NEWS

The Devil's Brigade special forces unit gets Congressional Gold Medal

02/03/2015 01:51 EST | Updated 04/05/2015 05:59 EDT
The surviving members of a joint American-Canadian Special Forces military unit called The Devil’s Brigade will be honoured with the Congressional Gold Medal today — the highest civilian honour the United States Congress can bestow.

The brigade was an elite special service force during the Second World War, and is so revered that it served as the model for the U.S. Navy SEALS. It also inspired a film in the late 1960s.

The award ceremony is being streamed live from Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, starting at 3 p.m. ET. On Mobile? Watch the livestream here.

The men of the Devil’s Brigade join the likes of George Washington, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandella, who have all been given the honour.

The Canadians who are attending Tuesday’s ceremony are:

- John Callowhill, Stoney Creek, Ont.

- James Summersides, Welland, Ont.

- Vernon Doucette, Lower Wedgeport, N.S.

- Herb Peppard, Truro, N.S.

- Arthur Pottle, Saint John.

- Wilfred Paquette, Gatineau, Que.

- George Wright, Picton, Ont.

- Donald Ballantyne Cobourg, Ont.

- Morris Lazarus, Toronto.

- HR Hawkyard, Toronto.

- Charles Mann, Kincardine, Ont.

- Ralph Mayville, Windsor, Ont.

- Leonard Corbett Calgary.

- Maurice White, Edmonton.

The men in the 1st Special Service Force were particularly close, says Maurice White, who joined the forces back in 1941.

"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,” he said. “We had that much faith in one another."

The Devil’s Brigade marked the first time Canada and the U.S. combined forces in a single unit.

The group was trained in hand-to-hand combat, to climb mountains and parachute down on targets, and to become demolition experts.

The special service force was also given another name by the Germans: the black devils.

That name stemmed from a 37-day operation in Anzio, Italy, when the brigade would blacken their faces with boot polish, and sneak behind enemy lines under cover of darkness to eliminate their targets. They also left a note written in German on each soldier they killed, which roughly translated to “the worst is yet to come.”

The current average age members of the unit is 92, so many of the former soldiers have died.

Al Wilson of Flamborough, Ont., was the latest. He planned to attend the ceremony Tuesday, but died the day before after a bout with pneumonia.

His daughter, Debra, told CBC News her father always felt strange about being applauded for what he did in the war.

“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.”

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