Born January 28, 1922 in Gwinn, Michigan, Floyd Harry Erickson is my great uncle, and a veteran of World War II. He served in the 10th Mountain Division from January 1943 and reached the rank of Staff Sergeant near the end of the war. Floyd was an avid skier in his youth, and grew up in a family of eleven siblings battling the harsh winters of Upper Michigan during the Great Depression. He and many of his comrades came from “snow country” in the Northern states to serve in a specialized cold-weather, rough-terrain combat force. Floyd was in the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, H Company (heavy weapons).
Specialized Mountain Warfare
It was the Russo-Finnish War that provided the inspiration for such a specialized unit. When a massive Soviet force of seventy divisions invaded Finland in November of 1939, the vastly outnumbered Finnish army proved to be determined and effective resistance. The key to their success was stealth raids on skis and utilizing the harsh winter climate and terrain to their advantage. The scrappy Finns held out for three months until the spring thaw when the Soviets with their enormous advantage in artillery and air power claimed the territory they wanted at the mouth of the Baltic Sea (Shelton 9). The campaign was a great cost to the Red Army, both in casualties and military prestige. It came to be known as the Winter War, and the West loved it, the classic underdog tale. However, it was not the military that first saw the lesson that could be learned from the Finns; it was Charles “Minnie” Dole, the father of America’s emerging National Ski Patrol System (Benson 163).
Dole and his associates in the emerging world of alpine skiing flooded the U.S. War Department with letters and offers of their services in aid of the nation’s defense. Germany had their Jaegers (Hitler’s Mountain Troops – three specially trained divisions that would eventually grow into eleven), the French had their Chasseurs Alpins, and the Italians their Alpini. Dole was determined to convince the military that the United States should be similarly prepared with their own specialized cold-weather and mountain troops. It was September of 1940 when Dole’s perseverance paid off, and an in-person meeting with Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall confirmed a commitment to train some existing Army units for cold-weather fighting (Shelton 19). The National Ski Association and the National Ski Patrol would also be called upon as volunteer civilian agencies to assist in the training.
In August of 1941, Benito Mussolini chose to invade Greece through the mountains of Albania, and the Italian army was not equipped for the harsh conditions. An estimated ten thousand of them froze to death, and twenty thousand more were killed in the mountain fighting (Shelton 25). It was this blow to the Italian military that served as a testimonial for Dole’s suggestions, and on November 15, 1941, the 1st Battalion 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment was activated at Fort Lewis, Washington. It was the first element of what would become the 10th Mountain Division. In December the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States was plunged into war that it must rapidly prepare for. Construction of Camp Hale in Colorado begins, and two more battalions of the 87th are activated. Most of the initial training took place in Washington near Mt. Rainier, and the ranks were swelled with civilian volunteers with ski and mountaineering experience.
Training and the Pacific
In December of 1942, about a year after Pearl Harbor, Floyd Erickson knew it was only a matter of time until he was called up. He had been working in Detroit making airplane parts at Ex-Cell-O and chose to return home to spend a few months with his family before entering the war. When Floyd’s name was called, he went through the Great Lakes Training Station in Chicago and was officially enlisted in the Army. He was assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry Regiment because he was born and raised in snow country, and boarded a train to California for training. He and others from the 87th completed basic training at Camp Roberts, and were soon transferred to Fort Ord for amphibious training in preparation for a landing on Kiska in the Aleutian Islands, a step-stone to Alaska.
On June 7, 1942 a small Japanese naval force in the Northern Pacific placed approximately 8,500 soldiers on the barren islands of Attu and Kiska (Shelton 57). This would ultimately serve as a distraction for the attack on Midway, but the invasion of U.S. territory had a chilling effect on the nation. It would be there that Floyd and the 87th would be first assigned. The choice to reclaim these islands was more for morale than for strategic importance. The islands were blockaded by destroyers preventing resupply, and troops were sent in to fight the Japanese invaders. It started with Attu, the more isolated and less heavily defended island. American troops from the 7th Infantry Division that had been trained for combat in North Africa were ill prepared for the wet, rocky, tundra terrain of the island. Frostbite and trench foot was common, and retaking the island proved costly. It was because of this that the 1943 campaign to retake Kiska would be spearheaded by the new mountain troops, and Floyd Erickson was one of three thousand men of the 87th who boarded a troop ship in San Francisco harbor and headed north.
It was August 15, 1943 when the 87th landed on Kiska. Floyd was a private in H Company by that time, he and two other men made up a machine gun squad. Their first immediate obstacle was the volcano H Company had been assigned to climb and fortify. It took them 12 hours on the slippery shale, but they received no fire from above and secured the spine of the island at 1,800 vertical feet by mid-morning. Floyd and his squad spent the first three days on that volcano and didn’t fire a shot. The fog was thick on the island, and the 30,000 U.S. troops were jumpy. There were incidents of friendly fire, but not a single living Japanese soldier was found. Evidence of their occupation of Kiska was everywhere, and the elaborate tunnel systems on the island appeared to have been abandoned in a hurry. The Japanese high command had decided to pull out of Kiska sometime in June due to the demands of the South Pacific. Miniature submarines did the initial evacuation, but on July 28th in a maneuver of great stealth, the remaining 5,200 Japanese soldiers were quickly loaded onto a fleet of light cruisers and then disappeared into the Pacific.
Floyd and most of the 87th left Kiska on December 1, 1943 after long delays due to the shortage of available ships for a relatively low priority evacuation. The waves were so rough in the Northern Pacific and the Bering sea that Floyd claims the only thing sustaining him as he took refuge in his tiny bunk were candy bars. After a brief stay in Alaska, the 87th made its way down to Seattle and was given a 10-day furlough. Floyd took buses, trains, and bummed rides to make his way to Escanaba. It was a Sunday however, and the trains were not running. It was a mailman that eventually got Floyd to Gwinn where he spent his Christmas of ’43.
After their furlough, the 87th was sent to Camp Hale, Colorado where the 85th and the 86th were already organizing and skiing. At 9,600 feet, Camp Hale was in the hearth of the Rockies, and adjusting to the altitude proved to be a challenge. Training took place even higher in the mountains, somewhere near 11,000 feet, and the temperatures were brutal, sometimes reaching -30°F. It was here that the 10th perfected the use of their valuable equipment. Living in the mountains for weeks, they learned to create and sleep in snow caves, icing the roof with small candles and creating an igloo that would stay very comfortably warm. They learned that bacon grease from your morning ration rubbed on your face, feet and hands could protect you from the frost. Most importantly of all, they learned how to navigate in that unforgiving, snowy terrain. Since H Company was equipped with such heavy and cumbersome weaponry, they spent their time on snowshoes and did not receive formal ski training. The instructors would teach them on the weekends if they wished, but Floyd opted not to as he was a proficient skier in his civilian life.
Since the 10th was such a lightweight unit, mules were a common sight. They carried supplies and ammo to places Jeeps could never reach, they were great in the mountains. That was immeasurably valuable due to the amount of gear each soldier had. Several pairs of high quality gloves, goggles, a heavy-duty sleeping bag, white uniforms for camouflage, gear for rappelling and rock climbing, and the list goes on. The 10th Mountain Division Marching Song sums it up nicely; “Ninety pounds of rucksack, a pound of grub or two, he’ll schuss the mountain, like his daddy used to do”.
By the spring of 1944 Camp Hale was home to three full regiments. It was time for the Division to undergo its first large-scale combat exercise known as D-Series. For three weeks almost every man participated in the tactical maneuvers. Every step was taken to make the mock combat as real as possible. That meant no fires, operations in the dark, and making camp in a way that you can quickly wake up and fight. With nights buried in the snow, sleeping without tents, waking up to eyelashes frozen shut and numb fingers, the planners of D-Series did all they could to test the men of the 10th, and at the end of it the Division was deemed “fit and tough and ready for war”.
It was June/July of 1944 when the 10th moved from Camp Hale to Camp Swift in Texas. They would be stationed there for over five months as the decision of where to send them was being made. The change in climate was very hard on a lot of the men. As Floyd describes it; “…the morale went down something fierce; the guys just couldn’t stand it. Some guys got out; they insisted on transferring someplace. Because they could see we were losing our mountain status. The fact that we fought in the mountains meant a lot to all of us.”
Rumors of where the 10th would be fighting spread quickly. Some units were given maps of Burma to study while others received Japanese language books. General George C. Marshall was trying to sell the 10th to General Dwight D. Eisenhower in Europe, but the division’s small size, specialized training, and light weapons made it unappealing to most. When Eisenhower asked his chief of staff Gen. Walter Smith about the 10th, he took one look and said “All those mules? Hell no!” Later, during the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower asked Marshall if he still had the cold weather unit available, but by then they were already committed elsewhere.
In early November of 1944, the Army officially recognized the alpine division and gave it a name: the 10th Mountain Division. Men were issued the patch with “MOUNTAIN” embroidered in, a blue powder keg with red crossed bayonets in the Roman numeral ten. It put them in the same elite league as the Rangers and the Airborne. Though it raised morale, there was still the question of where they would be headed. In late November, the 86th had orders to move out by train to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia. By late December, the 85th and 87th had followed. On January 4th, 1945 Floyd and the 87th finally boarded a ship overseas. The problem, however, was that the mountain troops left port without their mountain equipment. There were no skis, boots, white uniforms, or sleeping bags. They were given standard issue infantry khakis and gear.
After a few clear days at sea, the secret was no more. As they passed the Straits of Gibraltar the 10th knew they were bound for Italy. The Germans in Italy had fortified an area known as the Gothic Line, a stretch of hills in the Northern Apennine Mountains before the Po River valley. The valley was valuable to the Germans; it was the “breadbasket of Italy”. With the advantage of high ground and heavily fortified positions, the Allies struggled to break through. After D-Day and the liberation of Rome, the war in Italy appeared to be over to much of the world, but as the snows came in November of ’44, both sides dug in to what would become the Winter Line.
Italy and the End of the War
Upon disembarking, the 10th three regiments quickly made their way to the Apennine foothills. By late January they were in place, and thankfully the below average snowfall and warm winter soon made the standard-issue equipment superior to the whites that were left behind. The majority of the 10th never saw a single ski in Italy. The objective was Monte Belvedere and the nearby Riva Ridge. It was determined that Riva Ridge needed to be taken first in order for an attack on the fortified Monte Belvedere to be feasible. That responsibility fell to the 86th, and on February 18th they would scale Riva’s “unclimbable” east face at night to surprise the enemy. The rest of the Division, including Floyd in the 87th, would be attacking Monte Belvedere on the night of the 19th.
Floyd was a sergeant by now, in charge of a squad of about ten men. One was in charge of the gun, another carried the tripod, a third carried the bezel (a brass ring on which the gun could spin 360 degrees and showed compass bearings and range-finder distances), while the rest of the squad would carry boxes of ammunition as well as their own rifles. On the 19th he and his squad had been pulled back to set up their water cooled 30 caliber machine guns in a lonely spot as most of the fighting took place in front of them on Monte Belvedere. Their job was defensive, to protect the perimeter. It wasn’t until the next day on the 20th when his squad hooked up with another company and advanced into the fight. There were skirmishes the entire trek up the mountain, it was 30 hours of climbing straight into slaughter with the blood “like a neon sign” on the snow. The German defenses were impressive and deadly. When Floyd visited the battleground in 2000 he saw exactly what they were up against on Belvedere. The concrete machine gun bunkers were all around the mountain, and the men of the 10th paid a high price to break through the line in the four days of fighting.
After holding Monte Belvedere against the German counterattack, all the regiments of the 10th would be returned to full strength with replacements and they would begin what would eventually be called the Spring Offensive. The Division continued their advance north towards the Po Valley, and it was in April in the foothills of the Apennines where Floyd had his closest call. It was a German 88 shell, and Floyd was the nearest man to it when it hit. Knocked out for nearly twenty minutes, there wasn’t a scratch on him though five men around him were not as lucky. The blast permanently damaged Floyd’s hearing, and it has troubled him his entire life.
By the 17th of April the 10th had broken through the German lines once again, and had crossed the Po River by the 23rd. Floyd described the mad rush from the Generals to push north with everything they had and block off escape routes for the Germans. After marching all night and spending the days in trucks driving as fast as they could, the 10th reached Verona, and the German opposition was all but defeated. It was May 2, 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Italy. Though the 10th Mountain Division was the last U.S. division to enter the war in Europe, it would suffer the highest number of casualties per combat day. A total of 19,780 men in the 10th served in Italy, 6,415 of them replacements. The total casualties were 4,866 (975 killed, 3871 wounded, 20 POW) (Imbrie 29).
When Germany surrendered unconditionally to the Allies on May 8, the 10th Mountain Division quickly took over a resort hotel in the Italian Alps. It was on the Marmolada and some of the men even skied. When the celebration in Italy was over, the men of the 10th were called back to the States in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Floyd and the 87th sailed from Naples, arriving in Newport News, Virginia on August 11. While sailing home, the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the 10th Mountain Division knew they would not be redeployed. Japan surrendered on August 15th and the men reported back to Camp Carson in Colorado where they were immediately given three furloughs in a row (30 days total).
Floyd Erickson was discharged in the first week of November, 1945. He left as a Staff Sergeant with a bronze star. After returning home he was soon married to his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth. They moved to Lansing where they would raise their daughter. Floyd lives there to this day.
- “Interview with Floyd Harry Erickson [3/7/2009].” Interview by Paul Nordeen. Veterans History Project. The American Folklife Center, 26 Oct. 2011.
- Dusenbery, Harris. Ski the High Trail: World War II Ski Troopers In the High Colorado Rockies. 1991.
- Meinke, Albert, Jr. Mountain Troops and Medics: Wartime Stories of a frontline Surgeon in the U.S. Ski Troops. 1992.
- Shelton, Peter. Climb to Conquer: The Untold Story of World War II’s 10th Mountain Division Ski Troops. 2003.
- Benson, Jack. Skiing at Camp Hale: Mountain Troops during World War II, “Western Historical Quarterly” 15.2: 163-174, 2 April, 1984.
- Hart, James. The 10th Mountain Division: Taking the Po Valley During War in Italy, “Warfare History Network”. 29 July, 2015.
- Renda, Matthew. The 10th Mountain Division: WWII’s High-Altitude Heroes, “Tahoe Quarterly”. October 2015.