WASHINGTON, DC (J.D. Leipold) – Forty-two veterans of the original 1,800 commandos that made up the World War II U.S.-Canadian 1st Special Service Force were honored in the Capitol, Feb. 3, as recipients of the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award for distinguished achievement the U.S. Congress can bestow.
Speaker of the House John Boehner hosted the presentation of the medal which was first awarded to George Washington in March 1776 to express the people’s appreciation for his distinguished achievements. Other recipients include Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and the Tuskegee Airmen.
The 1st Special Service Force was activated in 1942 as an elite unit of 900 American and 900 Canadian commandos. Following extensive stealth training near Helena, Montana, in rugged conditions atop the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, former lumberjacks, trappers, mountaineers and miners honed their skills in skiing, rock climbing and demolition so they could start their fight by destroying military and industrial installations.
In an amphibious assault landing in January 1944 at Anzio, Italy, the forerunners of today’s Army Special Forces clawed their way through the siege of Monte Cassino and eventually captured Rome, before moving into southern France to encircle German troops.
“For every man they lost, they killed 25. For every man they captured, they took 235. The force was so fearless, that the enemy dubbed them ‘the Devil’s,’ and so effective … that our special forces refer to them as pioneers,” said Boehner before an audience of dignitaries, Service members and civilians from both the United States and Canada.
Following the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to unit veterans Canadian Charles W. Mann and American Eugene Gutierrez Jr., on behalf of the 1st Special Service Force, each took a turn thanking the Congress, federal governments, their lost brothers-in-arms and their families.
“I must say I am most honored and humbled — and I thank you all for allowing me to speak on behalf of the force members present and force men who are no longer with us … may they rest in peace,” said Mann to standing applause.
“It’s great to be here and it’s great to be American,” said 94-year-old Gutierrez. “I want to thank everyone who undertook this very important and noble assignment to honor and recognize this most versatile and effective World War II fighting unit from the USA and Canada.”
Capping off the ceremony was Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. The general highlighted the history of the unit, which was disbanded in December 1944. He referred to the men as “pioneers and patriots.”
“Gentlemen, the living members of the 1st Special Service Force, you should be proud of not only what you accomplished on the battlefield, but also for the foundation and groundwork that you laid in order to shape our modern day special operations forces and for the close and professional relationship that ties our two countries together, today,” Votel said. “Rest assured that your legacy lives on in today’s American and Canadian special operators — both our countries and their citizens owe you a boundless debt of gratitude … thank you.”