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Veterans Series: Adams' Ski Troops

Oftentimes war means leaving the place you know behind, but it doesn’t always have to mean losing touch with home. In the next part of our series on World War II veterans, WAMC tells the story of about 20 men from a small western Massachusetts town who answered the call of duty — the best way they knew how.

“Nineteen of us that joined the 10th Mountain Division,” Art Bourdon said. “And we all used to ski the Thunderbolt.”

Before Art Bourdon made his way to Colorado and the mountains of Italy during World War II as a member of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division, he honed his skiing skills on Mount Greylock’s Thunderbolt Trail in Adams, Massachusetts.

“It’s a rough trail,” Bourdon said. “When we were skiing it, the equipment we had was practically nothing. Just a strap around a ski.”

The Thunderbolt is a dicey descent with practically a 90-degree turn down the highest peak in Massachusetts. After its inaugural race in 1935, the trail garnered the attention of Olympians from across the world and served as the site of championship races for what is now the United States Ski and Snowboard Association. In a bit of eerie foreshadowing, it even drew the attention of a nation that would alter the lives of the men from Adams.

“Hitler sent a team over here before World War II,” said Heather Linscott.

Heather Linscott’s father, Bill, skied Greylock and also served in the 10th. She is a founding member of the Thunderbolt Ski Runners, which celebrates the trail and the people who skied it. The Thunderbolt is still skied today, highlighted by an annual race, the way it was back when Linscott, Bourdon and his buddies braved it…by hiking up and then skiing back down. If you want another run, you better start hiking again.

“So all these guys from Adams grow up cutting their teeth skiing on the Thunderbolt as teenagers with the mountain in their backyard, basically,” Mahar explained. “They become very proficient skiers and in the early 1940s, the first U.S. mountain division, the 10th Mountain Division is formed out in Colorado. You had to have three letters of recommendation just to get in. So you had to go to local people in the area who could testify as to your mountaineering and ski skills. So these guys all get their three letters and they’re just volunteering like crazy to go into the 10th Mountain Division.”

Blair Mahar also helped form the Thunderbolt Ski Runners. His 1999 documentary “Purple Mountain Majesty” tells the story of the Adams men who volunteered their mountaineering skills in service to the country.

“It seemed like probably, and I’m guessing, a shoe-in that ‘Yeah, this is the right thing to do. If we’re going to go into the war, let’s get into the ski troops because we can ski,’” Heather Linscott said.

In the early 1940s, the men went to Camp Hale in Colorado for mountaineering and cold weather survival training where they were divided into three regiments.

“When I was a kid, he [Bill Linscott] would put us to bed at night, and he’d talk about how they’d ski and dig snow caves,” Heather Linscott recalled. “Then they’d roll a big ball of snow in front of the door so that the Germans wouldn’t know where they were. Now, I don’t know how much of that was made up for a fairy tale for a little kid going to bed, but they did go out in Colorado and they learned, it was called D Series, how to live in the snow. They had to go out for seven to 10 days and live in the snow.”

They were then sent to Italy’s Apennine Mountains. Bourdon recalls one night when his platoon attacked a mountaintop village.

“We got separated,” Bourdon recalled. “I told the lieutenant we were separated. I was a runner and a sergeant. He says ‘Well Sergeant, go back and get them.’ So I went back down the mountain. We were almost on top. Went back down the mountain, in the dark, 3 o’clock in the morning. I knew these guys were near a cliff. I didn’t hit it in the right spot, but I was right above them. So I was talking to them telling them to go my left and I’d pick them up and we’d go back up the mountain. And the rock beneath my feet let go and down I went. Landed on the ground. Hurt my back. I had a box of machine gun ammunition in my pack in the back. And I landed on that. And ended up in the hospital for 13 days.”

But that wasn’t the end of Bourdon’s time in Italy.

“The boys went up and did a job,” Bourdon continued. “Later on I joined them back up again. We ended up in the Po Valley on April 20th. That’s how I remembered it. I said ‘Oh my God, first day in the Po Valley. 20th of April. Oh my God, that’s my birthday. Twenty-one years old.”

Between 1944 and 1945, the 10th’s focus was taking Riva Ridge from the Germans, so they couldn’t survey U.S. positions below. And it’s where we join up with Bill Linscott. In this interview for the documentary “Purple Mountain Majesty”, Linscott describes what happened there during the war and years later.

“I’d gotten shot April 1st of 1945,” Linscott said. “I lost all my equipment when I went to hospital. Then 50 years later, we went back over to Italy and up into the mountains. A group of fellows that I wasn’t with walked through this farmyard at the foot of a mountain. This woman was feeding her chickens with this canteen cup. One of the guys asked if he could take a look at it and she said ‘Sure.’ He went over to spring and he cleaned it off.”

“And they turned it over and my father’s name on the bottom of it,” Heather Linscott said fighting away tears.

That cup now sits in the Adams Visitor Center, as part of a museum honoring the locals who served in the 10th. Blair Mahar notes a figure from the book The Boys of Winter: Life and Death in the U.S. Ski Troops During the Second World War.

“More men from Adams went into the 10th Mountain Division during World War II per capita than any other town in America,” Mahar said. “So we’re a small town, but we sent a lot of boys off to the 10th.”

“We lost one man,” Bourdon said. “Rudy Konieczny.”

“They talk about Rudy hiking up that mountain [Greylock],” Heather Linscott said. “If it snowed, he didn’t go to work. He went up on the mountain. Or he didn’t work in the winter. He skied. That’s how a lot of us guys and girls in the Thunderbolt Ski Runners feel. We eat, sleep and live powder snow. A lot of the people that hike up there and started this club. That’s what we love. We are all part of Rudy.”

Bourdon says just about every man from Adams in the 10th was awarded a Purple Heart.

“All of us were hurt or wounded,” Bourdon recalled. “I fell off a cliff and got hurt. But you don’t get any medals for that.”

Returning to Adams after the war, Bourdon says it was just like old times.

“We came back,” Bourdon said. “We skied the mountain. We had parties up there. We all joined together. We put up a ski tow on the golf course in Adams. We were teaching all the kids how to ski. Three nights a week in the wintertime.”

Sadly, none of the 20 or so men from Adams who fought in the 10th remain. Bourdon died in 2014. I had spoken to him months before.

Bill Linscott died in 2001.

“Blair says in his film, ‘To ski the Thunderbolt is not just to ski some mountain, you’re skiing with those men,’” Heather Linscott said. “Not every time, but a lot of times, I’ll go up and I’ll think of my dad. And where we skied up there. The first time I skied up there with.”

Today, light from the Massachusetts Veterans War Memorial tower shines down on Adams and the trail that shaped the lives of 20 of the town’s most honorable citizens.  

Click here for the rest of WAMC's series on World War II veterans. 

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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