THE LAST RIDGE - The Inspiring Story of the 10th Mountain Division, A Compelling PBS Documentary Based on the Book by McKay Jenkins
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NARRATOR: In the mountains of Afghanistan, the 10th Mountain Division patrols the highest corners of this troubled country. For 6 decades this remarkable division has put fear in the hearts of America¹s enemies in the world¹s harshest terrainsŠrevolutionizing winter mountain warfare abroadŠ and winter sports at home. This is their story.


:60 Underwriting Credits

NARRATOR: The mountains of eastern Afghanistan are a fortress for dangerous Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. They¹re a nearly impossible obstacle for the U.S. Army¹s most deployed military soldiers, the 10th Mountain Division.

SUPER: Command Sgt Major Frank Grippe: The 10th Mountain attitude is to bring the fight to the enemy. We have fought in the snow. We have fought in the highest altitudes the American military has ever fought in.

NARRATOR: Endless patrols seek out the enemy. Dangerous, deadly patrols. Victory seems a long way off.

SUPER: COL Arthur Bartell: It¹s clear when you talk to young soldiers that they are part of something that transcends now. That¹s not lost on the soldiers of the 10th Mtn Division.

NARRATOR: They are one of the most unique divisions active today, born out of hard lessons learned when Hitler¹s vast war machine smashed eastward into Russia in the darkest days of World War Two. The real enemy was winter. Unprepared, the Germans were devastated.

SUPER: FLINT: Staying alive becomes a major consideration for the troops in the field.

NARRATOR: Mountains and winter, an even deadlier combination.

Flint: It¹s whoever holds the high ground has the upper hand, because it¹s very difficult to attack uphill. Here in America, they realized we were very much unprepared if the United States were to get into the war and face that type of situation.


NARRATOR: Specialized mountain troops didn¹t exist in the U.S. Army. They had no expertise, no special equipment, and no idea where to start. Inspired by the tiny band of Finnish mountain troops who brought invading Soviets to their knees, the dream of a mountain division was born.

SUPER: John Imbrie: People like Minnie Dole began to wonder suppose the Germans or the Russians decided to invade through Canada? Would we be able to stop them?

NARRATOR: Charles Minot Dole was the legendary head of the National Ski Patrol. He brought his vision of mountain troops to an unwilling military dedicated to flatland fighting. Olympic athletes, expert skiers and climbers rushed to join the ranks.

John: And that began the ski troops. So the 10th was brought into action two weeks before our nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor.


NARRATOR: With the war clearly going badly, the mountain troops became heroes for a very scared American public.

NEWSREEL: And what men they are, everyone a volunteer. Many are world famous skiers & mountain climbers, many are amateurs, and many are greenhorns.

NARRATOR: One of the idols was Norwegian ski jumper Torger Tokle, the Babe Ruth of Ski Jumping. This modest fellow was a living legend who would lead in training and in combat, and inspire others to do the same.


NARRATOR: There had never been such backbreaking training. Camped high in the Colorado Mountains, they were exposed to temperatures down to thirty below zero.

SUPER: Hugh Evans: I didn¹t think under certain conditions that we were put, that we could actually survive the cold.

NARRATOR: Each man hauled ninety pounds of gear at altitudes approaching thirteen thousand feet.

SUPER: DUKE WATSON: People began to drop out who couldn¹t cope with that much elevation gain.

NARRATOR: No jeeps, no tanks, no trucks. Just the men, their skis and whatever they could carry.

SUPER: KEN MACDONALD: I¹d never seen guys this tough and this well-conditioned, this determined to make soldiers.

SUPER: Bill Brown: We used to say that combat was easier than the training at Camp Hale. But I think we were before our time.


NARRATOR: With Army procedures and equipment irrelevant or hopelessly outdated, they pioneered critical survival techniques and gear, adding to their enormous backpacks.

SUPER: Newc Eldredge: You know I never really weighed it, but I know it was damn heavy. It was later on when we knew it was 90 pounds. I always thought it was pulling me down hill. 5:40

NARRATOR: Even one of the 10th¹s expert outdoorsmen, Tap Tapley who would later lead in Outward Bound found it tricky.

SUPER: Tap Tapley: We were pushed to our limits many times. You learn a lot about yourself. Once you get thrown around and the pack hits the ground 1st & your skis go up in the air & you just roll until you get the skis back on the ground. You usually roll quite a ways.

NARRATOR: The vision of such a highly mobile strike force was so ahead of its time that logistics and supplies couldn¹t keep up.

John: At Camp Hale and later Camp Swift we learned to use mules. Many people like myself never learned to love mules, but we did learn to use mules for transport.

NARRATOR: In Europe, Americans were dying. In Washington, it was clear Army commanders had no idea what to with a division saddled with 90 pound backpacks and 5000 mules.

Flint: That was tremendous logistical problem-- they were so specialized. Overseas commanders looked at the 10th and said it looks like an interesting bunch, but no thanks!

NARRATOR: Training continued with extended winter camping maneuvers testing everyone¹s limits. Blizzards blowing horizontal snow. Record low temperatures. There was a growing sense the war might pass them by.

BILL BROWN: We all thought are we ever going to put this together? We trained and trained and trained and nobody wanted us.

MAP # 1 at approximately 7:55 in: ALASKA MAP

NARRATOR: In 1943, the Japanese breach America¹s borders, invading two mountainous islands off the coast of Alaska. Fears of a mainland invasion rage, as bloody battles on Attu Island cost 4000 American casualties. The Army needs specialized soldiers and the mountain men finally get their chance. Cocky and confident, they are ready to prove themselves. Amidst a literal fog of war, they arrive on Kiska.

SUPER: Karl Stingl: It was just miserable. The wind was blowing and the fog was hanging in there. The whole mountain looked it was just a wall right in front of us.

NARRATOR: But the Japanese have vanished, withdrawing their five thousand soldiers beneath a cloak of thick fog, defying the Allies¹ naval blockade. Unaware of the Japanese retreat, things begin to go terribly wrong.

SUPER: John Hendron: We thought we were dealing with the enemy. It certainly would have been different if we had a clue we might be shooting at our own people.

SUPER: RUSO PERKINS: That was a fiasco. It was terrifying‹no commands. I just stayed where I was. Finally the daylight came and things calmed down.

TEXT: 18 KIA (or 18 Deaths in Kiska Campaign)

NARRATOR: Bloodied by friendly fire, they fear they¹ll never get another chance to prove themselves. They¹re sent back to Colorado to train new recruits in the most brutal winter maneuvers yet. Known as D-Series, it was 6 weeks of mock battles at thirteen thousand feet with subzero temperatures.

SUPER: MONI WUERSLIN: I know D Series was terrible in a lot of ways but it was part of the whole mountain mystique. And so we took it seriously because we thought we were going to need all our experience to survive.

SUPER: BOB YANK: When you got to combat you didn¹t think anything could be as bad. It was often down to -35. Are we ever going to survive this?

MAP # 2 at 10:34 shows Italy & mountains & pan up boot from Anzio.

John: Of course we read the news about the battles at Anzio. We knew they were struggling in bloody battles as they struggled up the boot. The question is often asked why did it take the 10th so long to get into combat? There were reports written by the Army, very critical, not only about the officer leadership in the 10th. But particularly about the fact that we didn¹t have heavy enough weapons to stand up in combat against the German Army.

NARRATOR: Training with heavy weapons meant moving to the extreme heat of Texas. As they sweltered, the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.


John: In the 10th, many soldiers were impatient. They wanted to get in & win this war, finish the job and get the job done.


NARRATOR: But by the end of 1944, the Allies are totally bogged down in Italy. They had suffered terribly through 16 months of bloody fighting trying to take the northernmost Apennine Mountains. It left them no closer to victory, but left Italy in shambles.

John: It¹s a nasty place to fight. Also the Germans had amassed huge artillery batteries around Bolonga and they knew it would be a bloody battle. So the prospect for the offensive the next year was grim. 11:35

MAP # 3 at approx 11:51 in: German Winter Line wide & Allied positions

NARRATOR: The German¹s defensive ³Winter Line² extends from sea to sea: 38 miles deep and 180 miles long, controlling all the high ground. It¹s impossible for the Allied 5th Army to move forward towards Germany.

John Imbrie: Italy is essentially a series of ridges. When you take one ridge, there¹s another one. By the time you got to that ridge, the Germans had prepared almost inevitably a brilliant defense.

NARRATOR: At last war-planners finally had a job only the 10th could do. It was a deadly mission to capture this last invincible line of ridges. Highway 64, tucked deep in this valley was crucial. With the Germans dug into the mountain tops overlooking it, this narrow winding road became a tenuous lifeline for the 10th.

MAP # 4 at 12:50 shows relationship of Mt. Belvedere & Riva Ridge

Flint: So the 10th looked it with kind of fresh eyes. In order to be able to move the 5th Army down Route 64, they would have to take Mt. Belvedere. But the key to Belvedere was taking Riva Ridge, because that¹s where the German observers were. Any attempt to attack Mount Belvedere which was the commanding peak in that area was doomed to failure without taking Riva Ridge first.

NARRATOR: Riva Ridge rose steeply, 2000 feet from the valley floor. The 10th devised a simple, but perfect plan to scale the steep mountain of rock before them.


Flint: Riva Ridge had a sheer face facing them-the 10th Mtn was down here in the valley.

John: It¹s a two thousand foot, very steep cliff. To my knowledge, no one ever tried to take Riva Ridge before. And if you look at it in the wintertime you can see why.

SUPER: Andrew Gordon: We looked at it from down below and we couldn¹t believe it. But we thought we¹re being asked to do it and we¹re going to do it.

MAP # 5 at approx 14:05 in (shows 5 routes up Riva Ridge)

NARRATOR: The commander of the Riva Ridge operation, Colonel Henry Hampton, ordered assault teams to map 5 routes. The most difficult required ropes & pitons. Ironically, the specialized gear the 10th had developed, tested and trained with, sat in a stateside warehouse. The soldiers made do.

Flint: The whole key to the operation was we¹re going to do it at night, we¹re going to do it without any artillery fire to alert the enemy that an attack is coming & we¹re going to do it as quickly as possible.

NARRATOR: As the operation neared, Commanding General George Hays delivered a remarkable speech to his division, encouraging the troops responsible for capturing Mt. Belvedere after Riva Ridge was taken.

SUPER: Hans Thompson: General Hays told us just stay in touch with the man ahead of you. Just keep going up the hill and we¹ll all meet at the top. I was really reassured by his quiet sense of confidence.

NARRATOR: When the sun set on a chilly February 18th, an eerie mist drifted in Š and over 700 men converged on Riva Ridge. The rest of the division held their breath, knowing their turn will come the next night on Mount Belvedere.

SUPER: Dave Rankine: We start up the mountain. We cross the bridge and we¹re in a single file. And the thing that worried myself was the fact that usually we had one medic with us as a platoon. And this time we have 5 or 6 medics and I thought they¹re expecting a lot of us to wounded and killed.

SUPER: Hal Willits: We approached the top of the ridge in a fog-we could not see anything, and the snow was 3 or 4 feet deep.

SUPER: Al Partridge: When we pushed up over the ridge at the last minute, the Germans were still eating breakfast.

Flint: I think the Germans were very surprised to see the Americans coming up from the side they declared unclimbable.

Al Partridge: All of a sudden, ³wham,² the next thing I remember I had been hit.

NARRATOR: The bullet deflected off a harmonica and prayer book in his pocket, saving his life. Now the 10th faced a new set of problems. Knowing German counterattacks were imminent, engineers began erecting an ingenious tramway to evacuate the wounded and supply ammunition and food. 17:40

John: For the next five days the ground was in jeopardy. And without the tram, it would have been much harder to supply those people.

NARRATOR: One company, dangerously low on ammunition, called for reinforcements‹ and even artillery on their own position.

SUPER: Bob Thompson: We were fighting for our lives. We couldn¹t fall back‹we didn¹t even think about that. We just thought we were going to hold it.

NARRATOR: Badly outnumbered, they repeat the call for artillery on their own position in hopes of knocking out the encroaching Germans.

Bob Thompson: You know artillery fire is deadly. It was almost too close.

NARRATOR: By the time the battle was over, the Germans lost their critical observation post and the battle was on for Mount Belvedere and beyond.

NARRATOR: Back stateside, families clung together, sharing any scrap of news from the front.

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Outreach, Promotion and Development for The Last Ridge have been made possible by the R.C. Baker Foundation, honoring the extraordinary legacy of World War II veterans.