January 1945, sixty-six years ago now, marked the beginning of the 10th Mountain Division’s campaign to secure Riva Ridge and the Belvedere massif, controlled by the German Panzer Corps and the Mountain Corps. In order to get to the Apennines, the 10th moved through Italy at night. Rain and wet snow turned hazardous roads to mud. Regular small-arms fire from German patrols provided tension. All three regiments, 85th, 86th, 87th, set up between the Serchio River and the base of Mt. Belvedere.
The men had trained in Washington state and at Camp Hale for almost three years. They were ready but their specialized equipment was still sitting in Boston. They made the best of the situation, despite the ever-present threat of hypothermia. They spent several weeks scouting the best routes of attack and continuing rock climbing training. “This final training was little different from the rock climbing they had practiced for years at Camp Hale, except that now figuring out how to find a toehold on an icy rock face while making sure their grenades remained in their pockets was no longer a game.” [Jenkins, McKay, The Last Ridge, 2003, p.159. http://www.lastridge.com/pressroom.php
On February 18, at night, the 86th 1st Battalion attacked Riva Ridge in five columns, using five different trails. They moved all through the night and were in place to surprise the Germans as the sun came through the fog at 8:30AM. The next few days saw fierce fighting as the Germans countered. The Ridge was secured, enabling the 85th and 87th Regiments to move on Mt. Belvedere and surrounding peaks. By February 25th, the Americans controlled their objective, costing them 926 casualties. Their success enabled the Allied Plan to shift its spring offensive to the Po River Valley. On May 2, 1945, the Germans surrendered. The 10th Mountain Division World War II Roll of Honor lists 997 men and two “unknowns” killed in action, of whom 975 were killed in Italy. http://www.10thmtndivassoc.org/wwIIhonor.htm On Cooper Hill outside of Camp Hale, there is a memorial to these men, listing them by name. To give a face to one of these names, let’s consider William Mitchell, Jr., Co. K, 86th Infantry Regiment, from Rotterdam Junction, New York. Rotterdam Junction, on the Mohawk River in the Adirondack Mountains, was settled by the Dutch early in the 1600s. In the 1940s, it had 300 residents whose children attended a Kindergarten through high school. This town sent several men to war, including William Mitchell, who died at seventeen years of age, fighting for his country in Italy. I am certain that his death was felt deeply by every member of his small community. As we approach the anniversary of the Battle for Riva Ridge, it’s fitting and important to remember with gratitude William Mitchell and all those who did not come back, in addition to those who returned.