MISSOULA — They came from Canada and across America and trained at Fort Harrison before shipping off to Europe to face the Germans in battle. They came home to marry Montana women, build Montana homes and erect a Montana memorial in honor of their lost comrades.
This week, Montana’s senators passed a resolution in the U.S. Senate honoring members of the First Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian fighting unit known as the Devil’s Brigade, which set the path for today’s Green Berets and the Navy SEALs.
“What these men did was incredible,” said Sen. Max Baucus, who co-sponsored the resolution with Sen. Jon Tester honoring the brigade. “They paved the way for the Special Forces we revere today, including the Navy Seal Team that brought down Osama bin Laden.”
The Devil’s Brigade was placed under the command of West Point graduate Lt. Col. Robert Frederick. The unit was comprised of three, 600-man regiments, a service battalion and a small air detachment.
The brigade organized and trained at Fort Harrison in Helena in 1942 and saw combat in Italy in 1943. The unit achieved fame at Anzio in 1944, where German soldiers dubbed the men “The Black Devils” for their ability to fight under the cover of darkness.
But the fighting took its toll. Once 1,800 strong, the outfit was reduced to just 500 men. It was disbanded in 1944 when commando-style units were deemed unnecessary to the war effort.
“This was a sad year for the force in Montana,” Baucus said before this week’s resolution ceremony. “We lost all three living members of the force. Losing heroes like Stoney Wines, Joe Glass and Mark Radcliffe reminds us just how important it is that we keep their story alive.”
Fort Harrison dominates the western reaches of the Helena Valley. It was here back in the 1942 that the Canadian portion of the brigade marched into camp behind a piper. The scene was popularized in a William Holden movie years later.
Helena Mayor Jim Smith, who attended the resolution ceremony, called the brigade an important piece of the city’s military history. Many of the Canadian soldiers married local women. A memorial was built in the soldiers’ honor in a Helena park.
“It stands there for any passerby to see and reflect upon,” Smith said. “Assembling and training this joint U.S.-Canadian fighting force at Fort Harrison made a lasting and wonderful impact on this community.”
Over the last six decades, at least eight movies and nine books have been made or written on the First Special Service Force. But accolades have been less abundant. Baucus and Tester are now gathering support to award survivors of the brigade, who are now few in number, a Congressional Gold Medal.
It is, Baucus said, the highest honor Congress can bestow.
“So far, Baucus’ Congressional Gold Medal legislation has 25 co-sponsors in the Senate and 101 co-sponsors in the House,” said Baucus spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue. “But the bill needs 66 senators and 290 House members to bring it forward for a vote.”
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