First Special Service Force 6th CO, 3rd REG, HRS St Louis, MO

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Forum Home > The Early Days of the Force > The Early Days of the Force, Part 3

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“CANADA” discs for their blouses that matched the standard U.S. stamped disc. EM/OR wore discs stamped with the Force crossed arrows, looking not unlike the Infantry crossed rifles when seen at a distance. Officers wore larger crossed arrows held in place on the lapels with the usual pin-and dip arrangement. American officers wore U.S. on their collars while Canadian Officers had the word “CANADA”; these modest differences were the sole outward distinctions between Canadians and Americans, and in training or in combat, even these disappeared.


The Force was also different in its other clothing. Take the Mountain trousers, as one example. Originally issued for Mountain training, skiing and for working with the weasels in the snow, they became the all-purpose garment once the Force had moved into combat. The Mountain pants, virtually white from many washings while in reserve, and quickly turning greasy black in combat, were the force mark of distinction within the 5th Army; they were the original baggy pants with their large side pockets and elastic bottoms. With the Mountain trousers went a parka – issued when the first snows fell in Helena and reissued in the mountains of Italy. They were the reversible pullover type with wolf fur trimmed hoods and sleeves.


Right from the start of training; Force members were issued another piece of clothing: the Air corps leather jacket usually found only with air crews. It was worn only in training, but that included some of he wings and other types of parades at Ft. Harrison. Basically, the jacket was not supposed to be worn off post, but the author recalls traveling with his platoon into the mountains, to mike Horse Mine on a weekend deer hunt when all wore leather jackets. Working dress in early parachute and other training was green herringbone twill coveralls with fatigue cap. Ordinary football helmets provided protection on the training and qualification jumps. As the weather grew cooler, it be came fatigue caps, leather jackets, regulation U. S. Army OD wool trousers, and jump boots. The parkas and Mountain trousers came out with the arrival of winter, coupled with regulation wool knit caps. The latter became a favorite of Forcemen, especially in combat, to be worn under the helmet or alone.


The First Special Service Force didn’t want for equipment. Whatever it needed to get the job done, it seemed became available. In the heat of the August sun, Americans became envious of the Canadians’ Bermuda shorts. The Quartermaster was asked to supply shorts. What arrived turned out to be summer khakis cut off at what someone thought were the knees. On issue they were the funniest looking items for miles around on many of the troops. It they fitted at the waist, they hung below the knees. If they fifed in length they wouldn’t fasten at the hips. Most resorted to rolling them up above the knees, the only problem being that they narrowed at that point and made for a very tight fit around the lower thighs. It was a supply effort not to be repeated. There was no problem with the short sleeved shirts, however.


The Canadians liked the short U.S. Army field jacket, except that when the weather worsened, it wasn’t too warm as it left the waist unprotected. All Forcemen, as a result, welcomed the M43 field jacket when it was issued, just before the Force left for Africa and Italy; from the hoots and hollers that greeted the Force as it stepped off the ship near Naples, the long, cord-wasted green jacket was a new sight for the troops in Italy. These side comments, incidentally, turned to words of sympathy when dockside loungers took in the mountain rucksacks which bulked high above every man’s back, loaded as they were with each soldier’s immediate personal clothing and other needs, as well as the mountain sleeping bag, another item then unique in Italy, but well worth its light weight.


It was at this time the Force got another nickname: Freddie’s Freighters, after then Colonel Robert T Frederick Force Commander and the heavy-appearing loads on the backs of the Forcemen, in addition to their weapons. It was easier to offer this name to those who shouted, “What outfit are you? “Than it was to go through the long and unusual (to U.S. Army ears) First Special Service Force, and the time consuming explanation that: “No, we were not entertainers but combat troops. One wag carefully explained to his gullible listeners that the Force really was Special Services but that because airborne troops landed and operated behind enemy lines, we had to be qualified jumpers to bring the paratroopers their well-deserved entertainment in back of enemy lines as they rested from their labor of fending off the enemy from all directions. One variation on this which the author used in southern France, was that the Force had actually landed in advance of the main body (as it usually did) in order to be well set up to provide doughnuts and entertainment for the advancing Allied forces when they arrived on the scene.


Two pieces of equipment were produced solely for the Force because the original mission (later scratched) called for airborne landings in Norway and northern Italy in the depth of winter. Studebaker Corporation was set to work to build an over the snow vehicle which would tow sleds loaded with equipment and the para-skiers as needed. The vehicle had to be capable of operating in mountainous territory as well as over level ground. It did not have to be amphibious. The resulting, strange looking, back to front appearing tracked vehicle was dubbed the Weasel. It had a relatively low silhouette, was steered by toggle bars, didn’t throw it’s tracks too often, and was welcomed by the Forcemen who saw a chance to ride rather than struggle up the tall slops under the direction of the ski-Wegian trainers (the Forces nickname for the Norwegian Air force skiers who were in the forefront of the ski training).


The Force was equipped with sufficient Weasels to handle its entire combat echelon, but never used them in actual combat. The Weasel was the first all-round snow vehicle produced. It was the forerunner of many snow vehicles seen today, but it wasn’t until the Force reached the muds of Amchitka, in the Aleutian Islands, prior to the Kiska attack that the weasel really showed it could be a proud mudder, too. When tractor-train diesels sank slowly into the churned-up tundra until they were almost out of sight, it was the Weasel which could pull them loose. The little vehicle could whip through areas where larger machines would not venture.


This characteristic came in useful later in Italy, when weasels, driven by Forcemen, were used to help the 36th Infantry Division supply efforts on the Rapido River crossing. The Weasel eventually did see service in Norway, but it was after the war in Europe was over, and the 474th Separate Infantry Regiment, formed after the 1st Special Service Force was disbanded in southern France (December 1944), was given the task of disarming the surrendering Germans in Norway. It was used with great effectiveness in the South Pacific and other areas where the ability to go through mud was valued.


The other special item was the Case Knife, or V-42. Especially made in a limited run, each knife came equipped with a long leather scabbard, with thongs to be tied about the lower thigh. The scabbard was later equipped with a metal backing at the bottom, because the sharp tip of the stiletto style knife gouged its way into countless legs during training. The force knife, with its slim shape, excellent handling, leather ringed pommel, and spike at the end, has become a collector’s item not only because of its scarcity, but also because of its grace and balance. But if the truth were known, it probably punctured and opened more cans than it slit enemy throats.


The Force was unique in the U.S. Army because of one of its weapons: the Johnson Light Machine gun, not to be confused with the Johnson automatic rifle, the runner –up to the Garand as M-1. Only the Marine Raiders used the Johnson LMG, and they appeared not as satisfied with it as the Force perhaps because of its jamming tendencies in mud. When the Canadians arrived and started training in Helena, it became obvious they would have to learn American weaponry, for supply wisdom dictated only one nation’s weapons and ammunition. The Canadians liked the M-1, while griping mildly about its weight in contrast to the much lighter Lee-Enfield of the Canadian army. The semi-automatic action verses bolt-action loading really got to them, and they soon became very proficient.


Another weapon that took their fancy was the Browning air-cooled, belt-fed machine gun. The author was accustomed to the heavier, water-cooled Vickers, standard in the Canadian army, for machine-gun support work. But for a fast, mobile unit, like the Force, the browning .30 caliber was superb. The American infantry mortar they could take or leave, while acknowledging that it could lay down heavier patterns than the equivalent Canadian platoon-level mortar.


But it was the widely heralded BAR of the U.S. infantry that really stuck in the Canadian craw. They were accustomed to the Czech-designed Bren Light Machine Gun, then standard with Commonwealth armies. This magazine fed LMG, with its replaceable barrel and carrying handle; in there estimation was light years ahead of the Browning automatic rifle. Given the BAR’s greater accuracy because of its ling barrel, Canadians pointed to its slow rate of fire, it’s seemingly forever collapsing bipodal legs and the way in which its long barrel always seemed to tangle with the brush on an assault. The BAR was worse than useless to a unit like the Force Canadians said. What was really needed was the Bren.

This kind of conversation went on ad nauseam until the Americans accused the

Canadians of wanting to sleep with the Bren gun, use it to make their breakfast, and polish their boots. The Canadians stuck to their beliefs, and as a result of this, plus some sober thinking by the planners and active research by the suppliers, the Johnson LMG made its appearance. Since the force had a corner on the available supply of a new explosive RS, and the Marines wanted some, it was not too hard to make a swap of Johnny guns as they came affectionately to be known, for RS.


The Johnny gun jammed when not properly cared for, but it met the needs the Canadians saw for adequate automatic firepower, which could be quickly moved in on assault, while the heavier .30 caliber laid down additional support fire. With the addition of bazookas, grenade launchers, Thompson submachine guns, carbines, grenades, and .45 caliber pistols, each First Special Service Force platoon had a withering dose of firepower to deliver on the enemy and it all came in mighty handy when the time came to use it.


Canadians were also responsible for introducing the concept of battle drill to the Force. This is a training procedure in which troops are taught the basics of any form of attack; frontal, right flanking, left flanking pincer, house – to – house fighting and so on. Starting first with a parade ground approach, with rote learning of each phase of a particular type of attack, it could then be taken into the field in raining exercises later using live ammunition. This was a training procedure the British picked up from captured German training manuals and adapted to commonwealth training. It was far superior to anything that Forcemen saw in standard infantry U. S. training manuals of the time. It enabled a platoon leader, for example, to scout out a position to be attacked, decide on the mode, and then simply tell his troops “left flanking. Each soldier knew his assigned position and responsibilities. It would save a lot of lives in the Force, and would make attacks more effective.


When the First Special Service Force came to be inspected by the Inspectors Generals of the U. S. and Canada at Ft. Ethan Allen, Burlington, Vermont, it was Canadian Captain (later LT. General) Stan Waters’ company which provided the prime example of how a group well-trained in battle drill could use the concept to execute an attack with virtually flawless precision. This combined with other exercises and examples of Force training arid capability moved the IG’s people to award the Force with the highest grades ever assigned to a unit in assessing its fitness to proceed overseas.


Over and above the training, weaponry, special clothing, and insignia, the main factor which brought about these high scores and the subsequent legend of the Force was the special spirit which had developed in this unique and now very highly trained group of North Americans There was an esprit and a sense which transcended other units with which it would later come in contact and against which it would be measured. That spirit continues today, as visitors to the annual reunion regularly testify.


Thirty eight years later, Lord Lovat, the chief commando of World War II, attended a Force reunion, the 35th and commented later: “With the spirit I see and hear tonight, and after a period of 35 years the Force must have been an unbelievably fine fighting group.”


That they were … but it was hard to imagine in those hot, dusty, frustratingly exciting days at Fort William Henry Harrison when Canadians and Americans were flung together, that military historians later would assign them high marks on the field of battle, that books, movies, awards, and honors would come their way over the years, and that for the brief span of their life they were acknowledged.




January 1, 2010 at 8:06 PM Flag Quote & Reply

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