It will also recognize the contributions of Charles Bancroft McLane, the first enlisted man to join the mountain troops, with a memorial at the Hays Hall Conference Center.
In February, at the 10th Mountain Division’s base in Ft. Drum, New York, I gave a keynote presentation on the 10th’s genesis to the leadership of the XVIII Airborne Corps.
During the presentation, I highlighted McLane’s story. Afterward, the 10th Mountain Division’s Command Sergeant Major Nema Mobar reached out. He was interested in honoring McLane’s service, and I gladly provided him with the relevant details.
I also proposed that the Division considering honoring John McCown. On Monday, the Division officially approved both memorializations.
John McCown is the hero of Ninety-Pound Rucksack. His story, from his arrival in the Tetons in 1939 to his induction into The American Alpine Club in 1940 and his contributions to the effort to defeat Hitler and the Nazis, inspired me to begin the book/podcast project.
A Wharton School graduate who dropped out of the University of Virginia School of Law after Pearl Harbor to enlist in the Division, McCown’s mountaineering skills, devilish sense of humor and contempt for Army red tape endeared him to officers and soldiers alike as he rose through the ranks. At both Camp Hale and as lead instructor at West Virginia’s Seneca Assault Climbing School, he trained thousands of soldiers in the dark art of alpine warfare—skills he put to use in breaking the Gothic Line, a series of German-held ridges and summits in Italy’s Apennine Mountains.
Key to doing so was Riva Ridge, an escarpment so precipitous the Germans barely defended it—they considered it impossible for a company of soldiers to climb. They hadn’t bargained for the profanity-laced tenacity of the bow-legged McCown, who reconnoitered the hardest route to its summit, then led his C Company up the route under cover of darkness in the dead of winter to take the ridge without a casualty. It was a magnificent action, one that marked the beginning of the end of Germany’s occupation of Italy—but McCown never got to enjoy the victory. He was riddled by machine gun fire while foiling a counter attack the next day.
It is a profound honor to illuminate his sacrifice and service, and to contribute, in however small a way, to the country he died to defend.