He acknowledges a few side effects from his 94 years on God’s green Earth, but Bruce Campbell’s voice and memory are still as strong as the night he sat with his UCLA college buddies in a Westwood movie theater and saw a thrilling pre-feature documentary.
“It showed all these guys in white coats, white hats and white skis carrying white guns,” Campbell told the Rotary Club of San Marino last Thursday afternoon. “Afterwards, a voice came on and said ‘If any of you are interested in this, there will be applications in the lobby after the show.’”
An enthusiastic patron of the local ski resorts, Campbell was hooked.
“I knew I was going to have to enlist,” Campbell said. “This seemed as good as anything.”
Three letters of recommendation later, Campbell found himself at 9,200’ elevation for 15 months of mountain training.
“We had three weeks of intense ski training,” Campbell recalled, “with internationally known skiers and mountain warfare specialists.”
Campbell mentioned by name Johann “Hannes” Schneider, whose son, Herbert, was also serving in the United States Army’s 10th Mountain Division as one of those who provided training.
“We were mountain soldiers, so we had to learn how to climb rocks,” said Campbell, who was wearing his familiar hat. “We were called mule skinners, but we never skinned any mules. But we sure learned how to pack them!”
From the snow-filled mountains of Colorado, Campbell and other members of the 10th Mountain Division were shipped off in June, 1944 to Camp Swift, Texas, where they endured 20-mile walks that had to be completed in eight hours.
“In the heat, with the snakes and the spiders,” Campbell said. “It was there where we learned how to work with tanks.”
It was December, 1944 and Campbell said “We were wondering of we were ever going to get involved in this fracas,” he said of World War II. “We didn’t know where we were going to end up.”
Campbell and his cohorts in the 10th Mountain Division wound up in Italy’s Appenine Mountains.
“The Germans held Mt. Deli Torracia, and after securing Riva Ridge–the foremost observation point for the Germans–and Mt. Belvedere, Campbell’s unit engaged the Nazis in a four-and-a-half-day battle.
“This was one of our most fierce combat events,” Campbell, who has called San Marino ‘home’ since 1998 would later say. “The enemy’s defenses and massive counterattacks caused severe casualties on both sides.”
The Germans had constructed reinforced gun stations high in the mountains.
“Any time the Allies tried to go through the Po Valley, the Germans had the observation posts,” Campbell said. “They just pushed a few buttons.”
That is where we came into play,” he continued. “We were the only ones trained in mountain warfare. We surprised the Germans. For four or five days, from peak to peak, we had observation posts and pother armaments that stopped ant further advance. The Germans were well-noted for their fighting back and they would give a fierce counter-attack. But finally, we had the the manpower and the firepower that allowed us to get past them.”
After all of the ski training, Campbell said that they ended up on foot during the attack.
“The skis were too noisy,” he said with a smile.
And the iconic white uniforms?
“The Germans wore white uniforms, so much of what it appeared to be didn’t come to fruition,” he said, again with a smile and slight chuckle.
The trusty mules didn’t even make it to Europe, according to Campbell, who told the rapt audience they ended up on another assignment in the Philippines.
“Elmer’s gone, too,” he said of his personal mule, another line which elicited hearty laughter.
The war ended for Campbell and company on May 2, 1945, but Campbell’s unit had suffered 1,000 casualties with another 4,500 being wounded out of a 10,000-soldier regimen.
“It is a remarkable organization, that I am very proud to be a part of,” he said, echoing its rallying cry of “Climb to Glory.’
The 10th Mountain Division was reassigned to the Po Valley, where they were charged with monitoring 2,000 prisoners of war.
His overseas assignment ended in Udine, Italy, with “two months of R&R,” Campbell said. “It was rumored that Tito’s forces were threatening and we were sent there to thwart any activity. We had no encounters with any Yugoslav forces and ended up on the beaches, swimming and skiing.”
Campbell was aboard ship heading back to the United States, where they were to undergo amphibious training for an attack on Japan and future assignments in the Southeast Asian Theater of WWII.
“We were 600 miles off the coast of Virginia when we heard the bombs were dropped on Japan,” he said. “We couldn’t have asked for better timing.”
Campbell is in no need of “better timing,” as his presentation was highlighted by wise and witty notations. He even began his address my noting “just a week ago we were in here voting,” he said of the community room at San Marino Community Church, where Rotary meetings are held.
Just prior to Campbell’s keynote address, club members heard from San Marino High School seniors Katherine Choi and Baxton Chen, who are the Rotary Club’s Students of the Month for October and November, respectively.
Campbell also mentioned that only he and one other member of his 10th Mountain Division Unit are still alive among a large group that frequently held reunions across the globe.
But we still have our Bruce.