By Dominic Oto
The First Special Service Force (called “the Force”) was an elite World War II Canadian and American commando unit. This unique fighting force pioneered many of the skills that characterize U.S. Ranger and Special Forces today. It laid the groundwork for Canadian Special Operations Forces (CANSOF).
These special operations daredevils were trained in airborne, mountain, ski, amphibious, hand-to-hand combat, weapons and demolitions. Force men would operate in small, multi-skilled combat teams that were the origins of today’s Special Forces A-Teams.
The Force was a unique and successful experiment in combining the troops of two allied nation armies. The Force was a truly integrated army of Canadian and American veterans and recruits. The Force was much smaller than any U.S. Army division in World War II, its effects in combat made up for its small size. The First Special Service Force legacy is recognized today by the elite fighting forces of both the United States and Canada.
Change of Mission
By late July 1942, OPERATION PLOUGH had been streamlined. Now the mission focused on targets only in Norway.
Newly arrived as the Force’s executive officer, Colonel Paul D. Adams intensified the training. His strong and vigorous influence was felt immediately. The deadline for deployment was less than six months away. Calisthenics and obstacle course runs would become, the lighter moments in training that was grueling and intense. Thirty-mile marches with a 60-pound pack into the hills and mountains surrounding Fort Harrison were part of the routine.
“It was hard, and a lot of guys fell out. If you fell out there on a march, when we got in, that guy’s barracks bag was packed and waiting at the gate for him. He was gone,” remembers Force veteran James “Stoney” Wines, a Staff Sergeant, 5th Company, 2nd Regiment.
Parachute instruction, normally was four weeks long for airborne units, was condensed to just one week at Fort Harrison. Packing the chutes was assigned to a separate service battalion, which also handled all other support duties. This was done so the combat troops could concentrate on their battle training. Soldiers received their parachute wings after only two jumps. There was no time for more.
The men were trained in the use of their new snow vehicle dubbed “the weasel.” Canadian troops were taught to use American weapons, and for everyone, there was instruction in skiing, mountaineering, and demolitions.
But in September 1942, political support for OPERATION PLOUGH evaporated. The project was canceled. The hard training troops in Helena feared that their special unit would be disbanded. They were suddenly a commando force without a mission. When OPERATION PLOUGH was plowed under, Colonel Frederick then had to find a new assignment for the men.
Frederick looked everywhere. A new mission finally came up, but it took almost a year before the Force was deployed into combat.
The unit’s first assignment came in August 1943. The Force found itself on the on an outer island in Alaska’s Aleutian chain. Here the men prepared to spearhead a task force assigned to assault nearby Kiska Island occupied by Japan since 1942.
The Force now trained in amphibious assaults using rubber boats. The commandos fully expected a bloody confrontation with a fearsome enemy when they landed at night on August 15, 1943.
By morning it was clear that the Japanese had secretly evacuated the island just days earlier. Force soldiers placed American flags atop one of the Kiska’s hills. Force men found that the closest thing to an enemy soldier was a straw dummy.
The Force’s combat organization was organized into three six hundred man regiments. The first and third regiments made the landings on Kiska. The second regiment remained behind in reserve. Its men stood by with planes and parachutes to be dropped as relief soldiers wherever the fighting needed them the most.
“We were waiting for the call that they’d get us in order to plug the holes. The message came back, ‘Go to bed. We don’t need you,’” remembers one Force veteran. “It was kind of a letdown because we were all uptight and ready to go. Then all of a sudden they say, ‘We don’t need you.’”
For its patience, the second regiment was promised a leading role in the Force’s next deployment. The troops were soon dispatched to the mountains of Italy. This is where their first blood would be drawn with a vengeance.
Alderman, R., & Walton, G. (1966). The Devil’s Brigade . Philadelphia/New York : Chilton Books.
Werner, B. (2006). First Special Service Force, 1942-1944. New York City : Osprey Publishing.
About the author:
Oto holds a BS in History from Oregon State University and a MMA in Military History from American Public University. He served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Company Commander and Staff Trainer to the Afghan National Army. He was wounded once and decorated three times. Oto is an Infantry Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve.