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Devil's Brigade veteran Al Wilson, 90, dies 1 day before getting U.S. medal

02/02/2015 06:27 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT
Al Wilson had so many medals on his blue blazer that his family joked that they were weighing him down when he walked.

And Tuesday, the decorated war veteran was due to get one more — a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for his service in the Devil’s Brigade, a legendary special service force so revered that it served as the model for the U.S. Navy SEALS.

But it wasn’t meant to be. On Monday morning, one day before the ceremony that he was to attend in Washington DC, Wilson died at the age of 90.

The Hamilton veteran of the Second World War, who lives in rural Flamborough, was to attend the ceremony with four members of his family, including his wife Madge, whom he’s been married to for 69 years. He died on the morning of their anniversary.

It’s disappointing for the family, said daughter Debra, who was scheduled to make the trip. Wilson had loads of medals to his name from his time with the Devil’s Brigade. But he was humble, not wanting attention paid to his war efforts.

“He was like ‘oh, it’s another medal,’” said Debra, who lives in Hamilton.

But “I was so looking forward to going to Washington DC.”

Wilson was born on May 2, 1924 in Midland, Ont. He was an only child. His mother, a nurse’s aid, died when he was young. His father worked on ships.

While in England, he met Madge, a Yorkshire native who was part of the land army there. He brought her back to Ontario, where he became a police officer.

'One of Hamilton's damn finest sergeants'

Wilson moved to Hamilton in the 1950s to work in the local police service. He had a 35-year career, retiring as a sergeant about 30 years ago.

“I called him one of Hamilton’s damn finest sergeants,” Debra said. “He was a sergeant in the war and he was a sergeant on the police force.”

The father of three had a full life after the military, gardening and boating and relaxing at the family cottage near Midland. But it was his work with the Devil’s Brigade for which he was most known.

Wilson fought along six highly trained men and helped, among other efforts with the allied liberation of Rome. During that battle, he came face to face with a German tank and fired at it so the rest of the group could escape, then dove over a wall to get away.

The Devil’s Brigade is famous for its historic role as an elite American-Canadian special force unit that the Germans called them “the black devils.” They earned that name during a 37-day operation in Anzio, Italy, when Wilson’s brigade blackened their faces with boot polish to sneak behind enemy lines under the cover of darkness.

Inspired a war movie

The brigade inspired a 1968 war film of the same name, based on a book co-written by American novelist Robert H. Adleman and Col. George Walton, a member of the brigade.

Wilson was humble about his role. “We were just doing our jobs,” he told CBC Hamilton last year.

He always felt strange about being applauded for what he did in the war, Debra said.

“He never wanted to glorify anything to do with the war,” she said. “He just didn’t think that was right. There were other people who died, and that took its toll on him. He was proud of who he was, but in a quiet kind of humble way.”

Wilson was well enough to travel when his family made the plans to go to Washington in early January. He was frail, Debra said, but he still lived in the same house that had been his home for 45 years.

Family kept hoping

About two weeks ago, he went outside in the cold and caught pneumonia. His health deteriorated last week, and he died in Hamilton General Hospital.

Even as his condition worsened, Debra said, his family was on the fence about cancelling the trip. They were so used to seeing him come back from the brink.

“I did not cancel that flight until Saturday because I was hoping for a miracle,” she said. “I’ve seen him come back before from some horrible things. He had a can-do attitude.”

The family is still working out memorial plans. Even though Wilson was uncomfortable being recognized himself, they want this last honour — a memorial service befitting of a war hero — to be special.

“We really want to honour that guy,” she said, “because I’m so very, very proud of him.”

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