HELENA – As the world prepares for the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, Tuesday, June 4, 2019 marks another historical World War II anniversary for the books.
On June 4, 1944, the First Special Service Force became the first allied troops to enter Rome, Italy.
The top-secret unit made up of U.S. and Canadian troops, was born in 1942 and trained at Fort Harrison in Helena where a monument to the men who served stands proudly in Memorial Park.
They arrived in Italy in November of 1943 and used their specialized training in mountain operations and amphibious assaults to fight their way through German lines. It was then they earned their nickname “The Black Devils.”
U.S. Navy veteran Bill Woon has a special place in his heart for the First Special Service Force. His father was a part of the first unit and survived the war.
“At the time, they were an experiment, they were top-secret, and they were very small unit. There were only 1,800 men in their combat echelon, 2,200 total, and being top-secret, they were told not to talk, so for 75 years we have not heard the story of who they were and what they accomplished,” Woon said.
The First Special Service Force helped clear the way for allied landing in southern France by seizing two islands. The unit was deactivated as of December 1944, six months or so before allied forces accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces.
“I think we just need to remember…we just recognized Vets for Memorial Day, but I think we need to recognize the price that was paid for the freedoms we enjoy today and that the commitment that was made by the greatest generation had, for ensuring that their kids and their grandkids, will have a better life,” Woon told MTN.
Story by Christine Sullivan, MTN News