Louie Paparich graduated high school in Northport, Washington in 1942, a few months after the United States had joined the war effort in response to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. Immediately following graduation, Louie took a job on the southern end of Lake Pend Orielle for a contractor building submarines at Farragut Naval Training Station, the recently established and second largest submarine training center in the United States at the time. It was during his time in Idaho that Louie heard about well-paying jobs constructing the Alaska-Canada highway from Alaska territory to the lower 48 states. Setting out from Seattle on a barge, 18 year old Paparich made his way to Skagway Alaska and then to Teslin in the Yukon Territory.
In late 1942, construction of the Alcan Highway was considered part of the war effort, and young Louie met a military service member serving on an army road engineering crew who asked Louie if he had registered with the selective service. Born and raised in Northport, Stephen Louis Paparich had never heard of the selective service or the consequences of not registering. Realizing that he would have more flexibility if he enlisted rather than wait for the draft, Louie hopped on a sternwheeler ship from Whitehorse to Dawson City where he bought an 18 foot boat for $5 so he could travel quickly to Fairbanks to register for the draft. Somewhere along the way, Paparich adopted a dog that crossed his path, and made his way 255 miles down the Yukon river, stopping at villages along the way to get directions and supplies. During a stop at the confluence of the Nation River with the Yukon, Louie ran across an old miner named Tom Phillips who had lived in the area since 1889 and was gravely ill. His companion begged the teenage Louie to take the sick man to Fairbanks for medical help in his $5 boat, but Louie instead left some of his provisions with the men and went ahead to send a floatplane back for the sick prospector, always wondering if the old man had survived. The float plane eventually got to Tom Phillips but they were unsuccessful in getting him to Fairbanks that way. He was moved by riverboat but died shortly afterward.
Paparich found an army recruiter in Fairbanks where he quickly signed up for the draft. Fully expecting to be immediately deployed, Louie looked forward to the warm beaches of the South Pacific, away from the cold Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The recruiter, however, saw Louie as a candidate for a different mission. After a few questions, Louie had disclosed his experience as a skier and horseman, building skis in the rural Northport area and learning to ski on the nearby hills and working as a ranch hand in the summer. The recruiter filed away all of Louie’s information but told him that his work on the highway was needed for the war effort and directed him back to Teslin to continue his work with the civilian construction crew. Louie spent a month’s worth of wages to book a flight on a Ford Tri-motor plane back to Teslin and his old job driving trucks. Louie loved Alaska and wrote to family at home that he hated the thought of ever leaving the North.
Paparich worked on the Alcan highway until the spring of 1943, when the army finally sent him to first basic training at Camp Roberts in California and then Fort Hale in Colorado, where the newly formed 10th Mountain Division was training the Light Infantry and one of the last mounted cavalry units for mountain warfare in the frigid and harsh climate of the European war theater. The mountaineering troops drilled on skis, snowshoes and horseback, honing survival and combat skills up against the backdrop of the rugged Colorado mountains. After several months at high elevation, the unit was moved complete with 180 head of horses to Fort Swift in Texas where they were trained and acclimatized for low elevation and high temperatures for several months. Exposed to the extremes of weather and terrain conditions, the 10th Mountain was ready for anything.
During his training in Texas, Louie Paparich was joined briefly by his high school sweetheart, Kay Lael, a young girl with a sweet southern drawl from North Carolina who had moved to Northport with her family a few years earlier and fallen head over heels for the farm boy down the road. They were married in the chapel at Fort Swift and then Kay went back to North Carolina to live with family and wait out the war while Louie prepared to ship off.
Louie, like many in his unit, had never been to sea before the troop crossing that winter, and to avoid the crowded bunks of seasick soldiers he found a place to sleep in the beams of the ship high above the head, where the air was fresh and the bunks weren’t stacked like sardines in a can. He never got caught in his unauthorized berth, and so Louie didn’t mind the trip as much as some others.
It was January of 1945 when the 10th Mountain Division entered combat in the North Apennine Mountains in Italy. They were tasked with taking the five mile ridge of Mount Belvedere from the controlling German troops, and the first obstacle they faced was a 1,500 foot vertical ascent up the western stronghold, known to the Americans as Riva Ridge. The Germans were confident that the sheer face couldn’t be scaled and had minimal patrols in place, but the 10th Mountain rigged rope ladders in the night and surprised German forces, breaking through the line and taking Mount Belvedere after three days of intense fighting.
Serving in the 10th Mountain Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop, Louie raised his hand when they asked for scouting volunteers. Although he didn’t know what he was signing up for, Louie made an excellent scout as he spoke Italian and his years hunting in the woods of Northeastern Washington made him adept in the Italian forests, although Louie would never have touted his valuable skill set, being above all things a humble man. Rose Paparich-Kalamarides says that her dad told her that the life expectancy of scouts were measured in minutes, rather than years, as they crept in front of their own troops to gather intelligence and report back. On one scouting mission, Louie’s partner set his rifle against a tree and left it when they crept to their next position. Knowing that a misplaced firearm was grounds for dishonorable discharge, when the scouts got back into camp Louie squirreled a rifle out of the unit commander’s tent to replace his partner’s and avoid reprimand. Neither soldier ever heard a word about the missing rifle from the officer. Louie liked to retell this story because it reminded him that outside of the reality of combat, boys will still be boys, applying mischievous ingenuity to get out of a tight spot.
Paparich and his division continued to route the Germans out of Northern Italy, culminating in the final battle for the 10th Mountain at the Po River, where German Troops faced off against the Americans who crossed the river at Lake Garda and cut off the last escape route for Hitler’s army. Louie says that some of the bravest soldiers he saw in battle were the engineers who were laying temporary bridges across the water under heavy mortar fire while the rest of the unit sheltered in foxholes on the opposite side of the river. Louie lay flat on the ground near a foxhole, imploring the guys in it to make room for him only moments before a mortar landed square in the trench and killed all of the men crowded there. Louie’s daughter Rose says that her father said a Rosary for the men in that foxhole every day for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until Louie was dying of cancer that he began to open up about his experiences in the war to his children. At the urging of his daughter Rose, he related many anecdotes before his passing in March of 2000 at the age of 75. In addition to the stories he related, he left behind letters that he scrawled to his family at home, in the barely legible handwriting of a right-hand compelled southpaw. As time went on, Louie was able to talk about the horrors that he had seen as well as the humanity that he witnessed during his time with the army. After the battle of Mt. Belvedere, the plethera of German prisoners of war dictated the need for the digging of more latrines. As Louie supervised the POW soldiers digging, he witnessed the terror of some Germans and he realized that they thought they were digging their own graves. Once, when searching a German POW for weapons he found a beautiful pocket watch that had belonged to the man’s grandfather. Louie graciously returned it to the German soldier, telling his daughter later that the prisoners that he saw were guys that looked just like him.
The bloody but successful campaign at the Po River transpired two days before fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was executed in a small Italian village and then hung by his feet in a public square in Milan in a retaliatory move by local communist forces. As Louie Paparich and the 10th Mountain Division marched back to their ship through Milan, he endured the gruesome sight of the deposed dictator and his mistress, swinging from the beams of a service station. Louie, like many of the soldiers he served with, bore witness to atrocities committed by enemy and even some friendly troops as the dehumanizing effect of the war ate away at moral standards. Later in life Louie would admonish his children and grandchildren about the horrors of war and would be strongly opposed to the military action in Vietnam and later engagements, like so many of his comrades in arms.
The troops left Italy in the summer of 1945, destined for the planned invasion of Japan which was circumvented by Japan’s surrender in August of that year. The ship changed course and returned home, where Louie collected his young wife Kay and settled back in Northport where their first three children were born before they used the money he saved from his highway construction work to buy a large farm just outside of town. They had three more children while living on the farm and Louie and Kay went on to become pillars in the small community. Louie was the head of American Legion Post #158 in Northport for 50 years. Stephen Louis Paparich received two bronze stars on his discharge in November of 1945 after just over two years of service.