TRURO – Surviving members of an elite commando unit known as the Devil’s Brigade have been approved for a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for their exploits during the Second World War.
“Well, when I heard about it, I was so excited and so proud that they were going to give this award to my unit,” Herb Peppard, a 93-year-old Truro resident, said.
“And it really made me think about all the friends that had gone before that we lost over there and friends that we lost when we come home. And they’ll never know about that.”
Peppard is one of about 60 surviving members out of the 1,000 Canadian soldiers who trained with their U.S. counterparts as part of the First Special Service Force, a unit formed to take on special missions during the war.
The Devil’s Brigade was the war’s only joint U.S.-Canada military unit.
About 175 surviving members are to be awarded the medal, which was approved last week by the U.S. Senate. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives gave its stamp of approval to the award, which now only awaits the signature of U.S. President Barack Obama.
“I think it’s such an honour and they all should have known about it,” Peppard said. “When I first heard about that I couldn’t believe it, I was so excited.”
Earlier this year the unit received recognition from the Canadian government through Defence Minister Peter MacKay who presented the veterans with the Minister’s Award for Operational Excellence at a ceremony on Parliament Hill.
And why is the Congressional Gold Medal important?
“To me it shows that our unit was unique in that it was half American and half Canadian and that never happened before.”
The unit, which was tasked with fighting in rugged terrains and extreme conditions also often parachuted behind enemy lines to take out vital enemy defense stations in advance of other Allied offences.
The training was extremely tough and varied and included skiing, mountain climbing, amphibious landings, hand-to-hand combat and parachute landings, a factor that Peppard also attributed to brigade’s uniqueness.
“We trained in so many things,” he said. “I thought about it time and time again that, when you train, you think my gosh some of these officers must have something against us, you know, they’re pushing us so hard. But then you get pushed and you get pushed and you get pushed and you do all these things and after a while you think you’re invincible. You think you can do anything at all. So, probably because we did so many things that that made us feel very proud and very invincible.”
Peppard was wounded in battle in early 1944 in southern Italy and he still communicates with one of his comrade buddies from those long-ago days.
“When I got shot he come to help me and he got shot,” Peppard recalled. “So when we meet at any time he says: ‘I got shot because I was trying to help you.’ And I say: ‘Yes, but you’re getting a pension from the army because of that,” he said, with a hearty laugh.
- The Devil's Brigade (also called The Black Devils and The Black Devils' Brigade were officially the 1st Special Service Force created during the Second World War;
- The brigade was an elite, specially trained joint force of Canadian and American soldiers organized in 1942 and trained in the United States;
- The makeup of the unit was that half the officers were to be Americans and half Canadian with the one third of the enlisted soldiers coming from Canada. The eventual unit was 3,000 strong;
- The brigade was the brainchild of scientist Geoffrey Pyke, of the British Combined Operations Command, who envisioned a small, elite military force capable of fighting behind enemy lines in winder conditions and capable of being landed by sea or air into occupied Norway, Romania, and the Italian Alps sabotage missions against hydroelectric plants and oil fields.
- The First Special Service Force was activated on July, 1942 and disbanded on Dec. 5, 1944.
- A 1968 film called The Devils Brigade was made in 1968 starring William Holden, Cliff Robertson and Vince Edwards, focusing on the Force's training and deployment to Italy.
Three documentaries have also been made about the Force: "Black Devils" in 2000, an episode of History Channel's "Dangerous Missions" series, written produced and directed by Darryl Rehr; Daring to Die: The Story of the Black Devils, written and directed by Greg Hancock and Wayne Abbot, and Devil's Brigade, a 2006 T.V. mini-series produced by Frantic Films.