Towson author not a risktaker, but he writes about them

Jenkins has chronicled Army mountain division

March 14, 2004|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

On weekday mornings, author McKay Jenkins retreats from the sweet pandemonium produced by his 3-year-old son in their Towson home and takes his laptop to a local cafe.

He's working on his sixth book, but he is still very much immersed in his previous work, The Last Ridge, a compelling tale of the Army's 10th Mountain Division and the pivotal role it played in pushing the German army out of Italy during World War II.

"I was drawn into writing the book because of the quality and personalities of the division's veterans," said Jenkins, who is scheduled to discuss The Last Ridge today at the Towson library. "They were all extremely bright and fit, very extraordinary people."

And, he adds, in their 70s and 80s when he interviewed them over a two-year period.

Writing is in McKay Jenkins' blood.

A native of Amherst, Mass., Jenkins is on sabbatical from the English department at the University of Delaware, where he has been on faculty for eight years. He earned a doctorate in English from Princeton University in 1996, and earlier was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and The Capital in Annapolis.

He's also an outdoorsman.

"But not a risktaker," said Jenkins, 41, a compact, intense man. "I just like the outdoors."

Before becoming a father, Jenkins said, he had time for wilderness paddling in Canada. He also enjoyed bicycle tours across the United States, and has backpacked in Glacier National Park and in the Great Smoky Mountains.

McKay said he was inspired to write about the 10th Mountain Division while working on another book, The White Death, an account of the deaths of five boys in Glacier National Park in 1969. Many in the search for the lost boys were veterans of the 10th, Jenkins said.

"These veterans brought incredible energy and wisdom to a very tragic scene," he added.

Telling the Mountain Division's story in detail required spending hours in libraries and crisscrossing the country to interview scores of veterans of the 10th, which today is serving in the mountains of Afghanistan.

"I found in the Denver public library over 1,000 letters that soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division wrote home during World War II," Jenkins said. "I plopped my laptop down and just went to work. ... Required hundreds of hours."

Bob Frauson was part of a three-man scout team that climbed Riva Ridge before a nine-hour ascent by 750 mountain soldiers who surprised the sleeping Germans.

Frauson, 81, of Columbia Falls, Mont., said of Jenkins: "He got the book right.

"That took a lot of research and good writing," Frauson said in a telephone interview last week. "While the combat was not good, he kind of captured the fact that the government didn't know what to do with us for three years except train us."

Jenkins' book tells how the division was formed at the outset of World War II after a brainstorm by Charles Minot "Minnie" Dole, a Boston Brahmin, Yale graduate and member of the National Ski Patrol. Dole convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt that soldiers skilled in mountaineering and winter skills would be essential in Europe.

Dole recruited other wealthy ski bums, "mule skinners" from the South who had never seen snow, trappers and European expatriates who taught soldiers mountain and winter skills.

The division trained stateside for nearly three years, its soldiers making the cover of Life magazine, before the division was assigned to Italy in 1944.

The most daring exploit of the division's combat tour was taking Riva Ridge in the Apennine Mountains - a night climb up a sheer mountain wall 2,200 feet high. "The Germans thought their position so impregnable they slept through the whole thing," Jenkins said.

While in the war only a short time, the division lost more than 1,000 men. Some of the veterans returned home and parlayed their skills into new jobs, with two opening Colorado ski resorts at Vail and Aspen.

One became an Olympic coach, another a noted environmentalist. Perhaps the best-known veteran of the division, Bob Dole, recovered from serious wounds to become a U.S. senator from Kansas and a 1996 presidential candidate.

"These men have great attitudes," Jenkins said. "They say the soldiers in the present-day division don't have it as hard as they did, that they are not true Alpine warriors. But if the truth be told, today's guys in the 10th have operated at 18,000 feet in Afghanistan, much higher than they ever reached in Europe.

"Still, men in their 70s and 80s carrying all that pride, it's pretty special."

The Last Ridge is in its third printing, and Jenkins said he has sold the book rights to a Hollywood agent.

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