WASHINGTON, D.C. (WITI) -- The United States Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal Tuesday, February 3rd to an elite fighting unit from World War II, the First Special Service Force. The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. At the ceremony, the current commander of American Special Forces called them “the elite fighting force of their time.” House Speaker John Boehner, and other leaders of both the House and Senate were there to pay tribute to these brave men. Forty-two surviving force members were there for the ceremony.
In the winter of 1943/44, a 36-year-old Army Colonel named Robert Frederick, FOX6 Anchor Brad Hicks’ grandfather, led his men on an impossible mission. The entire 5th Army was stuck south of a line of mountains between them and Rome, the mountaintops controlled by German artillery. Frederick insisted the joint American/Canadian commando force he’d been training could scale a cliff in freezing rain on a pitch dark December night, surprise the Germans at daybreak, and kill them in close combat. The impossible mission was a success, Monte La Difensa was taken, and the legend of Frederick and his brave men in the First Special Service Force was born.
They took more mountains, suffered a 77 percent casualty rate, and became so feared for their ability to sneak into strongholds -- often silently killing the enemy with the V-42 knife Frederick designed and leaving stickers on the helmets of the dead with the unit’s red arrowhead insignia and the warning “the worst is yet to come” -- that the Germans called them the Black Devils.
Robert Frederick was promoted to General, at 36 the youngest General in the U.S. Army. By the end of the war, he would also be the most wounded General: 8 purple hearts. His men would follow him on impossible missions because he literally led his men into battle. Winston Churchill called him “the greatest fighting general of all time” and said, “if we had had a dozen more like him we would have smashed Hitler in 1942.”
In the 1960s, William Holden portrayed Robert Frederick in the movie “The Devil’s Brigade,” a nickname the unit got from the Black Devils reference. The formal name was The First Special Service Force; you know its descendant today as the Special Forces.