AAFD - McCown Light Fighters School wb.jpg

As long as there has been a 10th Mountain Division (LI) at Fort Drum, the Light Fighters School has served as the premier training center for developing lethality, expertise, and readiness in Soldiers. In June 2023, the center was memorialized for 1st Lt. John A. McCown II, who was instrumental in the training of thousands of WWII Soldiers for combat in low-altitude mountainous terrain. (Graphic by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs.)

Facility name honors training instructor
of WWII 10th Mountain Division Soldiers

Mike Strasser

Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs

FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Dec. 12, 2023) – As long as there has been a 10th Mountain Division (LI) at Fort Drum, the Light Fighters School has served as the premier training center for developing lethality, expertise, and readiness in Soldiers.

The final installment of Around and About Fort Drum for 2023 highlights the life and service of 1st Lt. John A. McCown II, for whom the training center was memorialized in June.

Born in Washington, D.C., on July 4, 1918, and raised in Germantown, Philadelphia, McCown was the eldest son of Andrew McCown, a successful corporate lawyer in Pennsylvania, and Mary (Grove) McCown.

McCown and his three brothers grew up hunting, fishing, and hiking, and all were graduates of Germantown Academy and William Penn Charter School, a Quaker preparatory school. Their love of outdoor sports including skiing, and McCown also developed an interest in falconry.

In 1940, McCown graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, where he played varsity football and lacrosse. The same year, he was inducted into the American Alpine Club. Over the summer, he traveled to Wyoming with his brother Grove to Grand Teton National Park, the site of future mountaineering adventures for McCown.

On Aug. 9, the brothers made the first ascent of Cleaver Peak (11,062 feet) in the Tetons, and McCown joined a party on the second ascent of a newly established route on Nez Perce.

McCown spent a year in law school at the University of Virginia until the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, compelled him to enlist in the Army. With recommendations from the National Ski Association and the American Alpine Club, he was a natural fit for the Army’s new mountain troops.

Assigned to the 87th Mountain Infantry Battalion at Fort Lewis, Washington, McCown advanced from corporal to second lieutenant after graduating from Officer Training School in December 1942.

He became one of the 10th Mountain Division’s lead instructors in the Mountain Training Group at Camp Hale, Colorado, and he later commanded the Seneca Assault Climbing School in West Virginia. In those two assignments, McCown was instrumental in the training of thousands of Soldiers for combat in low-altitude mountainous terrain.

He was credited with having trained, on average, 180 enlisted men and officers every two weeks in courses that culminated with two tactical night climbs and a full-scale assault demonstration.

On Dec. 11, 1944, McCown deployed with the 86th Mountain Infantry to Italy. The 10th Mountain Division’s main objective in the Italian campaign was to capture Mount Belvedere. Maj. Gen. George P. Hays, division commander, determined an attack could only be successful if the German positions on Riva Ridge were first eliminated, since it provided enemy artillery with a clear view of Mount Belvedere.

Five companies of the 86th Mountain Infantry Regiment were dispatched to take Riva Ridge, with five patrols scouting enemy positions and determining strategic routes for the massive troop movements.

McCown led a patrol to reconnaissance a route to the summit of Mount Serrasiccia. During the rugged night climb of 2,550 feet, they needed fixed ropes to get over several rock ledges. According to 1st Battalion, 86th Mountain Infantry commander, Lt. Col. Henry Hampton, this climb was “a physical accomplishment to be admired, and showed what men could accomplish when trained in the mountains.”

The Riva Ridge assault commenced at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18, 1945, with 700 Soldiers climbing up the vertical cliff to take the Germans by surprise. With no loss of life, the 10th Mountain Division executed a flawless alpine mission and then proceeded to hold off enemy counterattacks while additional battalions fought for control of Mount Belvedere.

On Feb. 20, 1945, McCown led a patrol on a rescue mission after four Soldiers were left behind on the ridge. According to his Silver Star award citation, McCown and his men were “ambushed by a superior force, whose initial burst of fire killed two men and forced all to take cover.” Crawling to a position where he could observe the enemy, McCown directed the fire of his patrol on the hostile forces until he was killed.

McCown was buried in the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial in Italy. His family established a marker in his honor at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Pennsylvania.

The 1st Lt. John A. McCown II Light Fighter School was dedicated on June 21, with family members in attendance. During the ceremony, Maj. Gen. Gregory Anderson, 10th Mountain Division (LI) and Fort Drum commander, spoke about why the story of McCown resonates with today’s military mountaineers.

“First Lt. John McCown is one of our great mountain forebearers,” he said. “He was a climber and mountaineer, a trainer, an officer, and a warrior. He embodies the type of Soldier and leader we seek to train and develop in our present-day formation – to take us to the next mountain and to become the Army leaders in mountaineering, alpine, cold-weather operations, and world-class light infantry.”