Special World War II force gets congressional honor

William Story of Mt. Pleasant is seated with other honorees and their families Tuesday, during a ceremony at the Capitol honoring members of the First Special Service Force with the Congressional Gold Medal.

MOUNT PLEASANT — William Story, 93, has a vivid memory from World War II that few others share, such as the December 1943 battle when his unit attacked Monte la Difensa, an Italian mountaintop fortress about 10 miles from Cassino.

American and British forces had suffered many casualties with earlier, unsuccessful attempts to capture it.

Story’s unit — the newly created First Special Service Force — managed to succeed, and their exploits were made into a movie in 1968, a movie named after the unit’s nickname, “The Devil’s Brigade.”

“That was really why we were formed — to fight the Germans on la Difensa,” Story of Mount Pleasant said. “We were trained to rope our way up. Some members roped themselves up and then led the rest of us to penetrate the rocks and the cave-like rocks.”

“We lost a lot of men doing that, but nevertheless, we came up behind the Germans. The first thing they knew, there were these soldiers shooting at them, and they responded.”

Six months later, Story and his fellow soldiers drove the Germans out of the Italian capital.

“When we captured Rome, one of the guys found Mussolini’s office,” he said. “I walked in on him and he was sitting with his feet on the desk, smoking one of Mussolini’s cigars. Somebody took a picture of that, but I haven’t seen it.”

In 1942, they were lumberjacks, miners, hunters and farmers from the United States and Canada, who came together at a U.S. Army base in Montana.

Within a few months, they were well-trained warriors who went on to become one of deadliest commando units in World War II. Nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade for their fierce tactics and practice of wearing black boot polish on their faces, the unit excelled during nighttime raids that featured mountain climbing, amphibious landings and parachute jumps.

On Tuesday, Congress awarded surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade the Congressional Gold Medal. A crowd of about 700, including about 40 living members of the once 1,800-strong brigade, attended the hour-long ceremony at the Capitol Visitors Center.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said members of the Devil’s Brigade — a precursor of modern special forces such as the Green Berets — excelled in rock climbing and amphibious assault.

“They advanced on skis and through the air. They survived by stealth and trained in demolitions. Some of their more daring mission plans would have made James Bond blush,” McConnell said. “But this isn’t just some Hollywood script. It’s a true story about a fearless group of young Canadians and Americans ... who were willing to put their lives on the line in the truest sense of the term. Through it all, they helped save a continent in chaos.”

Story, who grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, joined the Army as a private, and he decided if he could manage to jump out of the door of a C-47 airplane, he would joint the First Special Service Force.

He eventually rose to the rank of first lieutenant, a commission he received in the field. He served with the unit for the duration, from the Aleutian Islands to Africa, Italy and ending near the French-Italian border.

By the unit was disbanded in 1944, the brigade had captured more than 30,000 prisoners, won five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors.

Story recalls having his photograph taken leading Canadian forces across a French field to catch the trucks to Marseilles, where they boarded ships to Gibraltar and England and back home to Scotland and Canada.

After the war, he helped start the First Special Service Force Association and currently serves as its executive director emeritus. He said he got the job because his job permitted him to travel to many of the towns where the veterans had settled and keep in touch with them.

“We became a very closely knit group of soldiers,” he said, “and we couldn’t wait to get together when it came time to set up a reunion.”

They had yet another in Washington last week, unlike one they had ever had before. “It meant everything that the force meant to all of us, to each other, and it came while 44 of us were still left,” Story said shortly after he returned home with his weighty new gold medal. “There was a great deal of satisfaction.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.