The Huntsville Legion received special recognition Thursday night when it was honoured with a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal.
The medal was presented by Dorset resident Steve Woolman and the family members of nine men from Muskoka who served in a Canadian-American World War II commando unit called the First Special Service. Commonly referred to as ‘The Devil’s Brigade,’ the special force formed in 1942 and consisted of a group of highly-trained combat soldiers who would go on to set a standard for future war training.
“On behalf of the First Special Force children, this medal is being presented,” said Woolman in his address to attendees of the presentation.
About 100 people, including Huntsville mayor Scott Aitcheson and Parry Sound-Muskoka MP Norm Miller, filled the legion to witness the medal presentation. A documentary about the First Special Force was also featured with interviews and never-before seen footage of World War II.
There’s still a lot people who don’t want to talk about it. I want the force to be known.”
According to Woolman the evening gave people “a glimpse into a door most didn’t know even existed.”
Woolman’s father served in the unit for over a year and felt the acknowledgment was important for these local soldiers as many of them were never the same once they returned home. Because the force was such a secret, “these guys held it all inside. They had to live with the nightmares.”
“They did some horrendous things if you can even imagine,” he said. “It was a small outfit of only 1,800 men, which is small in comparison to what most battles had. Most of them entered the force as boys and came out as young men. There’s still a lot people who don’t want to talk about it. I want the force to be known.”
Woolman said as a boy his father would never talk about what happened when he was at war but that he and his brothers and sisters knew it had deeply impacted him.
“In the end when my father died in January 2001 he cried,” stated Woolman, adding that out of the nine Muskoka men who served in the force only one didn’t return home. “I couldn’t understand. He was crying because he missed his friend who died before him. In fact, they all cried for him.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is prestigious in that it has been awarded less than 150 times since 1776. Two years ago, the First Special Service Force received recognition and was awarded the medal with the official presentation held this past February at the Capital building in Washington, DC.
The replica Woolman presented means just as much as the real one.
The force was so efficient that it set a bar for training and strategies which were adopted by other elite specialized forces, including the Green Berets, the Navy SEALs and Canada’s highly secretive JTF2 military unit.
The men who were selected to serve in the First Special Force consisted of lumberjacks, hunters, game wardens and forest rangers. They needed to be able to survive the bush on next to nothing in order to complete their mission.
The force got its moniker The Devil’s Brigade when the personal diary of a German officer was found and in it he had made reference to “the black devils.” They were known and feared for their covert style of fighting and they never failed to achieve an objective.
“They would often overwhelm German defenders in the night, with blackened faces and without firing a shot,” said Woolman. “They were the best of the best.”