The First Special Service Force: “The Devil’s Brigade”
By Joel Kolander
Last week, marked the passing of Arthur “Art” Pottle, a 98-year old veteran of World War II. Living his later years as a school teacher and sports referee, he is most remembered for his service in the First Special Service Force, an elite commando unit comprised of Canadians and Americans.
Herb Peppard, a 98-year old World War II veteran just a few weeks shy of his 99th birthday, passed away the previous month (June 2019). Peppard also culminated an illustrious military career with service with the First Special Service Force.
Vernon Doucette passed on January 21 this year. He was 97 at the time of his death, but as a 21-year old man, he applied to be one of what was approximately 1,800 members of the 1st SSF. Injured four times during his service, he earned a Silver Star for his bravery.
It is in light of these men’s passing that a remarkable collection at Rock Island Auction Company takes on a special significance. The dauntless men of “The Devil’s Brigade” grow fewer and fewer each year. It is an absolute honor to tell their story, educating further generations of their prowess in combat, tenacity, and incredible exploits.
Brief History of the First Special Service Force
As mentioned earlier, the First Special Service Force was a World War II-era American-Canadian commando unit under the umbrella of the U.S. Fifth Army. Officially created on July 9, 1942, they were originally conceived to perform sabotage missions behind enemy lines in the mountains of Italy and also in Norway. Their primary goals? The very bloodlines of the Axis military: hydroelectric plants, oil fields, and fortified locations.
Their first missions would take place in the Italian Alps during the freezing rains on December 1-2, 1943. They climbed nearly sheer mountain faces to get in behind the Germans who were manning a strategically important fortification. The unexpected direction of the attack caught the Germans by surprise and within hours the 1st SSF had captured a position that command estimated would take 4-5 days. This capturing of “La Difensa” is depicted in the 1968 film “The Devil’s Brigade.”
The below video will provide some more detailed history, but the Devil’s Brigade was not only known for its prolific mountaineering, endurance, and partaking in what were generally considered suicide missions, but also for its own terrifying brand of psychological warfare.
In the dark of night, Germans might hear one of their own being killed, but not find him. The next morning, the body would be discovered with one of the 1st SSF’s own calling cards on the body. It would bear their insignia and the message, “Das dicke Ende kommt noch,” translated, “The worst is yet to come.” The message would also appear as graffiti in supposedly secure locations. Tactics such as this and their attacks from unexpected angles, combined with their blackened camouflaged faces, earned them the nickname ‘the black devils’ (schwarzer teufel).
After the war the 1st SSF would provide the origins for the Green Berets, Canada’s JTF2, and Delta Force, whose insignia still bears the hallmarks of its forebears.
Like many World War II soldiers, they were ordinary men placed in extraordinary circumstances. Lumberjacks, miners, rangers, hunters, game wardens, and more, were trained in hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, mountaineering, parachuting, enemy weapons, skiing, and of course, use of their distinct V-42 stiletto fighting knife.
Militaria of the First Special Service Force
In addition to the jaw-dropping V-42 fighting knives shown in the video, Rock Island Auction Company is proud to present several important military artifacts from this elite combat unit.
1. The Archive of First Sergeant Marvin D. Price
This incredible grouping houses items once the property of First Sergeant Marvin D. Price, who was with the 1st SSF from their initial deployment to the Aleutian Islands until the disbanding of the unit. Afterwards, he would serve with the 474th infantry Regiment, the unofficial successor of the Force.
Included here are Price’s jacket which bears his 1st Sergeant insignia, four overseas service bars, “US” and “HQ” lapel pins, Honorable Discharge Lozenge, the Force’s signature arrowhead shoulder patches, and a red, white, and blue shoulder cord. It is decorated with a Combat Infantry Badge, Good Conduct Badge, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-pacific Campaign Medal with one star, European-African_middle Eastern Campaign Medal with five stars, and the World War II Victory Medal. The accompanying shirt also has the tri-color cord and the arrowhead patch.
An included case of accoutrements contains a photo of Price, Technical Sergeant and Master Sergeant rank patches, an Infantry lapel pin, silver “crossed arrows” badge, Kiska Task Force shoulder patch, a “Ruptured Duck” lapel pin with overseas bars device, and the matching medals for the ribbon bars on the jacket.
All of this punctuated by Price’s Case V-42 stiletto knife in what is undoubtedly its issued “long drop” sheath that Price wore throughout his service with the Force. It bears all the hallmarks of a knife worn in service.
2. Military Gear of Dermot Michael O’Neill
O’Neill’s resume reads like a “who’s who” of early clandestine and commando organizations. He served in the Shanghai Municipal Police, known for its extremely dangerous work as well as an incubator for innovative close-quarters combative including: mixed martial arts, knife fighting, and high speed shooting. He trained at Camp X (Special Training School 103), a training facility for the Special Operations Executive, FBI, and OSS. He then joined the 1st SSF, and after it dissolved, went back to the OSS and eventually the International Police Academy, an organization with deep ties to the CIA.
This lot includes his cap, stamped with “D M O’NEILL” on the inside band, the parachutist patch, and the tricolor trim around the edges. The blouse has three wound stripes on the sleeve, three overseas service chevrons, a set of Sergeant’s ranks patches, the 1st SSF patch on the shoulder, a tricolor cord on the left shoulder, and a parachutist badge on the left breast.
O’Neill’s Fairbairn-Sykes fighting dagger comes in its special parachutists sheath, designed to be strapped to the sleeve. The connections between the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger and the Force’s V-42 dagger are well-detailed in the video shown earlier, and in the early days of the 1st SSF it would not have been uncommon to see a variety of equipment before standard gear was selected.
3. Uniform Set of Robert G. Pearson
This lot comes with quite a bit of research information on Pearson that documents his military service. He was a 3 year veteran of the Nebraska National Guard when he joined the U.S. Army in 1940, trained as an infantryman and radio operator, and was tapped for the SSF in 1942. Pearson also saw the unit’s earliest action in the Aleutians and served with the 1st SSF until its disbandment.
This uniform set includes his original “Ike” jacket, which has the 1st SSF patches on the shoulder, his tricolor shoulder cord, his Sergeant’s insignia, 3 overseas bars near the left cuff, and several decorations including the Combat Infantry Badge, Parachutist Jump Wings, Expert marksmanship Badge with Bayonet clasp, and the Good Conduct Medal. Both the garrison cap and the jacket are stamped with “8003,” the last digits of Pearson’s Army serial number.
The reversible parka is a uniform piece that’s cool factor is off the chart considering the mountainous missions the Force took on. It’s even the reason behind the drop-sheath of their V-42 daggers, so to find one, let alone one in such fine condition would certainly be worthy of an advanced collection. Also adding to the incredible, tangible history of this lot is a single dog tag made out for Pearson.
4. Uniform for Canadian Member of the 1st Special Service Force, Harry Weaver
According to the included notes, all items in this lot belonged to Harry B. Weaver, a Canadian Army Private who joined the unit later, but still took part in significant actions, such as their role in Operation Dragoon, the invasion of Vichy, France. After the military he worked for Canadian Customs, and remained a member of the First Special Service Force Association. Included in the lot is his cap, blouse with ribbons and patches, a service medallion, metal badges from the Perth Regiment, and his 1st SSF Association membership card.
All this of course is in addition other uniform pieces as well as the absolutely sensational collection of V-42 fighting knives available in the auction. Those mentioned in the video and this article are certainly not an exhaustive list of the selection in the September 2019 Premier Firearms Auction.
Remembering the Men of the First Special Service Force
World War II veterans continue to leave us, it is a reminder that one day all that will be left are their histories, documents, and incredible artifacts such as these. As the bright fires of their lives diminish to embers, it falls to all of us to shine a new light on the men they were, the heroic deeds they performed, and their protection of liberty. It is an honor to have these items come through our doors. Looking at these items, one can’t help but feel a certain reverence or awe for the men who wore them and what they accomplished. Undoubtedly, their new steward will feel the same way.