Just about every soldier in the 10th Mountain Division can tell you it has been America’s busiest Army unit since its reactivation 22 years ago.
About how 10th Mountain Division troops are in the front lines fighting against al-Qaida insurgents in Iraq. And how the division routed the Taliban from the Shah-e-Kot mountains in Afghanistan during the early phases of the war on terror.
Most even know about the daring rescue of the ambushed Army Rangers from Mogadishu in 1993 — a feat chronicled in the best-selling book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
But few can detail the division’s exploits during World War II, and fewer still how the division was born as an alpine fighting force in the mountains of Colorado or why it now calls upstate New York its home.
Fort Drum’s new Heritage Center is now providing those answers.
“Military history is one of the great educational and training tools for any military organization.
The Heritage Center will end up becoming the focal point for that,” said Douglas Cubbison, a retired Army major and former cultural resources manager at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who is now the division’s historian.
Up until now, the legacy-rich division’s historical collection, at least part of it, was displayed nondescriptly in one of the wooden buildings left over from World War II when the post was known as Pine Camp.
“It was built as a temporary building. It’s gotten crowded and cramped. We were so constrained there we could barely handle a small family if they wanted to visit. Now we can bring in a tour bus,” Cubbison said.
The new 3,000-square-foot museum, which opened in April, is located in part of a former enlisted man’s club. The renovated club also has a gift shop and houses the newly opened USO center and cafe.
“There are soldiers serving now that have no concept of the history of the division,” said Kent Bolke, the museum’s curator. “We don’t want that story to be forgotten.”
Educating soldiers is the center’s primary mission but it’s also intended to be a link to the surrounding civilian community. The museum is free and open to the public.
While it may seem remote and removed in today’s contemporary world, Fort Drum is located in an area that has held strategic importance through history. For American Indians, it held key trading and hunting trails; for colonial European powers, the area was vital to control of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes.
Nearby Sackets Harbor was one of young America’s most important military installations during the War of 1812. After the war, the Army built Madison Barracks there, serving as an outpost and one of its principal training centers — Gen. Ulysses S. Grant trained there — until it was closed in 1947.
In 1906, Madison Barracks needed a summer training area and designated Pine Plains near Watertown for the task. Over time, Pine Plains became Camp Hughes, and then Pine Camp and then Camp Drum — after the World War I-era First Army commander, Gen. Hugh A. Drum.
The museum is divided into four sections to tell its stories.
The first focuses on the area’s Indian history through the French and Indian War and War of 1812; another examines Fort Drum’s precursors; another depicts the division’s history during World War II; and the fourth details the division’s deployments since its reactivation in 1985 — Hurricane Andrew, the Gulf War, Haiti, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo among them. The last section also includes weapons captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We are living history there as we’re fighting,” said Sgt. Bill Wortman, who was helping the museum get organized while home recovering from a leg injury suffered in Afghanistan.
“When you see our achievements in this context (the museum), you realize you are part of something bigger. For me, I feel I have a stronger bond to the division’s past after being here,” said Wortman, of Prineville, Ore.
The original 10th Mountain Division was created in 1943 at Camp Hale in Colorado as a light infantry division to fight in cold weather and high-altitude terrain. Soldiers trained on skis and snowshoes and slept outside without tents. Many 10th Mountain Division soldiers became pioneers in the recreational ski industry.
One part of the museum is an exhibit called Granddad’s Attic. The display is designed to give both soldiers and other visitors an idea about what to do when an old Army item is found.
“We want people to understand what it is they have, what they can do to protect it, and where they might be able to take it,” Bolke said. “Often these items are not only important to the family, but to the culture of the U.S. Army and America as a whole.”
Another display highlights the early career of Bill Mauldin, who trained at Pine Camp during World War II with the 45th Infantry Division and later went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes as one of the most popular and influential cartoonists of the 20th century.
The division first made its mark on American military history during World War II at the battle of Riva Ridge in northern Italy. In that battle, 10th Mountain Division soldiers scaled a sheer 1,500-foot cliff under cover of darkness to rout the Nazis and help liberate Italy.
One of Fort Drum’s most hallowed artifacts, though, is excluded from the display: The Congressional Medal of Honor awarded posthumously to Pfc. John Magrath, the only medal of honor winner in the division’s history.
Magrath won the medal at Mount Belvedere during the Italian offensive when he saved his unit by charging a German machine gun nest, killing three Germans, wounding seven and taking several more as prisoners. He died later that day helping fallen comrades.
Magrath’s medal is on display in the post gymnasium that bears his name.