Canadian, American survivors of Devil's Brigade to receive highest civilian honour
A January 1944 picture showing Private N.L.Shauer (right) of the Devil's Brigade, officially known as the United States-Canadian 1st Special Service Force, bringing in a German prisoner near Venafro, Italy. (CP / National Archives of Canada)
Andy Johnson, CTVNews.ca
Published Sunday, January 18, 2015 10:32AM EST
The surviving members of a legendary force of Canadian and U.S. soldiers will be honoured in Washington for their courage and bravery -- and the rough-and-tough tactics that helped win the Second World War.
Known as the Devil's Brigade, the elite fighting force was made up of roughly 1,800 Canadians and Americans, many of them lumberjacks, miners and rural tough guys with survival skills. They were tasked with getting behind enemy lines and waging unconventional warfare against the enemy.
The surviving veterans will be presented with a Congressional Gold Medal on Feb. 2, by leaders of the U.S. House and Senate.
"It was the only unit formed in WWII with troops from the U.S. and Canada -- building on the special bond between the two countries," according to a statement issued by House Speaker John Boehner's office. "The unit was instrumental in targeting military and industrial installations."
Boehner will take part in the ceremony, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honour the United States Congress can bestow. Fewer than 150 of the medals have been awarded since the first was given to George Washington.
A single medal will be struck and awarded to the unit as a whole. Approximately 230 members of the unit are still alive.
Herb Peppard, a 94 year-old Truro, N.S. man, will be among those travelling to Washington for the ceremony.
“I’m surprised we’d be given it, as there are a lot of American units that deserve it. But I’m very appreciative of it. There’s not many of us still alive, and I don’t expect there will be many of us there,” he told the Truro Daily News.
Officially known as the First Special Service Force, the elite Montana-based unit was formed in 1942. Members were trained to engage in what was then wildly unconventional warfare against the Nazis. Their skill set included hand-to-hand combat, mountain climbing, parachuting, and cold weather survival skills.
Their nickname, the Devil's Brigade, came from a journal they captured from a German captain. In one entry he described "the Black Devils" who were all around -- a description likely due to the fact members would blacken their faces before going on raids.
"We never know where they're going to hit or strike next," the German officer wrote.
They took a liking to the name, and later came up with the idea of leaving calling cards with the logo -- a red spearhead with the words "USA CANADA" and the bleak warning "the worst is yet to come," written in German.
Many of their missions were considered impossible -- virtual suicide missions of the James Bond variety, such as destroying German nuclear research capabilities in Norway.
In one famous battle, they managed to take the Germans by surprise, by scaling the back of a mountain and launching a surprise attack in the dark against the soldiers who had the advantage of higher ground and sweeping viewpoints.
The Devil's Brigade would go on to liberate towns in Italy and France, and capture a stunning 30,000 prisoners of war in just two years, never losing a battle.
Despite its successes, the First Special Service Force was disbanded after two years. But its legend lived on in the form of sometimes unintentionally hilarious Hollywood films.
In 1968's "The Devil's Brigade," actor Jeremy Slate plays a straight-laced Canadian sergeant who picks a fight with a burly American bully in order to demonstrate the techniques he will teach the unit as hand-to-hand combat instructor.
"Is it true that all you Yanks are thieves and murderers?" Slate asks, before dispatching the enraged American. By the end of the film, the Canadians and Americans have bonded as a fighting force.
And in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Brad Pitt commands an elite and unorthodox fighting unit while wearing the uniform and insignia of the Devil's Brigade.