Canadian ‘Devil’s Brigade’ members honoured
By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs
Dawson Creek, British Columbia — It was a small force: just 1,800 men. And yet, during the Second World War, it earned a level of respect that belied its size by taking several difficult objectives others could not.
The unit was also highly secret. When it was disbanded in 1944, the surviving members were told in no uncertain terms to take their stories to the grave with them.
This was the First Special Service Force (FSSF), an elite group of Canadian and American soldiers that is now recognized as the precursor to contemporary special force units such as Canada’s Joint Task Force 2 and the U.S. Army’s Green Berets. It was also known as “The Devil’s Brigade” – so-named because, as legend has it, a German officer called them ”The Black Devils” in his journals.
Even if they could not share their experiences with friends and families, ex-members could do so with one another and first began to reconnect in 1947 at their first-ever reunion, held in Helena, Montana, where they had been initially brought together for training.
It was not until nearly 70 years later, in 2015, that the official silence was broken by the U.S. Congress, which issued a Congressional Gold Medal recognizing the FSSF’s accomplishments. And the story continues to be told: a gold-plated, bronze replica of the medal was presented this summer to the town of Dawson Creek, British Columbia.
The July 2017 ceremony recognized three Dawson Creek residents who served in FSSF, including Geoffrey Hart, whose son John purchased the replica and was in attendance to give a presentation on the unit’s storied service.
“That’s my hometown so it was very personal and very special for me to go back home and to do what I did,” he said. “And I think it meant a lot to the citizens there too.”
“As a kid born and raised in Dawson Creek, I knew John growing up, and his dad,” recalled Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead. “We’re going to find a special way to display this medal and recognize the importance of it and remembering and recognizing those who served on behalf of our country.”
“I really take special joy in getting out to the schools to talk to the kids about government and what it means,” he added. “The foundation of it is always that we have the right to vote as citizens, and that came from people who gave their lives for us to enjoy that and we should all remember that every day, not just on November 11th.”
Mr. Hart grew up knowing little of his father’s wartime experiences. Though the senior Mr. Hart survived the war, he was sadly killed in a workplace accident in 1966 when John was just 13.
“He went to work at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam – took a very dangerous job which paid really good money. All he had to go through, and he gets killed on the job.”
Initially, Mr. Hart’s sole connection to this part of his father’s life was an unfinished, hand-written note to Robert Aldeman and George Walton, authors of The Devil’s Brigade, a history first published in 1966. They had written to surviving members asking for their first-hand accounts.
“My dad started to write something. He wrote one paragraph and he stopped. So I asked my aunt, ‘Do you remember Dad getting this?’ And she said, ‘Absolutely.’ He got this letter in the mail and he was going to write his story and he looked at her and said, ‘I can’t write this. What I did will stay with me until I go to my grave. Nobody needs to know what I did.’ A lot of these guys didn’t want to talk about it because it was brutal hand-to-hand combat, bayonets fixed on their rifles. I don’t think anybody would want to re-live that.”
Mr. Hart attended his first FSSF reunion in 1969 but his journey to becoming an FSSF historian – he currently serves as Canadian Vice-President of the First Special Service Force Association, which is dedicated to keeping the unit’s history alive – only began in the late 1990s.
“A friend of mine asked me to come over and watch Saving Private Ryan with him. And of course that was a war movie like no other. A Devil’s Brigade movie came out in 1968 and that was kind of a glamourized, Hollywood thing, but Saving Private Ryan was different – it really was touching, moving. It really got me thinking I’d really like to look up the Devil’s Brigade. So we did that on his computer and the first site that came up and the first picture that came up was my dad looking back at me.”
He has since attended many other reunions – each a moving experience in its own way.
“When I went in 2002, it was in Helena. There was a veteran walking down the hallway at the hotel and he was in tears. I asked him, ‘Can I help you?’ And he said, ‘Nope. After all these years I’ve been told to keep this stuff to myself and just deal with it.’ He said, ‘This is where I should’ve been coming all along.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”
Mr. Hart and others on the FSSF Association board also took an active role in advocating for the Congressional Gold Medal.
“We had the list of every senator and every representative – there are hundreds of them. It took a bit of time to get that going because the U.S. Congress knew little about what the First Special Service Force was. The First Special Service Force Association played a big part in that. Many of the veterans called their representatives. In the end both parties agreed unanimously to award this medal.”
The Association’s efforts to keep the history alive extends to leading tours of the European battlefields where the FSSF proved their mettle.
“When you get that much death and destruction and sadness and horror there’s got to be something going on there,” he said. “I pick up feelings there that are hard to describe. We have had veterans come on every one of our tours. A lot of them, when they see those tombstones with their buddies’ names on them, it just breaks them right down. But they do get some kind of closure.”
He continued, “A lot of the orphans come back who have never met their fathers. It’s a key connection for them to see where their fathers were killed. We take the Veterans back to the villages they liberated and we always find somebody that remembers them. And that’s really a substantial experience for everybody.”
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Article / November 2, 2017 / Project number: 17-0278
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