1939-40. When ten thousand unprepared Italian soldiers froze to death in the mountains of Greece and Albania, Marshall’s attention was fully engaged. He eventually authorized the planning for three mountain divisions, although only the 10th would ever be formed.
Three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 4, 1941, the 10th Mountain Division was created of twelve officers and one enlisted man who were called the 87th Infantry, Mountain, First Battalion. The commanding officer at the time wisely chose to fill his ranks with skiers and mountaineers, and then train them to become soldiers—not vice versa. The National Ski Patrol system acted as a recruiting agency. Initial volunteers included some well-known icons of the skiing and mountaineering communities in the United States and Europe, such as Paul Petzoldt (founder of Exum Mountain Guides in Wyoming and the National Outdoor Leadership School-NOLS), David Brower (founder of the Friends of the Earth and former executive director of the Sierra Club), and a cadre of famous European ski racers and mountain guides.
Originally based in Fort Lewis, Washington, the fledgling 10th Mountain Division often trained on Mt. Rainier, where the first recruits were utilized as skiing and mountaineering instructors. Then, in 1943, the 10th moved to Camp Hale, Colorado, where it would eventually grow into three infantry regiments: the original 87th plus the 86th and 85th, with associated artillery, tank, and engineer battalions. Whitlock writes that at Camp Hale, in addition to standard infantry training, the men were taught “military skiing, snowshoeing, snow-freighting, trail breaking for toboggans, mountain rescue work, avalanche prevention, rock climbing, mule packing, forest-fire fighting, dog-sled operations, and snow-cave building-in short, everything needed to fight and survive at high altitudes, in varying terrain, and in extreme weather conditions.” >>>
In June of 1943, the 87th regiment headed to Fort Ord in California for amphibious training, and then to Kiska Island in the Aleutian chain to fight a force of 6,000 Japanese that had been occupying the island. Unbeknownst to American and Canadian military commanders, the Japanese had already left the island, many by submarine. On August 15, 1943, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 87th regiment, along with several commando units, attacked Kiska. In confusion caused in part by foggy conditions and lack of communication, American troops fired on each other. Later, a booby-trapped artillery piece killed more soldiers. It was a rocky start, but combat experience for the 10th Mountain Division had begun.
During the latter half of 1943 and the first half of 1944, training continued in the mountains of Colorado. Soon the Division evolved into a fighting machine that was, in its own eyes, ready for deployment. Military command didn’t see it that way, however, and amongst rumors that it might be turned into a regular infantry division, the 10th was sent to Camp Swift, Texas, a far cry from the mountains of Colorado.
Morale began sinking in this group of skiers forced to live in a hot and humid environment; but things were about to get better, starting with their official reorganization and naming. The men received patches saying “Mountain,” which went above the crossed bayonet insignia worn on the shoulder that had come to represent the division. Next came their deployment orders—although the location wasn’t disclosed until they were halfway there.
In December of 1944, the 10th arrived in Italy, bound for the Apennine Mountains, a key strategic sector where the German army held the high ground. The Italian front had lost many of its divisions in the invasion of France, and although Allied forces had pushed the Germans north out of Rome and through much of the country, the enemy was still deeply entrenched in the mountains south of the Po River Valley. Military commanders knew that if the Germans could be driven from the Apennine Range, it would be relatively easy to take the valley.
After years of training, the “Ski Troops” of the 10th finally came to a mountainous theater of war, the terrain for which they had been prepared. The Riva Ridge (a spine of five peaks about three and a half miles long) and Monte Belvedere were among the areas where ski patrols conducted reconnaissance and intelligence work. Monte Belvedere had already been attacked several times by American forces, but they had been unable to hold their ground. A successful attack would first require that the Americans capture Riva Ridge, the east flank of which comprises steep, sometimes vertical terrain fifteen hundred feet high.
The patrols determined locations of German positions and established four different routes by which troops could ascend the ridge. Then, during the night of February 18, 1945, the 1st Battalion, 86th regiment started climbing. Early in the morning, the first platoons made contact with the Germans, who weren’t anticipating an attack from the rugged east side. The 86th took the ridge, held off German counterattacks, and then supported the 85th and 87th regiments, which successfully attacked and held Monte Belvedere the following day.
The offensive lasted until the end of February as the 10th drove the Germans off a series of peaks to the northeast, culminating in Monte della Torraccia. It was there, on February 26, that Captain Ralph Bromaghin, 86th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, HQ Company, was killed. The 3rd Battalion had taken Monte della Torraccia, but the Germans, who weren’t about to give up easily, shelled the peak relentlessly with over a thousand rounds of artillery during the night. After the onslaught, a German unit expecting the Americans to roll over instead encountered a well dug-in and still motivated 3rd Battalion. The Germans had little choice but to surrender. >>>
After Riva Ridge, American forces continued to drive the Germans north through the Apennine Mountains. For the remainder of March and into the first of April 1945, the 10th re-supplied, rested, and received replacement infantryman. The combined Allied forces of northern Italy, of which the 10th was an integral part, were gearing up for Operation Craftsman, a final offensive to push the Germans across the Po River. It would prove to be the bloodiest part of the war for the 10th.
On April 17, in the midst of a heat wave, infantry soldiers from “L” Company, 3rd Battalion, 87th Regiment, led by Captain Duncan of Sun Valley, had orders to “mop up” in the valley beyond Madna di Rodiano. Duncan’s “L” Company, along with most of the 87th regiment, had recently made the “breakthrough” out of the mountains and was feverishly driving north, sometimes bypassing an increasingly disorganized and retreating German army.
The rapid pace combined with the hot weather caused several men to collapse from heat exhaustion; but by early afternoon “L” Company had arrived at the town of C. Costa, which was surrounded by open, rolling fields and stone-walled lanes. From their vantage point, the men of “L” Company could see German artillery firing on northbound tanks and trucks. One gun was also firing on their position.
Captain Duncan dispatched a patrol to locate the artillery piece and knock it out while he, his runner, a radio operator, and a lieutenant from “M” Company moved to exposed observation point to offer the patrol what support it might need. Shortly after, a shell struck nearby, killing Duncan and fatally wounding the lieutenant.
Captain George F. Earle, in his book History of the 87th Mountain Infantry, wrote, “Captain Duncan’s death removed a brilliant and inspiring leader from our ranks; his continual regard for his men’s welfare and his repeated personal heroism won not merely the respect, but the love, of his men and associates. His loss was greatly mourned by all, even at a time when there were so many fine men to mourn for.”
Two days later, on April 19, just a few miles south of the location where Duncan perished, “E” Company, 2nd Battalion, also of the 87th Regiment, was moving north when artillery fire killed Private First Class Leo T. Handwerk, also of Sun Valley. At the time, Handwerk was in the company of several regimental officers who were unharmed.
In the next ten days, the 10th pursued fleeing Germans across the Po River and all the way to Lake Garda at the foot of the Italian Alps. The Division was given orders to leapfrog its regiments to cut off the German retreat at Brenner Pass. On May 2, 1945, in the midst of what German commander Fridolin von Senger und Etterlin of the 14th Panzer Division called a hopeless strategic situation, the Germans finally surrendered.
After the war, veterans of the 10th Mountain Division figured prominently in the growth of the American ski industry, playing various roles in the founding or development of ski resorts and ski schools across the nation.
In 1948, Andy Hennig, a decorated 10th Mountain Division vet and once again ski instructor for the Sun Valley School, published a ski-touring guidebook called the Sun Valley Ski Guide. In it, he honors Duncan, Bromaghin, and Handwerk by naming three local peaks after these local heroes. It seems fitting that men who trained for war on skis and stone should have a lasting legacy in these craggy peaks, which figure prominently in Hennig’s guide as standout spring ski mountaineering objectives.
It is also fitting that we remember these men, the dozens of others from the Wood River Valley who also served in the 10th Mountain Division, and indeed all who have died serving their country. Climbing a mountain is generally an act of self-gratification: the motivations are most often personal, and the rewards rarely extend beyond the first person. A moment of tribute atop these peaks is a small but important gesture, acknowledging the part their namesakes have played in our ongoing freedom to enjoy the same mountains today.
Erik Leidecker is co-owner of Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides and a regular contributor to Sun Valley Magazine. He lives in Hailey with his wife, Gretchen, and their two children, Sascha and Svea.