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Devil's Brigade vet Maurice White joins unit to get congressional honour

02/02/2015 08:00 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT
Maurice White couldn't wait to go to war.

But he had to wait 70 years to get the recognition he deserves.

On Tuesday, in Washington, D.C., the Edmonton veteran and a few dozen surviving members of his unit, nicknamed the Devil's Brigade, will be given the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian honour the United States Congress can bestow.

At the ceremony, a man who spent decades not talking about his war-time experiences — about all the blood and suffering and death — will be thinking about the men who won't be there, and trying hard not to cry.

"You're not supposed to cry in public. You're supposed to be a man."

He has no worries on that account.

At 90, he will be among the youngest members of the 1st Special Service Force to attend Tuesday's solemn ceremony.

His hair is mostly gone now, and the years have etched deep lines in his face.

But his eyes still sparkle and his memory is crystal clear.

On a recent day, White was at MacEwan University, wearing a T-shirt with the unit's name and distinctive red-arrow patch, when a stranger stopped him with a question.

"He asked me, 'What's the Devil's Brigade?' I said, 'Look it up on the Internet.' So the next day he came over, and shook my hand."

His service, his unit's sacrifice, commands that kind of respect.

White did not lose an arm in the war, or a leg, or suffer a grievous wound. His scars are inside, unseen.

He will talk about them, now. He is proud of what he did. What his comrades did. He is glad to have the chance to reunite with the survivors this week. He will think about ones who can no longer answer the roll call.

"I never got a scratch," he says of his years of service overseas. "I probably saw as much front-line duty as any Canadian soldier. I'd almost guarantee that. I like to relate to the Battle of Ortona. First day, we lost thirty men. You replace 30 men, you're still standing there. Every battle was the same way. People got killed and wounded and taken out. You're still standing.

"That's one thing that kind of bothers me a lot. I'll bet all through the battles … there'd be 500, maybe a thousand guys, who were replaced, who got wounded or killed. And I'm still standing there."

On Tuesday, he will be standing there, in Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill, for all those who no longer can.

Asked if he was scared during the war, he says: "Every day of my life. Every day of my life."

The Black Devils

It was December 1941, and White and his father and older brother left their home in Grassland, Alta., and came to Edmonton to sign up with the air force.

The recruiters sent the 17-year-old away.

So the three men went up the street to the Prince of Wales Armoury, to sign up with the army instead.

They asked White for his date of birth. He told them 1925. They asked how old he was. He lied, but only by a year.

He spent a month in Edmonton, then went to Calgary for basic and advanced training.

That's when the 1st Special Service Force, a joint Canadian-American unit, came looking for volunteers. He eagerly raised his hand. They told him to wait until he was older.

He ended up going overseas in December 1943, among a group of reinforcements for the Loyal Edmonton Regiment. They fought in Sicily. They crossed over to Italy and fought "all the way up the boot" through Ortona. In May 1944, while on R&R, White came down with malaria and ended up in hospital.

He was there when the Devil's Brigade came looking for new volunteers. He put his hand up again. This time they took him.

He was there at the Battle of Port-Cros, and helped the unit take the island fortress in August 1944.

"It wasn't really a big battle," he says. "It wasn't that bad. We lost a few people, not many. Five or six."

The men in the 1st Special Service Force were particularly close, he says.

"The officers would help make your breakfast. Do guard duty. So, us knowing them in that manner, if they asked us to go to hell, we would go with them. We had that much faith in one another."

They went to hell. Day after day.

The main job of the brigade, White says, was not frontal attack but to sneak behind enemy lines and create as much havoc as they could.

That's where the name came from.

The story goes that someone found the personal diary of a German officer, who referred in the pages to his enemy as "die schwarzen Teufein" — the black Devils.

"The Devil's Bridge, that's what the German's named us," says Calgary's Bernard Cooper. "When we were in battle, we had blackened faces and camouflage uniforms."

White says back then, he and his fellow Devils rarely spoke about their growing reputation.

"You don't try to brag too much when you're still in up to your neck in machine-gun fire."

He was with the unit when it landed in and fought its way across southern France. He was there when the force was disbanded in November 1944.

'What nobody else could do'

The unit has been honoured before. It only took 65 years for members to get the bronze star. Now comes an even higher honour. The first Congressional Gold Medal was given to George Washington in 1776. Presidents Andrew Jackson and Ulysses S. Grant got them. So did generals Douglas MacArthur and John Pershing. The Wright Brothers got medals, as did Charles Lindbergh and Nelson Mandela.

White says he's proudest that this medal will be given to the whole brigade, to the unit itself, to all the members living and dead.

"They asked us to do what nobody else could do," he says. "And we did it. Not once, but many, many times."

He's disappointed that the Canadian government has never honoured the unit in a similar way. His own government, he says, gave them a button a few years ago, a copy of 1943 nickel with V on it.

"That's what we got from the Canadian government." He pauses, looks away. "And I don't care if they hear that." Then a grin breaks across his face.

Unlike White, Cooper, 97, won't be able to attend this week's ceremony.

"It's a big thing, because we deserve it," he says. "But it is a little late, as far as I'm concerned. If it had happened 50 years ago, I might be more excited about it."

Forty-seven members of the Devil's Brigade are expected to attend Tuesday's ceremony. There are a few other survivors, including Cooper, who are too frail or sick to travel.

Their story is an old one now. The Hollywood movie about their exploits, named after their brigade and starring William Holden, came out back in 1968.

For decades after his war ended, White rarely spoke about what he did, or what he saw.

"I don't know any veteran who came back from overseas, who was actually in battle, wanted to talk about it," he says. "When I got back, I didn't tell anybody that I'd ever been in the army. I don't know really why. I think in some cases, maybe we thought we might break down and cry."

So he'll worry about that on Tuesday; whether he will cry when the moment comes.

If he does, who could blame him?

A man who has been to hell is allowed a few tears, now and then.

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