Island Devil's Brigade members honoured

Nancy MacPhee
Published on February 3, 2014

Charlie Deighan was proud to be a soldier.

It's why, at age 20, he enlisted. The Summerside man, a stand-up hockey player and avid swimmer, was among the best of the best, singled out for his prowess, athleticism, strength and endurance for a special and secretive job during the Second World War.

It was a job, even after the war was long over, that he spoke little about.

Deighan was a Black Devil, a member of the Devil's Brigade - the First Special Service Force that, often under the cover of darkness, moved with stealth behind enemy lines.

"I grew up knowing that he was always in the Second World War. I had known that," said his daughter, Sheila Laughlin. "It wasn't until I had gotten older that I knew he was part of the Special Service Force because they had gone on different outings and reunions.

"Dad was a very proud soldier. He stood for his country. And I always knew that growing up. I knew that my father would do whatever he could if he was called to do it."

This afternoon, Deighan, and 16 other Island men, will be recognized as members of the elite, covert force.

They attacked by surprise, trained with the best in harsh conditions, learning hand-to-hand combat, to parachute, ski, mountain-climb and snowshoe, so they could kill silently. They never lost a battle, but casualties were high, with 185 members dead before the force was disbanded.

Each member was handpicked, with the Canadians giving up their rank to join First Special Service Force.

Unfortunately, Deighan, like the other Islanders in the brigade, isn't alive today to receive his honour, having passed away 13 years ago.

Never would he have likely imagined - or expected - that 70 years later, he would be recognized for doing his duty, said Laughlin.

"He would be proud."

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of when the First Special Service Force landed on the beachhead at Anzio, Italy, on Feb 1, 1944, the P.E.I. Regiment Museum will unveiled on Saturday a permanent display entitled: "Islanders in the Devil's Brigade - The Prince Edward Island Connection to the First Special Service Force."

The elite force, a joint American-Canadian unit, was organized in 1942. They trained at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana, in the U.S.A.

The brigade fought in the Aleutian Islands, Italy, and southern France before being disbanded in December 1944.

The men, rugged and strong, were feared.

They would leave on the bodies of dead Germans, as a form of psychological warfare, calling cards, each printed the unit's insignia and the words Das dicke Ende kommt noch! - The worst is yet to come.

Lt-.Col. Glenn Moriarity, with the P.E.I. Regiment Museum, called the Islanders who were part of the brigade "the best of the best."

The new display features photos of each of the men, with the exception of J.H. McInnis of Morell, someone Moriarity could find little information about, and details of where each man was from, when they enlisted, where they served and information about the Black Devils.

"The P.E.I. Regiment Museum has always thought about doing a display on the Devil's Brigade," he added. "We thought this would be a way to recognize these Islanders because the mandate of the regimental museum is to tell the stories of Islanders who served at wartime and peacetime in our Armed Forces."

It was only when the 1968 film starring William Holden came to Summerside's Capital Theatre that Dewey Trainor learned his father, Emmett, was a Black Devil.

"It was a surprise. I knew he was a veteran. I knew he was a paratrooper and he fought the Germans. That's about all we knew back then about the war," the proud son said.

"We didn't know about these special services forces or undercover thing."

Trainor, like Deighan, was modest and spoke little of the war and his experiences.

"It was like the saying 'what goes on in Vegas stays in Vegas'. It was what goes on in the war stays in the battlefield," said Dewey. "We didn't ask him questions."

Trainor was wounded. How? Dewey doesn't know.

"He was wounded two or three times, I know that," he added. "When we were kids and home and he would be in the kitchen basin shaving and looking into the mirror you could see there were scars on the back of his shoulder from shrapnel wounds."

Deighan and Trainor, along with the other Summerside men who were part of the brigade, sat in the front row as the Hollywood version of their story played out on the big screen.

"Being at the movie, the most memorable thing I remember is that they asked them all to stand up," said local historian George Dalton and member of the Lest We Forget committee. "They stood up to a standing ovation."

Back then, accolades were few for the Black Devils.

Last year, members of the force still living were awarded the prestigious U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest honours the United States Congress can bestow.

The medal is given to "persons that have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient's field long after the achievement."

It's a medal that Dalton's committee has lobbied for Islanders, who were in the brigade, to be given posthumously.

Lawrence Durant of Charlottetown, who passed away late last year, did receive the medal prior to his death.

"They did unbelievable things," said Dalton. "Most of them, they didn't want to go there. That's why they clammed up. They just didn't want to relive that. I sensed that with a lot that I had got to know that were there. It was a band of brothers."

Dalton, the past president of the Summerside and Area Historical Society, is pleased the Island Devil's Brigade members are being recognized and that a permanent display will be erected to educate Islanders.

"We are finally educating the missed generation. It's bonding for generations to know that Grandpa was a veteran."

That's why the display is so important, said Moriarity.

"There are a lot of people that don't know a whole lot about the brigade," he added. "A lot of people may have seen the movie, which is a bit of a historical re-enactment. The Canadians were more of the elite part of the force."

Trainor, who passed way in 1984, didn't consider himself as a hero and likely would be humbled, shaking off any recognition, said Dewey.

"He just took everything in stride and never got excited about anything."

The younger Trainor plans to attend today's ceremony along with his brothers and their spouses.

"It certainly makes you feel proud," said Dewey.

"Very proud," Laughlin quickly added.

And she can imagine what her father would say about the honour.

"He would say, 'Oh, well, you know,' with a smile," Laughlin said with a laugh.


Islanders in the Devil's Brigade

Bill Beckett

Joseph Gauthier

Wilfred MacDonald

E.L. "Tiny" MacLean

J.H. McInnis

Emmett Trainor

William Douglas

Charlie Deighan

J.F. Chappell

A.J. Burdette

Lawrence "Junior" Durant

Ray Durant

Wilfred Dowling

E.J. "Ping Pong" Gallant

Joe Jamieson

Clarence Thompson

F.C. McCormick

William Douglas, of Mount Stewart, was the only Islander killed in action while serving with the First Special Service Force.