Misfits, mountaineers, miners, loggers, trappers, ranch hands, boxers, a safe blower and a few criminals were among the mix of American and Canadian soldiers that showed up in Helena in August 1942 as “volunteers” for the First Special Service Force, a new military force.
Fort Harrison barracks sprouted up almost overnight, while the newly arrived soldiers slept on the ground with stars overhead.
Their escapades, fondness for explosives and brawls became legendary locally.
The force’s feats and exploits in World War II became the subject of Hollywood films, books, articles and documentaries.
The veterans of the elite First Special Service Force are in Helena this week for their 68th annual reunion, and the public is invited to join them at a commemorative service at 10 a.m. today, Aug. 9, at Memorial Park.
Helena folks took them into their homes and hearts, with many strong friendships forming, according to Bill Woon, secretary/treasurer of the FSSF Association. And, according to one history book, at least 200 local marriages took place.
The training the FSSF received in Helena was unlike any military training ever done before — covering everything from parachuting to mountaineering, skiing, winter survival, demolitions, unarmed combat and training in both American and German weaponry.
The physical training was so intense that Fort Harrison became a revolving door — with volunteers being cut almost as fast as they came in.
The training would serve them well months later, particularly in their combat successes in Italy and France.
This unique commando force came to be known as the Black Devils or Devil’s Brigade, under its swashbuckling commander, Lt. Col. Robert Tryon Frederick, and became the prototype for the Green Berets, Navy SEALS and Delta Force decades later.
The force earned five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors and is being honored with its own Congressional Gold Medal, which is awaiting minting.
Although FSSF saw initial action in the Aleutian Islands, the Japanese fled upon the force’s arrival.
It was in December 1943 that they were truly battle tested and were so successful they earned the praise of General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was amazed at their feats.
On Dec. 1, 1943, they marched 10 miles in icy rain, then burrowed under cover for a cold, wet day, lying in wait for their night offensive on Monte La Difensa in Italy. This is where their training in winter survival paid off, said Bill Story, a Canadian from Winnipeg who now lives in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina.
“It was cold as hell,” Story said.
The brigade’s assignment was to break the “Winter Line,” the German’s main military line of defense outside of Rome.
At dusk on Dec. 2, several men scaled the sheer cliff of Monte La Difensa, setting ropes for the others, all carrying heavy packs, to follow. The top was held by an entrenched crack German Panzer division, which had inflicted heavy Allied casualties.
“We specialized on working in the dark,” said Story of their intensive training in Helena. “They were caught totally by surprise.”
Instead of Story heading up with the initial attack, he had to deal with a battlefield failure, he said. A Canadian Colonel who was supposed to be leading the troops had fled the battle.
As an intelligence officer, Story took charge of the retreating officer.
A few days later on Dec. 8, the final objective, Mt. Remetenea, also fell. The force was also involved in battles on Sammucro, Vischiataro and Maio peaks.
By the time they reached the town of Cassino, the force’s combat strength of 1,800 was down to 500.
On Jan. 30, 1944, the force sailed to the Anzio beachhead and dug in at the Mussolini Canal, which became its base for a series of daring night raids on the Germans.
“Small patrols would go out with explosives and wrap a whole house (a German headquarters) and we’d wipe the whole thing out,” said Story, capturing and killing as many Germans as possible.
Herman Kasoff, from Detroit and now Farmington Hills, Michigan, started out the war as a Ranger, but was re-assigned to the FSSF after hixs Rangers unit was wiped out.
In addition to going on night raids, Kasoff was assigned to find mixers — orange juice, pineapple juice, whatever.
“I’ll supply the booze,” his commanding officer told him. So after each night raid, returning force members stopped by Kasoff’s foxhole for a mixed drink.
“The gin was aged 24 hours,” said Kasoff, so the mix was crucial.
Kasoff wisecracks, “Our guys were crazy. Some of those guys on the force were nuttier than a fruitcake. They raided chicken coops, grabbing one chicken in each hand.”
And as they ran with their squawking chickens, German searchlights would light up in pursuit.
“We had stocking caps, dark sweaters, dark pants and would paint our faces,” Kasoff recalled. With their V-42 daggers, they crept through No Man’s Land into foxholes and killed Germans, leaving a black devil sticker with a message in German: “The worst is yet to come.”
They had been well trained in hand-to-hand combat byx civilian Irishman Pat O’Neill. “Kick and poke,” said Story, poking both hands forward forcefully. “We went for the eyes. We got them in the testicles or lower belly (with a kick). That’s what we did to the Germans. … The goal was to make them feel very uncomfortable.”
The force’s reputation was so fearsome that when they were being ordered to attack a group of entrenched Germans, one force member stood up and said in German: “We are the Black Devils — if you fire one shot at us we will take no prisoners.”
The Germans surrendered, said Kasoff.
After 99 days and nights on the beachhead, they fought their way to Rome, entering it June 4, 1944.
“We were the lead outfit going into Rome,” Kasoff said. “We were the point position.”
The force was also involved in the invasion of southern France in August.
“The First Special Service Force captured more enemy soldiers than any other unit in the war,” Story said. It’s credited with capturing more than 30,000 prisoners.
Locally, they are remembered for not only their wartime bravery, but their antics — including a gusto for blowing up things in the Helena Valley (and a bath tub in a local hotel), regular brawls at the Gold Bar — taking out their front window at least four times — and some decidedly quirky behavior, such as one fellow who kept a foot locker of live rattlesnakes under his bed.
How they adjusted to civilian life, brings its own set of stories. Woon recalls his mother saying, “I loved your father very much, but I just couldn’t housebreak him.”