An 18-year-old from Erie, Pa., Richard “Dick” Koeck was an unlikely candidate to fill out the U.S. Army’s pioneering 10th Mountain Division, which fought the decisive “Fire in the Mountain” battle of Mt. Belvedere and Riva Ridge, taking key German strongholds in the Apennines. Not a skier or much of an outdoorsman, he signed up for the new unit feeling it would be better than driving the tanks he was training in and was surprised to be accepted. He saw his first death during training exercises in the mountains of Colorado when a rope stretched over a ravine broke – right after Dick had used it. “After combat, you’d pray, thank God you made it again,” Dick recalls. “There were so many times it could’ve been you. There were a couple or three times that we were getting hit by artillery and for whatever reason I moved to a different spot and the artillery shell came right where I had been and you wonder why, what made you move, why didn’t that buddy of yours move, why am I here now, you know.” Interview: April 25, 2012, Springhill, Erie, Pa.
I got drafted in 1943, so I was 18 years old, and I went to Ft. Knox, Ky., and drove tanks, half-tracks and 2 ½ ton trucks. I didn’t like the pictures they showed how tanks would lock up, and one of the fellows in our outfit said he knew of this outfit that was being formed out in Colorado, ski troops, and they were going to be in the states for a year and a half and keep us from going overseas. You had to have three letters of recommendation to get in, so I sent in six letters of recommendation because I wanted to get out of those tanks and I was accepted. I didn’t know how to ski, I didn’t hunt, and I was a Boy Scout and camped out a little, but for whatever reason those letters of recommendation got me in.
So, I went out to Colorado and they taught me how to ski and how to wear snow shoes and how to rock climb. I didn’t know at the time what I was going to get into – I thought it would be less dangerous than driving tanks – but I guess I have to be honest, it was the idea that at least I could be in the States another year and a half and the war would be over and I wouldn’t have to go overseas, but it didn’t work out that way. Course, the guys that I had training with at Ft. Knox, they all went over as replacements over in Europe and they ended up in the Battle of the Bulge and I could’ve been in on that if I hadn’t gone into the Ski Patrol. But our thinking that we would be in the States for a year and a half didn’t pan out. It was probably more like six months.
We trained in 45 degree below weather, camped out in it, experimented with different kind of clothing, boots, that sort of thing. We really thought we were going to Norway or some mountainous country in Europe but after we were at Camp Hale and finished our training there, they sent us to camps in Texas so we were from 45 degree below to 90 degrees to 100 degrees, and the training there was strictly flat lands and then we got to thinking well where could that be? We didn’t know until they shipped us out and told us it was Italy because we would start out in the mountains and once we got to the Po River Valley that was all flat land.
Our regiment was primarily used in these two mountains [Mt. Belvedere and Riva Ridge in the Apennines], the highest mountains in Italy that dominated all the highways going north and south and the Allies tried to take them three times and the Germans drove them off every time. So there comes this new greenhorn mountain-trained group, and they said, “You are going to do it and take it.”
We had rifles with no ammo in the gun because we made a night assault up the mountains and they were afraid that if we had the bullets in the rifle that somebody might actually shoot it off and warn the Germans that we were coming up the mountain. The day before February 19th, which was the day that we were going to do this, the night before that they moved us to the base of the mountain under the cover of night. It was cold and wet and miserable. We had parkas and we had what we called pile jackets and they were fur-lined jackets. We were sort of used to it after camping out in Colorado; we had 18 foot drifts up in the mountain. The camp was 10,000 feet high in Colorado and we trained up to 14,000 feet. We lost a lot of people in training that couldn’t take the altitude. I don’t know how I was able to breathe; I was a smoker, too.
We left the bottom of the valley there at 11 p.m. and it took us until about 6 in the morning to get to the top and we surprised the Germans. They were still sleeping – they had probably had some guards out somewhere but they were looking the other way because they didn’t think we were going to come up the mountain the way we did. We came up from all sides. I guess a couple or three companies [of Germans], probably a thousand men were up there on top. Well, we were shooting and throwing grenades and this was my first engagement. Our sergeant high tailed it [during the battle] and I never had any thought like that; I guess there are always going to be some people that are going to be so scared that they high tail it and just leave. You know you’ve been together for so long and you’re buddies and you’re thinking of each other. The ironic thing is that is the way we were after the war; we formed an association and we met every three years at reunions. I’m the only one left of my close friends of the ones that survived the fighting. Only one fellow I knew died in that particular battle, but another one that we were in out of the 12 fellows in our squad, nine of them were killed within three or four minutes and three of us survived. We had to run across a slope and the first squad ran and they got to where they were headed without a shot fired, and I think the Germans were so surprised that anyone would be that dumb to try to do that. But when we went, the 2nd squad, they just started shooting with machine guns and they picked off everybody. I got wounded in my leg, but not bad.
April 14th was when we went into that final offensive, and I will tell ya, you wonder how people survive, but before we moved down on the 14th the pilots were dropping bombs and strafing the Germans for about half an hour before we moved out. We were getting ready to break into the Po Valley. We just sat there and saw the smoke and we all figured, boy there is not going to be anybody alive! [The Germans] had been there so many years, they had caves and everything else they were in, so we had a lot of resistance even with that.
We had started to go down; the mountains were getting lower and lower because we were getting closer to the valley. Now, it wasn’t like you had these assaults and then came back down; you stayed there and kept that ground. If you can find a place to dig a hole in the mountains, you stayed in a foxhole. Sometimes you have a sleeping bag, sometimes you don’t. But there are a lot of rocks up there. You didn’t have time to set up a tent; you just slept in a foxhole. You sleep in your clothes; really you just didn’t have time to even get into a sleeping bag when you are in combat. You would try to find an outcropping that you could hide behind or you’d stay in a group so you had a big ring of people in case of counter-attack. We were in combat from February 19th, except for a couple of weeks when I was in the hospital, to May 2nd. At some point the general or the colonel or whoever it might be would say, “Hey, we’ve got to relieve these guys because they’ve been on the go, they’ve got to be able to sleep sometime,” so then they would bring up another unit that was in reserve and they take over your position and you drop back and fall on the ground. Once we took Belvedere and started to drive them to the north, they were on the go quite a bit. That’s what kept us on the go. We had Sterno™ that we used to heat our C rations, but no fires at night. There wasn’t that much wood up on the top of the mountains anyhow to build a fire. We all smoked at that time, but you had to be careful. At night you sure didn’t do it because any light would let your enemy know where you were. It was below freezing at night, but to be honest with you, I really don’t think or remember too much about temperature because I think the adrenaline is flowing so much that you are just thinking of survival and there were times when it rained and you got cold and wet but no change of clothes – you just kept going.
You had to be alert all the time for a counter-attack. When we first took Belvedere, they tried to counter attack probably three times at different times, heavy fire. When you saw them coming, you knew that it was either them or you, so you shot your rifle or used your bayonets. We had a few hand-to-hand combat situations, and I had to engage in one. Once was enough; it was scary. After combat, you’d pray, thank God you made it again. There were so many times it could’ve been you. There were a couple or three times that we were getting hit by artillery and for whatever reason I moved to a different spot and the artillery shell came right where I had been and you wonder why, what made you move, why didn’t that buddy of yours move, why am I here now, you know.
We got to Northern Italy and just at the foot of the Alps and the war ended on May 2nd in Italy. But do you remember Tito in Yugoslavia? He was trying to take some of that northeastern part of Italy because he thought that belonged to Yugoslavia and even though the war had ended we had to guard that part of Italy, particularly bridges and that sort of thing, so it was still pretty scary because you didn’t know if Tito was going to start raising Cain. We were there until July of 1945 and then in August we got on the ship to come back to the U.S. We were going to get prepared to go to Japan, but they dropped the bomb and by the time we got to the States they decided to deactivate the division. It was funny, when we boarded the ship in Naples to leave, they were throwing tomatoes at us. Maybe we didn’t give them enough chocolate before we boarded. (Laughs.)