On and Off the Jeep With the 89th

(Light Divisions)
By Gerry Stearns, H Co 354th

Once upon a time there were three ‘light" divisions. There was a Mama division-- No, that’s another story. Back in 1944 when I joined the 89th at Hunter Liggett, I learned that the "Lights" were experimental divisions, established in part to test out approaches to mountain warfare. The 71st, against whom we were maneuvering, was for low mountains. They were assigned mules. I understood the 89th was medium mountains. We had no mules: we were the mules. There were still some of those pushcarts left over from Louisiana and we were all equipped with pack boards, which made for quick packing and take-off. The third Light was the 10th Mountain Division, which provided ski troops for the Army. This was about all I knew about them except they had trained at Camp Hale in Colorado about the same time the 89th was at Carson. (More detail about the "Lights" on page 47 of the Division History.)

Then around Christmas last year I ran across a book by Harris Dusenbery, who lives in Vancouver, Washington, across the Columbia River from where I live, in Portland, Oregon, called The North Apennines and Beyond. It was an account of the combat of the Tenth Mountain in the Apennine Mountains of Italy. Units of the Tenth were in action in Italy from 1/8/45 to 5/2/45, 114 days longer than we were in action and with substantially more casualties. Whether in static defensive positions or chasing the Germans, it was in the most rugged terrain. Where we measured our progress in miles per day, they often moved in yards only, over difficult terrain and against dogged defense.

The Tenth's training was comparably rough to their combat, as Dusenbery recounted in Ski the High Trail about the Tenth's final training in the high Colorado Rockies. Dusenbery was a rifleman in C Company, 86th Infantry. He had enlisted because he was lifelong skier and feared that sooner or later they would draft fathers, but if he waited he would have lost the opportunity to become a ski trooper. When I read his account of his day-to-day on Government Issue skis, I felt better about splintering my hand-me-down skies when I was fifteen. I ran into a tree. (It was the Depression, and I couldn't afford to replace the skies and continue what had been great fun.)

Dusenbery didn't have all that much downhill fun. When he and the other guys in the squad climbed hills they had both the advantages and disadvantages of those boards on their feet. They didn't sink into the snow, but they had to bend their bodies into tortured positions just to make forwards progress. The cold and the thin air didn't help. Nor, did the constant awareness of avalanche potential. Sometimes it was possible to dig a cave in the snow and spend a night in relative warmth, and the occasional treat of C rations heated by the company cooks was much appreciated. Great reading, especially his description of a patrol in "enemy" country and some if it reflected my own experience in a Light Division. No, not on skis--read on.

Early one morning during the final Division maneuvers, at 9 000 to 12000 feet, Dusenbery was awakened by the sound of gunfire. He pulled this gear together and did his damnedest to catch up with the rest of his people skiing over the ridge. They all got away but he was captured. His days became alternatively better and worse as he enjoyed the temporary comfort of a small field stove his captors had going. He was then joined by other squad members picked up just after him, and then he angered an officer when he refused to tell more than his name. Rank and serial number. He felt good when they found on him a letter from his wife and they couldn't read his unit address because had obliterated it. He suffered agonies when someone suggested Intelligence could get the address by treating the envelope with lemon juice. Later they traveled many cold miles jammed into the back of a 6x6, unable to move in the freezing cold, to Camp Hale. At first they were not allowed to sleep in empty barracks, but had to sleep in the snow of the POW stockade.

Late one dark and sweaty night I bedded down in Hunter-Liggett after an exhausting day. Early in the morning I was awaken by the sound of gunfire, I tried to pull my gear together and noticed I had been sleeping amongst the 71st Division's mule droppings. As the rest of our second platoon squad of G Company, of the 354th scurried over the hill, Tom Cullen and I were surrounded by mules and men of the 71st. It was not a good day. I had run out of cigarettes, and the damp air felt like rain. One of our captors offered me some pipe tobacco, but with no pipe and no cigarette papers, I had to give up a couple of sheets of toilet paper cached in my helmet in order to roll a cigar-sized cigarette. It was soggy and never quite burned.

I don't remember any interrogation or what else happened that day. That night there were eight or ten of us prisoners with not enough blankets. Out of some dumb notion about using GI raincoats as both a ground cloth and a way of holding in my body heat, I offered my blanket in exchange for a raincoat. Down in the sohyt4rn tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego the local people were said to wear little clothing and being on the land closest to the Antarctica they were perpetually covered with goose flesh That night I was Tierra del Fuegan.

We were trucked to the stockpile in Jolon Junction (pronounced "hole-on", Spanish style). We had a tent which shaded us from the usual summer daytime heat. They treated us well. We bought a case of Cokes. I washed, I shaved. I bought a carton of candy bars. I bought a carton or two of Camels. Not too much later the maneuver was over and we were returned to our outfits. That night we marched up and down over the mountains to the sea, a matter of 25 miles to prepare to reply and invasion--our last problem. The following morning we were awaken not by the sound of waves against the shore just across the highway, but by an artillery spotter L-5 circling overhead shrilling a siren. The old hands told us this was the signal the maneuver was finished. It was fine with me.

In later years I ran into a guy at work who'd been in combat with the 71st. Like the 89th, they had been built up to a three-cornered division. Their assignment was to keep a massive concentration of German troops bottled up on France's Charentan Peninsula. The 10th Mountain, which had been restored to three-cornered size for its work in Italy, is probably familiar to us nowadays as a light infantry division again, trained to fight in "…mountains, deserts, tropics, cities, or wherever needed. Units... have seen duty in Somalia, the Persian Gulf, Haiti and Bosnia." (The North Apennines and Beyond page xvi.) Recently my wife ran into an old friend whose husband was one of WWII 10th Mountaineers. Seems like there are something like 250 ex-10th veterans around this area, all pre-war mountaineers and skiers, and they meet somewhat more frequently than we do. Our friend was pleased to say that he'd been chosen to greet Bob Dole when the Senator came to Portland during his 1996 run of the presidency. Dole's desperate wound was sustained when he was a platoon leader in the 10th during the Italian campaign. Another 120th Mountain man who became well-known was the late Bill Bowerman, University of Oregon track coach and co-founder of Nike.