American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Pay-off on Winter Training

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Robert H. Bates
  • Climb Year: N/A
  • Publication Year: 1946

EARLY in the war various members of the American Alpine Club were eager to see the U. S. Army develop considerable numbers of mountain troops and troops trained for cold weather operations. In this way it was hoped that warfare both in mountainous and cold areas, which appeared inevitable, would find our troops with trained men capable not only of fighting the enemy but of fighting them in all sorts of rugged terrain and under severe winter conditions.

For various reasons, among them replacement difficulties, our Army did not go in heavily for special troops. Even though it was well-known that numerous German mountain divisions were in existence and had performed brilliantly in almost all campaigns, U. S. Army policy permitted the formation and training of only one such division, the 10th Mountain, which did not enter combat until January 1945. Some cold weather training, however, was given to a number of divisions, among them the second, the fourth, and the fifth Divisions and the famous First Special Service Force. Some of these units trained in Alaska and Iceland, and others in Continental United States. When these units entered winter combat in Europe, their special training proved of great advantage, but for replacements and for the vast bulk of our combat divisions, cold weather training was never given until after winter combat had begun.

In the winter of 1943-44 the writer was suddenly recalled from a maneuver in the Chulitna area of Central Alaska and sent to Italy with test quantities of cold weather clothing and equipment developed by the Quartermaster General but not as yet supplied to troops in the Mediterranean Theater. The reason for this test was the large number of trench foot casualties occurring in the Fifth Army during the campaign through the mountains north and west of Naples. War Department observers had already declared that the issue clothing and equipment was unsuitable for use under the conditions of heavy rainfall, calf-deep mud, slush and wet snow which made life on the Italian front in winter a nightmare of utter misery.

At Anzio, where the test was held, Captain Slauta and I soon found that nearly all troops lacked fundamental physiological knowledge of how best to protect themselves from the miserable effects of cold wet weather. Ignorance of these fundamentals was as much at fault as improper clothing and footwear in causing trenchfoot cases of great severity. Our army in general was wearing clothing better suited to parade ground use in Washington, D. C., than to bitter combat in muddy, snowy, mountainous Italy.

On our arrival a battalion of the 30th Infantry, 3rd Division was immediately outfitted with some twenty-five or thirty new items of clothing and equipment, which they used for a month during patrol actions at Anzio, and continued to use during the breakthrough at Cisterna and the fighting up through the Alban Hills to capture Rome. There was no doubt about it that the new items were good, and as a result of the 3rd Division report suitable winter clothing was requisitioned for all troops in the Mediterranean Theater for their use during the following winter of 1944-45.

The requisitioned items were quickly made by factories in the United States but shipping shortages occasioned by the Anvil Operation (Southern France) caused severe delays in their arrival in Italy, so that shoepacs (barker boots), heavy socks, water repellent field jackets with hoods and other items were not available until the troops were actually in combat in the Gothic Line. Accordingly there was no chance to show men how to use items or even to train supply sergeants in how to issue proper sizes before they were placed in the hands of troops.

Results were bad. Shoepacs were as new to most Southerners as chopsticks—newer perhaps, because at least they had heard of chopsticks. Irate southern colonels declared they would not let their men wear the ** newfangled things, and other unkind words were spoken about sleeping bags, which others uninitiated to their use declared were booby traps. Clearly action was needed because troops were going back to wearing their leather combat boots and more familiar items, and trench foot rates were rising. During the previous winter tight-fitting leather boots had helped cause more casualties than enemy action, and we were determined that this should not happen again.

At this point Brig. Gen. Joseph P. Sullivan, the 5th Army Quartermaster, asked Gen. Mark Clark to order all troops to be given instruction in fundamentals of living under wet cold conditions and in the best use of their clothing and equipment. As I had recommended the plan to General Sullivan, I found myself suddenly told to set up a training school and give winter training to the whole 5th Army.

Luckily regiments now were beginning to be relieved and sent for a few days of rest as reserve units to a rest center which had been established at Montecatini. Training here was to continue, however, and I was told that for at least an hour apiece, and more if needed, I could have all troops who came to the rest center.

By great good fortune I was now able to secure the loan of Capt. H. E. Link (later Major), AAC, and Lt. John Clement from the Mountain School, British Mediterranean Forces, where Link was in charge of the American instructors and Clement was on the instructional staff. Both were former members of the 10th Mountain Division and mountaineers of wide civilian experience. Capt. Michael Slauta, who had been attached to me since I had left the United States, made the fourth member of our team. While he went to Montecatini to take over a theater and warehouse and to make other arrangements, Link, Clement and I worked out our curriculum, wrote out instructional material, and had it mimeographed. In no time at all we had moved to the beautiful spa town of Montecatini and the school was in operation.

Our system was to take on a battalion an hour, with Link and Clement haranguing the enlisted men in the Excelsior Theater while I outlined matters in greater detail and at closer range with the officers in the lobby of a spa across the street. Use of all items was demonstrated, and in the theater Sergeant Duke performed an hilarious strip-tease which riveted attention on the stage.

During the next month we averaged 5000 men a day, not counting daily sessions with supply personnel and help in reequipping troops improperly taken care of earlier. As a result, in a short space of time all troops had received either an hour’s instruction or the instructional material which we had had mimeographed.

The men to whom instruction was given would be fighting for their lives in the snowy Apennines during the next few days, followed by months of living in muddy, slushy holes. It was no wonder that they listened well and asked generally intelligent questions. But what we were most interested in were the results. Battle is the pay-off for any army, and as the winter months went by and despite far more severe weather the trenchfoot rates receded far below what they had been the preceding winter, we felt richly rewarded. Trenchfoot for the Fifth Army in 1944-45, although more troops were involved than the year before and instruction in winter living did not begin until November, totaled less than 20 per cent of the number the year before.

In the future, we are proud to say, all troops in the U. S. Army are to receive winter training of the type given to the 5th Army at Montecatini.

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