Seneca Rocks

Training at Seneca Rocks West Virginia


Robert & Gordy Wren

Robert & Gordy Wren visiting Robert's family, having hitch hiked up from West Virginia.

I first met bob in the spring of 1943 in the 10th Recon at Camp Hale when we were training as climbing instructors. In July we were sent to Seneca Rocks West Virginia. Where we trained troops on maneuvers.

Many of these men had no desire to climb and were frightened to start with but after 2 weeks they would be doing real well. Even if it was something they would never use it was a confidence builder. I can remember Bob telling a trainee as he was preparing to go off a ledge on his first rappel "Don't worry the ropes hardly ever break" Typical Galaher humour.

Wendy Broomhall


Camaraderie

I was a tent mate of Bob's along with Gordy Wren at Seneca School in WVA and developed a close relationship with him. I taught rock climbing under him and had a healthy respect for him as both a supervisor and a friend.

One of the highlights of my service was my participation in a singing quintet at Seneca. It was organized by Slim Mabry and was made up of Bob (tenor), Woody Waldrip (tenor), Gordy Wren (baritone), and myself (baritone) along with Slim who sang lead, played guitar and directed. Our repertory was fairly extensive and included all of the 10th songs as well as "cowboy", hillbilly, Swiss and French alpine, Scandinavian ski songs, college drinking songs, blue grass, and some that were too raunchy to put into press. We didn't sing the swing music of the time, we left that to the big name bands on the juke boxes.

We had no sheet music or written words to sing by so everything was done by rote. I must admit that we were pretty good. We had many invitations to sing at local Rotary, Elk, Kiwanis and other clubs throughout the area and we gratefully accepted them although our only recompense was a good southern meal and a drink of applejack whisky out of a mason jar in the kitchen. I wouldn't even try to compare a good old pot luck dinner to the food(?) we ate at our tent camp chow hall.

We were well compensated for our efforts primarily by the camaraderie of our group and by the warmth and friendship of the groups we entertained. I cannot imagine any area where servicemen were welcomed any more warmly than we were.

The instructors had Class A passes which allowed us to go to any of the towns in the area whenever we were off duty and we took full advantage of them. The Army provided us transportation to town each evening and even provided transportation for our singing group whenever we entertained. We had a good first sergeant in Andy Ransom and I think our captain, Ed Link felt that our singing group promoted good public relations in the area.

My association with Bob was a memorable part of my military service.

Dick Wellington


The West Virginia Maneuver Area

In July 1943 a detachment of 20 plus men and three officers left Camp Hale for Mouth of the Seneca, West Virginia. No one knew then that it would be home for a full year. Jack Kappler, Jim Nussbaum, Jim Crooks, Ed Kennedy, and the original group Commander, Lt. Ed Link, were from Seattle. Kappler and Lt. Link deserted us that fall, with a group of approximately 10, and ended up in Italy. (See story in Jan. -Febr. Avalanche)

All Infantry Divisions were organized and trained in flatlands, such as Texas. But as the war went on the brass discovered that North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Burma, etc. had lots of mountains. The W. Va Maneuver Area was established to at least introduce our troops to Mountain Problems. Our job was to train selected personnel in climbing so they could lead men through rough terrain, get supplies through, and evacuate casualties. More than 20 Divisions trained in the W. Va. M. A. Often their last stop before going overseas. The camp was on the headwaters of the Patomic River, approximately 2,500 ft. above sea level. Students lived in two man mountain tents.*** Food ranged from very little to very poor. Rufus Grubb (his real name was the toothless Mess Sergeant, who Jim Nussbaum has never forgot or forgiven. Grubb had directed that anything that was difficult to prepare (including potatoes) be left at the Supply Depot. Training was on a 7 day basis with very occasional 3 day passes. It took that long to get out of the area and back.

West Virginia was a really dry state, so it was about 50 miles to the nearest liquor store, but illegal Apple Jack was available for those who were tired of living. Several follow-up groups of instructors from Hale brought the total number to over 40. Woody Waldrip (later killed in Italy) was the only trooper to completely succumb to and marry one of the local beauties. After the war Oley Dalen (minus one arm) returned to the town of Franklin, married a local girl, and spent much of the rest of his life there.

July 1945 the Maneuver Area closed, and the entire detachment joined the 10th as it arrived in Camp Swift. The group members were scattered throughout the division.

The W. V. M. A was largely a primitive area. Only trails connected some of the cabins with the road through the Valley. Hill cabins lacked electricity and plumbing. The main valley road had been improved in the late 30's by the New Deal. Prior to that it had been virtually unusable much of the year. Remnants of Civil War trenches were still visible outside the nearest town, Petersberg, W. Va. Al Capp may have received some of his inspiration for "Little Abner" from the Mouth of Seneca area, as many of the families had the nome "YoKum", the same as "Mammy YoKum". The faces of Seneca, Champ and other limestone cliffs offered sound, vertical rock, that had all degrees of difficulty, and very good climbing. Today it is one of the top rock climbing areas of the Eastern, U. S.

*** While instructors had the luxury of four man Pyramid tents and folding cots.

Document courtesy of Seneca Instructor Jack Kappler. Author unknown.


War Stories

"War Stories" by John Markwell

Photographs by Duke Watson

 

The army unit responsible for the lines of rusty pitons at Seneca was made up of select volunteers from the reconnaissance troop of the 10th Mountain Division, according to former Army Captain Duke Watson. And if anyone should know, it's Duke, since he was in command of the army climbing school during the last six months it was active there in 1943.

The first regiment of the Division to be organized-the 87th Mountain Infantry-was an offshoot of a special ski patrol unit drawn from the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis, Washington. That group was led by Paul Lafferty, who together with John Woodward, gathered together the key people to form the new outfit.

Lafferty, who now lives in Eugene, Oregon, took a detachment to West Virginia in spring on 1943. Their objective was to establish a special training program for combat in mountainous terrain. West Virginia was chosen since the mountains resembled the Apennines and lower ranges of the Alps. The result of their effort was a "maneuvers" area spanning most of two or three counties, and a program which saw a regimental combat team consisting of 3,000 to 4,000 men pass through each month. Headquarters were located at Elkins, West Virginia, some forty miles from Seneca.

 

The combat regiments were taught the fundamentals of military travel in rugged terrain. The rest step replaced cadence marching. Emphasis was placed on physical conditioning, topography, map work, bivouacs, stream crossings, and military problems unique to Mountainous areas. Two weeks were devoted to intensive training while a third was spent on a tactical problem. Teams were formed and they tried to outmaneuver each other over the rugged West Virginia mountains. Swollen rivers took several lives during these exercises.

In addition to this general training, there were several specialized programs running at the same time. One crew worked with pack animals, another, the engineers, improvised river crossings. The medics were in a specialized program dealing with mountain medicine, first aid, and evacuation. And, of course, there was the rock climbing school.

The rock school was somewhat isolated from the rest of the maneuver team. It was quartered on the Kaisermore pig ranch in the North Fork Valley at the foot of Seneca Rock. Three belaying towers were set up there, as well as quarters for the men. During the summer and fall of 1943, preparations were made for the program. Seneca, Champe, and other local rocks were scouted and practice routes established. At this time, Seneca was overrun by copperhead snakes, but the clean up was so effective, none were seen the next summer.

 

John McCown was in charge of the school when the first group of 150 volunteers went through the school. Total greenhorns were taught the rudiments of rock climbing in two intensive weeks. In a matter of days they were doing aid routes on the rock, as well as mixing tactical training in with the ascents. They practiced "low visibility" climbing - avoiding ridgelines, silent rope signals, night ascents, climbing with helmets and weapons.

This training proved invaluable when many of the men from Seneca stormed Riva Ridge on the Italian front. Eleven hundred soldiers ascended a steep escarpment during a night assault. McCown was a key man in this action, and lost his life in the battle.

In January of 1944, Duke Watson replaced McCown as the commander of the rock climbing school. His staff consisted of many of the top climbers of that generation. David Brower was second in command. Raffi Bedayn was supply officer. Among the fifty instructors many names stand out-Dick Emerson, Fred Becky, Bill Dunaway, to name just a few.

Robert Galaher Fort Lewis

Robert Galaher, Leon Goodman Fort Lewis

Once each month, a select group of 150 volunteers would arrive and undergo two weeks of intensive specialized training. According to Duke, almost all of the men picked up the required skills in a matter of days. On a typical day, climbers would be draped all over Seneca. These men, however, were extremely fit on arrival, and put in eight to ten hour days on the rock. Though more than one thousand trainees went through the program, there was never a serious accident or injury.

 

The school continued into the summer of 1944. During this period, 75,000 pitons were driven into Seneca, Champe, and other nearby rocks, according to Raffi Bedayn. As supply officer, it was his job to procure and issue climbing equipment. Fortunately, most of these were removed, but enough remained to inspire the name Face of a Thousand Pitons.

Many of the more dramatic lines were put in by the instructors themselves, during the two weeks of free time between training groups. Duke recalls instructor Dick Clark working for days, building ladder out over the roof of a cave-like overhang.

The climbing school was relatively short lived. Without warning, the operation closed down after the last group went through in June of 1944. D-Day had arrived, and the training would be put to the ultimate test.

War Stories by John Markwell. Used with permission.