THE EARLY DAYS OF THE FORCE
By William Story
The time was August 1942. For the British Commonwealth of Nations and all of Europe, World War II had been under way since late 1939. Nine months had passed since Pearl Harbor. In Washington a quiet decision had been made: the war in Europe had highest priority. Some Americans, patterned after the British Commandos, called Rangers, had already had their first blooding in Europe with the Canadians at Dieppe.
On this continent at a dusty rail siding in Montana, a slightly weary and grimy group of Canadian soldiers clambered from early 20th century, immigrant-style day coaches vehicles that came equipped with hard horse-hair seats and pot-bellied stoves in the corner; all courtesy of a Canadian government which didnt believe in pampering its troops. In these cars, 35 officers and 450 other ranks, drawn from Canadian Army units, had ridden the hot summer miles from Calgarys whitewashed Currie Barracks to Helenas dusty Fort William Henry Harrison. They were volunteers for parachute duty; volunteers for hazardous operations. All had agreed to obey the commands of those senior to them, even though these "seniors" might be from another army. All had been tested for IQ levels. Left behind at Currie were those who, though volunteering, failed to make the grade physically or otherwise.
These soldiers were the first contingent of Canadians to form what some have called the most unique fighting force of World War II: the First Special Service Force. Later, authors in search of a catchy book title would dub them "The Devils Brigade," and movie moguls would pick that up with a star-filled war picture which runs, re-runs, and runs again on television screens throughout the world. For the time being, however, it was the First Special Service Force, a name which brought some identity problems at that time, a few fist fights, and a lot of good-natured kidding in the U.S. Army, for whom the words Special Services meant entertainers like Ronald Reagan.
This initial Canadian contingent would soon be joined by another train load this time from Ottawa, Canadas capital city. As the first group lined up under the direction of senior commanders alongside the train, in the near distance workers were still frantically expanding Ft. Harrison from a hare-bones National Guard camp to one which would accommodate the incoming troops. Being laid down were the final pyramidal tent bottoms, while crews following behind were installing the tents. Latrine buildings were being rushed to completion. Dust was everywhere that hot August day, as bulldozers and construction crews labored over the airstrip for the C-47 jump ships, the parachute drying towers, packing sheds, mess halls, and roads.
In the far distance was Mt. Helena, with its adjacent "Muscle Mountain," so-named by Forcemen who later spent hours rushing up its steep sides when the training officers (it seemed) had nothing else for them to do; or when an element of enforced discipline was needed to curb, but not bind, high (and sometimes rebellious) spirits and independent minds. Men of the Force were not your ordinary run of the mill soldier in either army. For one thing, the average age of Forcemen was higher than the average age of soldiers in both armies at that time. For another, many of them came from the more rigorous walks of life: hard-rock miners, prospectors, lumberjacks, hunters, and trappers.
The First Special Service Force, conceived in war-torn and exhausted Britain with the help of a man who, 40 years later, would be assassinated by an IRA bomb Lord Louis Mountbatten had been brought to term by Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, and Canadas Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, with the Pentagon serving as midwife. Now it was being fleshed out in a nursery far distant from major training centers of either Canada or the U.S. Fort Harrison had been chosen in part for its remoteness, because the Force was an organization whose elements and actual size would remain a considerable mystery to its principal adversaries, the German High Command, and a virtual secret to most Canadian and American citizens until near the end of its operational life.
Fort Harrison had other advantages. It was in the mountains, so mountaineering could be taught. Its winter weather was cold and snowy, especially on the peaks of the Great Divide, so the special snow vehicle developed exclusively for the Force The Weasel could be tested and Forcemen trained in its use. Here, too, the soldiers could learn how to ski and to take part in winter-warfare training. There was ample space back in the hills to build mock-ups of the power stations in Norway and northern Italy, which the Force was projected to attack.
All this was virtually unknown to the rank and file of Canadians who disembarked from the hot coaches that day, hot and cinder-peppered through the open windows of the non-air-conditioned, coal-burning train. The vast majority had started the trip thinking they were headed for Fort Benning, because they knew some Canadians were already at the Georgia infantry camp, taking parachute training. Others werent so sure, asking about the logic of switching the train through Sweetgrass,
Weapons Training at Ft. Harrison
Montana, when it would have been more direct to head back to Winnipeg and then south. There had been lots of news stories about Canadians going to Benning, but strangely little about a much larger group of well-trained and experienced soldiers going elsewhere in the United States.
Waiting alongside the rail spur and watching with as much curiosity as the Canadians was a small group of American officers and enlisted men. Some were from the Force Service Battalion, which had been put together several weeks before. Its responsibility would be Co provide the cooks, bakers, kitchen police, latrine workers; the firemen and MPs, the drivers and ammunition suppliers; the parachute riggers and all the other support needed to free the combat echelon for its training and ultimate mission. Time and combat would find these same Service Battalion soldiers with rifles and grenades pressed into their hands as they formed a second line of defense during the anxious days at Anzio, when it appeared the Germans might sweep the Allies into the Tyrrhenian Sea. But for now, along with members of the recently formed Force Headquarters, they were there to help in the arrival of this different-looking group, the first Allied soldiers most of them had ever seen. Observing from the fringes were American soldiers from the combat echelon who had been arriving in dribs and drabs from virtually every U.S. Army unit, including the Army Air Corps.
Both groups looked each other over carefully. The Canadians took in the U.S. Army summer khakis, the green herringbone twill coveralls and caps, the pinks and greens of the officer uniforms, "Pink pants?" one Canadian wondered.) Visible among the Americans was the occasional campaign hat on an officer or enlisted man. To the Canadians, they looked not unlike the hats worn by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and one former Mountie quipped: "Hey, I should have brought my old uniform." Later, they were to learn that most of these hats, along with the jodhpurs, belonged to soldiers who had came from the U.S. Cavalry.
The Americans saw a lean bunch of youngish men, most wearing short pants, short-sleeved shirts, puttees (which Americans called leggings and black iron-shod boots). The headgear, perched jauntily over the right eyebrow and virtually resting on the right ear, looked not unlike the U.S. Army overseas cap, except that it was not as wide in the body or as high, and it was of stiffened cloth to help keep its shape. In addition, instead of carrying the blue or other piping of the various U.S. Army branches, each cap was distinguished by two small and shiny brass buttons on the front, and individual regimental or branch cap badges fixed to the left front by typical Canadian lugs, and long cotter-pin-like fasteners inside.
But not everyone wore the "wedge" cap. Different to American eyes were the black berets of the tankers those from the armored regiments or motorized scouts a piece of headgear made famous by Lord Montgomerys 8th Army armor in North Africa.
Even more different and colorful was the headgear of members drawn from the Scottish regiments of Canadas Army: the Black Watch, the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, the Toronto Scottish, to name just a few. Same wore khaki (Canadians pronounced it kar-kee) tam-o-shanters large, round, floppy hats with a large tuft in the top center and usually sporting an enormous brass or black-metal cap badge. These were affectionately or otherwise known to their wearers as cowflops. Still other Scots-regiment types wore the Glengarry bonnet with its trim of red and white checkerboard pattern and its two black streamers down the back, also complete with large brass regimental cap badge.
But the big elbow digging among the Americans began when a Scottish regimental officer descended from the train, wearing plaid trousers, better known as trews, only to be followed by others in kilts, complete with sporrans to the front and dirks in the knee-length woolen stockings. These drew extra stares and comments from the Americans who were soon to learn why the Germans in World War I referred to Scottish regiments as the "Ladies from Hell," and that kilts and trews were no laughing matter.
And finally for one reason or another there were a few Canadians dressed in light khaki summer dress r "walking out" uniforms of midhigh-length jacket complete with brass buttons, attached cloth belt, and brass buckle. This ensemble was completed with khaki shirt and black tie, black boots, and wedge cap, Glengarry, tam-o-shanter, or black beret.
Forcemen fire a 2.36-inch bazooka round
Certainly there was more uniform variety for the Americans to look
at than there was for the Canadians. And it was this uniform variety, carried on for some
months after the Force was established, which created confusion in the minds and studies
of later military historians and collectors. Adding to the confusion for them was a
red-beret myth perpetrated by the producer of the movie, The Devils Brigade. The
First Special Service Force at no time wore a beret, neither red, maroon, black, nor
green. Forcemen wore a lot of other strange uniform groupings when they could getaway with
it, but not an official beret, as shown in the movie.
Formed up, the new arrivals were marched off to an area closer to the tent lines. There they were separated by twos and directed into individual company streets (a new phrase) and to individual tents, starting with 1st Company 1st Regiment and going through Sixth Company, Third Regiment. On arrival, many of the Canadians found two Americans already in the tent (as did the author). The Americans themselves were relative newcomers, just settling in. Like the Canadians, they had come from virtually every unit in the U.S. Army and from a wide variety of states. Unlike the Canadians, not all were strict volunteers, but had been "volunteered" by their commanding officers as a means of getting rid of "troublemakers." The majority, however, were genuine volunteers, many drawn from the same backgrounds as the Canadians, with the possible exception of fur trappers.
There were moments of getting acquainted, helped by the common language. Dialogues went something like this: "Where you from, soldier? What outfit? The Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry? You got to be kidding. Whatinhells that?" "Winnipeg that anywhere near the city of Ontario?" Or: "Mississippi, thats somewhere in the Deep South, isnt it?" "The 7th Cavalry? Hasnt your Army learned that cavalry went out of style at the start of World War I?" "Whats the Mason-Dixon line?" "You mean the Civil War really should be called the War Between the States?" "No, Canadians dont pay taxes to the King Canada isnt a colony of the English Its a Dominion," to be followed by a long explanation of Dominion Governor-General, Leftenant (sic) Governors.
In general, Canadians knew more about the U.S. than Americans did about Canada. Canadians attributed this to better schooling, but in point of fact, the pervasiveness of American-made movies and radio was a major factor. Fibber McGee and Molly, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy were no strangers to the Canadians, who listened as avidly on Saturday or Sunday nights as the Americans.
Demolition of a bridge in Montana,
specifically set aside for the Force by the state gov't.
The Canadians who conformed most closely to the American mental picture of a "Canuck" were the French Canadians with their accents. French-speaking Canadians had a better command of English than English-speaking Canadians had of French, but they conformed more closely to the Canadian image: French speaking and Catholic. Canadians, while familiar with Americans from the border states, had had less exposure to Southerners, and there was a learning experience involved with Southern sensitivities the color-line of the times, the Civil War and the like.Canadians and Americans, given the common language, quickly learned each others areas of sensitivity. It was all right for Americans to be critical of Roosevelt, make jokes about Eleanor or the Congress. Canadians had to tread easily at the start. It wasnt wise for Americans to be joking about the King of England or about Canadas status within the Commonwealth. And there was the difference in pronouncing Lieutenant Leftenant as opposed to Loo-tenant.
Pay was a potential point of division because Americans made more, both in regular as well as jump pay. But the Canadians were paid twice a month; they felt they were the better poker players and bankers. In fact, both Canadians and Americans were generous with each other, and so the Force, because of the pay schedule and jump pay, always seemed "in the chips." In contrast to most U.S. outfits where the first ten days of a month were free-spending and the rest was drought, the Force seemed, to happy merchants, to be in a continual flow of funds.
In the tents that first day, Canadians and Americans looked over each others uniforms with great interest, To the Canadians the American enlisted mans Class A blouse looked much like a Canadian officers uniform jacket. This proved attractive to Canadian Other Ranks. And the Canadians summer uniform jacket, with its bright brass, lighter and cooler fabric than American ODs or summer khakis caught the American fancy. Not many would try the short-sleeved shirts and short pants, because the puttees baffled them, and the knee pants tended to be embarrassing to Americans brought up in the tradition of a boys "first pair of long pants" which took him out of the kid stage.
Then there was the matter of headgear. American garrison hats, bought in the PX, looked like Canadian officers hats. The variety of Canadian caps and hats proved irresistible to many Yanks.
Wood and tarpaper barracks at Ft. Harrison, Montana
And so that first night, Last Chance Gulch in Helena was thronged with soldiers seeking out its many bars, or climbing the stairs to the citys finest crib Idas Rooms. But anyone taking a bet as to which was American and which Canadian stood a fair chance of losing his money unless the uniform-wearer opened his mouth and revealed his origins via accent, Southern or Cape Breton Island. The Canadians knew that Americans had regional accents, The Americans, with their French speaking image of Canadians, were surprised to find that Canada had regional English accents, too. It was somewhat unsettling to hear a Tennessee or Texas accent coming from under a tam-o-shanter, or a French-Canadian accent from a soldier wearing a cavalry patch.
All this was great fun for enlisted men/other ranks, especially when it was possible for that first little while to fool the MPs into believing that because one more a Canadian uniform, American MPs had no jurisdiction. That soon changed. And the uniform switch slowed down considerably when Americans found that the brass buttons had to be regularly shined, or as the Canadians would say, the brass had to he polished, using that mysterious tool ever-present in Canadian kit bags, the button-stick ("Whatinhells a button-stick?"). But the Canadians were still taken with the U.S. Army blouse and, with some exceptions, welcomed the eventual issue of Class As. Then they began to dress the blouse up their own way: Canadian sergeants stripes or corporals stripes on the American blouse; Canadian regimental insignia on the collars and lapels; garrison hats, instead of bearing the usual U.S. Army cap and badge, with its eagle, turned up with Canadian regimental insignia on the front. Typical was the writers use of the badge of the Winnipeg Light Infantry, an impressive-looking brass design consisting of a wreath of maple leaves around the top and sides, a beaver in the center, a scroll with the unit name to the bottom, all tastefully backed with a piece of red felt which served to contrast the basic elements of the badge and looked wonderfully officer-like on the garrison hat. There were strictures from on high regarding such shenanigans; the gate MPs were instructed to turn back Forcemen out of uniform, but that was easily countered by going over the fence, coming and going. The fence also took care of the lack-of-pass problem and the matter of curfew. While all of this proved confusing to later historians, it was wonderful fun while it lasted, and proved very effective with the girls of Helena and Butte, Montana. Some of Helenas leading citizens today are former Canadians who married Helena girls, for whom the uniform was an initial eye-stopper.
For the Canadian officers, the situation was different. Original uniform allowances on commissioning, as junior officers were long gone. There were delays in arranging for purchase of American officers uniforms when the time came for making the switch. There was some regimental pride and stubbornness on the part of some officers and other ranks. The Canadian Regimental system breeds great pride of unit, A much smaller number of Americans found it hard to live on some of the distinctions of their former units.
Troops practice in-air maneuvers in training device
Because of the Canadian situation, this kind of variance was tolerated probably far longer than it might have been in either army. Eventually, the time came when both the Americans and Canadians dressed alike. For EMs/ORs except for caps, there were few training-time differences. It was only on "walking out," as the Canadians would say, that dress differences and oddball combinations appeared. That, and on leave. With one exception, this all came to an end, and the aberrations of uniform which had been winked at were more firmly suppressed. The exception occurred when the Force came back from the Kiska campaign and wound up in Sacramento before taking a delay-in-route back to Ft, Ethan Allen in Vermont. Force members, especially Canadians, did a snow job on PX clerks in the officers equipment and uniform sections on the post. The uniform mixtures that resulted from this foray were positively wild. enough to make every MP along the way stop and stare. But, with few exceptions, everybody so dressed made it back to Vermont without incident. From then on, uniform variations stopped.
Many soldiers from both armies EM/OR or officer, found the differences in the Force (as compared to their old units) more than they could take. Early on, commands might be given in either Canadian or American style; a platoon or company commander might be a French Canadian or an American with a cavalry background rather than infantry. Canadians were lost with cavalry-sounding commands so were Americans. One chaotic early parade had a cavalry officer of some seniority commanding a Force battalion of three companies for a march to a major Force formation. The companies got themselves lined up and organized with minimum confusion, but when the battalion commander issued his commands with a "Hoo," soldiers went in every direction. The companies wound up marching out on their own, and nothing was heard of the senior cavalry officer again,
Canadians were accustomed to hearing: "Company mill move to the right in column of threes by platoon Right turn! By the left, quick march!" Americans would mutter: Whatinhell does he mean, by the left So if the platoon commander was a Canadian, the Americans learned to operate by Canadian commands, and vice versa. Same was true of the companies. But this happy if somewhat confusing state of affairs could not continue, and a hybrid series of commands and movements emerged. For simplicitys sake, American commands were used. (That got rid of the confusing liturgy as well as the "by the lefts.")
For both Americans and Canadians who didnt like what they found, what they experienced, or what they conceived to be total confusion, the exit door swung open easily. If the truth were known. the First Special Force was never for those looking for soft, sheet-covered beds, well-stocked PXs or Sally Anns (Salvation Army) Canteens or a change of movies twice weekly at the Post movie house. Early on there was almost a continual flow of people in and out.
Some of the officers in Villeneuve Lobet
before the breakup, December 1944
Some left for the reasons mentioned above: others, because they couldnt make it out the airplane door on their First jump. Still others, Canadians mostly, were shipped out protesting, because they had broken limbs in jumping and it was assumed at that time there wouldnt be enough time for them to heal and to complete their training. The senior Canadian officer was lost to the command that way. The Americans were luckier; a Stay in the hospital near the post many times meant a visit from Ma of Idas Rooms as she came on weekends to visit her favorite clients and, presumably, did a little public relations.
Out of the seeming chaos of those early days, there gradually developed organization. One had to hear a man speak before knowing whether he was American or Canadian. Even then, mid-Westerners and Pacific Coast types of both nations sounded alike. Only the characteristic "ou" sound would betray these Canadians that or the fact they persisted in tacking "eh" on at the ends of most sentences or even phrases. What do you think of that? Eh?" "So this is what the bloody fool said, eh."
In the composite drill, the major Canadian contribution of note was the distinctive arm swing. Only long hard drilling would have had the Americans swinging their arms Guards-style, and there wasnt time for this or even the interest. But getting the Americans to swing their arms more naturally on parade got them away from what one Canadian acidly referred to as "looking like a bunch of constipated penguins." Another Canadian contribution to the drill was the about-turn (contrasted to the American about-face). But most Americans couldnt master the about-turn. Many Canadians didnt master the about-face. So everyone did what came naturally. There really wasnt time or interest in the niceties of close-order drill. The main thing was to get to and from activities without looking like a "column of lumps," as the Canadians would say. And also to be able to handle official parades, such as an IG inspection, by looking different and somehow smarter. On parade, because of the arm swing in contrast to most U.S. units, and also because of the decision to march with arms slung, the Force really made an impact on viewers. Guidons showed up somewhere along the line for each company, and that helped, too.
The winnowing process, which went on all this while, served to produce an increasingly well knit group. It was no longer a matter of Canadian or American but of individual behavior patterns, of whether or not you really could cut it as a Forceman. Adding this were the uniform distinctions which began to become apparent. Jump boots and bloused trousers made the first step; then the parachute wings.
But more important was the fact that the First Special Service Force was not simply another airborne infantry unit, but a separate branch of the U.S. and Canadian armies. This had special meaning in the United States Army. The piping on enlisted mens hats was red, white, and blue in contrast to the infantry blue or the other colors characteristic of the Army. Where infantry, artillery, engineers, etc. would wear the insignia of their branch, Force members wore Crossed Arrows, insignia of the old Cherokee Indian Scouts of the U.S. "who had passed them along to the Force. This brought some to nickname Forcemen "The Braves." But this really didnt take it was too artificial and forced. Phrases like a "member of the Force" or "in the Force" or the composite word "Forcemen" took preference. Later, after combat action against the Germans in Italy, the Force would pick up the Black Devil nickname. But even this made many Forcemen uncomfortable and still does to this day, although it is more widely accepted than any other. Most Forcemen figured they were just doing their duty and didnt need any fancy names to dress up their actions.
Perhaps the most distinctive piece of equipment was the red-spearhead shoulder patch with its eye-stopping USA/CANADA lettering. This was developed by the U.S. Army after much discussion and a number of other suggestions. It fitted with the crossed arrows so much that some speak of it as the arrowhead.
Another item of destruction made its way on to the uniforms: a red, white, and blue shoulder cord or lanyard, as the Canadians referred to it. Made of parachute shroud lines, it was different and distinctive Some felt it was too fancy but they were in the minority.
Eventually there arrived for issue a red, white, and blue parachute oval, complete with gold trim, to wear behind the U.S.-style parachute wings.
Eventually, Canadians had "CANADA" discs for their blouses that matched the standard "U.S." stamped discs. EM/OR wore discs stamped with the Force crossed arrows, looking not unlike the Infantry crossed rifles when seen at a distance. Officers wore larger crossed arrows held in place on the lapels with the usual pin-and-dip arrangement. American officers wore "U.S." on their collars, while Canadian Officers had the word "CANADA."
These modest differences were the sole outward distinctions between Canadians and Americans, and in training or in combat, even these disappeared.
The Force was also different in its other clothing. Take the ski pants, as one example. Originally issued for ski training and for working with the Weasels in the snow, they became the all-purpose garment once the Force had moved into combat. The ski pants, virtually white from many washings while in reserve, and quickly turning greasy black in combat, were the Force mark of distinction within the 5th Army, They were the original baggy pants with their large side pockets and elastic bottoms.
With the ski pants went a parka issued when the first snows fell in Helena and reissued in the mountains of Italy They were the reversable-pullover type with rabbit-fur trimmed hoods and sleeves.
Right from the start of training. Force members were issued another piece of clothing: the Air Corps leather jacket usually found only with air crews. It was worn only in training. but that included some of the wings and other types of parades at Ft. Harrison. Basically, the jacket was not supposed to be worn off post, but the author recalls travelling with his platoon into the mountains, to Mike Horse Mine on a weekend deer hunt when all wore leather jackets. Working dress in early parachute and other training was green herringbone-twill coveralls with fatigue cap. Ordinary football helmets provided protection on the training and qualification jumps. As the weather grew cooler, it be came fatigue caps, leather jackets, regulation U.S. Army OD wool trousers, and jump boots. The parkas and ski pants came out with the arrival of winter, coupled with regulation wool knit caps. The latter became a favorite of Forcemen, especially in combat, to be worn under the helmet or alone.
The First Special Service Force didnt want for equipment. Whatever it needed to get the job done. it seemed became available. In the heat of the August sun, Americans became envious of the Canadians Bermuda shorts. The Quartermaster was asked to supply shorts. What arrived turned out to be summer khakis cut off at what someone thought was the knees. On issue they were the funniest-looking items for miles around on many of the troops. If they fitted at the waist, they hung below the knees. If they fitted in length they wouldnt fasten at the hips. Most resorted to rolling them up above the knees, the only problem being that they narrowed at that point and made for a very tight fit around the lower thighs. It was a supply effort not to be repeated. There was no problem with the short-sleeved shirts, however.
The Canadians liked the short U.S. Army field jacket, except that when the weather worsened, it wasnt too warm and it left the waist unprotected. All Forcemen, as a result, welcomed the M43 field jacket when it was issued, just before the Force left for Africa and Italy. From the hoots and hollers that greeted the Force as it stepped off the ship near Naples, the long, cord-wa1sted green jacket was a new sight for the troops in Italy. These side comments, incidentally, turned to words of sympathy when dockside loungers took in the mountain rucksacks which bulked high above every mans back, loaded as they were with each soldiers immediate personal clothing and other needs, as well as the mountain sleeping bag another item then unique in Italy, but well worth its light weight.
It was at this time the Force got another nickname: Freddies Freighters, after then Colonel Robert T. Frederick Force Commander and the heavy-appearing loads on the backs of the Forcemen, in addition to their weapons. It was easier to offer this name to those who shouted, "What outfit are you?" than it was to go through the long and unusual (to U.S. Army ears) First Special Service Force, and the time-consuming explanation that: "No, we were not entertainers but combat troops." One wag carefully explained to his gullible listeners that the Force really was Special Services but that because airborne troops landed and operated behind enemy lines, we had to be qualified jumpers to bring the paratroopers their well-deserved entertainment in back of enemy lines as they rested from their labors of fending off the enemy from all directions. One variation on this which the author used in southern France, was that the Force had actually landed in advance of the main body (as it usually did) in order to be well set up to provide doughnuts and entertainment for the advancing Allied forces when they arrived on the scene.
Two pieces of equipment were produced solely for the Force Because the original mission (later scratched) called for airborne landings in Norway and northern Italy. In the depth of winter, Studebaker Corporation was set to work to build an over-the-snow vehicle which would tow sleds loaded with equipment and the para-skiers as needed. The vehicle had to be capable of operating in mountainous territory as well as over level ground. It did not have to be amphibious. The resulting, strange-looking, back-to-frontappearing tracked vehicle was dubbed The Weasel. It had a relatively low silhouette, was steered by toggle bars, didnt throw its tracks too often, and was welcomed by the Forcemen who saw a chance to ride rather than struggle up the tall slopes under the direction of the ski-Wegian trainers (the Forces nickname for the Norwegian Air Force skiers who were in the forefront of the ski training).
The Force was equipped with sufficient Weasels to handle its entire combat echelon, but never used them in actual combat. The Weasel was the first all-round snow vehicle produced. It was the forerunner of many snow vehicles seen today, but it wasnt until the Force reached the muds of Amchitka, in the Aleutian Islands, prior to the Kiska attack that the Weasel really showed it could be a proud mudder, too. When tractor-train diesels sank slowly into the churned-up tundra until they were almost out of sight, it was the Weasel which could pull them loose. The little vehicle could whip through areas where larger machines would not venture.
This characteristic came in useful later in Italy, when Weasels, driven by Forcemen, were used to help the 36th Infantry Division supply efforts on the Rapido River crossing. The Weasel eventually did see service in Norway, but it was after the war in Europe was over, and the 474th Separate Infantry Regiment, formed after the 1st Special Service Force was disbanded in southern France (December, 1944), was given the task of disarming the surrendering Germans in Norway. It was used with great effectiveness in the South Pacific and other areas where the ability to go through mud was valued.
The other special item was the Case knife. Especially made in a limited run, each knife came equipped with a long leather scabbard, with thongs to be tied about the lower thigh. The scabbard was later equipped with a metal backing at the bottom, because the sharp tip of the stiletto-style knife gouged its way into countless legs during training. The Force knife, with its slim shape, excellent handling, leather-ringed pommel, and spike at the end, has become a collectors item not only because of its scarcity, but also because of its grace and balance. But if the truth were known, it probably punctured and opened more cans than it slit enemy throats.
The Force was unique in the U.S. Army because of one of its weapons: the Johnson light machine gun not to be confused with the Johnson automatic rifle, the runner-up to the Garand as M-l. Only the Marine Raiders used the Johnson LMG, and they appeared not as satisfied with it as the Force perhaps because of its jamming tendencies in mud. When the Canadians arrived and started training in Helena, it became obvious they would have to learn American weaponry, for supply wisdom dictated only one nations weapons and ammunition. The Canadians liked the M1, while griping mildly about its weight in contrast to the much lighter Lee-Enfield of the Canadian Army. The semi-automatic action versus bolt-fed loading really got to them, and they soon became very proficient.
Another weapon that took their fancy was the Browning air-cooled, belt-fed machine gun. The author was accustomed to the heavier, water-cooled Vickers, standard in the Canadian Army, for machine-gun support work. But for a fast, mobile unit, like the Force, the Browning .30 caliber was superb. The American infantry mortar they could take or leave, while acknowledging that it could lay down heavier patterns than the equivalent Canadian platoon-level mortar.
But it was the widely-heralded BAR of the U.S. Infantry that really stuck in the Canadian craw. They were accustomed to the Czech-designed Bren light machine gun, then standard with Commonwealth armies. This magazine-fed LMG, with its replaceable barrel and carrying handle, in their estimation was light-years ahead of the Browning Automatic Rifle. Given the BARs greater accuracy because of its long barrel, Canadians pointed to its slow rate of fire, its seemingly forever collapsing bipodal legs, and the way in which its long barrel always seemed to tangle with the brush on an assault. The BAR was worse than useless to a unit like the Force Canadians said. What was really needed was the Bren.
This kind of conversation went on ad nauseam until the Americans accused the Canadians of wanting to sleep with the Bren gun, use it to make their breakfast, and polish their boots. The Canadians stuck to their beliefs, and as a result of this, plus some sober thinking by the planners and active research by the suppliers, the Johnson LMG made its appearance. Since the Force had a corner the available supply of a new explosive RS, and the Marines wanted some, it was not too hard to make a swap of Johnny guns as they came affectionately to be known, for RS.
The Johnny gun jammed when not properly cared for, but it met the needs the Canadians saw for adequate automatic firepower, which could be quickly moved in on assault, while the heavier .30 caliber laid down additional support fire. With the addition of bazookas, grenade launchers, Thompson submachine guns, carbines, grenades, and .45- caliber pistols, each First Special Service Force platoon had a withering dose of firepower to deliver on the enemy, and it all came in mighty handy when the time came to use it.
Canadians were also responsible for introducing the concept of battle drill to the Force. This is a training procedure in which troops are taught the basics of any farm of attack: frontal right flanking, left flanking pincer, house-to-house fighting, and so on. Starting first with a parade-ground approach, with rote learning of each phase of a particular type of attack, it could then be taken into the field in training exercises later using live ammunition. This was a training procedure the British picked up from captured German training manuals and adapted to Commonwealth training. It was far superior to anything that Forcemen saw in standard infantry U.S. training manuals of the time. It enabled a platoon leader, for example, to scout out a position to be attacked, decide on the mode, and then simply tell his troops "left flanking." Each soldier knew his assigned position and responsibilities. It would save a lot of lives in the Force, and would make attacks more effective.
When the First Special Service Force came to be inspected by the Inspectors General of the U.S. and Canada at Ft. Ethan Allen, Burlington, Vermont, it was Canadian Captain (later Lt. General) Stan Waters company which provided the prime example of how a group well-trained in battle drill could use the concept to execute an attack with virtually flawless precision. This, combined with other exercises and examples of Force training arid capability, moved the IGs people to award the Force with the highest grades ever assigned to a unit in assessing its fitness to proceed overseas.
Over and above the training, weaponry, special clothing, and insignia, the main factor which brought about these high scores and the subsequent legend of the Force was the special spirit which had developed in this unique and now very highly- trained group of North Americans. There was an esprit and a sense which transcended other units with which it would later come in contact and against which it would be measured. That spirit continues today, as visitors to the Annual Reunion regularly testify.
Thirty-eight years later, Lord Lovat, the Chief Commando of World War II, attended a Force Reunion the 35th and commented later: "With the spirit I see and hear tonight, and after a period of 35 years, the Force must have been an unbelievably fine fighting group."
That they were but it was hard to imagine in those hot, dusty, frustratingly exciting days at Fort William Henry Harrison when Canadians and Americans were flung together, that military historians later would assign them high marks on the field of battle, that books, movies, awards, and honors would come their way over the years, and that for the brief span of their life they were acknowledged as "the god-damndest fighters in the Army."