© Photo special to The Guardian
Lawrence “Junior’’ Durant
War hero Lawrence “Junior’’ Durant of Charlottetown has died less than two months after learning of a major military honour.
A native of Wilmot Valley, Durant died today in Halifax where he was being treated for medical complications. He was 89.
He was among the roughly 175 surviving members of the elite commando unit known as the Devil’s Brigade that were awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in honour of their battlefield heroics and sacrifices 70 years ago.
Durant was the only P.E.I. recipient and last surviving Islander who was a member of the brigade.
Only 17 Islanders served with the Devil's Brigade, or as it was known during the Second World War, the First Special Service Force or FSSF. The unit consisted of about 2,500 American and Canadian soldiers, 477 killed in action.
The belated recognition for the war’s only joint U.S.-Canada military unit followed Canadian government recognition earlier this year when Defence Minister Peter MacKay presented brigade veterans with the Minister’s Award for Operational Excellence at a ceremony on Parliament Hill.
Durant was a 19-year-old farm labourer in Wilmot Valley when he signed up as an infantryman in May 1943. He was in a holding camp in Avellino, Italy in 1944 when he volunteered for the FSSF.
Unit members were selected for their ability to fight in rugged landscapes under difficult conditions and in the face of extremely long odds. A key tactic was to parachute behind enemy lines to knock out vital defence installations ahead of major Allied offences.
It was at Anzio beachhead, south of Rome, that Durant got his first true taste of war.
“All the time they were shelling, shelling, shelling,’’ he said in a video of his life recorded by Veterans Affairs Canada.
“We all had to dig our holes in the ground (for shelter).’’
At Anzio, the Germans were on one side of a stretch of no man’s land and the Allied forces on the other and were stuck at a stalemate for months.
“All our work was all behind German lines, every night we were in behind German lines, every night,’’ Durant recalled in a past interview with The Guardian.
“It was scary I tell ya. (But when you were done) you’d just get in your slip trench and go to sleep. And then the next night you’d be gone out in no man’s land again.’’
George Dalton, a member of Summerside’s Lest We Forget Committee, says Durant will be “fondly remembered by all committee members -- and, undoubtedly by many others.