FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Oct. 13, 2015) — An 18-year-old son of Keene Valley, New York, upon being drafted into World War II service in 1943, Charles W. Smith 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 his life and forever change the Army.
Smith, who was a private first class assigned to 3rd Platoon, I Company, 85th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, recently traveled to Fort Drum to spend time in a place where old memories still run through his head as vividly as yesterday’s news. 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 he smiled.
He recalled that the last time he and his daughters had visited Fort Drum, the statue was located near Mount Belvedere gate. He agreed that the new location near the headquarters building, named after his division commander, Maj. Gen. George Price Hays, who commanded the division from 1944 until the end of the war in Europe, was fitting. Smith recalled the speech Hays gave them before they made their assault up Mount Belvedere.
“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 of Fort Drum, Smith 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 their father’s service. At the Heritage Center, they met with Kent Bolke, the museum curator, and Smith got a chance to walk down memory lane as he saw some of 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 at the 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, he was delighted and overcome with the connection he made with those infantrymen, even though he is more than 70 years their senior in some cases.
“I just couldn’t believe how young they were,” he said.
He spent most of the time at 4-31 Infantry 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.
Smith 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 mountains of Colorado.
“Charlie,” as he was called, grew up skiing and snowshoeing throughout the harsh upstate New York winters, but the 90-pound packs on his equal-weighted frame and the -40-degree Fahrenheit weather proved to be tougher than he could ever imagine. However, the worst was yet to come as he embarked on the trip to Europe, which eventually led to the Italian Alps.
It was months before Japan’s surrender and without an end to the war 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 for which he earned a Purple Heart Medal, though he never left combat. His shrapnel injury to his hip was bandaged up, and he continued 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 some 4,000 wounded.
“I was lucky, I suppose,” he said.
When the war was finally over in Italy, May 2, 1945, Smith and his outfit were at the base of the Italian Alps. They had fought for 20 continuous days and advanced 120 miles.
Smith and his regiment left Italy, and they were due to return home before going to Japan. While at home on leave, however, news of the atomic bomb and the subsequent surrender that ended the war also soon ended Smith’s Army service.
Smith returned from the war and settled back home, where he worked several odd jobs before he became a carpenter and worked on Plattsburgh Air Force Base. In 1947, Smith met his wife, Roberta Louisa Manley, who served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. He and his wife had three children, and they had been married for more than 60 years before she died in 2008.
Through the years, Smith has attended several 10th Mountain Division Association Reunions, and he has kept in contact with many members of the original ski troopers from his regiment. In 2012, Smith traveled to Italy during an association reunion, and he got to travel around the same battlefields he had in 1945.
Smith is still going strong into his 90s. 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 he still fit into his originally-issued olive-drab uniform.
“I hope I can still fit into my uniform at your age,” Lewis joked.