Forty-two members of the legendary First Special Service Force, better known as the Devil’s Brigade, attended a ceremony in Washington DC on Feb. 3, 2015 to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal. The First Special Service Force was a joint Canadian-American group of commandoes trained to drop behind enemy lines in occupied Norway during World War II. Fourteen of the attendees at the ceremony were Canadians.
When the mission to Norway was called off, the Forcemen were sent to assault the Japanese held island of Kiska in the Aleutians, then were sent to the mountains of Italy. In Italy they climbed the German held mountains of Monte La Difensa and Mount Radicosa.
During the landing at Anzio, the Forcemen mounted large-scale night raids into German territory, their faces blackened by shoe-polish. German soldiers, terrified by their commando tactics and night raids, dubbed them the “Black Devils.” They eventually led the Allied advance into Rome.
The First Special Service Force participated in the invasion of Southern France, but was disbanded December 5, 1944, with the Canadians returning to their own army.
The surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade who were unable to attend the ceremony in Washington will receive their Congressional Gold Medals at a ceremony in Helena during the summer of 2015. Stay tuned for more information.
Ed. Note – Lt. Col. Edward Saylor passed away last weekend at the age of 94 in Sumner, Washington.
Saylor was one of two Montana men who were ‘Doolittle Raiders,” along with David Thatcher. The two men were among the last four Raiders and participated in the final reunion in 2013.
On April 18, 1942 Col. James Doolittle led a daring raid of sixteen
B-25 bombers which took off from an aircraft carrier and
bombed several Japanese cities. Two of the 80 “Raiders”
were Montanans, David Thatcher of Billings and Edward
Saylor of Brusett, who had been a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps stationed at Ninemile. Both survived the raid and the subsequent crash landings in China and returned to Montana as heroes. Thatcher, a modest man who saved the lives of
the other four members of his crew, suddenly found himself
a celebrity. “When we were first told that the ‘special
mission’ was to be, I just thought it would be a lot of fun,
but I honestly never expected to come back.” After a harrowing
take-off from the deck of the USS Hornet, Thatcher
watched as his B-25, piloted by Lt. Ted Lawson,
skimmed over the ocean. They were flying so low that Japanese
swimmers waved as they passed over the beach and
headed for their target, the Nippon machinery works and
steel factory. “As we let go our first load I saw a great
column of black smoke and debris shoot into the air… The
antiaircraft fire was pretty heavy. It jarred the plane around
it was so close, but I’m sure we weren’t hit.” Flying on,
their B-25 eventually ran short of fuel and crashed in the
ocean just short of the China coast. All five members of
the crew made it to shore, but except for Thatcher they
were all badly injured. The young corporal from Billings
performed first aid on the four officers and found shelter
Chinese guerrillas helped the fliers elude the Japanese
patrols sent to find them, and all of the crew eventually
reached safety, but Lawson’s leg was so badly infected that
it had to be amputated along the way. Lawson wrote down
his experiences in the best-selling, “Thirty Seconds Over
Tokyo,” which was soon made into a major Hollywood
film starring Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum. Robert
Walker played the part of David Thatcher, the teenaged
flier from Billings. Thatcher won a Silver Star for his actions,
and according to an official War Department release,
“All this plane’s crew were either saved from capture or
death as a result of Corporal Thatcher’s initiative and courage
in assuming responsibility and tending the wounds himself
day and night and arranging for the transportation of
Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air
Forces, pinned the Distinguished Flying Cross on Thatcher
and Sgt. Edward Saylor of Brusett in Washington D.C. on June 28, 1942, before the two men returned to Montana in July. Edward
Saylor received a warm welcome as the guest of honor at a
Heroes Day parade and war bond rally at Dornblaser Field
in Missoula, while 1,000 people watched from the lawn of
the Billings courthouse as the Silver Star was pinned on
Thatcher. “Real heroes, it seems, are always modest,” said
the Billings Gazette. “For the uncrowned champion of the
Modest Heroes League, we raise to nominate Sergeant David
J. Thatcher, late of Shangri-la and Tokyo.” Thatcher
replied that “It’s funny to see my name in the paper. We
saw plenty of action over Japan, all right,” but added that
he would like to, “go over again.” After the war Thatcher
became a postman in Missoula. He attended the annual
Doolittle Raiders reunion including the last one in 2013.
• February 4 – A waste paper drive in Missoula yielded 50,000 pounds.
• February 11 – President Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin met at Yalta and signed an agreement splitting Europe into occupation zones.
• February 12 – Four children, aged 6 months, 3, 4, and 13 died in a fire on the Fort Belknap Reservation. The mother and other children survived.
• February 13 – Budapest was occupied by the Soviets.
• February 16 – U.S. carrier planes attacked Iwo Jima with napalm. American paratroopers landed on Corregidor.
• February 18 – The Third Army breached the Siegfried line.
• February 19 – U.S. Marines landed on Iwo Jima. Fred T. Daylis was appointed the acting principal of Billings Senior High.
• February 21 – A B-24 from the Spokane Air Base crashed 35 miles southwest of Philipsburg en route to Great Falls. The pilot and copilot died but one crew member parachuted to safety. Donald Ruhl threw himself on a grenade on Iwo Jima, saving 2 other men. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
• February 23 – U.S. Marine Louis Charlo helped raise the first American flag on top of Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima.
• February 25 – A house fire killed a man in Great Falls.