|Personell of the First Special Service Force, also known as the Devil's Brigade|
The history of this elite unit is now easy to find, and some of the soldiers have worked hard to be acknowledged and remembered. But my father did not. His story is lost. He was a veteran but a reticent one. He didn’t join the Legion, ever wear any of his medals or even apply for a pension. Every Remembrance Day he went to work at the skate factory, pausing his machine for only two minutes at 11:00 while I enjoyed a full day off from school, the irony lost on me. I don’t recall him ever wearing a poppy.
Did I just say my father was reticent, imply that he was reserved? He wasn’t. He loved life and approached it with a raw enthusiasm few could match. He was intense, sometimes reckless, defiant and flamboyant.
I try to picture him enlisting, escaping a large, very poor family, not quite a man yet, but choosing to join an army that would send him to Halifax for basic training. He did tell me once, while we were on vacation in Nova Scotia, that he had stood on that pier years before while waiting, impatiently to be shipped off to Europe, yearning for action. The call came in the form of a request, the American Army was looking for volunteers to join a parachute battalion. My father was probably the first in line.
|Member of Devil's Brigade in training|
It’s all a bit complicated but the unit became a joint Canadian/American special fighting brigade. The training, postings and missions are well documented so I can imagine my father as he became one of the almost seven hundred Canadian soldiers, officers and enlisted men, who were transported from Canada to Helena, Montana, for training in parachuting, cold weather endurance, skiing, and rock climbing.
My father did it all, going first to Africa and then Italy or maybe it was France according to the history books. But I’m sure I remember him telling me that he jumped from a plane, landed in the Alps, clamped on his skis and schussed his way into Italy. He made it sound like fun, an adventure. But I wonder? How does a man feel falling from the sky with skis, poles, food, gun and ammunition, landing on a snowy mountain and then skiing into a war zone?
The unit was disbanded in 1944 and at some point my father went to the front line, but I don’t know if this was special mission or a Canadian Army posting. I know nothing about the time he spent there or even where he was, but movies and books have forced me to imagine these two years with horror and sadness. My grandfather passed away during this period. My father once said he didn’t know for nearly a year.
My father was on his way to fight the Japanese, another volunteer opportunity, when they surrendered and his time at war was over. He was returned to Canada where he declined a medical exam prior to discharge. He was impatient, impetuous and always restless.
His life unfolded quickly then, normal, common place events; a job as a factory worker, marriage, a house and two baby girls. Photos show a happy man but that wasn’t the whole truth. He was damaged. He angered quickly, fits of rage and then regret. He loved to party, drinking wildly with his family and friends. This led to a darkness, never diagnosed but I guess depression.
He was a good father, kind, generous with his time and his love. He worked hard and provided well but before he was forty he had a heart attack. My mother blamed the war. Five heart attacks, massive damage and then risky open heart surgery. Against all odds he lived four more years.
|Personnel of the Devil's Brigade on patrol|
My father left us few mementos of the war, only a heavy iron padlock which I always imagined secured his foot locker and a large knife which ended up in his fishing tackle box. It’s lost now, but I found a photo online and was shocked to learn it was a fighting knife, made especially for the Force, for killing.
There are not many photos of my father in uniform, some head shots and a few more formal ones. They all seem to be from before he left home, before the fighting. He kept his medals in a blue Birks jewellery box high on the shelf in his closet. I never saw him take them out. We had them mounted for his first grandson. I have only a browned and tattered document from the City of Kitchener acknowledging his service, welcoming him home. I rescued this from the crawl space of my parent’s home.
I realize now that my dad went to great efforts to obliterate this war. No artifacts, no stories, no glory, no old army buddies. When I studied the War in high school I asked him nothing. I had never been told but I knew it was off limits, silently forbidden. Always the romantic, I believed he was protecting us. But he was fighting for himself. He had to bury the soldier, the battles and the casualties. When they threatened to return he pushed them deeper, with rage or alcohol. But he was scarred, damaged both physically and mentally. That he lived so well astounds me.
So my digital poppy is online now, engraved with his name, a sergeant few will remember. It will disappear with Remembrance Day but it has served me well, affording me the chance to think about my dad. I have so much to remember. My father just wanted to forget.
Wendy Simpson lives and sells real estate in Oakville. Although her university days are long behind her she’s never lost her love of reading. She is the mother of three adult children and three (soon to be four!) grandchildren. She travels as much as possible and loves to spend several weeks each year in Victoria and the Cayman Islands.
See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops, weekly writing classes, and weekend retreats in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Collingwood, Georgetown, Georgina, Guelph, Hamilton, Jackson’s Point, Kingston, Kitchener-Waterloo, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, Saint John, NB, Sudbury, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.