My memories from the life of a World War II muleskinner

By Paul Steven Ghiringhelli, the Fort Drum Mountaineer

 

In a small ceremony at his home in Tamworth, N.H., Aug. 18, 2011, Harry DeSmet Thompson, a former 10th Mountain Division muleskinner, was honored for his service to the nation with a coin and a star letter from Brig. Gen. Harry E. Miller Jr., senior commander Fort Drum. In addition, he received a 10th Mountain Division blanket courtesy of Mike Plummer,president of the 10th Mountain Division Association, and an official citation from the American Legion New Hampshire Department commander before members of American Legion Post 95. Thompson passed away, Sept. 11, 2012, at the age of 103. (U.S. Army photo by Paul Steven Ghiringhelli)

I arrived in Tamworth, N.H., on a warm, bright afternoon in August 2011 to interview one of the 10th Mountain Division’s oldest surviving muleskinners.

Harry DeSmet Thompson curried mule packs bearing munitions and supplies high in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy during World War II.

After the war, he purchased a 150-year-old farmhouse by the Bearcamp River and turned a rugged 20-acre swath of land into a fertile pasture.

In time, Thompson’s farm became legendary in the region, mostly for its sweet corn, strawberries and asparagus. In addition to farming, he continued perfecting a boyhood passion, venturing out onto the frozen river or the nearby Ossipee Mountains to trap everything from fox and fisher to bobcat and beaver.

When Thompson emerged from his farmhouse, he wore a nearly perfectly fitting 10th Mountain Division wool dress coat from the 1940s.

I could soon see that his thin frame and gravelly whisper well concealed the tough vigor of heart and mind. His quips carried a triumphant wit — sharp and whimsical, unafraid to offend, humor or endear himself to perfect strangers.

Along with friends and family members, a large contingent of patriots who hold top posts at veterans organizations and associations throughout New England waited in the driveway to present him with a gift.

“Praise the Lord, we’re all still alive,” the 102-year-old said. “Are there any muleskinners in the crowd?”

Love and determination

The master storyteller took a seat and opened up the book of his life.

“I’m the oldest of 12,” Thomspon said. “We had hard times, and we had good times.”

He was born to Mary “Mamie” DeSmet Thompson, the great granddaughter of Lewis and Clark Expedition explorer Meriwether Lewis, and Harry William Thompson, a full-blooded Teton Sioux Indian. He was raised in the Fort Hale District of the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where hunting, trapping, fishing and fetching fresh water from the Missouri River were everyday occurrences.

“We didn’t buy meat very often,” he said. “But we did buy a lot of ammunition.”

His favorite meal was jack rabbit hash. During harsh winters, he said his mother could stretch out the meal over several days using just two jack rabbits.

Thompson was 16 when he met the new doctor at his boarding school. Dr. Doris Sidwell was from back East and unfamiliar with the harsh terrains and environment of the northern plains.

“It was all wagon roads out there, with deep puddles,” Thompson said. “Once she got a call, very often, she would get stuck in places. So the school decided some of the older boys could go along and help push her out of the mud holes. I became one of them.

“I guess I pushed her out of more mud holes than the rest of them,” he said with a chuckle, alluding to how the two later married.

They would spend more than 60 years together until Doris’ death in 1994.

Harry DeSmet Thompson as a 10th Mountain Division Soldier in 1944. (Photo courtesy of Harry DeSmet Thompson)

War

At 35, Thompson entered the Army on Feb. 1, 1944. After boot camp and training with mules in Camp Swift, Texas, he was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division’s 605th Field Artillery “Mule Pack” Battalion, which supported the 86th Infantry Regiment.

During the war, muleskinners curried a string of five mules to carry a 75 mm howitzer gun emplacement and a string of seven mules for the 105 mm howitzer.

Thompson said his favorite memory of being assigned to the 10th Mountain Division was in seeing the war end.

“Two other divisions were ordered to get the Germans out of there, but they couldn’t do it,” he said. “That’s when the 10th Mountain moved in, and we did it.”

After the 10th Mountain Division chased the enemy across the Po Valley, commanders announced the war in Europe was over.

One of Thompson’s daughters, Jane Thompson Witzel, said the anticipation of her father’s return was profound.

“He told mother he would be taking a bus home from Virginia and would arrive at the bus station in Lawrence, Mass. … a huge mill town on the Merrimack River. Both sides of the river were lined with these brick Victorian mills about eight to 10 stories high for making textiles, shoes and leather.

“From the time that Dad called Mother until when the bus was due at the station in Lawrence, VJ Day had been announced. Of course, word spread like wildfire. All the bells in the clock towers in all the mills for miles around started ringing … and I can remember a flood of (thousands) of happy people pouring out of these mills. It was just a mass of moving people in the streets and up and down the sidewalks.”

Cpl. Harry D. Thompson was honorably discharged from the Army on Nov. 19, 1945.

Reflections

After a remarkable childhood education in life and survival on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, Thompson’s journey through the 20th century and beyond could be best described as epic.

He survived disease, famine and the extremes of nature on windswept prairies, curried the favor of a sophisticated female doctor more than 10 years his senior, fought in the mountains of northern Italy during World War II, and trapped animals so expertly that he was inducted into the New Hampshire Trappers Association Hall of Fame.

Interviewing Mr. Thompson was like briefly entering America’s old Wild West. I was drawn in by his indomitable spirit, something I also saw in two gruff and unapologetic men I knew for a period in childhood.

As a first-generation American, I grew up with no extended family in the U.S. and spent very little time with my grandfathers in South America before their deaths.

Hearing Mr. Thompson share his story reminded me of them.

Cowboys in Argentina are as famous and admired as they are here. “Gauchos” roam a huge expanse of Patagonian lowlands set between the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the towering Andes Mountains on the country’s western border with Chile.

The families of Romolo and Lorenzo immigrated to Argentina from northern Italy. Although they settled in the capital city of Buenos Aires, they, like so many other Argentinian men, liked to assume the enigmatic and self-determining qualities of the gaucho, thinking of themselves as urban cowboys.

Last week, Thompson passed away peacefully in his Tamworth home surrounded by family at 11 minutes to nine on the evening of 9/11. He was 103.

You made me miss two men I hardly knew and the many men of a time and a generation that feels so distant now, Mr. Thompson.

Thank you for your service and your love of country. Thank you for your mark on the 10th Mountain Division. And thank you for memories that will last a lifetime.

Rest in peace, sir.

Thompson’s story was featured on Soldiers Live, Nov. 4, 2011, at http://soldiers.dodlive.mil/2011/11/tale-of-a-10th-mountain-division-muleskinner/.