Lt-Colonel Earl Clark: Mountain warfare veteran who helped establish the leisure skiing industry in the United States

 

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The Independent Online

Earl Clark was one of a dwindling number of veterans of the US army's elite 10th Mountain Division, infantrymen clad in white who broke through Hitler's fortified mountain-top defence lines in Italy in 1945. The division played a key role in breaking down Nazi defences in the Spring Offensive, helping force the Italian surrender and the fall of the Third Reich.

A skilled skier since his teens, Clark took part in the vital battles for Riva Ridge and Monte Belvedere in Italy's Northern Apennines. His company scaled Belvedere, covered in ice and snow, on 19 February 1945, their hickory skis strapped to their shoulders and bayonets fixed on their M1 rifles. The German defenders, a battalion of highly-trained mountain soldiers, had assumed that the mountain, at points almost vertical, was insurmountable from the south-west and were watching for allied movements in the valley below.

They had laid mines on the steep slopes but the Americans caught them unawares. The 10th Mountain's commander, General George P Hays, had told his men: "until first light, no small arms fire, only hand grenades and bayonets." Clark recalled the last words before the silent assault. "Fix bayonets. Move out!" The next voices he heard, at the peak, were cries and screams in German.

The 10th Mountain Division soldiers, having dismantled the mines, overran the enemy and, after heavy gunfire and bayonet-to-bayonet fighting, captured the peak. Clark always gave credit to the infantrymen of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force, who flanked the Americans.

"Fog had helped in the initial assault on Riva Ridge," Clark recalled. "That gave us a bit of leeway to attack Mount Belvedere." A comrade added: "We usually had a medic with us. This time they gave us five or six. We got the message. We went up in single file. Had they spotted us, there would have been no room for us to deploy. The Germans were either having breakfast or sleeping. Our grenades were their alarm clock."

In the first three days of intense combat for Belvedere, and after several German counter-attacks, the American "mountain warriors" lost 195 dead and 850 wounded or captured. But they took around 1,000 German prisoners and pushed on towards the vital river Po. At noon on 23 April 1945 Clark was among the first allied troops to cross the Po, in 50 light canvas assault boats and under heavy fire.

Spearheading the US Fifth Army, they pushed forward to Lake Garda and cut off the Germans' main escape route to the Brenner Pass. It was one of the fastest forward movements of the war and, in the lowlands, the "Mountain Warriors" ditched their skis, swapped their snow uniforms for olive drabs and hitched rides on army trucks, tanks or their own snow-hardy M-29 Weasel assault vehicles. Hitler surrendered two weeks later.

By the end of the war the 10th Mountain Division had lost 1,000 men, with 4,000 wounded. One of Clark's comrades was 2nd-Lt Bob Dole, whose arm wound left him partially disabled but did not stop him from becoming a US Senator for Kansas and a Republican presidential candidate against Bill Clinton.

In retirement, Clark and many of his former comrades helped create a fledgling ski industry back home, based on what they had seen in the Alps and Apennines, building ski lifts, chalets and resorts and turning the US into a major skiing attraction. To this day, the "10th Mountain" are considered the fathers of the modern American ski industry and a Vail restaurant called The 10th is a paparazzo's dream, favoured by film stars and Michelle Obama as an après-ski stopover.

Clark helped found the 10th Mountain Division National (Veterans') Association and later the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers. The few surviving men who fought each other in the mountains 70 years ago still meet annually to share their common bond.

Earl Ervin Clark was born in Londonderry, Vermont in 1919. Moving with his family to Wisconsin, he learned to ski on Wilmot Hills near Chicago at the age of 13. It was as a mountaineering and ski instructor, that he caught the notice of the US National Ski Patrol, entrusted to pick out an elite unit. The US had also been impressed by white-clad Finnish mountain soldiers who had fought against the Soviet invasion early in the war.

Clark joined up on St Patrick's Day, 1942, and was assigned to 1st Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, later to form part of the 10th Mountain Division, America's first specific mountain warfare unit. Clark trained at Camp Hale, Colorado at altitudes of around 9,000 feet and even as high as the 14,410ft Mount Rainier in Washington state. Their marching or drinking song was "90 Pounds of Rucksack", which the Division sing to this day.

After the German surrender 10th Mountain were on stand-by to invade Japan but were stood down after the Japanese surrender. Clark was on the USS Mount Vernon when the news came through that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. The 10th Mountain Division took part in Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti in 1994, helicoptering in to Port-au-Prince airport in scenes reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and went on to serve in Afghanistan.

Clark enrolled in the University of Denver under the GI Bill, got a business degree and went on to make the mountains and skiing his life. He and other 10th Mountain vets helped design pistes, became ski coaches, guides, patrollers, magazine founders, filmmakers, ski shop owners and even professional downhill and slalom racers. Clark became a volunteer for the US National Ski Patrol as a guide and instructor. He became an office manager for an ice cream distributor and later an insurance agent.

He kept skiing, remained in the Army reserve and retired in 1981 as a Lieutenant-Colonel. He set up a group of 10th Mountain vets called the Pando Commandos, who, wearing their old combat whites, give ski demonstrations in Rocky Mountain resorts and he helped run the Over-The-Hill Gang, initially a US club for older skiers and now running ski tours worldwide.

Earl Ervin Clark, mountain soldier: born Londonderry, Vermont 3 July 1919; married 1948 Betty Grunwald (deceased, one son); died Littleton, Colorado 28 December 2014.

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