Potential Italian sister city is in the neighborhood of some of the division’s most heroic fighting in World War II
Aspen could become sister cites with a village of 700 people in Italy’s Apennine Mountains that on paper has little in common with the seat of Rocky Mountain luxury other than a tourism-based economy and some ski trails.
But Abetone and Aspen share a historical bond in the 10th Mountain Division troops of the U.S. Army. Soldiers trained at nearby Camp Hale and went on to wage a heroic campaign driving the Nazi occupiers out of their mountainous, dug-in positions along the Gothic Line, one of the last major German stands of World War II, and liberating the region surrounding Abetone.
Some of those soldiers, who mastered the art of fighting on skis and trained at one point at Ashcroft, visited Aspen during their weekends off and returned to help transform the town into a ski resort after the war.
The two towns have been in the courtship process established by Sister Cities International, where officials from each side visit the other.
If all goes well, Aspen youth will soon have more opportunities for student exchanges to the region, which includes the art capital of Florence, an hour’s drive southeast from Abetone.
Sister Cities International is a program established after World War II to foster better cooperation and understanding between cultures.
Aspen already has sister cities relationships with Queenstown, New Zealand; Bariloche, Argentina; Chamonix, France; Davos, Switzerland; and Shimmukappu, Japan.
Last month, the head of Abetone’s ski company, the town’s mayor and an Italian consul general visited Aspen, and gave a presentation to City Council.
“The history of our two communities starts in the 1940s,” said Giampiero Danti, Abetone mayor, through a translator. “The U.S. alpine troops went to save us, and help us during that terrible war.”
Danti’s mother, while pregnant with him, had to flee the German occupation in Abetone, and could not return until after the 10th Mountain troops had come through, Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland said during his remarks, following the Italian mayor.
In Florence, the retreating Germans destroyed the city’s bridges over the Arno River, but allowed town fathers to choose one they wished to save.
Allied forces invaded Italy in September 1943, and liberated Rome and Florence the following summer. But by the fall of 1944, they were stuck in a stalemate with heavily dug-in Germans at what became known as the Gothic Line, which stretched across the mountainous terrain of the Northern Apennines.
In December of 1944 and January of 1945, the 10th Mountain was deployed. The troops, recruited from the National Ski Patrol and trained in the mountains between Aspen and Leadville, took their inspiration from Finnish soldiers who valiantly battled a Soviet invasion in the winter of 1939-40, convincing American military commanders that they also needed a fighting force competent in mountaineering and skiing.
Just beyond the northern slope of the Apennines is the Po River Valley. If the allies could break through the Gothic Line and get to the Po, their conquest of Italy would be at hand. Getting through the mountains proved to be one of the most challenging missions of the war, but its drama has been overshadowed by D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge and other fighting in Northwestern Europe, Ireland said.
As 10th Mountain troops, decked out in white camouflage uniforms, began taking their positions, two targets became clear: Riva Ridge and Mount Belvedere, both within a dozen miles or so of Abetone. Gaining those positions would give the allies crucial high ground needed to break through to the Po Valley.
The battle for Riva Ridge began with 700 soldiers executing a 1,500-vertical-foot climb in the early morning hours of Feb. 19, 1945, according to a war chronology by the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
The tactic worked, as troops surprised the enemy. The offensive continued throughout the day, and by dawn on Feb. 20, the allies held the summit of Mount Belvedere and other nearby mountains. Weeks of German counter attacks followed, but the positions held. Between the Riva Ridge and Belvedere assaults, 213 10th Mountain Division soldiers were killed and 782 were wounded, according to the chronology.
It took another two months of fighting, but allied troops led by the 10th crossed the Po River on April 25. On May 2, the German Army in Italy surrendered at Lake Garda — five days before the unconditional German surrender. A total of 19,780 men served in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, with 960 killed, 3,871 wounded and 20 taken prisoner, according to the National Association for the 10th Mountain Division.
Dennis Hagen, archivist for Denver Public Library’s 10th Mountain Division Resource Center, said he visited the Apennine region in 2009 with surviving veterans of the Italian campaign and was blown away by the goodwill they encountered. In one town, despite a pouring rain, everyone came out to line the streets for a parade, Hagen said.
“Every little town we went into, you couldn’t believe the reception,” he said. “They wouldn’t have their country if it wasn’t for the 10th Mountain. ... They consider these guys to be liberators, 55, 60 years later.”
For the next step in the sister cities process, a group of Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club members will head to Abetone in March, to compete in the town’s traditional Pinocchio Cup, which is a ski contest for the area’s youth.
A delegation of local leaders from Aspen also will visit in the spring, said Aspen Sister Cities board president Don Sheeley. Then, in the fall, there will be 10-day exchanges of about six kids from each town. If all goes well, Abetone and Aspen could be signing sister cities documents sometime in 2014.
Rolando Galli, the head of the Abetone ski company, told council in November that his home is a small town “very different from Aspen,” but that it shares “more or less the same interests” — tourism and protecting its natural resources.
Danti, the mayor, pointed out that Abetone sent its best skier, Zeno Colo, to the Aspen F.I.S. World Championships in 1950, and Colo took home the gold medal in the downhill and giant slalom. The event was the first F.I.S. Championships held on American soil and put Aspen on the map as an international ski destination.
Another benefit could be exchanges of ski instructors, patrollers, or tourism officials, Danti said, stressing “mutual cooperation.”
Aspen City Council members also noted that both towns are named after trees, since Abetone means “large fir” in Italian.