Canada joins push for rare congressional honour for WW2 Devil’s Brigade force

·National Affairs Contributor

Its official designation was the First Special Service Force, a prosaic name that hardly begins to describe a unit that served as a model for the Green Berets, U.S. Navy Seals and Canada's Joint Task Force 2.

Perhaps you know them better as the Devil's Brigade.

The joint Canadian-American unit cut a legendary swath through German forces during the Second World War's Italian campaign, and later France and Germany.

They earned the nickname "black devils" from their enemy because of the stealthy attacks the soldiers with blacked-out faces made behind the lines. They covered themselves in glory with the capture of the supposedly impregnable Monte la Difensa bastion.

The unit came to wide public attention thanks to a 1968 Hollywood movie staring William Holden and Cliff Robertson.

Now Canada is putting its weight behind an effort to have the force recognized with a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, a rarely bestowed honour whose recipients include aviation pioneers the Wright Brothers, inventor Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.

The Toronto Star reports Canadian diplomats in Washington are holding a Feb. 29 reception at the embassy for Canadian and U.S. lawmakers to raise awareness for the initiative.

The prime movers behind the effort are U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, where the Devil's Brigade had its headquarters in Helena.

A spokesman with the Canadian embassy told the Star that the story of the force was inspirational and the government was happy to help the senators' efforts.

Representatives of Canadian Special Operations Force Command, home to JTF2 and the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, also will be at the event.

It's estimated about 230 veterans of the force are still living in Canada and the United States. Iowa's Waterloo Courier reported two state residents who were in the unit are heartened by the effort to honour its exploits.

"The Canadians have always been gung-ho for anything regarding the First Special Service Force," said John Tedore of Des Moines. "They were very proud, the Canadian people."

The gold medal requires approval from both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Joint bills are working their way through the legislative process and supporters hope to pass them in time for the unit's reunion in Washington at the end of September.

"The one big challenge we have is that many people don't know the story" of the unit, said Bill Woon of Helena, Mont., secretary treasurer of the First Special Service Force Association, whose late father served in the force. "It was kept secret during the war. The men were so well trained that when they came home, the didn't talk about it."

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