It sounds like a Hollywood movie: a secret special joint force of American and Canadian soldiers with a mission to invade Norway and destroy Nazi military and industrial sites.
A force made up of cowboys, lumberjacks and mountaineers.
Suddenly, their mission was revised.
Instead, they faced the Nazis in Italy — often in hand-to-hand combat.
In fact, scaling up icy mountains in the dark, they surprised the enemy and destroyed gun installations that had been wreaking havoc on Allied forces.
The secret force called The Black Devils, named for their daring nighttime attacks, originated in Helena starting in July 1942.
Now, 70 years later, some of the remaining members of this unique force will return to Italy, hailed as the heroes who were the first to enter Rome, when they liberated it from the Nazis, on June 4, 1944.
Accompanying them on this historic trip will be the Pipes and Drums of the Black Devils, a local group of musicians whose lives and music have become intertwined with this band of World War II warriors.
Last week, on a near-blizzard night, band members gathered at the Salvation Army Church to practice for a flurry of St. Patrick’s Day events in Helena.
During St. Patrick’s Day week, you can see them in the St. Patty’s Day annual parade noon Saturday, March 15, and sundry Irish events (see sidebar, page 6C).
It’s also a chance for folks to drop a wee bit of gold in their donation bucket to help them finance their trip to Rome.
“We’re going to be their voice,” said pipe major and band president Beth Foster. “There was 1,800 of (the Black Devils) originally — now 150 are left. We’re educating people about them.”
“We’re doing it through the drum and pipe band,” added pipe sergeant Mark Earnhardt. “They were the best of the best of the best.”
The pipe band (originally known as Shining Thistle) started playing for the Black Devils in 2002 following a request by Bill Woon, the First Special Service Force Association secretary-treasurer.
The band plays for the force’s annual reunions, which rotate between the United States and Canada, and military ceremonies.
In November 2013, they officially became the Pipes and Drums of the Black Devils. In the past three years, they redesigned their tartan, badges and kilt pins with the force’s insignia. Instead of the traditional Scottish dirk, they wear replicas of the V-42, a stiletto the force skillfully used in their successful night raids behind enemy lines.
“It’s become very special to me, and very humbling to me, to be chosen by this elite group of men to be their voices,” said Foster.
“The First Special Service Force was the progenitor of all special forces,” said Earnhardt, including the Green Berets, Delta Force and Navy SEAL. It’s also been called the model for the Canadian Airborne Regiment and Canadian Special Operations Regiment.
In 2012, the pipe band played for a very special event honoring the Black Devils Brigade at the Canadian Embassy, as well as for a wreath-laying at the World War II Memorial on the National Mall and in the Arlington National Cemetery.
The military lineage of pipe bands goes back to Scotland, stretching back centuries, said Earnhardt. “There’s something about them that stirs the soul — it can be a very expressive instrument. It grabs people by the heart.”
Foster, who founded the local band when she moved here in 1997, started playing pipes in college. “My grandfather in Indianapolis gave me pipes for Christmas in 1980. He thought it was something I needed to do.”
She now wonders if there wasn’t something he foresaw, linking her and her bagpipe to the First Special Service Force.
But most Helenans admittedly link the pipe band to their popular performances for St. Patrick’s Day week.
“When we play at Lewis & Clark Brewery, people are screaming and yelling,” said Foster. And, bagpipes and brews go together well, it seems. At least more than a dozen local bars think so — and so do the musicians.
It may be no surprise that the Black Devils’ history isn’t well known.
“The First Special Service Force was such a top-secret unit, it’s taken 70 years for their story to come out,” said Woon, whose father, John David “J.D.” Woon, was a member of the elite unit.
Initially proposed by a staff member of England’s Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, it was conceived as a secret attack force trained in Arctic conditions to knock out Norwegian facilities the Nazis were using to develop a possible atomic weapon.
Fort William Henry Harrison was chosen for training because of its isolation and because it had largely been mothballed, said Woon.
The first troops arrived in July 1942. Many of them had worked as loggers, ranch hands, mountaineers and outdoorsmen. Here they received intensive training in parachuting, advanced demolitions, mountain climbing, winter warfare as well as extensive weapons, training and assault work, said Woon.
“Helena opened their arms to them,” he said, telling of invitations to church and to dinner.
And when they marched off to war on April 6, 1943, it appeared that much of Helena’s populace lined Last Chance Gulch to bid them farewell.
They didn’t tell their stories even after the war because their creation and mission had been top secret, Woon said.
Among their military successes was the taking of Monte La Difensa, he said, which involved scaling the steepest part of the mountain in the dark, eliminating sentries and eventually taking the mountain top.
They also played a key role at Anzio, holding an 8-mile flank with a mere 1,200 men, against the 12,000-man Hermann Goering Division.
It was here they began their night raids, 99 days of stealth attacks behind lines. They’d smear their faces with black boot polish and slip among the German soldiers, killing some and leaving behind their calling card — a picture of their red shoulder patch with the words in red “das dicke ende kommt noch!” — roughly translated as “the worst is yet to come!”
The story has it, said Woon, that the “Black Devils” nickname came from words written about them in a dead German soldier’s diary.
The unit, which came to number 1,800, was credited with some 12,000 enemy casualties and taking thousands of prisoners.
The European anniversary celebration runs from May 25 to June 4, with eight members of the pipe band accompanying a tour by 50 First Special Service Force members, families and friends following the force’s footsteps in battle, including Monte La Difensa, Rome, Anzio and also sites in France where the troops fought.
The Force earned five U.S. campaign stars, eight Canadian battle honors and “never failed a mission,” according to the Congressional Record. In May 2013, Congress voted to honor them with a Congressional Gold Medal that will be specifically designed in recognition of their service. Woon is currently working with the U.S. Mint on its design.
The close bonds between the men of this unique military force are celebrated annually with a reunion. The next one, the 68th, is planned in Helena for Aug. 6 to 9.