Two members of the Pipes and Drums of the Black Devils, dressed in kilts, walked slowly on the lawn at Fort Harrison and played the bagpipes they would be using in a ceremony.
Their music greeted those who arrived to see members of the First Special Service Force present Fort Harrison, where they prepared for combat 73 years ago, with a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal their unit earned.
Their unit was unique. It was made up of American and Canadian soldiers. The First Special Service Force gave birth to subsequent special operations forces in the two countries.
The First Special Service Force trained at Fort Harrison. Some met the women here they would marry after the war. Soldiers and National Guard troopers in camouflage uniforms joined the families, friends and others who came for the ceremony too.
The force was created in July 1942. It fought in Italy and the unit’s website noted it’s among Allied force that claim the honor of being first to enter Rome on June 4, 1944 – two days before Allied forces landed on the coast of France in the D-Day invasion.
The First Special Service Force is known as the Devil’s Brigade, a name it took from the diary of a dead German soldier, the First Special Service Forces’ website noted.
Eugene Gutierrez, whose handshake is still firm despite nearing his 94th birthday in less than three weeks, said he was selected by the First Special Service Force association to be the American representative to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented Feb. 3 of this year.
“We want to perpetuate and keep the spirit of the First Special Service Force before the present day special forces,” Gutierrez said of why the medal was being presented to Fort Harrison.
“We wrote the manual, I suppose, of the present day special forces,” he said, adding he’s proud that the organization’s legacy has been preserved.
“It is a tremendous honor to receive this medal on behalf of the men and women of the Montana National Guard and all those who have ever served over the course of history at Fort Harrison,” said Maj. Gen. Matthew T. Quinn, the Army’s assistant adjutant general for the state of Montana.
“Bringing the Congressional Gold Medal back to Fort Harrison in honor of the First Special Service Force completes a story that started here in 1942 and now has come full circle.
“The medal itself is an enduring testament to the bravery and fortitude of the men seated before us today and a lasting tribute to those that are no longer with us. Our special forces community would not be what it is today without the heroic actions of the First Special Service Force.
“So thank you from behalf of all of the men and women that serve on Fort Harrison and know that this medal will forever be displayed with great pride and will be a lasting part of the heritage of Fort Harrison,” Quinn said.
The original medal, cast for the First Special Service Force, will probably be kept at the special operations command, Quinn said after the ceremony.
The presentation of the medal was also an opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of Bill Woon, the secretary-treasurer of the First Special Service Force association. Quinn presented him with the Adjutant General’s Distinguished Patriot Medal.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Woon said afterward.
Woon’s father, Dave, was among the 1,800 who were primarily enlisted men and recruited for the unit by advertising at Army posts.
Lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters and game wardens were among what was considered ideal candidates for this commando unit that was led by Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick.
Their patch was a distinctive red spearhead with USA written horizontally on it and Canada written vertically. They adopted the crossed gold arrows for their insignia -- an emblem formerly worn by U.S. Army Indian Scouts.
Bill Story, 97, sat in a wheelchair with other of the nine veterans in a room awaiting the start of the Congressional Gold Medal presentation ceremony where some 500 people had gathered. He too wore the gold crossed arrows.
Soldiers from Army and National Guard units were among the unit’s members, talking and waiting to escort them into the auditorium when the ceremony began.
Story is among the Canadians who served with the unit and volunteered for military service. He declined an officer’s commission because it would have been only for the defense of Canada.
Story became an American citizen in 1967, he said.
The United States, he said, means “everything” to him.
“This is a great country. No question about it. Greatest country in the world,” Story said.
Alan Blackwell, who is from Burns Lake, British Columbia, sat next to Story as he also waited for the ceremony to start.
The unit holds annual reunions and they mean a lot to him.
“It brings back memories, see a lot of acquaintances,” Blackwell, 92, said.
He was a member of the unit from its first day.
“From the day it started until it dissolved,” he said.
He had just finished trade school when he heard the call for volunteers. What he heard appealed to him. No kitchen duty. No latrine duty.
“And we wanted to serve our country,” Blackwell said.
The First Special Service Force fought for 251 days. After fighting in Italy, it took the fight to southern France before being deactivated on Dec. 5, 1944. It suffered 2,314 casualties, 134 percent of its combat strength.
“I think the ones that deserve the credit are buried somewhere in France or Italy,” he said.
“I think we’re lucky to be one of the survivors,” Blackwell added.
Helena Mayor Jim Smith spoke during the ceremony. He borrowed and paraphrased from President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 remarks commemorating the 40th anniversary of the D-Day landing.
“These are the boys of Fort William Henry Harrison. These are the men who stormed the beach at Anzio, scaled the cliffs of Monte la Difensa, broke through the Winter Line and fought their way up the Italian peninsula. These are the heroes who led the allied forces into Rome and helped to liberate a continent,” Smith said in prepared remarks.
“On behalf of a grateful city, I once again thank you for your service. And I once again say with great pride, welcome home.”