“Soldiers Out of Skiers”
It is more reasonable to make soldiers out of skiers than skiers out of soldiers.
— Charles Minot Dole to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, July 18, 1940
On a blustery evening in February 1940, four skiers took refuge inside the Orvis Inn in Manchester, Vermont. Like many other weekend visitors to nearby Bromley Mountain, they had enjoyed a crisp day on the slopes. But their leisure had been cut short by a gathering storm and the descending darkness, which settled over the town shortly after 5 p.m.
The inn did good business, and the four friends were lucky to find seats before the roaring fire. There, in line with New England tradition, they sipped hot rum, tired but satisfied after a good day’s skiing, talking casually.
The men were royalty among the American skiing community: Roger Langley, athletic director of a Massachusetts prep school and president of the National Ski Association of America, was there, along with Robert Livermore, a member of the US Olympic ski team in 1936, and Alex Bright, another veteran of the 1936 team and founder of the exclusive Ski Club Hochgebirge of Boston. The fourth member of the group, destined to become the most important civilian figure in the history of the 10th Mountain Division, was Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole, the forty-year-old founder and director of the National Ski Patrol System.
The conversation that evening eventually turned from the storm outside to the storm in Europe, that is, the war that had begun six months earlier with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and a separate conflict in Finland, invaded by the Soviet Union’s Red Army on November 30, 1939.
With a tense quiet prevailing for the time being on the western front separating the German Wehrmacht from its French and British opponents, the only active European battlefront that winter was in Finland. The Finns, despite being vastly outnumbered by their Soviet foes, put up a doughty defense of the Karelian Isthmus in what was dubbed the “Winter War,” winning international admiration—although, ultimately, not the war. In March 1940 Finland was finally forced to capitulate, making territorial concessions to the Soviet Union.
In February, however, the Finns were still resisting the invaders. “Finns Beat Back a Quarter of Million Russians in Biggest Offensive of War” was the lead story on the front page of the Burlington FreePress, Vermont’s best-known newspaper, on February 9, 1940. Dole and his companions, possibly the very next evening, were particularly impressed by the performance of white-camouflage-clad Finnish ski troops, who, in a signature tactic, launched devastating hit-and-run attacks on lumbering columns of Soviet soldiers and vehicles before swiftly and silently disappearing into the snowy vastness of the surrounding forests. In Dole’s recollection, the four skiers agreed that this was “a perfect example of men fighting in an environment with which they were entirely at home and for which they were trained.”
The Finns, the four skiers agreed, were obviously well prepared to fight a winter war. They wondered, however, what might happen if the United States were engaged in a similar conflict—if, hypothetically, Germany, having defeated Great Britain, then invaded Canada, followed up that conquest by sweeping down from the north into New England or other regions of the United States that were under snow a good portion of the year. How well would American soldiers fare if they had to face a determined enemy in conditions similar to the storm blowing outside that night in the snow-clad Vermont hills? From the Italian Corpo Alpini to the French Chasseurs Alpins and the Austro-Hungarian Gebirgsbrigaden, European armies had long maintained specially trained alpine units for mountain and cold weather fighting. Such soldiers had proved their valor and their worth in the World War of 1914–1918, when fighting between Italians and Austrians in the Alps cost tens of thousands of lives. Geography dictated that Europeans needed to take alpine fighting seriously, since so many borders ran along the crests of mountains. In continental European armies, accordingly, service in mountain units could be a springboard to distinguished military careers. Erwin Rommel, the “Desert Fox” of the North African campaign in the Second World War, commanded a battalion of German mountain troops in the First World War, taking part in the 1917 offensive that broke through the Italian front at Caporetto—an epic defeat immortalized, for American readers, in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms.
Bob Livermore and Alex Bright had gotten a close-up view of German prowess in winter sports at the 1936 Winter Olympics in Bavaria. The Germans took home three gold medals, while the United States claimed one.