WATCH: Reid Fiest reports on the surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade receiving the Congressional Gold Medal.
The surviving members of the First Special Service Forces, nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade, were honoured with the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for their service during the Second World War.
The elite strike force marked the first time Canada and the U.S. combined forces in a single unit and conducted covert operations that help liberate France and Italy. The Devil’s Brigade was known for ambitious evening raids that featured mountain climbing, parachute jumps, and use of demolitions.
“These men saved the free world,” House Speaker John Boehner said, holding back tears. “And, now are free to savour the triumph and share their stories for years to come.”
Alberta Premier Jim Prentice thanked the special forces members on behalf of his province in tweets Tuesday afternoon:
It’s been more than 70 years, but Calgary’s Bernard Cooper, one of the surviving members of the unit, can still remember the details like it was yesterday.
“It was quite an adventure at the time,” he told Global News.
The Devil’s Brigade played a key role in the 1944 Allied offensive in Anzio, Italy. During the mission, they were given the name “black devils” by German forces as they were known to blacken their faces with shoe polish before evening raids.
“The Germans didn’t think anyone would climb up the back because it was almost impossible,” said Cooper, who couldn’t attend the ceremony. “But we went up the back.”
Edmonton’s Maurice White was one of the Canadian members who were able to make the trip to Washington. He called the honour “humongous.”
“I think that’s the words the kids use,” he said.
“It’s been a long time coming, but better late than never.”
The award has been given to more than 40 surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade — a precursor to both countries’ modern special forces.
The honour came after much lobbying, but the delay meant others could not be there to accept the medal themselves.
Jennifer Magee from Oshawa, Ont., who attended on her late father William Sam Magee’s behalf, said it was “a little bittersweet” to be there without him.
“The good thing is that he knew these things were in the forefront before he passed,” she said.
The award ceremony took place at Emancipation Hall on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C, and included speeches from U.S. Congressman Jeff Miller, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi and Canada’s Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole.
“Today’s presentation of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to Canadian Veterans of the Devil’s Brigade is a fitting honour in recognition of their courageous service and sacrifice,” O’Toole said in a prepared statement. “The impact these remarkable men made during the Second World War has been felt around the world and will never be forgotten.”
“For every man they lost, they killed 25. for every man they captured, they took 235,” said Boehner.
A reunion is planned for August, in Montana, so those who couldn’t travel to Washington – like Cooper – can receive their medals.
According to Veterans Affairs, 14 Canadian members of the Devil’s Brigade attended Tuesday’s ceremony.
Here are the names of the surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade who attended the ceremony in Washington D.C.
John Callowhill, Hamilton, 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.
H.R. Hawkyard, Toronto.
Charles Mann, Kincardine, Ont.
Ralph Mayville, Windsor, Ont.
Leonard Corbett, Calgary.
Maurice White, Edmonton.
With a file from The Canadian Press