“It was Christmas Eve 1942,” Peppard said. “Wait a minute,let me get this straight – 1943. Christmas Eve 1943,” he repeated with assurance.
It was the date the 94-year-old World War II veteran’s best friend,George Smith,was killed in action. More than 71 years later,emotion was evident as Peppard remembered. But if not for the First Special Service Force,dubbed the Devil’s Brigade,the two men would never have met.
For their valor,Speaker John Boehner and other members of the congressional leadership on Tuesday awarded the First Special Service Force with the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian honor Congress can grant. Congress first created it to honor soldiers,but later honored people in other fields. Past recipients of the medal include George Washington,Rosa Parks and Mother Theresa.
More than 40 members of the brigade gathered at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center to receive the award. Most of the men,90 years and older,wore their uniforms,their many accolades drooping from their jackets.
The Devil’s Brigade brought Peppard,Smith and 1,800 men together into a cohesive,U.S.-Canadian World War II unit. Ads at Army posts called for volunteers who had previously worked as lumberjacks,hunters,game wardens and forest rangers,according to the force’s history.
It sold Peppard,a Truro,Nova Scotia,native,and Smith,from Benicia,Calif. – their hometowns more than 3,500 miles apart.
“From coast to coast,” Peppard said.
The men,whom the Germans called the “Black Devils,” smeared boot polish on their faces and were trained in hand-to hand combat,parachuting,rock climbing,demolition and mountain warfare. They fought in Italy and France from 1942 to 1944 and were often ordered to sneak behind enemy lines to destroy hydroelectric plants and other key installations.
The Devil’s Brigade was the precursor of modern-day special forces units. The unbreakable bond formed between the U.S. and Canadian troops made the Devil’s Brigade special.
“After a while you didn’t know one from the other,” Peppard said.
Peppard spent his life after the war as an electrician. He was a lifelong bodybuilder and was twice provincial master champion,at ages 63 and 68,his daughter Rosalee Peppard said.
He chronicled his service in “The Lighthearted Soldier: A Canadian’s exploits with the Black Devils in WW II.”
Only a small fraction of the Devil’s Brigade is still alive. Tuesday’s ceremony aimed to honor those in the audience as well as the brothers they had lost so many years ago.
“It may only be a piece of metal,but it carries the gratitude of a nation,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said of the medal.
But for members of the brigade – for Peppard and his best friend – it carries the gratitude of two nations.
“We loved each other,he said through a cracked voice,“and we would die for each other.”
Reach reporter Joe Mussatto at [email protected] or 202-408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.