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The Canadians who conformed most closely to the American mental picture of a “Canuck” were the French Canadians with their accents. French-speaking Canadians had a better command of English than English-speaking Canadians had of French, but they conformed more closely to the Canadian image: French speaking and Catholic. Canadians, while familiar with Americans from the border states, had had less exposure to Southerners, and there was a learning experience involved with Southern Sensitivities the color-lone of the times, the Civil War and the like, Canadians and Americans, given the common language, quickly learned each others areas of sensitivity It was all right for Americans to be critical of Roosevelt, make jokes about Eleanor or the Congress. Canadians had to tread easily at the start. It wasn’t wise for Americans to be joking about the King of England or about Canada’s status within the Commonwealth. Ant there was the difference in pronouncing Lieutenant – Leftenant as opposed to Loo-tenant.
Pay was a potential point of division because Americans made more, both in regular as well as jump pay. But the Canadians were paid twice a month; they felt they were the better poker players and bankers. In fact, both Canadians and Americans were generous with each other, and so the Force, because of the pay schedule and jump pay, always seemed “in the chips.” In contrast to most U. S. outfits where the first ten days of a month were free-spending and the rest was drought, the Force seemed, to happy merchants, to be in a continual flow of funds.
In the tents that first day, Canadians and Americans looked over each other’s uniforms with great interest. To the Canadians the American enlisted man’s Class A blouse looked much like a Canadian Officer’s uniform jacket; this proved attractive to Canadian other ranks. And the Canadian’s summer uniform jacket, with its bright brass, lighter and cooler fabric than American ODs or summer khakis caught the American fancy. Not many would try the short-sleeved shirts and short pants, because the puttees baffled them, and the knee pants tended to be embarrassing to Americans brought up in the tradition of a boy’s “first pair of long pants” which took him out of the kid stage. Then there was the matter of headgear. American Garrison hats, bought in the PX, looked like Canadian officer’s hats. The variety of Canadian caps and hats proved irresistible to many Yanks.
And so that first night, Last Chance Gulch in Helena was thronged with soldiers seeking out its many bars, or climbing the stairs to the city’s finest crib – Ida’s rooms. But anyone taking a bet as to which was American and which Canadian stood a fair chance of losing his money unless the uniform-wearer opened his mouth and revealed his origins via accent, southern or Cape Breton Island. The Canadians knew that Americans had regional accents. The Americans, with their French speaking image of Canadians, were surprised to find that Canada had regional English accents, too. It was somewhat unsettling to hear a Tennessee or Texas accent coming from under a tam-o’-shanter, or a French-Canadian accent from a soldier wearing a cavalry patch.
All this was great fun for enlisted men/other ranks, especially when it was possible for that first little while to fool the MPs into believing that because one wore a Canadian uniform, American MPs had no jurisdiction. That soon changed. And the uniform switch slowed down considerably when Americans found that the brass buttons had to be regularly shined, or as the Canadians would say, the brass had to be polished, using that mysterious tool ever-present in Canadian kit bags, the button-stick (“Whatinhell’s a button-stick?”). But the Canadians were still taken with the U.S. Army blouse and with some exceptions, welcomed the eventual issue of Class As. Then they began to dress the blouse up their own way: Canadian sergeant’s stripes or corporal’s stripes on the American blouse Canadian regimental insignia on the collars and lapel; garrison hats, instead of bearing the usual U.S. Army cap and badge, with its eagle, turned up with Canadian regimental insignia on the front. Typical was the writer’s use of the badge of the Winnipeg Light Infantry, an impressive-looking brass design consisting of a wreath of maple leaves around the top and sides, a beaver in the center, a scroll with the unit name to the bottom, all tastefully backed with a piece of red felt which served to contrast the basic elements of the badge a looked wonderfully officer-like on the garrison hat. There were strictures from on high regarding such shenanigans; the gate MPs were instructed to turn back Forcemen out of uniform, but that was easily countered by going over the fence, coming and going. The fence also took care of the lack-of-pass problem and the matter of curfew. While all of this proved confusing to later historians, it was wonderful fun while it lasted, and proved very effective with the girls of Helena and butte, Montana. Some of Helena’s leading citizens today are former Canadians who married Helena girls, for whom the uniform was an initial eye-stopper.
For the Canadian officers, the situation was different. Original uniform allowances on commissioning, as junior officers were long gone. There were delays in arranging for purchase of American officer’s uniforms when the time came for making the switch. There was some regimental pride and stubbornness on the part of some officers and other ranks. The Canadian Regimental system breeds great pride of unit. A much smaller number of Americans found it hard to live on some of the distinctions of their former units.
Because of the Canadian situation, this kind of variance was tolerated probably far longer than it might have been in either army. Eventually, the time came when both the Americans and Canadians dressed alike. For EMs/Ors except for caps, there were few training-time differences. It was only on “walking out,” as the Canadians would say, that dress differences and oddball combinations appeared. That, and on leave. With one exception, this all came to an end, and the aberrations of uniform which had been winked at were more firmly suppressed. The exception occurred when the Force came back from the kiska campaign and wound up in Sacramento before taking a delay-in-route back to Ft. Ethan Allen in Vermont. Force members, especially Canadians, did a snow job on PX clerks in the officers’ equipment and uniform sections on the post. The uniform mixtures that resulted from this foray were positively wild. Enough to make every MP along the way stop and stare. But, with few exceptions, everybody so dressed made it back to Vermont without incident. From then on, uniform variations stopped.
Many soldiers from either armies EM/OR or officer, found the differences in the Force (as compared to their old units) more than they could take. Early on, commands might be given in either Canadian or American style: a platoon or company commander might be a French Canadian or an American with a cavalry background rather than infantry. Canadians were lost with cavalry-sounding commands – so were Americans. One chaotic early parade had a cavalry officer of some seniority commanding a Force battalion of three companies for a march to a major Force formation. The companies got themselves lined up and organized with minimum confusion, but when the battalion n commander issued his commands with a “Hoo.” Soldiers went in every direction. The companies wound up marching out on their own, and nothing was heard of the senior cavalry officer again.
Canadians were accustomed to hearing: “Company will move to the right in column of threes by platoon Right turn! By the left, quick march!” Americans would mutter: “Whatinhell does he mean, “by the left. So if the platoon commander was a Canadian, the Americans learned to operate by Canadian commands, and vice versa. Same was true of the companies. But this happy if somewhat confusing stat of affairs could not continue, and a hybrid series of commands and movements emerged. For simplicity’s sake, American commands were used. That got rid of the confusing liturgy as well as the “by the lefts.”
For both Americans and Canadians who didn’t like what they found, what they experienced, or what they conceive=d to be total confusion, the exit door swung open easily. If the truth were known, the first special force was never for those looking for soft, sheet-covered beds, well-stocked PXs or Sally Anns (Salvation Army) Canteens or a change of movies twice weekly at the post movie house. Early on there was almost a continual flow of people in and out.
Some left for the reasons mentioned above: others, because they couldn’t make it out the airplane door on their First jump. Still others, Canadians mostly, were shipped out protesting, because they had broken limbs in jumping and it was assumed at that time there wouldn’t be enough time for them to heal and to complete their training. The senior Canadian officer was lost to the command that way. The Americans were luckier; a stay in the hospital near the post many times meant a visit from Ma of Ida’s Rooms as she came on weekends to visit her favorite clients and, presumably, did a little public relations.
Out of the seeming chaos of those early days, there gradually developed organization. One had to hear a man speak before knowing whether he was American or Canadian. Even then, mid-westerners and pacific cast types of both nations sounded alike. Only the characteristic “ou” sound would betray these Canadians – that or the fact they persisted in tacking “eh” on at the ends of most sentences or even phrases. What do you think of that? Eh’? “So this is what the bloody fool said, eh.”
In the composite drill, the major Canadian contribution of note was the distinctive arm swing. Only long hard drilling would have has the Americans swinging their arms Guards-style, and there wasn’t time for this or even the interest. But getting the Americans to swing their arms more naturally on parade got them away from what one Canadian acidly referred to as :”looking like a bunch of constipated penguins.” Another Canadian contribution to the drill was the about-turn (contrasted to the American about-face). But most Americans couldn’t master the about-turn. Many Canadians didn’t master the about –face. So everyone did what came naturally. There really wasn’t time or interest in the niceties of close-order drill. The main thing was to get to and from activities without looking “like a column of lumps,” as the Canadians would say. And also to be able to handle official parades, such as an IG inspection, by looking different and somehow smarter. On parade, because of the arm swing in contrast to most U.S. units, and also because of the decision to march with arms slung, the Force really made an impact on viewers. Guidons showed up somewhere along the line for each company, and that helped, too.
The winnowing process, which went on all this while, served to produce an increasingly well knit group. It was no longer a matter of Canadian or American but of individual behavior patterns, of whether or not you really could cut it as a Forcemen. Adding this were the uniform distinctions which began to become apparent. Jump boots and bloused trousers made the first step; then the parachute wings.
But more important was the fact that the First Special Service Force was not simply another airborne infantry unit, but a separate branch on the U. S. and Canadian armies. This had special meaning in the United States Army the piping on enlisted men’s hats was red, white and blue in contrast to the infantry blue or the other colors characteristic of the army. Where infantry, artillery, engineers, etc would wear the insignia of their branch, Force members wore Crossed Arrows, insignia of the old Cherokee Indian Scouts of the U. S. Army. This brought some to nickname Forcemen “the Braves.” But this really didn’t take, it was too artificial and forced. Phrases like a “member of the Force” or “in the Force” or the composite word “Forcemen” took preference. Later after combat action against the Germans in Italy, the Force would pick up the Black Devil nickname. But even this made many Forcemen uncomfortable and still does to this day, although it is more widely accepted than any other. Most Forcemen figured they were just doing their duty and didn’t need any fancy names to dress up their actions.
Perhaps the most distinctive piece of equipment was the red spearhead shoulder patch with its eye-stopping USA/CANADA lettering. This was developed by the U. S. Army after much discussion and a number of other suggestions. It fitted with the crossed arrows so much that some speak of it as the arrowhead. Another item of distinction made its way on to the uniforms: a red, white and blue shoulder cord or lanyard, as the Canadians referred to it. Made of parachute shroud lines, it was different and distinctive some felt it was too fancy but they were in the minority. Eventually there arrived for issue a red, white and blue parachute oval, complete with gold trim to wear behind the U. S. style parachute wings. Eventually, Canadians had
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