POLSON, Mont. — Brutal cold.
An almost impossible nighttime climb up a cliff high in the mountains of northern Italy.
The heavy backpack he lost, and with it all his ammunition, food, blanket and letters from back home.
The artillery blast that crippled Orville Bjorge on Riva Ridge 75 years ago Thursday, Feb. 20. The dangling stretcher ride over a steep canyon on a makeshift tram.
He’s 97 now, retired from a life of cattle ranching and farming on his spread between Polson and Hot Springs.
But Bjorge is still standing, and he still remembering clearly his days with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division in World War II.
“Most of the time I feel like I’m in fairly good health yet,” Bjorge told the Missoulian. “I’m walking around with this walker, though, so I try to be careful I don’t stumble and fall.”
Bjorge is the only member of the 10th Mountain Division Association’s Big Sky Chapter left in Montana.
“There may be others but they aren’t active members who attended the meetings over the years,” said Suz Rittenhouse, the oldest child of another 10th Mountain hero, the late John Cramer of Missoula and Big Arm.
Rittenhouse is an organizer of the almost-annual Big Sky Chapter luncheon Saturday at Jakers, where they’ll raise a toast to the 10th Mountain Division, then call it an era.
This week marks 75 years since the men of the 10th Mountain completed daring conquests of Mount Belvedere and other German-held peaks of the snowy Apennine Range.
At tremendous cost of lives and limbs, they opened the way to Allied forces who within six weeks secured a noose around Hitler’s armies. Then they came home to establish a lasting legacy in the alpine ski industry.
The specially trained men in snow-white fighting suits had hands in the founding or management of United States ski resorts at Aspen and Vail in Colorado, Montana’s Whitefish Mountain and Red Lodge, and dozens of others. It’s said more than 2,000 of the division’s original 10,000 soldiers became ski school instructors.
The Big Sky Chapter of the 10th Mountain Division Association was established following the war and gradually turned over to the veterans’ children, who formed a support group of their own about 15 years ago.
“We’re down to three living veterans, and they can no longer travel to these reunions,” Larry Wilson of Columbia Falls, son of Ross Wilson, said this week. “So we’ve decided that we’re going to stop having our formal reunions. I guess basically we’re disbanding the descendants group.”
The group will present the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History at Fort Missoula memorabilia and photos from the 10th Mountain, and about $4,000 left over from chapter dues. Rittenhouse said the chapter has held annual luncheons, produced newsletters and funded memorial benches at veterans cemeteries around the state, including one near the entrance of the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery on Tower Street with a skier logo.
Bjorge won’t make it to Jakers on Saturday. He’s living at an extended care home near the Flathead River in Polson, not far from the ranch his father homesteaded in 1910 on Garcon Gulch, between Hot Springs and Polson.
Until a few years ago he made it to the Mountaineer reunions to swap memories and stories. Wilson said they were held at ski resorts around Montana and Idaho until elevation became an issue for the aging veterans. Recent reunions were at Ruby’s Reserve Street Inn in Missoula before it disappeared.
Bjorge, from Company C in the 86th Infantry Regimen, wasn’t a skier. He joined the Army in May 1944 and the 10th Mountain Division later that year at Camp Swift in Texas, where all three infantry regiments — the 85th, 86th and 87th — were sent after high-mountain training at Camp Hale, Colorado.
His war memories remain vivid. There was the Christmas of ’44 spent in Naples, where a year earlier German troops had lodged.
“Italy was very friendly to us, and Italy was very hungry,” he said.
Bjorge and other Americans shared what food they could on their march north to the mountains.
The infantry divisions were charged with overrunning a series of peaks in the Apennines to provide an anchor to mount a spring Allied offensive north to the Po River Valley. Foremost among the targets was Mount Belvedere, which had been secured and lost twice before. The Germans had retaken it each time by controlling Riva Ridge to the east, which dominated approach routes to the Mount Belvedere-Mount della Torraccia Ridge.
The 10th Mountain Division, augmented by a Brazilian Infantry Division, faced a cliff face 1,500 feet high in some places. The assault began after dark on Feb. 18 and Bjorge remembers it was just turning daylight when he made it to the top.
“That was a climb,” he said. “'The element of surprise’ is what they called it. The Germans thought it was impossible for any army to climb that mountain.”
He remembers one of his buddies, somewhat higher on the cliff, poking his rifle Bjorge’s way. “Then he braced his feet, and I grabbed ahold of the barrel and he helped me get up to the next little ledge.”
Not only was it dark, it was numbingly cold. On top the lead patrols literally caught the entrenched enemy sleeping and easily secured the ridge.
That morning, Feb. 19, the soldiers dug in to wait for their next move.
Unable to make a dent in the rocky, frozen ground, Bjorge dug his foxhole in a snowdrift.
That’s where he left his pack later in day, letting a wounded comrade use it for a pillow.
“I thought I could go right back to get it, but when I went back the medics had already moved my buddy with it,” he said. "That was the way I got caught without a blanket. I ran out of rations, also. "
He spent a miserably cold, hungry night on the ridge. The following day Bjorge was on patrol when shrapnel from an artillery blast lodged into the back of his right leg and knocked him out of the war.
He was one of first casualties to be taken down the mountain on a 1,700-foot tramway installed by an advance party of engineers.
Bjorge remembers spending months in an Army field hospital not far from the mountain. On March 16, 1945, almost a month after the battle on Riva Ridge, the Missoulian reported that Morris Bjorge had received word in Hot Springs that his younger brother, Private Orville M. Bjorge, had been wounded in action “while on active duty in France (sic).”
The Flathead Courier of June 23 said Bjorge was spending a 30-day furlough in Polson with relatives “after his recent return from Italy.” Bjorge’s last day in the Army was Sept. 15, 1945, in Walla Walla, Washington, where he received his honorable discharge. Besides the Purple Heart for his wounds, he would be awarded a Bronze Star, a World War II victory medal and a combat infantry badge to pin on the uniform he said still fits him.
The 10th Mountain Division proceeded to capture the mountains of Italy and participate in spring battles in the Po River Valley and beyond. It wasn’t easy. The final toll of 1,000 deaths and some 3,134 wounded in a few months of battle was among the highest rate of any American units in the war.
German forces in Italy agreed to surrender on April 29, the day before Adolf Hitler committed suicide in a Berlin bunker. The formal unconditional surrender was finalized on May 2, the same day commanders of Germany’s two armies surrendered in Berlin.
Bjorge recalled the warm welcome home he and other wounded troops received when they returned to the States on a hospital ship.
“When we got off the boat we could see the Statue of Liberty, and then they took us off the boat and down the gangplank and the civilian people were right there to greet us,” he said. “They had a sign there that said ‘Welcome Home,’ and the American Red Cross was there, also. They were good to us. The Army was good to us.”
The soldiers were treated to a tour of the Empire State Building and a meal, and given a place to stay for a few days.
Then it was on to Walla Walla for Bjorge and his formal discharge in September. He headed home to the ranch in Garcon Gulch, where his parents Martin and Clara waited. Both were Norwegian immigrants who’d met in Kalispell.
Bjorge’s reflections of his war experience echo those of most World War II veterans, and many since then.
“It was an honor to serve,” he said, sitting on the bed in his room at the Pines of Polson. “It’s a patriotic obligation to serve in the United States Army, and I feel it was an honor for me and an honor for my dad and mother, my family too. It’s respect for them all.”
The 10th Mountain Division, established in 1943, is alive and well today, the only unit in the U.S. military to be specially trained for mountain and arctic fighting. Based at Fort Drum, New York, its motto is “Climb to Glory.”
“We knew how important it was to these people,” Rittenhouse said of the 10th Mountain Descendants. “The ‘Greatest Generation’ is such a great name for them, and you really want to honor them. Heads down, marching forward, taking care of the kids and family. … Just think how we’ve personally benefited from them having that kind of attitude.”