First Special Service Force’s General, Robert Tryon Frederick

Independent Record article by Philip Drake

Efforts are underway to raise money for a statue dedicated to the leader of the famed 1st Special Service Force that trained at Fort William Henry Harrison during World War II and was later named “the Black Devils” by German forces.

A GoFundMe site has been set up for Gen. Robert Tryon Frederick, to be erected in France, according to the page organized by Frederick’s grandson, Brad Hicks. He said his grandfather leading another command later liberated France from German troops in World War II and is still held in high regard there.

“He was legendary for leading his men into battle. Winston Churchill called him ‘The Greatest Fighting General of All Time.’ I just called him grandpa,” Hicks posted on the page.

The site has raised $1,365 toward its $15,000 goal, with Hicks noting the French have already raised $50,000.

“Communities across southern France now want to honor this remarkable American who gave them their freedom,” the page states.. “This is your chance to help make sure North America’s contributions to freedom in Europe are never forgotten.”

Frederick received eight Purple Hearts in WWII — more than anyone in the war; all of them as a colonel and general. He was charged with a new U.S.-Canadian commando force, that activated in July 1942 and was stationed at Fort Harrison. 

The 1st Special Service Force saw most of its action in Italy where they were instrumental in breaking the German Winter Line. It played a key role at Anzio where they held a division-sized sector along the Mussolini Canal. Their final campaign was the liberation of Southern France. They were dubbed “The Black Devils” by the Germans and are also known as “The Devil’s Brigade.”

Frederick left the 1st Special Service Force during the summer of 1944, and was given command of the 1st Allied Airborne Task Force. In August 1944, Frederick, who at 37, was the youngest two-star general, led the airborne invasion of Southern France. They parachuted at night behind German lines and liberated the French Riviera.

“The people there still celebrate Aug. 15 as their Liberation Day, and they still consider Gen. Frederick their liberator,” Hicks said.

The 1st Allied Airborne Task Force then moved up the French Riviera coastline, taking Cannes unopposed on Aug. 24, 1944, and linking up with Frederick’s old unit, the 1st Special Service Force.

The Gen. Robert T. Frederick statue will be a bronze life-size sculpture, placed in a public park near his first command post in La Motte, France. The unveiling is planned for Aug. 15 — the 80th anniversary of the airborne invasion.

The chapter of non-profit Rotary International in La Motte, France is overseeing this community project and fundraising campaign.

Bill Woon, a Helena resident and member of the 1st Special Service Force Association who has written about the Black Devils, said any recognition of Frederick is a worthy project.

“He was the perfect leader for the 1st Special Service Force,” he said. “He knew how to command his men and lead his men and they would go to hell and back for him — and they did.”

Hicks, who was 7 when his grandfather died in 1970, is optimistic the money will be raised.

“I think the real story is that 80 years after the fact, the people of Southern France look up to him as a hero,” he said. “Aug. 15 is their Liberation Day. Even bigger, they have not forgotten the Canadians and Americans who liberated them. The statue of my grandpa is for all of them.”

The GoFundMe site is at https://bit.ly/3QlUOah.

‘It was just amazing’: 80 years ago 1st Special Service Force paraded down Last Chance Gulch

BILL WOON

First Special Service Force Association

Apr 6, 2023



It was 80 years ago Thursday the 1st Special Service Force paraded down Last Chance Gulch as a farewell to Helena as they left for the East Coast for more training and eventual deployment to the Pacific and then Mediterranean Theaters of World War II.

The force was a unique joint Canadian-American top-secret unit under Lt. Col. Robert T. Frederick on July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison west of Helena and later became known as the “Black Devils” by the Germans.

It was airborne-trained and highly skilled in mountain operations and amphibious assaults with tough, physical training concentrated on weapons proficiency and demolitions. When tested by the U.S. Army prior to deployment, the FSSF scored the highest in infantry proficiency of any unit in the Army.

The 1st Special Service Force saw most of its action in Italy where they were instrumental in breaking the German Winter Line, which was a series of mountains and ridges heavily defended by the German Army and had stymied the Allied advance to liberate Rome.

The Force then played a key role at Anzio where they held a division-sized sector along the Mussolini Canal. Aggressive patrolling and raids by the blackened faced Forceman earned them the nickname “Black Devils” by the Germans.

Members of the 1st Special Service Force were the first Allied troops to enter Rome on June 4, 1944.

Their final campaign was the liberation of Southern France. The Force seized two islands off the coast of Southern France to open the way for the Allied landing force, and then fought northeast along the coast through the towns of Grasse, Plascassiere and Menton where the unit was deactivated on Dec. 5, 1944.

In 251 days of combat the Force suffered 2,314 casualties – 134% of its combat strength. They captured 30,000 German prisoners, won five U.S. campaign stars and eight Canadian battle honors.

They never failed a mission.

Jim Cottrill of Helena was 4 years old at the time and remembers that parade of April 6, 1943, well.

“There were a helluva lot of people and I think the whole town turned out,” he said. Cottrill was with his mother and he said they walked down the hill to the parade and stood at Sixth Avenue and Last Chance Gulch, where a Montgomery Ward store used to be.

“They were impressive,” he said of the soldiers. “They came down that street and they marched. You could tell they were well-trained and ready to go.”

He said they were loved by the community as a lot of Helena residents had them over for Sunday dinners and holidays. Cottrill said many of the soldiers came back to Helena after the war and returned to their sweethearts and wives.

He said those who returned never talked much about their adventures.

Cottrill said one was Roy Hudson, who started a furniture store. He had been shot in the leg trying to rescue a buddy.

“I asked him if he was scared, he said, ‘Nah, those Germans couldn’t shoot worth sh*t,’” Cottrill said.

The surviving veterans of the FSSF dedicated a monument to their fallen brothers in August 1947 in Helena’s Memorial Park. The Cenotaph east of the monument includes the names of 488 men who made the ultimate sacrifice in World War II.

Most gratifying to the veterans of the FSSF is that its traditions and honors have not died but are carried forward, with its lineage embracing the outstanding active Special Forces units of two great democracies: The Canadian Special Operations Regiment and the United States Army Rangers and Special Forces.

On Feb. 3, 2015, Congress presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the 1st Special Service Force, “In recognition of its superior service during World War II.”

There were 43 original FSSF veterans attending the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol, along with over 800 family members, friends and members of Congress.

On Aug. 21, 2015, those veterans presented their Congressional Gold Medal to Fort William Henry Harrison, where the force trained 73 years earlier.

Cottrill does not know if Helena has ever had a bigger day than that parade 80 years ago.

“It was just amazing, the people all turned out,” he said. “They clapped and yelled.”

“The people of Helena really went all out for them,” Cottrill said. “They were proud to be what they were and the people just loved them.”

Independent Record Staff Writer Phil Drake contributed to this story. Bill Woon is with the First Special Service Force Association. Raymond Read is with the Montana Military Museum. For more information, contact Woon at 406-461-7485, or Ray Read of the Montana Military Museum, where there is a large collection dedicated to the Black Devils, 406-235-0290.