The greatest war story my ski trooper uncle ever told
Not all people have a great story, even if they think they do. My 93-year-old uncle, Sam Morrison, born Sam Meiselman, had one: This always wisecracking Jewish World War II ski trooper veteran from the Bronx was an early member of the Army’s elite 10th Mountain Division that trained in Colorado.
In 1945, four months before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the 10th was activated and shipped off to Italy, where they drove the Germans out from several strongholds. In doing so they faced gunfire as well as grenades stuffed with white phosphorus they called “Willie Pete.” The 10th suffered among the most casualties of any division in the United States military: Nine hundred and seventy-five were killed in action and over 4,000 were wounded. Back in Italy, my uncle participated in the (once famous) Battle of Riva Ridge the night of February 18, 1945 — surprising German defenders and defeating them. The next night, February 19, his unit captured Mount Belvedere, thereby breaking the German line in the Apennine Mountains. He saw many of his friends killed.
Two weeks later he was almost blown to bits during the Italian campaign, and was found badly mangled and facedown in the dirt. After he was revived on a cot in the field, he was brought to a U.S. Army hospital in Italy, then shipped across the Atlantic by a military hospital ship to Charleston, South Carolina, and finally by Red Cross train to New York. On Long Island they would treat his lingering post-traumatic stress disorder, a debilitating condition that was then called “battle fatigue” or “combat stress reaction.” Uncle Sam was hospitalized for over two years before he was released back into American society. For many years he did not speak about his internal struggle. After joining veteran groups, he slowly changed his mind and believed in remembering the past as a way to heal.
In the late 1990s, at my mother’s urging, I accompanied him to the Tarrytown Hilton for a 10th Mountain WWII luncheon, where he was honored as a regional Man of the Year; he told everyone that I’d write his story shortly. For years, I’d been promising him I would write something soon. Twenty years later, he no longer believed me.
This past March, I got a call from Sam’s daughter, my 48-year-old cousin Tracey Morrison; her father had a failing heart and liver, and maybe a week to live. After recovering from the shock, I asked her if I could interview him in the hospital. He wanted to speak to me right away: “Kid, you better hurry up this time.”
I arrived at the hospital in Yonkers, New York, and sat at the edge of his bed, noticing his usual props on the table: he had brought a blond woman’s wig to the hospital to amuse his nurses, insisting he was merely in for a sex change operation. I wrote down as much as I could, waiting at times for him to catch his breath. All the color in his face had drained away.
While I was in the hospital my 95-year-old aunt, Etta Kutner, called from Boca Raton, Florida.
“What can I say?” he told her. “It won’t be long. Good luck to both of us, Etta.”
“I love you very much, brother,” she replied.
“Laurie’s here,” he said. “She’s finally found the time to tell my story.”
By the end of my visit I had worn him out, and I knew I had asked enough questions. After I tearfully said goodbye for what was probably the last time, Tracey drove me to her father’s apartment to search his boxes of stuff for anything that would help fill in the gaps in his story. He parlayed his penchant for joke telling into regular radio appearances: In Westchester he was known as Sudden Sam — a Yonkers man who ran a very successful pinball and jukebox company, Musical Moments, and who might just pop in Westchester’s local station WFAS to tell a good one.
I couldn’t find any tapes of those appearances. I did find an interview about his pinball and jukebox years in RePlay Magazine, and a yellowed newspaper clipping by legendary sportswriter Maury Allen, who loved Sam’s authentic New York flavor: Allen had sought out Sam’s perspective when a new 10th Mountain Division helped secure the country after 9/11. Doing online research the next morning, I was shocked to find there were two recordings of Sam in the Denver Public Library’s 10th Mountain Archives: a long 1991 chat on WFAS where he later popped in with jokes, and raw footage of my uncle from,“The Last Ridge,” a 2005 television documentary directed by Abbie Kealy about the 10th Mountain.
What follows is an oral interview cobbled together from articles, my own interviews over decades, and those precious Denver library archives.
Who am I to tell this story? War is an odd experience, and I’ve seen and felt the misery of war and lost many of my good buddies during that short time.
I was born Sam Meiselman, September 3, 1923, in Englewood, New Jersey, before moving as a child to Leonia. I was the third oldest in a family of six kids — two boys, four girls. My older brother was the academic, the star with the engineering scholarship to Cooper Union. Then there was me, the comic. My family opened a general store that went belly-up in the middle of the Depression. My father lost everything, and moved us to New York to get monetary relief.
I’ll tell you how I got from the Bronx to the 10th. In 1939, the Russians attacked Finland, and the Finnish ski troopers annihilated two Russian tank divisions. There was a fellow named Charles Minot Dole. Everyone called him Minnie, and he was an insurance guy as well as president of the National Ski Patrol, a civilian force whom he wanted to recruit for the Unites States forces. His guys lived mainly in New England, young guys who volunteered to rescue those trapped on mountains for the glory and the girls. Eventually, in 1940, the Army agreed to let Minnie have something like a ski unit.
Minnie Dole was no relation to Bob Dole, but Bob himself was in the 10th, as many Americans know, and we were in the same hospital in Italy, but I’m getting ahead of my story.
Now how did this kid from the Bronx get in with these New England fellows? Even after exhausting his contacts in the National Ski Patrol, Minnie still needed more men, even New Yorkers who had never been on a real mountain but felt the lure of adventure.
After Pop moved the family to Manhattan’s Lower East Side after 1935, he eventually got some money from the Hebrew Free Loan Society. Now, despite having lost the first place in Leonia, he was able to open a candy store in the Bronx, where I worked from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekends. I’d help my father with newspapers and would go out and sell them. I made a little more scratch — 30 cents an hour — for Western Union; in fact I delivered the telegram to (the actress) June Allyson telling her that she was to move to Hollywood.
When I was maybe 19, I was working three jobs instead of college to bring home money for the family, and I had a lot of girls to take out. (Note: According to Mollie Kane, one of my two remaining aunts on this side of the family, the “girls” included the older sister of Bronx-born baseball legend Rocky Colavito.) I had an urgent- sounding call one Sunday — “We need you at the Western Union office.” Nobody knew what was really going on, and I wound up delivering telegrams telling soldiers to report back to base — and that it wouldn’t be long until the war was over.
After work I was telling this news to a Polish fellow, my pal Murkowski, who kept saying: “We’re going to show the Japs! We’re macho!” Murkowski got me drunk on beer, and then he marched me over to the draft board and joined the Marines. That’s when I chickened out. I told my friend, “Hey I have four sisters, and it would be irresponsible.” He pushed back, and I calmed him down by saying, “I’m going to get into something tougher than the Marines.”
Weekdays, when I was working on Lexington Avenue for an engineering company, designing oil and gas pipelines. I was across the street from Minnie Dole’s National Ski Patrol Headquarters. I was getting my lunch and saw a sign posted: “Volunteers Wanted! Ski Patrol for the Army.” My curiosity was piqued. I was sick of the grimy Bronx, to tell you the truth. I was sentimental for the town life in Leonia that I was forced to move from. I had lots of outdoor fun there. When I was 12 or 13, I used to ski with friends — if you want to call it skiing, with these dopey $1 pine skis that you ordered from Sears, Roebuck and tied on with string. The kids from Leonia would sneak on the fancy Englewood Golf Course with our cheap skis and convince ourselves we were in the Alps going down what were really big bumps in the dirt.
So I’m staring at the poster on Lexington Avenue and I finally head upstairs to see what it is all about. The man there asked me if I liked outdoor life. I told him how much fun I’d had on those cheap skis and that I even had a little experience with explosives because my old man used to sell fireworks in his New Jersey store. Then this fellow asked me if I was strong. I had good legs from bicycling all the time as a messenger. I was a very good swimmer. I was also a decent ballplayer. I was lithe. How hard could it be? The recruiter liked my enthusiasm. He told me this country always had a flatland infantry. And that Germans had multiple mountain divisions and knew what they were doing. I was emotionally in, but then he said not so fast; he needed three recommendations saying I could survive the outdoors. So I filled out the papers. But what about the three letters of recommendation?
The local druggist didn’t know if I liked the outdoors or not, but he liked me a lot so I got that one in. Then I got one from an undertaker on 145th Street in the Bronx whom I talked with all the time, I can’t remember the third. Anyway, I turned them in, and I was now in the 10th Mountain Division. They took one look at me and said, “This guy is just right for the mules.”
The 10th needed mules to move equipment and ammo because we were going on mountain terrain. There were about 300 mules, and maybe 75 of us were assigned to be muleskinners. At Camp Hale we learned how to handle the mules from actual cowboys. I’d like to make a joke, if I could: I am so related to mules, my name is Sa-mule.
We started out soft by going to Camp Upton, on Long Island. I was the only New Yorker in my group who shipped out to Colorado. The train dropped us off at a little switching station in Colorado called Pando; that’s where the connection to the next train was, a train that had three engines. There were trains slipping and sliding and chugging away, trying to get soldiers over the pass and up that mountain, which was at 9,000 feet. I arrived in Camp Hale, in Leadville, Colorado, in February 1943. It was snowing like heck. And for the next year of training I was a stand-in for a snowman. In the early days we didn’t have proper gear, there was one pair of skis for five guys. It was so cold that our company couldn’t go out some days. But I was in the best shape of my life at that time. I was trained by the best, Torger Tokle, a famous ski jumper who had emigrated from Norway, and Lyle Munson, the American champ. (Note: Tokle was killed in action, March 3,1945.) If I didn’t know how to ski before, I did now.
I was assigned to company A86, or A Prime, part of the 85th regiment. Meanwhile, another 10th Mountain regiment, the 87th, was sent to Kiska, in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, where there was a small strategic Japanese force. But tragedy struck at Kiska: A Canadian shot an American and all hell broke loose — our men opened fire on each other — and we lost our own men, 23 of them to friendly fire, and many more were injured. Talk about tragedy. With so many dead, I was reassigned to their regiment. I was now in the 87th.
I left from Virginia on the SS Westpoint, a lowly replacement for the 87th. They were the hotshots with Japanese souvenirs like silver bullets from when they occupied the island even though they never met any Japs. I had no tchotchkes to show, but the guys from the 87th were macho men, and to them, we were nothing.
Before we shipped out to Italy, I knew nothing about the Holocaust. I had an H on my dog tag — H for Hebrew — they had a C for Catholics. If the Germans had gotten me, they would have wasted no time with the Jew. But I didn’t think of it at that time. I just knew I was one of the bad guys, as far as the Germans were concerned. I really didn’t think about being in more danger because I was Jewish, I was all gung-ho.
I was assigned to my regiment’s A&P (Ammunition and Pioneer) platoon, which was always right next to the infantry. Every day, men like me would go back by mule with cases of ammunition that had to be near the front. Along the road to Belvedere, they had ammunition stacks. Often I would guard these ammo piles at night, sit there with a rifle, my partner facing one way and I the other way. At night the runners would come in and you had to be sure, for it could be a German. You stayed alert.
What’s important for the history books is that big battle at Riva Ridge. Write that down! The Germans never thought we would climb there. Going on top of the Ridge was like being on top of the Palisades in New York —who is f—king going to climb this ridge? We surprised them; they never expected us to make our move until the weather was right. We caught the Germans sleeping. I remember the planes swooping down, machine guns firing. They counterattacked a little bit, but we were kings of the hill there for a while. But headquarters kept us dumb, too. If you think we knew about the Riva Ridge plan, nobody did. They kept that from us. In case the Germans captured you, you wouldn’t know what the hell was going on. You just knew what was going on in your little section:
“Take this here, Meiselman. A squad, go there. B squad, go there.” I can say that for most 10th men, they knew only what was in front of them. I got through Riva Ridge on February 18 and the fight at Belvedere the next day. Once you get caught in a bad situation it’s just like seeing a Fourth of July celebration with fireworks going off and you are just hoping nothing comes near you. My sergeant in Italy got killed; I trained guys I was close to, Ramirez and one guy we called Butterball. I remember when they got killed too, and then more friends, and after a while you are just looking out for number one.
In war, night and day you don’t remember. I did get to fire my M1 carbine rifle in Italy. I remember a Nazi soldier opening up on us and six or seven of us were flat in position, firing away to get this guy. He must have popped his head. One of us must have gotten him. But we moved up then. And we were going uphill. That I clearly remember, and in a strange way I’m glad I got to use the M1.
And I do remember the searchlights of Riva Ridge. At night, for the week or two weeks, you’d see searchlights going across the skyline. All the way up and down. That was to confuse the enemy while we were up there. We were there days before battle, looking for trails to go up the ridge, and the light from the reflection of the moon would hit the clouds, and give the men a chance to see what the hell they were doing. I could see planes coming in, dropping their bombs, and they looked like little nothings from a distance. We went up at night at 11:00 and loaded with ammunition. Jesus Christ. I was now the mule. I was a human mule for the Army. But I was strong back then, I did as I was told.
March 3, 1945, was when my number came up, because the Germans wanted back the exact section of the Apennine Mountains I happened to be stationed in. And the engineers were putting in some kind of a bridge there while I stood by with ammo. I had received my K ration and was trying to heat up a can of food, whatever it was, and that’s the last thing I remember before a captured American plane painted black that looked like our guys flew right over and decimated my area. That German tactic killed 14 in the 10th Mountain, and 24 were wounded, and I was one. I’ve been told I was blown out of a building and suffered a concussion and nervous disorientation. I can’t remember that moment, it’s all blanked out. The only reason I knew about any of this stuff is because I get flashbacks from time to time.
Back then, I received a 100% disability allowance. In some ways I was lucky, as many guys were killed in action on the same day, at an assembly area we nicknamed “Punchboard Hill,” because they pounded us there with artillery. Anyone in that area got his bells rocked. That area, you look in the books for who was stationed around there; those are my friends, dead.
Meanwhile when I got it they found me wandering around, staggering. I was firing my rifle and they must have thought “What the hell is he firing?” In my mind it must have made sense. I had a traumatic brain injury and was taken off the line of fire. That’s what the morning report said: “Take Meiselman, he’s wacked out already. He’s disoriented.” Usually they take a shell-shocked person, take him two weeks behind the line, give him a shower, give him new clothes, and if he is okay, send him back. But God, I must have been in real deep, because they sent me further back, and I packed off to an Army hospital in Pisa, Leghorn Hospital. I was in the hospital and they took the walking wounded out to show us the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was exciting, but with my condition, it looked straight to me. I’m making jokes now, but it was no joke at the time. Eventually I was put on a hospital ship to Stark General Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.
(Note: My uncle returned on the USAHS ship Wisteria that had a capacity for 595 patients. It had originally been christened as a regular Liberty Ship — one of the roughly 3,000 quickly fabricated American ships built for a new great war, but it was converted for Red Cross use in a Brooklyn shipyard in the summer of 1944).
All the mental cases like me were in the lower part of the ship, while the more severely wounded were up on top. The ship must have blown an engine or something, because it took 20 or 30 days to get across the ocean. Guys were dying up there on the upper deck because they couldn’t get them across fast enough. We lost men that way.
I remember eating on the ship with the other recovering mentals, three across. The table would be hooked up and they would lower it down. And everybody ate with a spoon, no knives or forks for the mental patients.
Bob Dole (Note: the former Senate Majority leader) got it in April, right after Belvedere. He was a replacement lieutenant — he got shot attacking a farmhouse or something, and they pulled him out and managed to save him. I was in the same hospital as him at the same time. I didn’t know him then, but I met him later at alumni events.
I got a medical discharge from the army, but they decided I was not ready to enter society. This is the sad part of my life. There was a Red Cross hospital train to Penn Station, New York City, from South Carolina. Then a fleet of ambulances took us guys to different New York hospitals; my spot was the Mason General Hospital, on Long Island. That’s where all the nerve cases were sent.
(Note: In 1945, just before my uncle was admitted to Mason, a controversial documentary called “PMF 5019” was shot there, directed by John Huston while he was serving in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Now in the public domain as “Let There Be Light,” it was made as a propaganda campaign to show how the Army was acting to cure post-traumatic stress disorder patients, who were labeled as psychoneurotics. Because of privacy issues, the U.S. government suppressed it until the 1980s.)
It didn’t take me long to bounce back, but they gave me electric shock treatment, and that’s where the memory loss comes in even today. I don’t know what they were doing to me — but they said, “You’ll be all right, just lay on the table,” Bing. Bing. And they numbed the brain. They don’t do that anymore to the soldiers. When the Vietnam guys were getting treated the doctors knew better. Now they talk it out of them in group therapy. Give you drugs, maybe. I used to think, jeez, I must have went off my rocker in Italy. Actually, I didn’t go crazy; it was induced by the trauma of the concussion. At first I couldn’t hold a job. The noise would get me. Or something else would get me. The anxiety. I always had to be on my own. That’s why, eventually, I went into the pinball business, to be outside often, delivering machines.
I was discharged August 1945, at the age of 22, and I got the Bronze Star for my part in the war. And when I opened it up, on the back of the star it said Meiselman 327869, and then it told a little story that is helpful; because I was so disoriented that I don’t remember how I earned it exactly.
Sure, I am a survivor. But still a lot of the guys that walk around are suffering from post-traumatic stress — the Vietnam guys, sure, but every veteran has it in him. These men need help, and someone to talk with. Over my life I’ve helped as much as I could. I brought a lot of people to the VA. When I got back to the United States, and had a bit more of my wits, I kept calling up people. Did he make it? Did he get killed?
As far as coming to terms with my past, I did a great job as far as I’m concerned, and of course I’m proud of the other guys. I didn’t realize how much action the other guys saw until much later. 992 of us were killed in Kiska and Italy. I consider myself lucky that I was honorably discharged. I’m proud to be one of the old-timers who reactivated to 10th Mountain at Fort Drum in 1985. They have women in the 10th now, too, and I’m proud of every last one of them.
I first went back with other veterans in 1988 to the battlefields, and that helped bring inner peace, too. I’ve gone many times since, but that first trip brought back memories, good and scary. To this day there are foxholes covered over by grass; you have to be careful. I took 35 rolls of film, many pictures of the villagers who remembered us. So many of those people are dead now.
We fellows closed up the war. The 10th is a great outfit, and we showed the way. Bob Dole, and all the rest of us, we didn’t want this country to get caught short again without special forces. And because of what the Germans had mountainwise, we smartened up America.
I enjoyed reliving the past, but I looked to the future. I was not just active in the 10th Mountain. I’ve also been connected to the International Federation of Mountain Soldiers, where people in mountain divisions of all countries reunite. We remember those lost, and we tell our stories and the stories of those who did not make it back. We have our own pin, and we’ve created peace trails. Ours is in Colorado. I’ve walked that with former Nazis. A German soldier is a member — we are all close-knit brothers now for the love of the mountains — and the love of peace. I know we were called the “Greatest Generation,” but I am well aware we are among the disappearing generation. The old story is, it takes three to take a mountain: one to get killed, one to get wounded and one to tell the story. I got two out of three. So I didn’t do bad.
The day after I spoke to my uncle** *in Yonkers, a bed opened up in Calvary Hospice in the Bronx, where my own mother died from ovarian cancer in 2007. My last remaining uncle was to die a few days later, on March 6, late at night, just after his daughter’s last kiss.
A few days later I went with my own daughter to his funeral service at New Jersey’s Woodbridge Cemetery, where Uncle Sam was, before the Kaddish, given full military honors.
Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s debut nonfiction work “The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica” will be published in January by Simon & Schuster.