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by Ted Heck

During the countdown to Christmas of 2004 the media devoted much space and time to the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. They called it the final German offensive of World War II.

Even though we’re dying off at the rate of more than 1100 WW II veterans a day, there are a lot of us still here who are qualified to disagree. We are former members of the 70th Infantry Division, who knew firsthand that the Germans had something left. After they failed in Bastogne at Christmas, they hit southward in France on New Year’s Day, 1945, in what they called Operation Northwind. Our forces collided in the village of Philippsbourg in the Vosges Mountains of the province of Lorraine.


Philippsbourg didn’t have 100 houses, but it was a vital spot on the way toward the German target of Strasbourg, capital city of Alsace. I was a lieutenant in the 275th Infantry Regiment and 60 years later I share with my comrades the pride of our role in holding up the German advance. They never got to Strasbourg.


The village changed hands several times in fierce house-to-house fighting and several tank battles. We lost a third of our regiment---1000 men killed, wounded, missing in action, or sick enough to be evacuated. German losses were even heavier.


God, how I hated the snow. It was cruel and favored the enemy. Triggers and fingers froze in temperatures only a few degrees above zero. The ground was so hard that the easiest way to dig a foxhole was with explosives. Soldiers who lived in the holes had their frozen toes turn black with trench foot. 


Flip Flop About Snow

I have wondered about an army that prepared me for a winter of snow in France by having me spend a steamy summer hiking hills in Alabama and Georgia, while ski troops of the famed 10th Mountain Division trained in the snows of Colorado, so that they could fight in the mud of Italy.


It was during the post-war occupation of Germany that I changed my mind about never wanting to see another snowflake. The army had commandeered recreation facilities in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. GI’s vacationed for $1 a day, room and board included. One attraction was skiing on the glacier in the huge bowl atop the Zugspsitze, Germany’s highest mountain. Friends talked me into getting on skis---half again as tall as I was—with bear trap bindings. I flopped around like a seal pup on an ice floe. It was marvelous and I was hooked. The family album shows that I have come a long way since then, at least in costume. Today, I am color coordinated down to my varicose veins.


Others Followed In The Tracks

Although we long ago gave Garmisch back to its people, we still maintain a recreation center there for our armed forces and civilian support groups. Among a half million U.S. visitors to the town during peak years have been many who also learned to ski there. As they became more proficient, they gravitated to hundreds of other possibilities to ski---particularly in nearby Austria and Switzerland. To resorts such as Davos and St. Moritz in Switzerland, to Kitzbühel and dozens of other resorts in the Austrian Tyrol.


Snow and sightseeing were two of the reasons I returned to Europe for three years in the 1950s as a civilian, working for the U.S. Army sports program and also doing play-by-play football and basketball broadcasts for the Armed Forces Network. Weekends and vacations were often spent on the snow.


For a half century since then I have bumped into many other veterans with similar motivations, skied with them through blocks of ice on the Vallee Blanche in Chamonix, around crevasses in Saas-Fee, down the speed course on the Patscherkofel above Innsbruck. I have glided with them on groomed boulevards that ran forever, followed them awkwardly in deep powder and crud. 


Tenth Mountain Division’s Contributions

Meanwhile, the guys who went over to fight, presumably on skis, came home from the war to become major players in the ski industry. The 10th’s alumni roster includes many men who deserve to be listed in a skiing “Who’s Who.” They founded ski areas, most notable among them Vail in Colorado, the brainchild of combat veteran  Pete Seibert. Others directed ski schools, ran ski shops, made or sold equipment.


The Pennsylvania Ski and Winter Sports Museum is located at Camelback in the Pocono Mountains, where skiers can view old skis and boots and memorabilia. The Hall of Fame display contains biographies of native Pennsylvanians who made major contributions to winter sports. Eight members of the Hall of Fame served with the 10th Mountain Division. 


It may be difficult to understand how I can think snow and war and mix pleasant memories with harsh ones. But nothing I have done since has seemed so important. It was the last of the “respectable wars,” and it had purpose. The war, as it did for so many men and women, collapsed the time I needed to find myself.


I was a combat infantryman who managed to escape what Winston Churchill called “the indiscriminating bullet that settles everything.” So, I consider my ski adventures to be unearned bonuses…on borrowed time. I thought about that one day in a graveyard beside the little church in Neustift, Austria, after an exhilarating day skiing on the Stubai glacier.


In the cemetery the setting sun squeezed through  grillwork of wrought iron crosses. Lanterns glowed atop some snow-covered graves. I stopped at a wooden cross with photos of two young men. They were brothers killed in action in my war, wearing the wrong uniform.


I whispered to them, "You poor bastards.  You don't know what you've missed."

More by Ted Heck




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