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IN JULY 1942, THIRTY MONTHS before General Hays first cast his eyes on Riva Ridge, a strong-minded Irishman named Denis Nunan boarded a troop train at California’s Camp Roberts and headed north to join an experimental training center at Fort Lewis, near Washington’s Mount Rainier. Soldiers on the train slept in four Pullman cars and were fed in a baggage car outfitted with a wood-burning field stove bolted to the floor. Nunan had grown up in Short Hills, New Jersey, just outside New York City, and had never before seen the great mountain ranges of the West. As the train clicked north through the mountains and vast forests of the Pacific Northwest—past Mount Shasta, past Klamath Falls, and into the Cascades—Nunan found himself overcome with delight. The majesty of the landscape so transfixed him that he amended his brimming eagerness to join the fight overseas. He had thought of himself as training to liberate Europe from the Germans, he told a companion. Now, he declared, he was training to protect his own beautiful country.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Nunan had left a desk job at IBM, and he was already well into his basic training at the infantry replacement center at Camp Roberts. Upon his arrival on the West Coast, Nunan had instantly noticed a dramatic difference in the sense both soldiers and civilians had about the war. San Francisco Bay was full of warships; military planes cruised along the Marin headlands; armed guards were ubiquitous in the city streets. “You really know there’s a war on out here,” he wrote home. “Too bad the East isn’t as awake as they are here.” When he told his military superiors about his business experience, they automatically pushed him to run the base’s IBM machines, but Nunan begged off. Although he was thirty-two, much older than the average enlisted man, he was determined to fight on the front lines as a private. War was a grave business, and he was unwilling to take refuge behind the boys with their necks on the line. Indeed, Nunan’s relative maturity inoculated him from the unbridled bravado native to the typical nineteen-year-old soldier. Already an adult with an established career, Nunan had no illusions about establishing his manhood on the battlefield. He signed up not with bloodlust or pride but soberly, a citizen offering to risk his own death in a war he considered unambiguously just.
Yet Nunan’s seriousness of purpose was always leavened by a twinkling sense of irony and playfulness. For months he had been reading about a remarkable collection of world-class skiers and mountaineers being trained as the country’s first mountain troops, and though he hardly fit the mold, he knew instantly that he wanted in. The soldiers dressed in winter camouflage, white hoods pulled over faces painted with white grease, their eyes protected from high-altitude snow blindness by glacier goggles. They rappelled over cliffs, marched over glaciers, and learned to ski in military formation. Nunan wanted to join them, even though, by his own admission, the highest he had ever climbed was “to the top of a Fifth Avenue bus.”
If nothing else, Nunan figured, the training he would receive as a mountain soldier would serve him well at the front. Mountaineering and combat were alike in that the physical dangers native to each—be they avalanches and rockfalls or sniper fire and land mines—required learning to live with extreme psychological stress. Training at high altitude, under the tutelage of experienced mountain men, would be a good way to prepare for the terrors of war, wherever his unit was sent. Mountain training also offered a chance to develop capacities that would be useful long after the war ended: superior physical conditioning, high-altitude navigation and rescue skills, intimacy with the great mysteries of the wilderness. All things a young man would be unlikely to learn in an office job in New Jersey. Indeed, from everything Nunan could gather from the newspaper coverage trumpeting their arrival, the mountain troops were a kind of mythical brotherhood, its members descending like gods from mountaintops all over Europe and North America to save the world from the advancing shadows of evil dictatorship.
By the time Nunan arrived in the Cascades, the training at Fort Lewis had been under way for just six months, but already the camp had attracted dozens of the best skiers in the world. The first man to appear at Fort Lewis had been the former captain of the Dartmouth College ski team, Charles McLane. When he showed up wearing his ski team sweater, McLane asked a guard at the main gate where the mountain troops were. After calling headquarters and checking McLane’s papers again, the guard looked McLane over and said, “Lad, you are the Mountain Infantry. You’re a one-man regiment!”
McLane was not lonely for long. As word began to spread that the army was forming its first-ever mountain units, Fort Lewis began to seem more like an Olympic ski lodge than an army base. Hard-eyed European mountaineers—many having barely escaped Nazi imprisonment in Austria and Norway—had been recruited to turn mostly teenaged Americans into skilled Alpine soldiers. What the Europeans brought to the fledgling troops, in addition to the technical skills necessary for survival in the high mountains, was a tradition of warfare entirely unknown to an American military establishment. Fighting in the mountains required not only specialized equipment and practice, none of which American soldiers possessed, it required an entirely different degree of psychological preparation. American soldiers were used to training at warm, flatland bases in California and the Deep South, and that alone, regardless of how well the men learned their trade, would be a decided disadvantage against an army with centuries of mountain and cold-weather fighting in its history. This history was well known to General Frido von Senger und Etterlin, the commander of the Germans the American mountain troops would eventually face. When it came to fighting in the mountains, physical preparation and military training were only part of the equation, Senger would write. Far more important was for soldiers to overcome the natural dread of dying alone on an exposed slab of Alpine rock. For soldiers accustomed to fighting only in flat country, he wrote, mountains “intensify all fears.”