WWII U.S.-Canada commando unit honoured in Washington
First Special Service Force veterans Eugene Gutierrez (left) and Charles Mann, of Canada, pose with the Congressional Gold Medal at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Feb. 3, 2015. (JONATHAN ERNST/Reuters)
WASHINGTON, D.C. - They were a legendary Second World War commando unit whose exploits caught Hollywood's attention and who were so feared by their German enemies they were dubbed the Devil's Brigade.
On Tuesday, veterans of the elite U.S.-Canada special forces outfit were bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal - the highest civilian honour in the U.S.- in a ceremony on Capitol Hill.
"The Devil's Brigade was legendary," said Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole, who recalled watching the 1968 movie based on the unit when he was a young recruit in Canada's military.
The First Special Service Force was a top secret force of 1,800 Canadian and American men formed in July 1942 and disbanded in 1944.
The force's recruiting statement promised "vigorous training," "hazardous duty," and a chance to get quickly into the war.
In their short two years, the unit never failed in a mission. For each casualty, they killed 25 and they captured over 30,000 prisoners.
"Some of their more daring mission plans would have made James Bond blush, " said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Their training and tactics laid the groundwork for modern special forces units like the American Green Berets and Canada's Joint Task Force Two.
"It was so successful that countries developed their own organic special forces, which is what we see today. But all of them trace their lineage to the Devil's Brigade," said O'Toole.
The survivors are now in their 90s. "
Fourteen of the brigade's Canadian vets attended, including Charles Mann, from Kincardine, Ont.. Mann, who turns 93 in June, laughed off McConnell's comparison of his former unit's military deeds to the fictional British super spy, dismissing James Bond as "a pretty wild character" who was better equipped than they ever were.
And while saying he was honoured and humbled by the recognition, he admitted the accolades from military brass, Congressional leaders and Canadian politicians was "kind of hard to take."
"I don't even think of those things at all. It was my life, I did what I was asked to do, or told to do, and that's all there was to it," he said.
"The only thing I gained out of it, if you want to know, is I got friends I can count on. And I still have those friends. That's what I gained out of it. War is hell, but sometimes you get a good thing coming out of it."