Ken Beaton: Priceless memories of the Force family
Seventy years ago, July 1942, former loggers, trappers, and outdoorsmen volunteered from the Canadian and U.S. armies and reported to Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Mont., to train for a special operations mission in Norway. During the next nine months, the men of the First Special Service Force earned their paratrooper wings, used C-4 explosives, learned to cross-country ski, mountain fighting tactics and martial arts featuring a knee or a foot to their opponent’s groin.With their Norway mission canceled, the force captured the Aleutian island, Kiska, the Germans’ “Winter Line” in the Liri Valley of Italy, led the 5th Army breakout from Anzio to be the first Allied troops in Rome on June 4, 1944, at 0620 hours, the invasion of Southern France, Operation Dragoon, on Aug. 15, 1944, and liberated of the French Rivera, “The Champagne Campaign.” The Force suffered 2,314 casualties, 134 percent of their men. They always achieved their mission, never retreated, and captured thousands of German prisoners.Members of the force have been attending reunions since 1946. The even numbered years the reunions are held in the U.S. and the odd numbered years the reunions are in Canada.Time has accomplished what the German Army could not. There are only 180 members of the 1,800 members of the force alive today. Twenty force men passed away since the 2011 reunion in Edmonton, Ont., Canada. Most of the remaining 180 have serious mobility problems. Only a handful can walk vertically without a cane, walker, or wheelchair.Why do second, third, and fourth generation family members accompany their Force Patriarch to a reunion? Why do WWII enactors, American and Canadian Special Ops, the Shining Thistle Pipe Band from Helena, Mont., and historians travel up to 5,000 miles to attend each reunion? There is a special bond with the Force Family.My wife and I knew nobody in the Force Family when we attended our first reunion in Helena, Mont., 2006. Immediately, we were welcomed much the same if we met a blood relative for the first time. There is a special bond that strengthens with time between the Force Family.The Shining Thistle Pipe Band under the leadership of Pipe Major Beth Foster spent a year having car washes, bake sales, and accepting donations to raise $13,000 for the six bag pipers and six drummers to travel to Washington, D.C. They performed at the welcoming reception, the Canadian Embassy reception, the laying of a wreath at the WWII Memorial, and Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from D.C. The band’s kilts are the force’s tartan plaid. Beside the traditional dagger in their right knee sock, each band member wears on the right side of their belt the Force’s V 42, a stiletto knife designed by Col. Robert T. Frederick, commander.Enactors from Canada, Italy and the U.S. attended reunions. Taking turns, several enactors answered questions in an exhibit room with almost all of the equipment the force used is on display. Mike Mac Neil from Coldwater, Ont., Canada, has been an enactor for 10 years. Mike shared a story about one of the force men entered the exhibit room, noticed the knapsack and said, “I remember that knapsack. I hated it then and I hate it now!” Several of the Canadian enactors drove together but could not bring any weapons from Canada. The U.S. enactors drove from Pennsylvania bringing with them all the American weapons the force used. Force men were trained to use all the German weapons, killing many Germans with German bullets. This was Mike’s fourth force reunion. He does about 12 events a year, between schools and armed forces events.May 30 to June 7, 2008, my wife, Lin, and I, with 34 members of the force family including one vet, Eugene Forward, attended the first “Follow In Their Footsteps” tour of six battlefields, and three cemeteries, two British Commonwealth and one American. I enjoyed listening to Eugene’s stories. My uncle, Pvt. R. E. Daigle, carried a picture of me in his helmet. Being a year younger than Eugene, he was killed in action taking Monte la Difensa in the Liri Valley north of Naples, Italy. Listening to Eugene allowed me to step back in time to 1943. During those nine days I grew close to him. He was hospitalized in September 2008. I sent him several get well cards. Eugene passed away in November 2008 a few days short of his 88th birthday. To me, Eugene was family.With everyone leaving on Sept. 30, 2012, the Sheraton Pentagon City Hotel lobby was a great place to hug and say goodbye to force family members.There are no accidents. Several times during the reunion, I noticed Luciano, an Italian enactor, with a strikingly beautiful petite tanned Italian-looking female. I started a conversation with her to discover she was Canadian and Eugene Forward’s granddaughter. Wow! I did not see that one coming. I shared my tour experiences with her about her grandfather as both my eyes began to leak. My memories of the past five days were priceless.• Ken Beaton of Carson City contributes periodically to the Nevada Appeal.