My uncle Richard E. Daigle was a member of First Special Service Force Association, 1st Company, 2nd Regiment, which led the assault on Italy's Monte La Difensa in World War II. He was killed in action taking Monte La Difensa on Dec. 3, 1943.
My uncle carried a picture of me in his helmet. Ever since I can remember, my mother's family told me stories about Uncle Richard.
May 30 will be different for me this year.
I will be joining one surviving veteran of my uncle's unit, Eugene Forward of Lancaster, Ontario, and 33 fellow descendants of the men of the First Special Service Force.
I have been preparing for this trip ever since attending the First Special Service Force Association reunion in Helena, Mont., in 2006. I studied conversational Italian for four semesters, read several books about Italy and prepared physically for the trip.
We will arrive in Rome for a nine-day tour of the battlefields and cemeteries in Italy where the Force fought. We will return to Rome on June 4 to celebrate the 64th anniversary of liberating the Eternal City. Members of the Force were the first Allied soldiers to enter Rome on that day in 1944.
I want to climb Monte La Difensa, view the battleground where he was killed, and to "mark the moment" for the 73 members of the Force killed in action on Dec. 3, 1943.
The story of the First Special Service Force
The First Special Service Force was a unique military organization formed in 1942 in Helena, Mont., with equal numbers of Canadian and U.S. soldiers who trained together, wore a common uniform and operated under a single command. They were paratroopers highly trained in mountain climbing, skiing, demolitions and hand-to-hand combat.
The Force was put together with the original purpose of being dropped behind enemy lines in Norway to destroy the hydroelectric plants there that the Germans were using to develop the "heavy water" necessary for the development of the atomic bomb.
When the Force "lost" its mission to Norway due to the reluctance of the Norwegian government-in-exile, the Force was first reassigned to the Aleutian campaign to drive out the Japanese who had established a foothold on the Alaskan island chain. The trip north turned into a "dry run" as the Japanese had withdrawn under cover of fog just days prior to the Force landing on Kiska.
The Force was next assigned to the Italian campaign, where it saw its first combat. Monte La Difensa and Monte La Remetanea were key points of the German "Winter Line," controlling the approach to the valley of the Liri River and on to Rome. At over 900 meters high, La Difensa was defended by the 104th and 129th Regiments of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division, which had for four weeks withstood and repulsed repeated attacks by the 3rd Infantry Division and the 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Fifth Army, inflicting heavy casualties on both.
By scaling the almost sheer cliffs of the north side of La Difensa in the dark on the night of Dec. 2, the 2nd Regiment surprised the German defenders and in a fierce firefight, took the mountain in less than two hours on the morning of the 3rd. For the next six weeks the Force fought continuously across the mountain peaks of the Winter Line, taking every objective assigned to it, clearing the way for the Allied advance up the Liri Valley, "Purple Heart Valley," to Cassino. At the end of this time when finally relieved, of the 1,800 combat personnel, 1,400 were either dead or wounded.
After a brief rest and recovery period during which time replacements were added to bring the fighting strength back up to almost 1,300, the Force was assigned to the Anzio Beachhead. Here they held a quarter of the 52 km front line, while the British 1st and 56th Divisions and the U.S. 3rd and 45th Divisions with about 40,000 men held the rest.
By vigorous night time patrols, the Force terrorized the Germans, pushing them back a half mile and earned themselves the nickname "Black Devils." This came about from a captured German officer's diary in which he wrote, "The Black Devils are all around us every time we come into the line and we never hear them come." The Force men enhanced this reputation by leaving behind calling cards with the Force spearhead logo and the words "Das Dicke Ende Kommt Noch!" (The worst is yet to come!).
The Force took part in the breakout from the Anzio Beachhead and the charge to Rome, following which they fought in southern France, clearing German units along the Riviera to the Italian border. Finally on Dec. 5, 1944, the Force was disbanded and the men reassigned to units of their respective armies.
Yet the Force lives on. The surviving members of the Force have held reunions every year since 1946, alternating between a Canadian and a U.S. city.
In 1968, Hollywood screenwriters, embellishing on the Black Devils nickname, tagged the Force as "The Devil's Brigade" in a fictionalized account of the Force, starring William Holden. Both the U.S. Special Forces (The Green Berets) and Canada's Joint Task Force Two trace their military ancestry to the First Special Service Force.
The father of John Hart, who organized this tour, was in my uncle's company. My uncle's regiment commander, Lt. Col. Mac Williams, was KIA on December 3, 1943. His son, Tom, will be following the footsteps of his dad as we make this journey.
Memorial Day reminds us that everything we have today, we owe to the 16 million men and women who served in WW II.
• Ken Beaton, 67, of Carson City is a retired teacher and is the membership coordinator for the Carson City Chamber of Commerce.