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A Tribute to 10th Mountain Division: World War II troops fought fearlessly and returned to develop national ski scene

Mark McLaughlin
Special to The Union

TAHOE/TRUCKEE – We often take for granted the abundance of modern ski resorts in the United States, but veterans from the 10th Mountain Division deserve special recognition for much of their development. After World War II, returning men from the 10th fired up America’s ski industry by publishing ski magazines, opening ski schools and establishing new ski areas, including Vail, Aspen, Sugarbush, Whiteface Mountain and others. At least 62 ski resorts were founded, managed or employed head ski instructors that were 10th Mountain Division veterans.

These men had trained in the harsh winter climate of the Colorado Rocky Mountains and then fought courageously in Italy during World War II. Veterans Day is an appropriate time to honor these soldiers who took on rugged mountains, winter storms and artillery fire to flush entrenched Germans from their fortified alpine redoubt in 1945. Their efforts were critical to ending the war in Europe.

Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. War Department had encouraged all outdoor-oriented men to volunteer for mountain soldier training, which attracted park rangers, trappers, hunting guides, and skiers. Among those who signed up were Truckee residents Karl Kielhofer and Pete Vanni. Two others were 18-year-old freshmen at the University of Nevada in Reno: Chelton Leonard, a future coach of the school’s ski team, as well as Joe “Barnes” Berry, son of Bill Berry, a noted Reno journalist and Sierra ski historian.

Some of the most famous skiers from America trained with the 10th. Roy Mikkelsen, a national jumping champion with California’s Auburn Ski Club, was an instructor and second lieutenant. Austrian-born Bill Klein, the longtime director of skiing at Sugar Bowl, also became a member of the unit.

The soldiers trained relentlessly, but weren’t committed to combat until January 1945, when they were ordered to Italy for a dangerous assault on heavily fortified German-held positions high in the Apennine Mountains. The division faced intense fire from German troops situated on top of a steep rock escarpment surrounded by minefields. Other Army units had attempted to scale the mountain, but all had failed. The highly trained men of the 10th Mountain Division proved their mettle by scaling the ridge at night, taking the Germans by surprise. The battle was horrific, with many mountain infantrymen killed, wounded or missing in the first day.

Combat continued as the mountain troops broke through the German line and spearheaded the drive across the Po River Valley. Indicative of the fierce fighting, nearly 1,000 men of the 10th Mountain Division were killed and 4,100 wounded in the Italian campaign. Their fearless courage was honored as the 10th became one of the most highly decorated divisions in U.S. history.

Among those 10th Mountain Division soldiers who participated in the Apennines and Po Valley offensive was William “Bill” Bechdolt, a son of Carl Bechdolt, Sr., the owner of the Tahoe Inn in Tahoe City. Bill had joined the Army during his sophomore year at the University of Nevada. After a land mine explosion killed or wounded most of the men in his patrol, Sergeant Bechdolt distinguished himself in the ensuing combat and was later decorated for uncommon valor and bravery with a Bronze Star Medal. Among the men killed was the chaplain who had married Bechdolt to his wife Bernadette shortly before his deployment to Italy.

Upon his return to Tahoe City, Bill Bechdolt managed and later owned the Tahoe Inn from 1945 to 1974. Over the years he made many community contributions and was also a judge for the ski jumping competition at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley. Bill and Bernadette reared seven children and were married 56 years until his death in 2001.

– Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at http://www.thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com

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