While many have watched the 1968 film The Devil’s Brigade about the Canadian-American elite commando unit in the Second World War, tribute was paid this weekend to the 17 Islanders who were part of the special force.
Two displays were unveiled at the P.E.I. Regiment Museum on Saturday, which marked the 70th anniversary of the First Special Service Force’s landing on the beachhead of Anzio, Italy.
Modern Canadian and American special forces still trace their heritage to the unit, which was formed in 1942 and trained near Montana.
“They were originally trained for what was considered a suicide mission and would become one of the most remarkable fighting units in modern day history,” said Lt. Col. Glen Moriarty. “Canada’s smallest province shared a small percentage of this incredible story.”
Moriarty said 17 Islanders from across the province were members of the force. Nine were original members from 1942, while eight others joined as reinforcements in the spring of 1944.
The elite 1,800 man unit was responsible for more than 12,000 German casualties and captured approximately 8,000 prisoners during the war.
The unit reportedly got its name when a member of the force uncovered a German lieutenant’s journal entry referring to the soldiers as “Black Devils.”
“The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line. We never hear them come,” said Moriarty while reading the journal’s statement.
With the unit operating largely at night, they would leave behind stickers on corpses and fortifications to be found by German soldiers.
“The First Special Service Force calling card ‘Das dicke Ende kommt noch’ which means the worst is yet to come,” said Moriarty.
Moriarty and family members of the soldiers unveiled two identical displays during the ceremony.
Kinkora resident Gertrude Deighan Trainor, whose father Charlie Deighan served in the unit, was one of the family members who helped unveil the display.
While Trainor said she was always proud of her father, she wasn’t exactly sure of what the Devil’s Brigade was until after he died in Dec. 2000.
“While we (our family) knew he was a veteran of the Second World War, I don’t think we understood what he did or what it meant for a young man to sacrifice so much of his young life,” she said. “There was certainly some indication this was a big deal, but as a little girl I didn’t understand exactly what the big deal was.”
Remembering her father as both a talented athlete and a “very simple, kind man,” Trainor said she was surprised to hear of some of the unit’s missions.
“To know he was engaged in psychological warfare and that they were so close to enemy lines just amazes me,” she said. “That’s just something I would have never imagined.”
Trainor also thanked Moriarty and his team for putting together the display.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s late in life when you realize how significant these men and what they did was, but I think it’s important we continue to remember.”
The U.S. government announced last summer that all surviving members of the unit would be awarded the congressional gold medal.
One of the P.E.I. displays will be located at the regiment museum, while the other will be placed in Summerside.