- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Mountain Characters
- Published: August 06, 2015
- Last Updated: October 11, 2015
Editor's Note: Harris Dusenbery died at the age of 101 on October 4, 2015 after a long life of many adventures. Shred Hood was fortunate to interview him and hear his stories before he passed.
Ask Harris Dusenbery whether he ever expected to live to be 101 years old, and he smiles.
"I never thought I would make it this long," he says. "I was wondering whether I would reach the year 2000."
Dusenbery has memories that reach back as far as World War I. 70 years ago he fought with the 10th Mountain Division to liberate Italy. At the age of 55 he retired to travel with his wife Evelyn, and he has done a lot of exploring in those 46 post-retirement years. Antarctica, Burma, the North Pole: Pick a place on Earth, and chances are he has been there, and he has a story about the experience.
Like the time he received a last-minute phone call asking whether he wanted to go to the North Pole. It was a half-price trip on board a magnificent Russian atomic-powered ice-breaker. He and his wife Evelyn flew to Norway and took a helicopter out to sea to board the ship. They made it to the North Pole, and on the return voyage south they stopped to explore some frozen islands that had been abandoned when the Soviet Empire collapsed.
“The Russians had a station there during the Cold War,” Dusenbery says, “a listening station, very small. We went on shore, and in the kitchen of one of these buildings there was a coal-burning stove with a pot of stew on it that was frozen solid. It had been there for 20-some years. Because after the collapse of the Soviet Union the Russians sent a ship out there and gave the people on the island 4 hours to leave.”
Dusenbery laughs at the memory. He lives in a condominium in downtown Vancouver, Washington, and although he uses a cane to walk he gets around quite well. At one point during our interview he gets a call from his dentist's office, reminding him of an appointment the next day. "I have all my teeth except a couple of wisdom teeth," he says. "I'm very lucky."
From Portland to Camp Hale to Italy, and Back
Dusenbery was born in Roundup, Montana in 1914. He moved to Portland when he was 12, studied the classics and political science at Grant High School and Reed College, and took a job out of college with the Social Security Administration. He and Evelyn were raising their first child, David, when World War Two broke out.
Growing up in Montana, he enjoyed the outdoors and the mountains — went skiing for the first time at the age of eight. He climbed Mount Hood as a student at Reed, and getting up into the mountains with Evelyn was a favorite pastime. So Dusenbery decided to volunteer with the 10th Mountain Division. The Army was recruiting mountaineers and skiers to form an elite division for mountain combat, and Dusenbery wanted to be a part of it. A sergeant at Fort Lewis tried to talk him out of it, but he persisted.
The men who volunteered for the 10th were sent to train at Camp Hale in Colorado,where they studied advanced rock climbing, cold weather camping and ski mountaineering at 9,000-12,000 feet of elevation. Dusenbery was older than most of the other men at 29, but he was in good shape, and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He later wrote a book about it, titled Ski the High Trail.
From Colorado the 10th moved to Texas for regular infantry training, and there Dusenbery was selected by the battalion intelligence officer to be a member of his intelligence squad. His training shifted from climbing mountains and shooting rifles to maps, observations and tactical planning.
Dusenbery was officially with military intelligence by the time he boarded a ship bound for war, but he had no idea where he and his division were heading. They didn't even know whether they were bound for Europe or the Pacific. “Even after we had reached the Straits of Gibraltar we still didn’t know where we were going," he recalls. "There was speculation that we were going to go through the Suez Canal and on to the mountains of northern Burma.”
Instead they landed at Naples and traveled to the North Apennines to join the fight for the liberation of Italy. They were the last soldiers to enter the war in Europe, but the 10th Mountain Division served with great distinction in Italy, climbing, taking and holding Riva Ridge and the surrounding mountains and driving the enemy back into the Po Valley to force a surrender.
Dusenbery's role in the fighting was mostly tactical, pasting together maps late at night to plan artillery for the next day's fighting, observing the action through field glasses to make sure battles proceeded as planned. But he was by no means safe as the action intensified. He spent one memorable night alone in an observation post that was pulverized by shelling.
"There must have been 10 mortar shells that hit this big slab of rock that I was curled up behind," he recalls.
Dusenbery was awarded a Bronze Star during the Po Valley campaign, and he later wrote a book about his war experiences titled The North Apennines and Beyond. He also lost some good friends in Italy, including his former squad leader, Morgan Desmond, and his Section Sergeant, James Mathews. The 10th Mountain Division served in Italy for 114 days, and one quarter of the division's soldiers were killed or wounded in action. The 10th’s casualty rate of 1,209 per month was the highest of any division in the Southern European Theater of World War II.
Given that casualty rate, Dusenbery counted himself as lucky to return to his family in Portland after the war. He returned to his job at Social Security and he and Evelyn had a second child, their daughter Diane. They resumed their old life of work and travel, camping and backpacking. His knee problems prevented intense downhill skiing, but he was still able to get out with Evelyn and do Nordic skiing.
"We had a modest house and managed to pay it off," he says. "We didn’t have any debts. And we lived quite modestly at home. We used our money to travel."
Exploring the World
Harris and Evelyn visited Italy six times with other members of the 10th Mountain Division and their families. “These mountain villages really make it a holiday when we are there. The school is out, and they will have a big parade or a village party. It seems like we’re a big part of their history, and that feels good.”
Those travels led to more travels, and before long Harris and Evelyn were known as the couple that would go anywhere. Especially after a nagging ulcer convinced Harris to retire at 55. They traveled to South America and all the way down to Antarctica. They signed up to sail from Spain on a yacht owned by Aristotle Onassis, only to be told that they would have to board on the Canary Islands instead. They eventually made it across the Atlantic to Miami, after a planned two-and-a-half-week voyage that ended up taking two and a half months.
They explored places few people get to see: Burma, Greenland, Iran. They set out on trips with no destination in mind, just faith that the journey would be worthwhile. One day Harris got an usual offer. "They had a freighter trip to the Far East open, but they said, 'We can’t tell you when you’re gonna go, we can’t tall you where you’re gonna go, and we can’t tell you when you’re gonna get back.'”
They went for it: Taiwan and Korea, the Philippines and Singapore and India.
Another time they took a German ship through the Northwest Passage, from Nome to Greenland by water in 25 days, under the Northern Lights.
The most epic trip of all took them from London to Kathmandu: 12,000 miles in 72 days by land. The English Channel, Austria, Northern Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. It was so much fun they decided to extend the trip. From Nepal they flew to Thailand and traveled to Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, Hawaii — and then finally back home.
“We were gone 103 days,” says Dusenbery.
He digitized his slides from that journey and others, and as he scrolls through the old photos on his iMac he studies them closely. Each photograph represents a memory, an experience he shared with Evelyn, his wife for 67 years. She died in 2008.
He pauses for a moment when he comes upon a photograph of a gorgeous mountain with a slight resemblance to Mount Hood, shot midway through that epic overland journey he took with Evelyn, from London to Kathmandu. He stares at the picture for a moment, and then his eyes light up as he remembers:
"Mount Ararat," he says, nodding slightly. "Eastern Turkey. Beautiful."