Helena’s Black Devils: Rugged Men with Rugged Training

Forceman of the First Special Service Force preparing rations in an improvised shelter during cold weather survival training, Blossburg, Montana, United States, January 1943. (Library and Archives Canada Photo, No. 3378685)

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By Dianna Troyer

John David Woon, an elite World War II Army commando who called Montana home after his discharge, never talked about his wartime exploits with the  Black Devils, the nickname Germans soldiers gave him and his cohorts in the First Special Service Force.

“Even after they returned home, they still obeyed their orders to never talk about what they did,” said his son, Bill Woon, 73, a retired accountant in Helena, Mont. He gives presentations about the Force’s legendary missions and their training at Fort William Henry Harrison west of town.

“Many people have no idea the Force even existed or that the Helena area was a crucial training ground for them,” he said. “After learning what they did, people are amazed and impressed. They’re considered the forefathers of modern special forces, the Green Berets.”

Striking silently at night in enemy territory with faces painted black and stiletto daggers so sharp they pierced helmets, the U.S.-Canadian commandos terrified German soldiers. To ensure their stealthy infiltration instilled fear, the FSSF scattered calling cards—a depiction of their shoulder patch bearing a red spearhead and the German words Das Dicke Ende Kommt Noch! “The worst is yet to come!”

In December 1943, they began fulfilling that promise throughout Europe. The soldiers were a mobile spearhead, capturing German strongholds, protecting beaches, and liberating Rome and southern France. Devastating the Nazi war strategy, the FSSF never failed their seemingly impossible missions, despite suffering heavy casualties. The Germans began calling them “Schwartzer Teufel,” the Black Devils, and the Devil’s Brigade.

“In 251 days of combat, the Force suffered 2,314 casualties, 134 percent of combat strength, captured over 30,000 prisoners, won five U.S. campaign stars, eight Canadian battle honors, and never failed a mission,” Woon said. “Survivors of other units were transferred to reinforce the FSSF.”

The Force’s astounding history is told at the Montana Military Museum at Fort Harrison, where the 80th anniversary of their establishment is being celebrated. 

“They accomplished what no one else could—it was incredible,” said Ray Read, museum director. “They were a 28-month unit that traveled the world from Alaska to Africa and Europe and never lost a battle because of their intense and thorough training. We have books here by 17 different authors who were inspired to write about them, and a movie was made, too.”

The museum’s permanent exhibit focuses on the Force’s legendary first mission, capturing Monte la Difensa, a 3,000-foot-tall German stronghold in the Italian mountains. A large model of the mountain shows their nighttime attack route on the northern face, which was considered unclimbable. The exhibit even includes a chunk of rock from the summit, shaped like the Force’s spearhead emblem that was found when veterans visited the site decades after the war.

In the gift shop, a 2023 calendar features photos of the unit’s training in Helena. For the Black Devils, a poignant month is December, which marks a beginning and ending for the unit. On December 3, 1943, they launched their attack on Monte la Difensa. A year later on December 5 at Menton, France, the FSSF was deactivated, and members were assigned to other infantry units.

Wanting to keep their camaraderie alive after the war, veterans established the First Special Service Force Association in 1947.

“We’re grateful 11 original members are still alive—three Canadians and eight Americans, including two who were trained at Fort Harrison,” said Woon, the association’s former executive director and secretary-treasurer. “My dad died when I was young, due to ongoing health issues from being wounded in southern France.”

Woon still has his father’s Eisenhower jacket and Canadian uniform. He donated his father’s trademark 12-inch-long V-42 stiletto combat knife to a special forces museum at Fort Bragg. 

“They needed items for their exhibit, and having it at the museum is a great way to preserve the Force’s history.”

His father, a native of Coldwater, Ontario, Canada, enlisted in his country’s Army and was recruited for the FSSF. While stationed in Helena, he met his future wife, Laura Beatrice Linder, who worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at Fort Harrison. 

“They met at a dance, started dating, and were married in Cut Bank on Halloween in 1942. After the war, he worked for his father-in-law at a lumber yard in Cut Bank and Helena. He was among several—both Americans and Canadians—who came back to live in Montana.”

During his presentations, Woon describes the Force’s secretive formation. Proposed in Britain, the idea was assigned to LTC Robert T. Frederick. To disguise its purpose, Frederick gave it the benign name of First Special Service Force, hoping spies would dismiss it as an entertainment troupe. He recruited infantry men who were outdoorsmen and laborers—farmers, hunting guides, and miners.

Seeking an ideal training ground, he chose Fort Harrison, where the unit was officially activated on July 9, 1942. Nearby snow-covered mountains were critical to teach skiing, rock climbing, and winter survival. Flat terrain west of Fort Harrison provided a safe drop zone for paratroopers. Soldiers became experts at hand-to-hand combat, demolition, and handling of weapons—both German and American. They learned to maintain the T-24, an over-the-snow tracked vehicle developed by the Studebaker Corporation and nicknamed the “Weasel.”

Arriving in trains with blacked-out windows, many soldiers had no idea where they were. Townspeople welcomed the off-duty soldiers into their homes, and many found their spouses in Helena. 

After 16 months of training, the FSSF arrived in Italy on November 19, 1943, confronting the seemingly insurmountable task of capturing the twin peaks of Monte la Difensa and Monte la Remetanea from Germans.

Undaunted, on December 1, they marched 10 miles to the mountain through cold, wet, foggy weather. One day later, they began scaling the mountain at night in finger-numbing temperatures.

“They had to go up these cliffs absolutely silent, because there were sentries up above,” Woon said. “They were close enough to smell the Germans’ food and hear them speaking. They entered combat on Dec. 3, 1943, with a strength of 1,800 men, and completed their multiple mountain missions on Jan. 17, 1944, with fewer than 500 men.”

During their next mission, 1,100 men moved to the Anzio beachhead, protecting more than eight miles of the right flank against a full division of 10,000 Nazi soldiers.

“For 99 days, the Force conducted continuous patrols and night raids into enemy territory at a cost of 106 killed or missing and over 300 wounded,” Woon said.

Decades after the war, the FSSF’s presence lingers in Helena, not only at the museum but also at Memorial Park.

“A lot of people don’t realize the park memorial was built with $5,000 donated by FSSF members,” Woon said. “During the war, when the USS Helena was sunk, they were so upset they raised $5,000 for a replacement ship. The Navy declined the gift. Instead it was used to build a monument at the park, honoring those who made it home and to memorialize those who didn’t.”

Along with the monument and museum, the Force’s legacy “is a selfless spirit that lives on in soldiers liberating the oppressed from tyrants worldwide,” Woon said.

To raise awareness about the FSSF’s historical significance, Woon and Read give presentations. Woon may be contacted at (406) 461-7485 or (406)0382 and Read at (406) 235-0290. MSN

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