When the 10th Mountain Division staged in Hampton Roads they were preparing to embark for northern Italy. This mountainous region posed challenges in terms of the terrain. The task would be formidable. The Germans very well fortified with machine gun nests and bunkers across the so-called “Gothic Line.” How best to mount an offensive in this punishing landscape? As it happened, some foreign-born world champion skiers had been drafted into the U.S. Army and they would lend their expertise in training the troops to navigate the Apennine Mountains.
According to Fort Drum (home of the modern 10th Mountain Division), the inspiration for a unit specializing in mountain and winter warfare came from then President of the National Ski Patrol Charles M. Dole who was inspired by the Soviet Union’s costly invasion of Finland. In fact many of the unit’s infantry were recruited directly by the National Ski Patrol and perhaps some of those were the men who are subject of today’s post: world champion skiers like Friedl Pfiefer, Walter Prager, and Sigi Engl. Readers interested in learning more about the 10th Mountain Division’s heroics during the assault on northern Italy are encouraged to read the Fort Drum page.
Friedl Pfiefer (left), a native of Austria. After the war he would become an important figure in establishing Aspen, Colorado, as a major ski destination. He was three times national slalom champion and winner of the 1936 Arlberg-Kandahar race.
Walter Prager, born in Switzerland, was long-time ski coach at Dartmouth, one of the most successful collegiate ski programs in the country. He was also a winner of the Arlberg-Kandahar race.
Sigfried “Sigi” Engl: Also a native of Austria, he would go on to become director of the Sun Valley Ski School in Idaho. He was national slalom champion for the duration of the war and winner of the 1939 Arlberg-Kandahar race.
Pfiefer, Prager, and Engl have all been inducted into the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame.