First Person War Stories

Remarkable stories of war told by the men who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.

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Bill Story: The American-Canadian Devil’s Brigade, Part II

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Lt. Bill Story was born in Winnipeg, Canada. He began his military service as a platoon sergeant in the Winnipeg Light Infantry at the age of 19. In 1943, he became the first enlisted man in the First Special Service Force to be field commissioned as a lieutenant.

The Devil’s Brigade disbanded in 1944 and, in 2013, the unit received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Lt. Story was inducted into the Special Forces Decade Association as a life member in 2015 and passed away in 2016.

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Ken Harbaugh: I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors in Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever. This episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus, a streaming service with an extensive library to learn about military history or pretty much anything else that interests you. Visit TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/Warriors for a free month.

Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who wear our country’s uniform. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.

Last episode, we heard from Lieutenant Bill Story and today we’re finishing that interview. Lt. Story served during World War II, in the joint American and Canadian First Special Service Force - also known as “The Devil’s Brigade”.

Bill Story: Well, 2nd Regiment made the attack - 1st Battalion, 2nd Regiment made the attack, and 2nd Battalion under Colonel Moore made the first one. The approach march - we got off trucks that were probably 10 or 12 miles away from the foot of Monte la Difensa. We walked through the mist and the rain, sometimes through mud, sometimes on roads, to get to the base of that mountain and go up. The rain stopped during the night, the first night before the major attack, and we had a chance to dry out somewhat. We started up the hill the next night and it wasn't raining, but by the time we had made it over the top, up to the top, and had achieved our goal, then it started to rain and it became very foggy and misty, drizzly. We went up there with no raincoats. We had ponchos. We had no shelter halves. You could fasten two ponchos together to make a sort of tent that would keep the rain off you. But after we'd been up there for two or three days, and been out on patrol and fended off the counterattacks, we were really miserable. I still live with a kidney problem that relates to the top of Monte la Difensa, and being cold and wet for six days. Frederick went up and he looked at his man and I'm sure he said "Now what can I do to help? They've got to stay here and we still have to take Monte la Remetanea, and we've got to help the Brits on the left flank. What can I do?". Frederick liked a good drink, so the thing that came to his mind was, maybe we can get some whiskey up here. Then he saw the sodden condition of the weapons and his mind went back to what we had learned in the Aleutian Islands, that we were all issued condoms, part of the soldier’s supply. We didn't have any use for condoms on Kiska. But what we found was that they made a great piece of equipment to keep the barrels of your guns dry and also to keep your personal effects like your wallets and so on from soaking. So, he called up Paul Adams, who is our executive officer, and asked Colonel Adams to pass word back to Colonel Wickham, who was at our base camp in Santa Maria to go to 5th Army and as a supply officer for 10 or 15 cases of whiskey and about a gross of condoms. So, Ken Wickham went trotting up the road to 5th Army headquarters to see the supply officer of 5th Army, and this fellow said, "You want condoms and whiskey on the top of that mountain. What are you doing having a party? Where are you finding the women?” This sort of back and forth. “Absolutely not." Wickham, bless him, you know, the word had come down that this was what Colonel Frederick wanted. So he persisted and he finally said to this supply officer who might possibly have been a brigadier general, "Why don't you go in and ask the general?" By that he meant Mark Clark, who was the commander of the 5th Army. So this officer went in and asked Clark, and Clark's response was - he listened to the story - he said, "Well, he took the mountain didn't he? Give him what he wants." So the next night, carried by the service battalion and by fellows from the 3rd Regiment came cases of whiskey and packages of condoms.

I can remember going out to 1st Battalion and these fellows just looked miserable. We were reduced to wringing water out of moss up there to get drinking water. It had been raining and cold and everything I've said, and I gave a bottle of whiskey to Stan Waters and Major Gray, who was the executive officer of 2nd Regiment, he was so bad he had a cold in the throat he could barely whisper. He said, "Thanks, Sergeant." So Stan Waters, who later became commander of the Canadian Army, said to me, "Bill, you were the best sight in my whole life when you came up that trail carrying a bottle of whiskey and handing it to me." We all got a nip or two, and that was enough, but it was the thought, you know, that our colonel would think of these things in order to help maintain our spirits, because that was a hard thing to do up there.

I was a part of one of three patrols that were sent out with soldiers of the 36th Division to explore a feasible way up Monte la Difensa. The thing that struck me most about those 36th Infantry sergeants and the patrol was the high level of fear. You could just sense it, you know, and it was foggy and, “well, we can't go any further. We're up too far up.” I didn't see anything when the fog lifted a little bit. Then I saw the bodies of the soldiers who had tried to make that attempt. So I had a better understanding of why they were fearful. But they were really fearful. You could look up and see that the tracer was going well above your head, even though it was cracking, it was going well above your head. There was nothing to be fearful about. That's because part of our training here at Fort Harrison was live fire training, where we literally crawled under barbed wire. This is standard training now, but we were one of the pioneers of this. So we crawled under barbed wire, which was large enough to prevent your butt from getting through if you didn't raise it too much and were machine guns on fixed lines were firing over your head. If somebody points a gun at you, you become apprehensive, to say the least. If someone is shooting at you with intent to kill you, you not only become fearful, but you become very angry. The anger oftentimes carried you - you had to ride over the fear. Actually, the fear was pumping into you to make you more alert and more aware of what you had to do to accomplish the mission. Fellows, for instance, whose job it turned out to be to take a grenade and throw it in a machine gun nest, were fearful. But, their training overcame their fear. Their discipline overcame their fear. Even though they knew that there was a possibility they'd be shot dead.

We're not inclined as individuals to be able to kill each other. You have to have some degree of training. Or, like so many of the killings we've seen here in public, you have to be aberrated. In wartime, many soldiers, while they pointed their rifles at an enemy, never pulled the trigger, never centered the rifle on the soldier. This particularly became evident as World War Two wore on, and now the training is much more intensive. In fact, then, they discovered to their dismay that many of the infantry soldiers just did not fire their weapons. Part of it was distaste for killing another person, the way they were brought up, the laws of both our countries. So you had to be trained to kill. You had to be motivated to kill. Of course, one of the best motivators, as I mentioned earlier, was to have someone shoot at you. Then the adrenaline really flowed. But, it's difficult to look down a rifle and sight in a German soldier that doesn't know that you see him. Then to proceed to shoot and pull the trigger. You know, the Germans were highly trained in this, one of the German techniques was if they had to withdraw, was to leave snipers in back. We cleared a lot of snipers off Monte la Difensa. I can recall going back, I had to go down to the aid station and come back up, and I could recall I was with a party and all of a sudden out of the corner of my eye, there was movement up in a line of rocks. I shouted to the party, "I think there's movement up there that may be a sniper." So, everybody shouted and everybody looked and pointed, and then I saw the movement of this body move slowly back out of sight. Then, we started on our way again and as we started, out this thing came. That happened three times. The third time he gave up because we were alert and we were ready to shoot at him. Typically when I went out through 3rd Company - the morning after I got my commission, that sniper there had already killed two force men. So it does take training to kill your fellow person.

I went up Monte la Difensa as a staff sergeant and came down as a first lieutenant, Canadian-style. After Colonel Williamson had come back up the hill after conferring with Colonel Frederick, I was around the corner from his headquarters down the slope a little bit. I had teamed up with Captain Tom Gordon, another Canadian, and we'd made a sort of a shelter half by putting our ponchos together and propping them up with rocks. We had a can of Sterno and we were busy heating up a can of coffee. We no sooner got it to the point where it was steaming than the colonel's runner came down and Patterson says, "The colonel wants you up right away". So I groaned and I started to crawl out of the tent, and in the course of crawling out of the tent, I dislodged it, and the rainwater went down Tommy Gordon's neck and I also kicked over the coffee in the process of getting out - caught hell from him - and went on up. Colonel Williamson was waiting for me up there. He said, "Sergeant Story, by virtue of the authority granted me by the Canadian government, I hereby promote you to subaltern, the first lieutenant." I was taken aback and I literally said, “What, sir?” He said, "You idiot, didn't you hear me? I just made you an officer," and I said, "Oh. Well, what do I do now?" “Well you see, you tear off those damn stripes to start with.” We had to get Paterson's knife to tear off my stripes, and he said, “Now go find a bar,” because we wore American insignia. So I said to “a gold bar, sir?", and he said "No. Don't you know that a second lieutenant in the Canadian army is not qualified to serve overseas? You are a first lieutenant. Probably Captain Gordon has a bar." So I went down and I knocked on the tent and spilled more water on Tom Gordon and I said "Tom, the colonel l said I should get a silver bar from you" and he said "What the hell you mean, calling me by my first name? I'm an officer!" And I said "Well, so am I. The colonel says, You're going to give me one of your silver bars." So he took the bar off his collar and gave it to me. I was wrong in saying that he was a captain, he was a very senior lieutenant. So he gave me that silver bar off his shirt, and there's a sequel to that: I had to go out the next morning to go talk to Stan Waters and Major Gray. On the way, I was going under the escarpment so I wouldn't be revealed over the top. I'm coming to a V shape where it was possible to climb up over onto the top part. As I got there, a voice came down to me and said, “don't go any further.” I looked up and there was a friend of mine in 3rd Company, section sergeant, and he said "We've lost two men who crawled through that V in an effort to get- there's a sniper and we haven't caught him yet." So he put a hand down and helped me climb up that part, and then I said to him "Hey, do you notice anything different about me?" He looked around and he said "Where the hell are your stripes?" And I said "Well, look at this!" I took the silver bar and I flipped it up like this. I said, the colonel just made me an officer. He said "That dumb SOB, doesn't he know any better?" So then I went on out to see Waters and Major Gray, and Gray was aware that this was coming because I had been considered for commissioning while we were right here. But, there wasn't time to send me off to an OCS or Canadian training school. I was the first enlisted man in the force to be commissioned in the field. To be followed, incidentally, by another Canadian from 1st Regiment who was also from Winnipeg. The two of us. We were the first two names to appear on orders as being commissioned in the field.

On the beachhead, I was the intelligence officer from the 3rd Regiment. While I passed word that force headquarters wanted intelligence patrols to go out that night, I passed that word to the battalion commanders and they took care of doing that. The German prisoners that they took didn't come back through me. They went directly down to force headquarters to be interrogated by the only man in the forest who had the capability of speaking effective German for interrogation purposes. And that was Finn Roll, our Norwegian American intelligence officer.

My recollection of the Black Devil was that I heard the report, while on the beachhead, that a German sergeant or officer or something had been captured and he had a diary on him, and in the diary there was reference to the Black Devil, we never know when they’re coming and whatever else that said - there was a report just sort of flashed around, and it presumably came from Finn Roll or from Bob Burhans, and that's all I really knew about it. We really took to that because it gave us some knowledge of how the Germans viewed what we were doing. That we were accomplishing our mission of keeping them apprehensive. It gave us a nickname that I think the fellows enjoyed having. Not everybody was positive on this. The senior officers weren't that approving. They didn't necessarily like this Black Devil stuff. But, for the rank and file, this gave us a tag which was different. Regardless of where the story originated from, it gave the soldiers of the force, the force men, something of which to be proud. Some indication for them that they had had an impact on the German soldiers that were opposing them and that the things they did, like blacking their faces and the clothes we wore, those baggy mountain ski pants, we called them, were recognized by the enemy. It was a fillip to our pride. It helped our esprit. I really don't care where it came from because it was picked up and the guys ran with it.

I think it was while we were at Santa Maria in the southern part of Italy where we were training for the invasion of southern France, that a 1st Regiment fellow who was a sketch artist drew the original Black Devil. That was widely distributed throughout the force. The Black Devil that the artist of 1st Regiment did hasn't changed basically over the 50 years or 60 years that have occurred since that time. That was the Black Devil that was sent out in V-mail in December of '44 after the force had broken up. It was a logo, picked up as a logo by my predecessor, who was the Secretary of the Force Association, and appeared on the letterhead.

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Now, back to Warriors in the Own Words.

BS: Well, let me say, first of all, that The Devil's Brigade was a good, entertaining, World War Two style movie. That's shown by the number of times that it still appears, even though it's a 1960s movie, it still appears all over the world two or three times a year. But as a piece of history, it's sheer nonsense. It's Hollywood, 100 percent Hollywood approach to the First Special Service Force. First of all, right here in Fort Harrison, there were not two separate elements, a Canadian element and an American element headed by a Canadian officer and an American officer. We were totally integrated. Second, the American soldiers of the force are depicted in The Devil's Brigade as being rejects from the stockades of crooks and criminals in the U.S. Army- ne'er do wells. That was not the case. These men and the Americans - selection teams went out to American locations and selected men, just as they did in Canada. It may be true that some people were sent by their commanders. But, I have a feeling that a lot of those people may possibly have wound up in the service battalion. We didn't have that kind of element. That dirty dozen aspect which they gave to the Devil's Brigade - entirely untrue. It was absolutely ridiculous to bring soldiers together from two countries and then pit them against each other, especially since we'd already been integrated. That was nonsense. It wouldn't have produced the kind of force that we eventually had.

So the movie was entirely wrong. The movie was similarly wrong in showing that the Canadians marched in with a bagpiper. Absolute nonsense. They showed that the Canadians were rigid, you know, very highly controlled and drilled. That too was nonsense. We were ordinary soldiers, we were trained soldiers and we enjoyed the people that we worked with. But in the force, the door - the gate swung both ways for several months. Those who didn't want to stay left. Those who were not wanted were thrown out.

A number of years ago, when I had just moved to Roanoke, Virginia, from Northern Virginia, I was asked to talk to a service club. I forget the name of it, but an organization like Kiwanis or Rotary, about the special service force. So, I told the story of the force, how we started and what we did and so on. And when I came to the day of the break up, I broke up. I couldn't continue. It took me half a minute or so to bring myself under control, and even as I talk to you know, that still causes a clutch in the throat. It's still with me. The impact of learning about the breakup and the fact that we were going back to the Canadian army and leaving the rest of our friends there, I was very sad. To say goodbye to a fellow like Lynn Lee, who was my intelligence sergeant, we'd gone to the U.S. Army Intelligence School together - was very hard. I didn't break down and cry, but it was hard for both of us. We've acknowledged since that it was a very difficult experience to go through, to break that strong cord that we had between ourselves.

After the breakup, we went our various ways in the Canadian and the U.S. Army. We Canadians would continue to get worried about where the most of the Americans were in this 474th Infantry Regiment. Our Canadian adjutant kept a complete accurate roster on the Canadians of the force, and this was done on the American side. Right after the war, a letter went out to everybody saying that an association was going to be formed. We couldn't wait to get back together. We couldn't wait to get back together here in Helena. We had to raise money for the rest of the building of our monument here in Helena. So, that was the start of an organization. We also had the fact that by 1947, Colonel Burhans had written his history of the Force and this book had been made available to all members of the Force. I'm not really sure in my memory when that was distributed, but the fact that it was coming was known to us. So when the word came out that we were going to have a reunion in Helena, I couldn't wait to get back. To see Helena, and to see all these guys again. That included the Canadians because we'd gone our separate ways - I was in university. 1947 was our first reunion, we have met every year since that time. One year in Canada, one year in the United States. We've come together for a week of remembrances and talking, memorial services, and so on. Our most recent reunion was at Fort Bragg because the U.S. Army Special Forces are our direct descendants in the U.S. Army. Couldn't wait to visit with the friends we've made here in the city of Helena. Couldn't wait to see our friends in the Force. One of the disappointments was that not everybody came. But, when we found out that whether we were from the 1st Regiment, 3rd Regiment or Service Battalion, we were brothers, really. Standing around the monument and realizing the history - where did the money come from? Was money that we raised to help replace the cruiser Helena? It was our monument and it was a rare thing in the United States - that it had been built with our own money and we would run it in perpetuity. We dedicated it there. We had our chaplains there. That was moving. The fact that we could form up and march in front of it, in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Regiment, Service Battalion, and Force Headquarters - that had meaning. To see some of the fellows who had left in bad condition from our combat actions in Italy, to see them whole again. Hadn't seen them since - in my case, I saw Ted Johnson, I hadn't seen Ted since he walked down Monte la Difensa. I saw Stoney Wines. I hadn't seen Stoney, even while we were still in the Force, until we saw him here.

Coming back to the Helena scene, that helped launch the association. One other thing we did, Jack Akehurst, who was a senior Canadian officer, said "The war is over. Let's forget about ranks. Let's call ourselves by our first names. So we don't go through the rest of our lives speaking of Colonel this and Colonel that. I don't want it." And so that's what we did. They've even got to the point where I felt free to call (by then) General Frederick, Bob. I never thought that day would come. That's affected me, incidentally, in talking with other general officers, I believe in using the first name as much as possible.

We met in Vancouver at a reunion and Larry Story, who was from 5th Company, 2nd Regiment, who is a long, long, distant cousin of mine, was the chairman. He had the opportunity of inviting Lord Lovat, of who was a Scot, but also the senior commando of World War Two, to speak at our banquet. He told me later that Lovat sat there at the head table and he listened to the room full of people, and finally he turned to Larry and he said "The men that are here tonight, are these the same men that served in your unit? The Special Service Force?" And Larry said "Yes, we're all veterans of the force." And he said "You know, there's a feeling in the air that's different from any other organization, including the commandants." He said if that same spirit existed in the special service force, it was truly a remarkable unit. That's the esprit de corps. The spirit is what has kept us going. I like to think that bringing Canadians and Americans together produced a new breed, working as closely as we did, a different kind of soldier. There was an energy there that most other people who went to other units afterwards say there was nothing like that in any unit that I was ever in. Paul Adams, who was our executive officer and later became a four-star general, told me one time, he said "'ve been in a great many organizations. I've run a great many divisions and armies and so on, and they all have reunions. But the only reunion my wife and I ever want to go to is the Force. Because it's different.”

KH: That was World War II veteran, Lieutenant Bill Story. The Devil’s Brigade disbanded in 1944 and, in 2013, the unit received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Lt. Story was inducted into the Special Forces Decade Association as a life member in 2015. He passed away in January 2016 at the age of 94.

Next time on Warriors in Their Own Words, we’ll hear from Dr. Jon Heavey, who served as a battalion surgeon in Iraq and is now an emergency room physician on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast to see this interview in your feed.

If you enjoyed this episode, don’t forget to rate and review - it really helps other listeners find the show.

This episode of Warriors in Their Own Words was brought to you by The Great Courses Plus. To try it for yourself, go to TheGreatCoursesPlus.com/Warriors for a free month. That link is in our show notes.

Warriors in Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with the Honor Project. Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Senior producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Dave Douglas. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Warriors in Their Own Words.

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