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07/02/2013

Devil's Brigade granted top U.S. honours

They came with kilts and bagpipes, among other Canadian military accoutrements. And now the members of the top-secret World War II unit the Devil's Brigade are leaving with something altogether astonishing -- a Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honours the United States can bestow.

Canadian Ambassador Gary Doer hailed the news in Washington today after both houses of Congress, in a rare show of bipartisanship, found two-thirds majorities required to grant the medal.

"We are grateful that the U.S. Congress has recognized the brave accomplishments of the First Special Service Force in World War II," Doer said in a statement.

"The Devil's Brigade were the first of their kind, and the legacy of bilateral defense cooperation that they inspired continues between our two countries to this day."

The joint Canada-U.S. Devil's Brigade, a top-secret World War II  unit that became the template for modern day special forces, began training in 1942 at Fort Harrison in Helena, Mt., specializing in high alpine combat, covert amphibious landings, parachuting and other non-conventional tactics.

The unit never failed a mission, suffering 2,314 casualties -- 134 per cent of its original combat strength of 1,800 volunteers -- as it took on the liberation of Rome and other key raids against the German First Panzer Paratroop Division.

The bill honouring the unit was introduced two years ago by Montana senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Doer then backed the efforts, opening the doors of the Canadian Embassy for an event to raise awareness.

All that remains now is for President Barack Obama to sign the bill into law. The Devil's Brigade, also known as the First Special Service Force, will join a rarefied few as Congressional Gold Medal recipients. Others in the club include inventor Thomas Edison, flight pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, South Africa's Nelson Mandela and the first astronauts to walk the moon.

Mitch Potter is the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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Alberta highway #4 from Lethbidge to Coutts and USA I-15 from Sweet Grass to Helena Mt. were dedicated in in 1999 and signed to the memory of the FSSF. The Canadian force traveled that route to join there US counter parts for training.

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