Video: America's wartime ski team

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/17/2006 8:03:16 PM ET 2006-02-18T01:03:16

Every day in the Colorado Rockies is precious for Dick Over, ski instructor and guide, age 82. He still has the moves he learned in the 10th Mountain Division, the U.S. Army's first alpine unit that played a key role in the battle for Italy.  

The Italian campaign had been costly. Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were killed or wounded, failing to break through the Nazis’ heavily armed Gothic Line.

The Army's dramatic solution? Bring in mountain troops. But the 10th Mountain Division was just an experiment back in 1942, when it recruited the best climbers and skiers.

"We like to think we were the ultimate team," says Over.

The Italianmission, for the 10th, sounded impossible: surprise the German gunners by climbing Riva Ridge — 2,000 feet of rock. In the snow. At night.

But it worked.

"The remarkable thing about Riva Ridge is, they got to the top and there was not a single soldier that was lost in the climb," says McKay Jenkins, author of the book "The Last Ridge."

But the Germans dug in for four more months of mountain combat.

Sixty years later, Bob Parker remembers the heavy toll.

"A shell happened to fall," says Parker, "and the shell missed — missed me — and killed my best friends. That's the way it was."

The 10th Mountain Division lost almost 1,000 men — some of the U.S. Army's best and brightest — taking the Alps. But in doing so it destroyed a full five German divisions and broke the Nazis' last line of defense in Italy.

But it was after the victory celebrations that the men of the 10th left another, unexpected legacy. Back in the mountains of America, they put their ski training and their love of the sport to work to create the U.S. ski industry.

10th Mountain vets built Vail, Stowe and Aspen, and were instrumental in developing some 60 ski resorts and schools nationwide.

Dick Over taught new generations of skiers.

"The heritage we feel is well worth passing on," he says.

Bob Parker became an editor of Skiing Magazine.

"Jobs like that didn't exist before the war," he says.

And as a vice president at Vail, he named a favorite ski run — Riva Ridge.

Back in Italy, in tiny alpine towns like Castel d'Aiano, the 10th Mountain vets are still honored as liberators, old war heroes and, always, mountain soldiers.

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