10th Mountain Division; Portion of Highway 89 memorializes famed fighting ski troops
Creating a memorial highway isn’t as easy as it seems, even if it is dedicated to one of the most popular Army divisions of World War II. Just ask Gardner Finn.
Finn, 80, of Carmichael, has spent the last two years of his life working to get two signs- one just south of West Rivber Street on Highway 89, the other at the Tahoe City entrance to 89- created to commemorate the service of the 10th Mountain Division, in which he served during the war.
In World War II, the 10th was a group of ski-bound troops who braved the elements to battle the Germans in the snowy mountains of northern Italy.
“You can only put a veterans’ memorial sign on a highway dedicated to just that,” said Finn, a part-time Tahoe-Donner resident since 1950.
Finn, born in Santa Cruz, said he tried parts of I-80 and 267, but those failed. Finally, it was decided 89’s proximity to large ski resorts and exposure to residents of both Tahoe City and Truckee made it the ideal location for the signs.
First, Finn had to write a proposal, which was sent to Sen. Pat Johnston’s office in Sacramento. But the approval of the signs was actually named in a bill passed by senators Johnston and Tim Leslie.
Then, Finn had to bone up on highway signage law, with help from Caltrans, which provided him with a thick tome on the subject.
The sign was designed in Marysville in less than an hour, but Finn was told it could take several months to produce and place the signs, since the printing factories in both Los Angeles and Missouri were booked up. Finn decided to take it upon himself to have the signs made in Truckee. McCarthy Sign Co., which has produced other road signs in the past, stepped in to help out the vets.
But the red tape had just begun.
It would take approximately $4,000 to have the signs produced, a figure Finn wasn’t about to personally shell out. Finally, a 10th vet put up the money and the signs were printed.
The last concern was whether the signs would go up before winter brought snow. If they didn’t, it could be spring before they went in. But Caltrans came through and the signs were erected Oct. 29, along 89.
The beginnings of the 10th Mountain Division were, like many great army divisions, humble.
Gardner Finn was barely 24 when he was drafted into the Army in October 1941. America had not yet entered the war, but the feeling was that it could happen any day. And it did.
Finn describes his first day in the army:
“I got down there and the sergeant asked me what outfit I wanted to be in, so I told him I wanted to ski, but he told me ‘forget it,’ since you had to be in two years before you could join the ski outfits,” Finn recalled.
So Finn was sent to radio school where he studied code-breaking eight hours a day.
On Dec. 9, 1941, a mere two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and war was declared on Japan, Finn was sent to Ft. Lewis near Mt. Ranier in Washington. He was assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry First Battalion Reinforced, which was the beginning of the 10th Mountain Division.
Divisions are broken into three regiments. The 10th was divided into the 85th, 86th and 87th. Finn would go on to be part of the 87th and 85th.
Training and Camp “Hell”
“We were doing 10 to 20 miles per day on skis and snowshoes on Mt. Ranier,” said Finn.
Soon, though, with a promotion to master sergeant, Finn was sent to the 10th’s training camp near Vail, Colo. What had once been a resort named Paradise Lodge became the training camp named Camp Hale, or, as it was more popularly known to soldiers, Camp Hell.
The men trained in feet upon feet of snow in temperatures that often reached 30 degrees below zero, sometimes being forced to camp with only sleeping bags.
As a master sergeant, Finn witnessed a lot of buck privates walk into the camp for the first time.
“Once, we had 250 raw recruits, 18-year-old kids, and every other one of them said, ‘when do we get our skis?'” Finn remembered. “Not a one of them asked when they got their rifles.”
Not all the recruits would withstand the climate and altitude change.
“We were at 9,500 feet and above and we lost a lot of guys to bloody noses and bleeding ears because of the altitude,” said Finn.
According to Finn, most of the equipment used by the men of the 10th was experimental.
“On our skis we had these bear-trap bindings that held you in,” said Finn. “You could break a leg if you didn’t know how to fall right.”
The 10th was the first to use laminated skis. Their snowshoes were of the bear-paw and Alaskan trail variety. In the snow, they wore white uniforms for camouflage. The uniforms were reversible to green for forest maneuvers.
It was hit and miss, Finn said. Some equipment worked well, others were quickly phased out. In the ski history museum at Boreal, Finn pointed out a fur-lined face cover.
“That didn’t work too well because the moisture from your breath collected around your face and the fur stuck to it,” Finn said.
For supplies, the men were given small mountain tents and steel-framed rucksacks, the first of their kind in both cases. Their rations were meager and dehydrated. The theory, Finn said, was to boil snow in tiny portable stoves and add the water to the food, but it didn’t quite work out.
“Where we were, there was dry snow, so it took half an hour just to boil a little water,” Finn said. “By the time you got it ready, you were starving to death.”
Finn also said the army developed a chocolate bar, forerunner to the Powerbar, for the 10th.
The War In Italy
After three years of training, the 10th was called to duty in the mountains of Italy.
In the winter of 1945, the division set up camp at the foot of Mt. Belvedere in the Appenine Mountains of Italy. The Germans had developed a powerful artillery at the top of Belvedere and on Feb. 19 the 10th sprung into action.
Finn remembers the troops climbed to the top around 7 p.m. and came down at 7 a.m. the next day. Armed with M-1 rifles and hand-grenades, the 10th’s swift attack had been a surprise and a success. It was their greatest night, everything they had trained for, and the 10th soldiers went on to win every battle they fought.
After the war, Finn and his family bought a home in Tahoe Park in Lake tahoe in 1950. He planned to enter the family business of real estate and insurance.
Soon, though, the Korean War began and Finn was once again called to active duty. The rules stated enlisted men with two children or less must go to Korea. Each man with three children was allowed to stay home and provide for his family.
At the time, Finn had two children. He was sched-
uled to be shipped off Jan. 10. Finn was prepared to head off to Korea and leave his pregnant wife and two children at home when, on Jan. 6, his third child was born, four days shy of his departure.
“You can understand why he’s my favorite,” Finn said of his third child, laughing.
The Tahoe and Truckee Connection
Karl Kielhofer, Truckee, served in the 10th. After the war, he returned to Truckee and ran a construction business. He is now retired and living in Palm Desert.
Pete Vanni of Truckee came home from Italy and went to work for Sierra Pacific Power Company and raised his family. He still lives with his wife in Tahoe City.
“I think the signs are very fitting,” said Vanni. “They’re really beautiful.”
Vanni said he keeps in touch with some of the others from the 10th, but has mixed feelings about those days.
“It was terrifying,” said Vanni, who was in the 85th’s surprise attack on Mt. Belvedere. “We lost some guys there.”
Little-known Facts About the 10th
— The 10th was single-handedly created by a civilian, Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole, founder and chairman of the National Ski Patrol.
— Toger Dahl Tokle, holder of the world’s ski jump record of 289 feet, was a member of the 10th.
— Sen. Robert Dole, then Lt. Dole, was a member of the 10th. In February 1945 he was sent to Italy and was paralyzed from the neck down in battle. Today, he is still partially paralyzed on the right side.
— 10th Mountain vet Bill Bowerman along with University of Oregon track runner Phil Nye invented the Nike shoe and started the Nike company.
— Nearly 60 ski areas throughout the United States have been constructed or founded by veterans of the 10th Mountain Division.
— Vail was founded by 10th vets.
— 10th vets Bill Klein and Luggie Foegger returned to Tahoe after the war. Klein ran the ski school at Sugar Bowl and Foegger is associated with helping create Alpine Meadows and Ski Incline (now Diamond Peak).
— The 10th never lost a battle.
— The 10th was re-formed and drastically revamped for duty in the Gulf War of 1991.
Remembering the 10th
There is now a monument to the 10th on Tennessee Pass near the Continental Divide in Colorado. It lists the names of the men who were killed in battle.
There will be a ceremony to honor the 10th veterans and commemorate the highway Tuesday, Nov. 18, on the steps of the capitol building in Sacramento. The ceremony begins at 11 a.m. and the public is invited to attend.
As for Finn, he said he doesn’t ski anymore due to his legs.
“My legs are just shot,” said Finn. “You get on the skis and they just buckle under you.”
But he will never forget the days he and 15,000 other men served his nation on pairs of skis. Nine hundred and ninety-two of them didn’t come back and more than that have been lost to age and time. Perhaps that’s why Finn wanted the signs around Truckee and Tahoe: so we will remember.
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