In the late 1990s, my Dad, who had just turned 70, was being interviewed by a very young nurse. She read in his record that he was a veteran. She asked which war he had served in: “Desert Storm?” No, Dad said. Guess again. “Vietnam?” No. “Well, then, which one?” Dad told her that he had served in the Civil War. “I’ve never met a Civil War veteran!” she exclaimed. Later, my Mom heard this nurse telling her colleagues, “Did you know that Mr. Bieler was in the Civil War?”

My father served in the 10th Mountain Division, in the Second Battalion of the 86th Infantry Division from 1943-1945. He participated in the bitter cold February offensive against the enemy position on Mt. Belvedere in the northern Apennines, overlooking Highway 65 into Bologna-a baptism by fire for the newly formed alpine division, which resulted in a decisive victory known by the Americans as the capturing of Riva Ridge.

Belvedere had previously been taken and lost by Allied forces repeatedly. The Germans had the benefit of many entrenchments (including fortified bunkers, trip-wired booby traps and hidden “shoe” mines, not to mention the crucial tactical advantage of controlling the heights. The skills and courage of the 10th Mountain Division in rockclimbing, mountaineering and navigation under extreme winter combat conditions played the key role-and eliminated the threat of anti-aircraft strikes from the ground, allowing bombers from the 22nd Tactical Air Force to fly with impunity, carpeting the region with incendiary bombs (which prompted the Germans to call the situation Die berge in flammen, “the mountain in flames.”

From this success, my father’s outfit was directed to lead the Fifth Army’s offensive to take control of the Po River Valley. In the words of my father’s friend, 1st Lieutenant Frederick Fisher of the 85th Infantry, “The 10th was the only outfit that got any opposition at the Po River. It was artillery fire from about twenty 88 mm guns. We had moved in so fast that air cover couldn’t support.”

It was in the course of this action that my father sustained a shrapnel wound in the leg from mortar fire, for which he received a Purple Heart.

He was born on April 4, 1924 to parents who made their living as commercial artists. The family moved soon after to a gray Dutch shingle house in a part of Minneapolis that was still relatively rural then, allowing my dad the freedom to camp in the woods and go exploring with friends, enjoying a decidedly innocent and adventurous childhood view of the Depression years. One of the only points of contact with his stern and hardworking father was a love of the outdoors and shared experiences fishing, camping, skiing and snow shoeing.

This love of nature and the skills to enjoy it would be heightened when the family moved to a more rural property on West Mountain Road in Ridgefield, CT, where my father later graduated from high school. Although conflict continued between father and son, there was reconciliation prior to my grandfather’s sudden death, and it may be that this reconciliation heightened my father’s passion for the outdoor pursuits they had shared.

World War II began during his first year at the University of Connecticut. According to his diary, “I joined the Enlisted Reserve Corp because my eyes weren’t good enough for the Air Force or V-12 Navy program, and then elected the newly formed 10th Mountain Division because I saw a notice on the gym board, Men wanted for new unit, 10th Mountain Division – skiing and camping experience necessary, rockclimbing helpful.

He went on to train at Camp Hale in Colorado, a newly established military installation at what was formerly a railway stop on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad near the wild and woolly mining town of Leadville. His diary recalls the ruggedness of the conditions. “March in Colorado is colder than a witch’s you-know-what. 20 feet of snow at 10,000 feet.”

He excelled at skiing (not quite a sport at this point in America) and was in his element with other young men who enjoyed the same things. Rockclimbing in Holy Cross Valley, a turkey roast on bivouac and winning one of the big ski races were happy memories, offset by the suicide of his friend Duke and his being passed over for Sergeant for not having an “aggressive enough temperament.”

Upon completion of the high altitude mountaineering and combat training, his division was transferred to Camp Swift in Texas (just east of Austin), to acclimatize them for large scale national maneuvers in Louisiana. Why an elite unit of alpine trained soldiers would be sent into the swamps of Louisiana was something which baffled many people in America, including of course the young men who were forced to switch gears so suddenly-wondering all the time when they would be deployed in Europe. In real fighting-and snow.

Throughout this military training period he underwent a period of increasing tension-in part of course due to the anxiety of going to war, but also because of a war going on within himself about his religious faith. (His grandfather on his mother’s side had been a famous Baptist preacher and missionary into what was in the 1880’s, the wilderness of Minnesota). Did he really have any faith? What kind? Was it enough? This period of deep searching and increasing stress culminated in one of the most significant moments in his life…as his diary relates.

“A critical incident happened on a night maneuver when I was standing watch between 2 AM and 4 AM. I had a vivid impression of a vision of Christ. Jesus comes as one unknown, as of old he came to them by the lakeside in Galilee, and he speaks to us the same words. Follow me…for those who hear in his voice…in their suffering, in their trials and in their silences, they will come to know in their own experience who he is.”

The Louisiana maneuvers were canceled soon after and my father’s division immediately dispatched to the Italian Alps to confront real action and a very real enemy-freezing weather-ruined churches, starving children. His vision on guard duty would go on to have a profound influence in his choice of career-he later became a minister. But it played an even more important role in his war experience. Here are his words recounting the action leading up to his wounding on a chaotic day in April 1945, just after his 21st birthday.

“Artillery fire bursting all around. Mines had killed a large number of men and mules. My best friend Jack was killed by German mortar fire. When I went forward to take his place-seven miles through smoking villages and mine fields…had very little fear. God was with me. When I was hit later that day and started to lose blood, I still knew it would be OK. Days later, waking up in the hospital in Montecatini was almost like being in heaven.”

Of the 10th Mountain Division during World War II, 997 men died and over 4,000 men were wounded in 114 days of fighting. I was pleased to read the following poem at a special gathering honoring the achievements of this unique American fighting force in Washington DC.

AVALANCHE LILIES

Only the keen eye
of a Nazi rifle sight could see
that a seemingly empty alpine meadow
might be deadly
with snowmen-

White hoods moving
in moonlight reconnaissance,
silent except the sudden scrape
of a ski edge striking
a blue spark
of hidden ice.

Of all my father’s stories,
I’m haunted hardest
by the tales of his time
with the 10th Mountain Division-
visions of nightblooming parachutes
and the fear of ambush,
of Riva Ridge and the secret
of sleeping in the snow caves.

I close my eyes and I can see him
bivouacked with his weird patrol
beneath the winter and the war,
reading of Lazarus out loud
from his breastpocket Bible
with the iron cover to keep
bullets from finding his heart.

Too young to be men,
too old to be boys,
they breathed their brightest lives
as ghosts, rising each day
in clouds of flesh
to telemark and stillhunt,
fresh from the deeper
camouflage of sleep.

*For more information on the colorful history of the 10th Mountain Division, visit the following websites.

Hal Burton has also written an excellent book call The Ski Troops, published by Simon & Schuster in 1971.