My great uncle on my mom's side was one of those nine men (from Muskoka). Pretty wild!
PARRY SOUND-MUSKOKA - Last week Congress announced that it would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the First Special Service Force on Feb. 3. The unit, which had nine men from Muskoka in its ranks, was the only unit formed in WWII with troops from the U.S. and Canada and is the forerunner of the Special Forces like the Green Berets and the Navy Seals in both countries. Dubbed "the Black Devils" by the German soldiers they fought, they operated mostly at night and behind enemy lines with blackened faces. Though a small force numerically, the Force never lost a battle, never failed to take an objective, and never gave up an objective once they took it. The FSSF has now reached another objective: to be recognized with the highest civilian honor the United States Congress can bestow, the Congressional Gold Medal. Past recipients have included the George Washington, the Tuskegee Airmen, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Native American code talkers, Thomas Edison and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This is the first Congressional Gold Medal to honour a Canadian military contingent. Parry Sound filmmaker Greg Hancock's grandfather, Gord Hancock, was a member of the FSSF. A number of years ago, Hancock wrote and directed a documentary for History Television entitled Daring to Die: The Story of The Black Devils, and filmed parts of it in Muskoka. Hancock and his documentary played a role in the effort to have Congress recognize the Force. In 2013, the US Congress was considering awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the First Special Service Force. Hancock was invited by the Canadian Embassy in Washington to come and present the film to congressmen, senators, military leaders and the media as part of the effort to pass this legislation. This event, held at the Canadian Embassy, was well-received, as the film and the presence of several veterans put the history of the Force into a perspective that made their courage, achievements and sacrifice very real. Last week Congress announced that it would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Force on Feb. 3, and Hancock was among those who received an invitation from the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives (John Boehner) to attend the ceremony where the medal will be officially presented. Hancock said, "I am honoured, and to be honest, thrilled, to be a part of this event. My grandfather was a member of the Force, but we did not know very much about his war time experience. Making the documentary was partly to find out our family history, partly to honour him, and as I came to know more of the men of the Force, it was to really show the incredible things they did, and what it cost them to do it." Nine men from the Muskoka area were members of the Force, and many of their family members still live here. There were five FSSF members from Huntsville: H.E.W. Wilks, Myrle T. Woolman, C. H. Rowe, S. A. Boyd and S. W. Burbridge. P P Decair hailed from Bala, G. R. G. Brazier and R. C. Mann came from Bracebridge and J. R. McNaughtin listed Muskoka as his home. Part of the reason that so many men in this relatively small unit came from our area could be that when the Force's commander, Colonel Robert Frederick, was recruiting, he specifically sought out trappers, lumberjacks, miners, prospectors and other men with experience in living and working in the outdoors. Steve Woolman, a proud descendant of Myrle Woolman still lives in Muskoka. Woolman said, "I'm glad it is so close now for the men of the Force. So many have died recently, it makes you sick to think they missed this honour being bestowed." While the unit maintained a force of about 1,800 men, many more soldiers rotated in and out of the unit due to heavy casualties. In all, more than 400 soldiers in the force were killed and more than 2,200 wounded through the war. They were trained extensively in guerrilla tactics, mountain climbing and fighting, winter combat, hand to hand combat, night fighting, and they trained in the use of virtually every weapon in the US and the German arsenals. The Force's first combat mission was to take Monte la Difensa, a mountain in Italy that had held up the Allied advance for weeks. The German defenders had repelled several massive attacks in those weeks. The Force took the mountain in two hours, and held it without reinforcements for days after that, at a heavy cost, sustaining 77 percent casualties. The unit fought in the January 1944 amphibious landing at Anzio, were the first into the city of Rome and spearheaded the invasion of southern France. The unit was popularized as "The Devil's Brigade" in a 1968 movie starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson. Only 75 Forcemen are still living -- 46 Americans, 29 Canadians and one Australian. The U.S.-Canadian First Special Service Force will receive the Congressional Gold Medal at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington. Taking part in the bipartisan, bicameral ceremony will be House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).