First U.S. Army Mountain Ski Unit Formed at Fort Lewis

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On Nov. 15, 1941, shortly before the U.S. enters World War II, the first United States Army mountain ski unit is created. 

Formed at Fort Lewis in Pierce County, it is designated the 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry. The National Ski Patrol assists in the recruitment of skiers and those with mountain experience. Many of Washington’s and the world’s top skiers, mountain climbers, and Mount Rainier summit guides enlist in the unit, which boasts at least 12 of the world’s best skiers. The ski unit spends its first winter training at Mount Rainier National Park, located in Pierce County not that far from the base. The skiing soldiers test and select ski equipment to be standard army issue. In late 1942 the ski unit will be transferred to the army’s new mountain training camp in Colorado. It will see battle in the Aleutians and in the Italian campaign as a regiment in the 10th Mountain Division.

Crusading for Ski Troops

In the years before the United States entered World War II, Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole (1900-1976) was a tireless crusader for incorporating mountain or ski troops into the U.S. Army. He noted that other armies had specialized ski troops that had achieved dramatic success. Dole was an important skier on the national level and thus had considerable influence. In 1939, with the assistance of the American Red Cross, he founded the National Ski Patrol, which rescued many injured and stranded skiers.

On July 18, 1940, Dole wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) regarding the value of ski troops and offering the National Ski Patrol to recruit for an American ski or mountain army unit. The president forwarded the letter to the War Department for its consideration. Dole continued his push with a letter on Sep. 12, 1940, to the Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall (1880-1959). Dole and Marshall then met to discuss ski troops in the U.S. Army. At the meeting Marshall, who had already ordered a study of ski and mountain troops and instructed the Army Quartermaster Corps to develop clothes and equipment for mountain forces, committed to forming six small, experimental ski units.

Fort Lewis was selected as a mountain training site, with two of the six small units. Washington skier John B. Woodward (1915-2003) was recruited by the army to be a Fort Lewis ski and mountain instructor. Woodward had been captain of the University of Washington ski team and in 1935 was the Northwest Downhill Ski Champion. In November 1940, Lieutenant Woodward took 18 volunteers from the 15th Infantry Regiment to Longmire in Mount Rainier National Park. The ski trainees lived in a converted garage and spent six weeks testing equipment and developing mountain skills. Toward the end of the training they made a seven-day overland traverse from Snoqualmie Pass to Chinook Pass.

In addition to the 15th Regiment team under Lieutenant Woodward, the 41st Division had a training camp at the former Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp in Ashford, three miles from the national park. The 25 ski troops of the 41st trained at the same time as Woodward’s team. They learned ski movements that would be useful in wartime. At the end of their training period, Lieutenant Woodward joined them in March 1941 for a trek across the Olympic Mountains from west to east, some forty miles.

The First Ski Unit

On October 22, 1941, General Marshall wrote Charles Dole that a mountain battalion would be formed at Fort Lewis. The post in Pierce County became the site for the development of ski warfare tactics and equipment. After some 20 months of effort, Minnie Dole had his mountain troops.

The 1st Battalion, 87th Mountain Infantry, was formed on Nov. 15, 1941. Over the next three weeks soldiers, especially those with ski or mountain experience, transferred into the unit from the 3rd, 41st, and 44th divisions at Fort Lewis. In December 1941, after the U.S. entered World War II, the 87th Mountain Regiment was officially activated. The National Ski Patrol helped recruit many top skiers to join the army to serve in the 87th. Among them were a number of Mount Rainier rangers and summit guides. H. Edward Link (1914-1989), a Roosevelt High School graduate from Seattle and a downhill ski racer, was an early enlistee.

Fellow Seattleite Nobuyoski “Nobi” Kano (1914-2008), a Garfield High School graduate and excellent skier, who was interned along with other Japanese Americans, enlisted on February 26, 1942. He served as a ski instructor for 18 months. Born in Washington, Kano had studied in Japan as a child, and his understanding of Japanese language and ability to translate made him more valuable to the Military Intelligence Service so he left skiing for intelligence work.

Top skiers from across the United States also learned of the 87th and enlisted to join the unit and train at Fort Lewis. Among them was champion ski jumper Torger Tokle (1920-1945), who held the record for American ski jumping. Sergeant Walter Prager (1910-1984), a downhill skiing champion, joined the 87th and was a leading instructor at Fort Lewis and when the unit relocated to Colorado.

Training on Mount Rainier

Lieutenant Colonel Onslow S. Rolfe (1895-1985) was named the 87th Regiment commander. He was a cavalry officer who had no skiing experience, but learned the skill in a short time. In February 1942 his first administrative action was to obtain a lease from the National Park Service for Paradise Lodge and the Tatoosh Club in Mount Rainier National Park. The Fort Lewis ski troops were housed in the lodge and trained on the mountain. They tested equipment and skiing techniques while carrying loads weighing 90 pounds each.

On May 8, 1942, a team of 10 ski troops started a ski ascent to the summit. Led by Corporal Peter Gabriel (1907-1979), a famous Swiss mountaineer, the group tested clothes, food, stoves, and tents. During the ascent, skis were left behind since much of the climb was over rocky terrain. The ascent was filmed by Lieutenant John C. Jay (1915-2000), a former ski coach and ski photographer.

While the ski troops had excellent mountain and ski training at Mount Rainier, a major deficiency was noted. They were not allowed to train using live or blank fire. The National Park Service would not allow either in the park since it might frighten wildlife.

The park lease ended in May 1942 and the 87th returned to Fort Lewis and additional training. On May 1, 1942 the 2nd Battalion of the 87th was activated. With no mountains on the base, a 30-foot high climbing wall, built of notched logs, was erected near the regimental stables. One month later the 3rd Battalion was activated, creating a full regiment. For mountain transport horses and mules were acquired. A corral was established at Fort Lewis. At the entrance to the corral was a sign overarching the gate that read “Mountain Infantry Regiment: Through These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Mules in the World.” Cavalryman Colonel Rolfe enjoyed the opportunity to order his ski troops to ride horses and work with mules.

On Sept. 22, 1942, the 87th Mountain Regiment marched in review for President Roosevelt, who was inspecting Fort Lewis and its troops. They paraded with their skis and poles over their shoulders. It was an impressive sight and was repeated on special occasions in the future. There was also an attempt to create parade-style soldier ski movements as is done with rifles. After several experiments and injuries when troops hit each other with their skis the idea was dropped.

The 87th Mountain Regiment left Fort Lewis in November 1942, but other units subsequently trained at Mount Rainier. In the fall of 1943, the 938th Aviation Engineers had snow camouflage training here. Signal Corps Camera Unit Number 9 shot a training film on the mountain. When these units left at the end of 1943, use of Mount Rainier for military training in World War II came to an end.

 87th Mountain Regiment Goes to War

In November 1942 the 1st and 2nd battalions of the 87th Mountain Regiment went to California for maneuvers. After these maneuvers the regiment transferred to the army’s new winter training center at Camp Hale in Colorado. Here the 10th Light Infantry Division (Alpine) as organized with two new regiments, the 85th and 86th, activated to join it. The division trained in skiing, rock climbing, and weapons use.

In August 1943 the 87th participated in the invasion of Kiska Island in the Aleutians, having been selected given its cold-weather experience and gear. During an earlier battle at Attu Island, some 2,000 soldiers, poorly trained and equipped for the winter weather, were put out of action by frostbite and trench foot injuries. On Aug. 15, 1943, some 4,000 men of the 87th Mountain Regiment landed at Kiska. They landed unopposed, but once ashore came under heavy fire, suffering casualties. However, the Japanese had evacuated the island and it was friend-to-friend fire. Some additional casualties resulted from booby traps and mines placed by the enemy forces.

Back at Camp Hale, the 10th Light Infantry Division instituted a Mountain Training Group (MTG) for new recruits. Captain John Woodward served as its first commander. He selected instructors from the most qualified soldiers in the division. Chuck Hampton (1923-2005), a Tacoma mountain climber, was picked as a mountain-climbing instructor. The division continued its training and in December 1944 was renamed the 10th Mountain Division.

In January 1945 the division entered the ongoing battle in Italy. Its soldiers did not fight on skis, but as mountain troops attacking German positions in the Apennine Mountains. On February 18, 1945, the 87th Mountain Regiment participated in an assault on Monte Belvedere. The mountain had a dominating position above 10 miles of a critical highway. The German defenders were in well-fortified positions and could rain down artillery on the attackers. There was a heavy loss of life in the Monte Belvedere battle. On March 3, 1945, Sergeant Torger Tokle was killed in battle when a German artillery shell hit nearby. The battle in this sector continued to March 5.

In April the regiment led the attack in the Northern Apennines, overcoming a number of well-fortified positions. When the war was over, the 10th Mountain Division had lost 990 killed. After the end of the fighting in Europe, the 87th Regiment served occupation duties there. The regiment returned to the United States in August 1945 and was deactivated three months later. On Nov. 30, 1945 the 10th Mountain Division was deactivated. (A new 10th Mountain Division would be formed in 1985 and go on to served with distinction in numerous deployments as a light infantry division. The division provided troops for military operations in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan.)

 Veterans Shape Post-war Recreational Skiing

Veterans from the 10th Mountain Division had a major role in the expansion recreational skiing in the years after World War II. Some established new ski areas and resorts following their return home. Several 10th Division alumni were involved in the establishment of the Crystal Mountain ski area near Mount Rainier. Lieutenant Colonel H. Edward Link, who retired from the army in 1966, was central in its development, serving from 1968 to 1981 as president of the company operating the resort.

In 1955 John Woodward became a partner in the Anderson and Thompson (A&T) Ski Company in Seattle. The firm produced laminated wood skis and then became a ski-equipment distributor. Woodward continued in the mountain training of army units as a colonel in the Army Reserve.

After his discharge from the army in 1946, Nobi Kano returned to Seattle and, with assistance from the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (often referred to as the “G.I. Bill”), expanded his photography skills and became a manager with Tall’s Camera in Seattle. He helped found the Rokka Ski Club, an organization for Japanese skiers, and served as its president. Kano went onto to own four Nobi’s Camera Corner stores.

Webb Moffett (1909-2008), owner of the Snoqualmie Pass ski areas, offered free skiing to 10th Mountain Division veterans and had annual “ski-ins” for the former ski troops, a good opportunity for them to share with each other fond memories of the early days.

There is a memorial plaque honoring the 10th Mountain Division in the Paradise area of Mount Rainier National Park, along a flower trail on Theosophy Ridge where the 87th Regiment trained. Film footage of the ski troops on Mount Rainier shot by Lieutenant John Jay (who left the army in 1945 as a major) is shown by the National Park Service at the Paradise visitor center. John C. Jay became a famous ski photographer after the war.

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