THE FIRST SPECIAL SERVICE FORCE
Compiled and written by Ron Candy, former Director/Curator
Greater Vernon Museum & Archives
The origins of the First Special Service Force can be traced back to the Allied High Command during World War II. In fact, the concept for the Force is said to have come from a request by the Combined Operations Command under Lord Louis Mountbatten to assemble a combat unit that would be capable of fighting on land, on the sea, in the air, and in winter conditions.
The initial idea encompassed the notion that a crack commando unit could be used exclusively for attacking selected strategic targets in German occupied territories. Starting with the hydro-electric plants in German occupied Norway. It was also suggested that because both Britain and Norway were experiencing a shortage of combat troops, the new unit could be comprised of men from the U.S. and Canada.
The concept got the attention of many high level commanders and Major-General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was head of the War Plans Division at the time, handed the assignment of assembling such a unit over to Lieutenant-Colonel Robert T. Frederick in June of 1942 under the code name: Project Plough.
With time of the essence, Frederick quickly assembled a staff and put out a call for American and Canadian volunteers in their respective army units. Every volunteer was essentially handpicked. Each underwent a detailed examination of their physical and mental skills. Those not selected were sent back to their units while selected individuals were sent on to Fort William Harrison, a training camp under construction in Helena, Montana.
Interestingly, because volunteers were coming from two different countries and from a wide variety of units, the variations in uniforms and insignia being worn by arriving soldiers made things a bit confusing at first if not downright competitive. Frederick solved this issue by simply placing everyone in American uniforms, but with distinguishing insignia and badges that clearly identified the unit as American-Canadian.
The training schedule was nothing short of gruelling. It was set into three phases. The first consisted of parachute training, weapons handling, and small unit tactics. All men, including officers, had to qualify and master such weapons as the M1 rifle, carbine, pistol, light and heavy machine gun, mortar, bazooka, grenades, and flamethrowers. Parachute training was so intense and accelerated that some men were jumping from aircraft within 48 hours of the classroom introduction.
Training in explosives and demolition made up the second phase of training and, some say, was the favourite training exercise amongst many of the men (apparently the men themselves randomly selected non-military targets for this segment of training. The least of which was a toilet in a nearby pub).
The final phase of training involved skiing (a Norwegian army ski team was brought in for this segment), rock climbing, and cold weather survival. During all three phases hand-to-hand combat and physical fitness training were carried out.
Any man who couldn’t keep up with the training or simply wanted to quit the program was immediately sent back to the unit he came from.
The force was split into three regiments, each made up from two battalions. After nine months of training, the Norwegian operation (Project Plough and the destruction of hydro-electric plants) was cancelled. The unit was then sent to Norfolk, Virginia to train for amphibious landings. A short time later, the unit became part of an invasion force that was sent to the Aleutians in August of 1943 and the island of Kiska to roust out Japanese troops that had set up operations there. However, by the time the invaders arrived, the Japanese had secretly abandoned the island.
From the Aleutians the Force was re-assigned to the Mediterranean and the Italian campaign. The Force arrived in Naples in late November of 1943 and by early December they were fighting alongside the 36th Infantry Division, their first combat mission, in an attempt to take a strategic position called Monte la Defensa. The mountain had become a stalemate for both U.S. and British forces but the Force, with their training in mountain climbing techniques, scaled a 1,000 foot cliff at night and surprised the enemy on top but not without cost. The number of casualties for the six day assault totalled 511; 73 were killed, 9 were missing in action, 313 were wounded, and 116 suffered from severe exhaustion (this particular battle was the basis for the 1968 motion picture titled, "The Devil's Brigade").
The Force went on to take part in other battles including Monte la Remetanea, Monte Sammucro, Radicosa, Monte Vischiataro, Anzio (it was Anzio where a German soldier had given the unit their nickname: The Black Devils”), Monte Arrestino, Rocca Massima, Colle Ferro and, finally, the liberation of Rome in June of 1944 (the F.S.S.F. were among the first of the liberators to arrive in the city).
By August of 1944, the Force was fighting in the south of France and by September along the Franco-Italian border.
The Force, which numbered about 2,000 men just prior to the liberation of Rome, was responsible for the capture of some 7,000 prisoners during the course of the war. The unit was disbanded at the end of 1944.
The medals pictured were awarded to Jack Furman of Vernon and include (top row LtoR) the 1939-1945 Star, Italy Star, France & Germany Star, Canadian Volunteer Service Medal with overseas bar, War Medal, and Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal. (bottom row LtoR) Bronze Star (United States) This medal was not included in the display at the time the photo was taken. Jack didn't receive the medal from the U.S. military until 2007, Cross of the Combatant Volunteer Medal (France), French Liberation Medal (France), Italian Campaign Medal (France).
Included with the medals is Jack’s Combat Infantry Badge (rifle positioned in a rectangle surrounded by a wreath with blue background). The Infantry Badge was issued only to U.S. combat soldiers and members of the F.S.S.F. There is also a “Kiska” patch (round cloth shoulder patch with vertical knife), his dog tags (note how they are wrapped in tape in order to deaden any sound they might make during covert movements), his wound stripe (next to dog tags) and a cloth arrowhead shoulder patch that quickly identified a F.S.S.F. member; the words Canada and U.S.A. in white letters on a red background. Jack’s paratrooper wings appear just below his picture and next to them, his jump badge (often referred to as “buzzard hooks”). The crossed arrows located at the extreme right signify the branch of service and are a symbol previously worn by U.S. Army Indian scouts in the 19th century.
To refer to any of these items as collectibles would be an understatement. Indeed, each item is a historically significant artifact. However, the real treasure is the man himself.
JACK D. FURMAN
First Special Service Force
Jack Furman was born in Calgary, Alberta, on September 21st, 1918. He enlisted in the King’s Own Rifles on March 10th, 1942 and volunteered for the First Special Service Force a few months later in August along with the first group of Canadians from Western Canada.
On arrival at Fort William Henry Harrison in Montana, he was assigned to the First Platoon of the 6th Company, First Regiment. A rigorous training program began almost immediately. By September, Jack was a qualified parachutist and, during the following weeks, was trained in weapons, demolitions, and hand-to-hand combat tactics. By November, Jack and other members of the Force were being trained in skiing and rock climbing.
A typical day at the camp began with reveille at 4:30 a.m., breakfast at 6:30, and by 8:00 a.m. they had completed a strenuous obstacle course. Evenings were taken up with training lectures.
Hiking through rough terrain to build stamina and promote physical fitness were also part of the training. One such hike was 60 miles in length. Some members completed the journey in 20 hours while carrying a full backpack and rifle.
In April 1943, the Force left the camp at Helena and moved to Camp Bradford at Norfolk, Virginia. There, Jack and and other members began amphibious training. They learned how to climb rope ladders, utilize rubber boats for shore landings, and move over the sides of ships in rough water with full combat gear onto waiting landing crafts. It was a skill that was, through intense practice, accomplished in less than a minute.
All this training and preparation was put to the test in August of 1943 when the Force was attached to the invasion operation for the Aleutians and the island of Kiska. A few months later, in November of 1943, the Force was sent overseas to Italy. Jack attained the rank of Staff Sergeant just as the Force was landing on the Italian beaches.
On December 5th, 1943 during the attack on the German stronghold, Monte la Defensa (about 10 miles south of Cassino, Italy), Jack collapsed from severe physical exhaustion. However, he recovered quickly and was soon sent back into battle. After capturing La Defensa, the Force went on to assault Monte la Remetanea, Monte Sammucro and, in early January of 1944, Monte Vischiataro. During the “mountain campaign” it was estimated the Force suffered a 77% casualty rate.
In February of 1944, the Force came ashore near Anzio. It was at Anzio that the Germans dubbed the First Special Service Force as the "Devil's Brigade" or “Black Devils.” The diary of a dead German soldier contained a passage that read, "The black devils (Die schwarzen Teufel) are all around us every time we come into the line." The soldier was referring to them as "black" because members of the Force would smear their faces with black boot polish for their covert operations in the dark of the night. During Anzio, the Force fought for 99 days without relief. It was also at Anzio that the Force used their trademark stickers; during night patrols soldiers would carry stickers depicting the unit patch and a slogan, written in German: "Das Dicke Ende kommt noch," which translates to, "The Worst is yet to Come." Force members would place these stickers wherever they thought German soldiers would see them.
It was during the fighting near Anzio, on Monte Arrestino, where Jack received two bullet wounds from machine gun fire; one bullet entered his neck and the other lodged in his chest. As severe as these wounds were, Jack, once again, recovered and, after the Italian campaign, served with the Force in Southern France.
After the Force was disbanded, Jack, and other Canadians on the Force who were airborne qualified, was sent to England in January of 1945. He was discharged in Calgary in 1946. A short time later he married his childhood sweetheart, Myrle Dunn, from Lethbridge. They moved to Vernon in 1971.
Jack, like many other Canadians who were members of the First Special Service Force, waited over 60 years to receive official recognition from the U.S. government for their service in the Force. In March of 2007, Jack finally received The Bronze Star Medal from the U.S. Department of the Army.