SHAKO: Elite U.S.-Canadian World War II Unit Honored by Congress

February 4, 2015 at 6:30 pm Leave a comment

The Devil’s Brigade.

First Special Service Force patch

First Special Service Force patch

The U.S. Congress has bestowed a gold medal — the highest civilian award it can bestow — to a combined U.S.-Canadian military unit that fought under some of the toughest conditions in World War II — and paved the way of today’s Green Berets and other special operations forces.

The First Special Service Force — consisting of 900 American soldiers and 900 Canadians — was actives in July 1942 and after deployments to the Aleutians against the Japanese and Italy and Southern France — was disbanded at the end of 1944.

But in that short space of time, this elite unit captured 30,000 prisoners and earned five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors, according to the Associated Press.

The all volunteer 1,800-man brigade — called the “Black Devils” or “Devil’s Brigade” because they attacked the Germans stealthily at night with faces blackened by boot polish as camouflage — was made up of forrest rangers, lumberjacks, ranchers, farmers and  other types of outdoorsmen.

The First Special Service Force troops, nicknamed "Black Devils"  by the Nazis, being briefed before a night patrol at Anzio, Italy, in 1944

The First Special Service Force troops, nicknamed “Black Devils” by the Nazis, being briefed before a night patrol at Anzio, Italy, in 1944

At Fort Harrison, Montana they trained in stealth tactics, hand-to-hand combat, skiing, rock climbing, demolition, amphibious and mountain warfare. Their exploits inspired a book by historian Robert H. Adleman and Colonel George Walton, a member of the brigade, as well as a 1968 movie

starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson.

There were only 42 surviving members of the FSSF present fat Tuesday’s (February 3) Capitol Hill ceremony presided over by John Boehner, the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The current average age of members of the unit is 92, so many of the former soldiers have died, noted CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

In fact, one of their number, Al Wilson, 90, of Flamborough, Ontario, died the day before ceremony after a bout with pneumonia.

John Boehner. In addition to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, the ceremony was attended by Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Erin O’Toole and Army General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command — which oversees Army Special Forces, Green Berets, Navy SEALS and other U.S. commando groups.

“They were indeed, the elite forces of their time and thus the pioneers of our two nations’ special operations forces,” said Votel.

Leaders of the U.S. House and Senate present a Congressional Gold Medal to members of the First Special Service Force. From left to right: Speaker John Boehner; Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Erin O’Toole;  Eugene Gutierrez, Jr.;  Charles W. Mann; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; and General Joseph Votel. -- (Official Photo by Caleb Smith)

Leaders of the U.S. House and Senate present a Congressional Gold Medal to members of the First Special Service Force.
From left to right: Speaker John Boehner; Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Erin O’Toole; American FSSF vet Eugene Gutierrez, Jr.; Canadian FSSF vet Charles W. Mann; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell; Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; and General Joseph Votel.

(Official Photo by Caleb Smith)

SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

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Entry filed under: Army, Skills and Training, Special Operations, Unconventional Warfare. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (February 1-February 7, 1815) ARCTIC NATION: Nordic Defense Worries; Special Ops Up North; Alaska Oil Fight; Canadian Patrol Boats

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