They jumped out of airplanes and parachuted behind enemy lines. Under the cover of night, they scaled mountains and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They could storm a beach in an amphibious landing or ski across rugged terrain with guns strapped to their backs. They could have been big-screen action heroes—and they did, in fact, inspire a Hollywood movie—but their exploits were all too real.
Now, more than 70 years after they left the battlefields of World War II, the men of the 1st Special Service Force have received America’s highest civilian honor—the Congressional Gold Medal. On February 3, surviving members of the joint American-Canadian strike force gathered with families of the unit’s deceased veterans for a ceremony in their honor inside the U.S. Capitol.
The creation of the 1st Special Service Force in the summer of 1942 marked the first time that the United States and Canada had combined their fighters into a single unit. At Montana’s Fort Harrison and in the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains, 900 American and 900 Canadian soldiers endured months of grueling training as they learned to parachute, rock climb, ski, engage in high-altitude combat and use weapons such as the V-42, a combat knife designed exclusively for their use.
By July 1943, this group of pre-war lumberjacks, farmers and miners had been transformed into what would be one of the most fearsome commando units in World War II. The following month, they made a brief expedition to the Aleutian Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and by November they had been shipped to the European theater to dislodge German forces from seemingly impregnable positions in the mountains of Italy that had stymied previous Allied forces. At Monte La Difensa, the commandos made a near vertical ascent in the freezing rain to take the Nazis by surprise and seize their location. The amazing assault inspired the 1968 motion picture “The Devil’s Brigade” starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson. Although they sustained heavy casualties, the 1st Special Service Force continued through the bitter winter to scale steep cliffs and overwhelm enemy outposts high atop the Italian mountains.
In February 1944, the commandos were moved from the peaks of Italy to the coastal city of Anzio south of Rome where the Allies had established a beachhead. It was this operation that cemented the force’s place in history. Under the cover of darkness, the commandos donned camouflage and blackened their faces with boot polish to stage reconnaissance missions well behind enemy lines. Their nighttime raids repeatedly struck the Germans without warning. During the offensive in which they fought for 99 consecutive days, the force began to leave calling cards on German corpses that were emblazoned with the unit’s red arrowhead insignia and an ominous warning: “The worst is yet to come.”
One journal written by a German officer found by the Allies read, “The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line, and we never hear them come.” Out of this description came the 1st Special Service Force’s nickname, the “Devil’s Brigade.”
On June 4, 1944, the Devil’s Brigade breached the ancient gates of Rome and became among the first Allied forces to liberate the city. Two months later, the elite commandos landed on islands near the French Riviera and participated in the invasion of southern France that drove back fascist forces before the unit disbanded in December 1944.
For every one of their comrades lost in battle, the Devil’s Brigade killed 25. For every one of them captured, they took 235. The brigade won five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors. Strike force members were also pioneers, serving as the model for subsequent special force units such as the Green Berets, Delta Force and Navy SEALs in America and Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) in Canada.
The awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal was years in the making, and unfortunately the number of living members of the strike force has dwindled in that time. Just a day before the ceremony, 90-year-old Canadian veteran Al Wilson passed away. However, more than 40 living members—all in their 90s—were able to make the trip to Washington, D.C.
“These devils only rented space in the shadows,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told those gathered in the U.S. Capitol. “They moved within darkness in order to defeat it. And today here they are, champions of freedoms, heroes in two nations, saviors to many others.”
A reunion of the Devil’s Brigade is planned for this coming August in Montana for those who couldn’t travel to Washington.