World War II Special Operations Unit Celebrates 63rd Reunion
August 25, 2009
- World War II special operations unit celebrates 63rd annual reunion.
- First Special Service Force was a combined Canadian and American unit.
HALIFAX, Canada - A little more than six decades ago, Vernon J. Doucette was a sergeant in the First Special Service Force fighting his way north on the Italian peninsula during World War II.
Doucette, who served in 4th Company, 3rd Regiment of the Force, remembers the campaign in detail.
"We worked in small units, and we stayed together," explained Doucette. "We had a quite a few casualties, guys coming in and going out."
It is memories of such working conditions that have kept the veterans - men from the United States and Canada - of the special operations unit together for so many years.
The First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil's Brigade, was a joint Canadian-American unit formed in 1942 near Helena, Mont. During the war, the 1,800-man unit accounted for 12,000 German casualties, captured 7,000 prisoners and sustained an attrition rate of more than 600 percent, according to Force's association Web site. It was the only unit made up of men from two nations.
The members of the FSSF, along with families and friends, gathered Aug. 19 - 22 in Halifax, Nova Scotia on Canada's east coast for their 63rd annual reunion.
While many of the original members of the force may not be around to partake in the reunion, the tradition continues for the descendents of the Force.
One of those descendents is Mary Bhagan, the organizer of the reunion.
Bhagan is a cousin of Frank Harvey, who was killed in action in Italy in 1944.
The itinerary put together by Bhagan included a tour of one of Halifax's most notable landmarks - Pier 21.
"Several of the Force men, even when they were in the units before they joined the force, if they were replacements, a lot of them left through Pier 21," Bhagan said. "A lot of the original Force members came home through the Pier (when the war ended)."
After the tour, reunion attendees witnessed the unveiling of a new plaque to be posted in the pier-turned-museum in their honor.
It was the first of a few dedications during the reunion. Another plaque was unveiled during a luncheon at Canadian Forces Base Stadacona, by retired Canadian army Colonel Bruce Gilchrist. Gilchrist currently serves as the director of the Army Museum Halifax Citadel.
Gilchrist said the plaque will be placed in the museum by May 2010.
Following the lunch, veterans of the Force returned to their hotel where they were presented with cancellation stamps from Canada's postal service. The collector's item took about a year to create and develop. Only 200 were available.
Official recognition of the Force happened on the final day of the reunion at the Grand Parade in downtown Halifax.
Members of the Canadian government, U.S. and Canadian armies, Canadian veterans associations and the public gathered to remember the sacrifice of the Force and those who did not return.
"I am humbled because of the standards they set and the legacy we uphold today in both the Canadian and United States Special Operations Forces," said speaker Maj. Gen. Thomas Csrnko, commander of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. "Gentlemen you set those standards and we work hard every day to make sure you remain proud of us because we are you."
Csrnko lauded the Force for the standards set in coalition warfare.
Following Csrnko and the other speakers' remarks, Force veteran Bill Story read the names of the 24 FSSF members who died since last year's reunion in St. Paul, Minn. A Canadian air force F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet conducted a low speed fly over in tribute.
Force members and guests laid wreaths for the FSSF's fallen members.
The reunion closed with a banquet at the city's World Trade and Convention Center.
Sgt. 1st Class James L. Cannon from 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was presented the 2009 First Special Service Force Frederick Award at the banquet for his exceptional service and leadership during his last deployment to Afghanistan.