In 1943, an 18-year-old from Keene Valley, New York, upon being drafted into World War II service decided to do something different ... something new for that time.
His decision to apply to be an Army ski trooper and his service in Italy would change the life of Charles W. Smith, but forever change the Army.
Smith, who was a private first class assigned to 3rd Platoon, I Company, 85th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, traveled to Fort Drum Sept. 25, 2015 to simply spend time in a place where old memories still run through his head as vividly as yesterday's news, and a short photo opportunity in front of the Military Mountaineers statue in Fort Drum's Memorial Park in the very same uniform he was issued in 1945 seemed to diminish the wrinkles and years away from his face as she smiled.
The last time he and his daughters had visited Fort Drum, the statue was near Mount Belvedere gate he recalled. Though the new location near the headquarters building, named after his division commander, Maj. Gen. George Price Hays, who commanded the division from 1944, was fitting. Smith recalled the speech he gave them before they made their assault up Mount Belvedere.
World War II veteran Charles Smith (91), who was one of the original Ski Troopers in the 85th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division (U.S. Army) visiting Fort Drum on Sept. 25, 2015. Smith is a Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals recipient, who fought in Italy in 1945 throughout Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and Po Valley ... On the left he stands in front of the Military Mountaineers statue at Fort Drum's Memorial Park. On the right he takes a quiet moment at Division Hill, thinking back to his time on then Camp Drum. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from photos by U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Kap Kim, 10th Mountain Division)
“It would be a night attack, and we were only to use fixed bayonets and grenades,” he said. “No firing of ammo even though we had to carry it.”
During his tour throughout Fort Drum, he and his family recognized the various Italian street names dedicated to honor those who fought gallantly throughout Italy.
“Look, Riva Ridge,” said his daughter, Darlene Gero.
She and her sister, Brenda Smith, both had grown up hearing about his service.
At the Heritage Center, they met with Kent Bolke, the museum curator, and got a chance to walk down memory lane has he got to see some the ski equipment he had used. Before he left, he donated a coat he was issued at the end of the war. It had only been worn once he said. It was in such great condition that the only indication of its age was by the World War II-era 10th Mountain Division patch hand stitched on the left shoulder.
When he arrived to the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, he was delighted and overcome with a special connection with those infantrymen though he was more than 70 years their senior in some cases.
“I just couldn't believe how young they were,” he said.
He spent most the time at 4-31st with Staff Sgt. Stephen Penny at a framed print of the 10th Mountain Division history running through the timeline and the Mountain Rifleman's Field Load list and statistics.
The Soldiers there all thanked him for everything he did to help shape their lineage today.
He had been in their boots more than 70 years ago when he left New York for then Camp Hale, Colorado, and started his basic training with the 86th Regiment. The newly-formed ski troopers trained in the high-altitude Colorado mountains.
Brig. Gen. Diana Holland (left) and Command Sgt. Maj. Ray Lewis pose for a photo with Charles W. Smith at the 10th Mountain Division Headquarters. Smith, who was one of the original Ski Troopers in the 85th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, came to visit Fort Drum with his family Sept. 25, 2015. The 91-year-old is a World War II vet, Bronze Star and Purple Heart medals recipient. He fought in Italy in 1945 throughout Riva Ridge, Mount Belvedere and Po Valley. (U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Kap Kim, 10th Mountain Division)
“Charlie,” as he was referred to, grew up skiing and snowshoeing throughout the harsh upstate New York winters, but the 90-pound packs on his equal frame and the negative 40-below weather proved to be tougher than he could ever imagine, but the worst was yet to come as he embarked on the trip to Europe that eventually led to the Italian Alps.
It was months before Japan's surrender and without an end in sight, the ski troopers pushed up through mountain ranges such as Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere like they did at Camp Hale. During months of intense fighting up the mountains, Smith endured countless friends' deaths and sustained injuries himself in which he earned a Purple Heart Medal. Though he never left combat. His shrapnel injury to his hip was bandaged up and he continued on fighting for several more months.
“On Feb. 19, , we made our assault up Belvedere,” he recounted. “The snow was almost gone by now and the mountain was ... well mined with trip wires. We had to follow one behind the other about 10 feet apart. There were many empty shell holes. We had to keep counting how many men we still had due to casualties from exploding mines.”
Faced with mines, enemy snipers and machine gun nests, he and his unit continued to fight taking on the highest casualty count for their size and stint in combat with 992 killed in action and approximately 4,000 wounded.
“I was lucky, I suppose,” he said.
When the war was finally over in Italy on May 2, 1945, Smith and his outfit were at the base of the Italian Alps. They had fought 20 continuous days and advanced 120 miles.
Smith and his regiment left Italy and were due to go back home before going to Japan; however, while at home on leave, news of the atomic bomb and the subsequent surrender that ended the war also soon ended Smith's Army service.
Though he never finished high school, Smith came home from the war and settled back home where he worked several odd jobs before he became a carpenter and worked at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, New York. In 1947, he met his wife, Roberta Loiusa Manley, who served in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. The two had three children and had been married for more than 60 years before she passed in 2008.
Through the years, Smith has attended many different 10th Mountain Division Association reunions and has kept in contact with many of the original members of the original ski troopers from his regiment. In 2012, Smith traveled to Italy during an association reunion and got to travel around the same battlefields he had in 1945.
Smith is still going strong into his 90s and, during his meeting with 10th Mountain Division Brig. Gens. Andrew Rohling and Diana Holland and Command Sgt. Maj. R. Ray Lewis, they all marveled at how Smith still fit into his originally-issued olive drab uniform.
“I hope I can still fit into my uniform at your age,” joked Lewis.
The family hopes that Smith will be around many more years to be able to travel back to more reunions and to the only other home he's come to know: Fort Drum, the home of the 10th Mountain Division.
By U.S. Army Master Sgt. Kap Kim
Provided through DVIDS
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