Fighting with the Devil’s Brigade
By James Card
A few Memorial Days ago, Jeff Dolski remembered that he had an ancestor who served in World War II. It was his third cousin, the son of his great grandfather’s brother.
He did some online research and learned to his surprise that his ancestor’s grave was located in Hope Cemetery in Heffron, only a couple miles from his house.
“When I arrived, there’s an acre or two of a couple hundred gravestones. It was as if there was a spotlight on his gravestone. I could see it from afar. That’s the one,” said Dolski, who is a counselor at Waupaca High School and is developing a second career as a Realtor and auctioneer.
He found the grave of Benedict W. Dulksi. There are many Dolskis in the tri-county area where Waupaca, Portage and Waushara counties meet and there are three different spellings of the Polish family name. Also, Benedict’s middle name was Valentine but the Polish spelling of Valentine is spelled as Walenty, which explained the middle initial.
This started a family tradition of Dolski and his family visiting the grave every Memorial Day.
Two strange oddities were on the headstone. It did not say that he served in the Army, Air Force or Navy but rather the “1 SP Service Force.” Also, it said that he died on Christmas Day in 1943 in Italy. He was 33 years old.
Building the Force
Dolski did some research and learned that Benedict was a member of an elite joint Canadian-American commando unit that conducted secret missions in Europe. During WWII the group was nicknamed “the Devil’s Brigade” (also simply called “The Force”) and was the forerunner of modern American special operation groups.
Recruitment posters for this unit called for single men with a preference for rangers, lumberjacks, woodsmen, hunters, prospectors, explorers and game wardens. Dolski learned from a census document that Benedict was listed as a farmhand. Those recruited took a vow of secrecy and they were sent to Helena, Montana for training.
They immediately started parachuting and underwent a demanding physical-fitness regimen. They learned mountaineering and were taught how to ski by Norwegian instructors. They trained with their own weapons and those of the enemy and became experts in hand-to-hand combat and knife fighting. Their unit patch was a red spearhead with the words USA and CANADA.
“From what I learned, they trained out there because they were getting this brigade ready for mountain combat. I remember in elementary school that image of General Washington and his troops in the Potomac and it’s all frigid and supposedly the worst conditions ever for American troops in any war. But no, there’s people saying it was the Devil’s Brigade in a winter assault in the mountains,” said Dolski.
Their first mission was uneventful. They went to the Aleutian Islands off the Alaska coast to wage war against Japanese forces occupying the island of Kiska. When they arrived the Japanese were gone.
In October 1943 they were sent to Italy and tasked with taking German strongholds at Monte La Difensa and Monte La Remetanea. Those targets were part of the Winter Line, a network of German and Italian military fortifications that stretched south of Rome.
Their first major assault was attacking the Germans from a position where they least expected the enemy. The soldiers climbed a 1,000-foot cliff in freezing rain under the cover of darkness. They surprised the Germans and overwhelmed them within two hours.
From there, the First Special Service Force made a name for themselves on the Italian front. The Germans called them “black devils” because of their blackened faces smudged for night attacks. On their recently killed enemies they left death stickers marked with their spearhead symbol and the words: “Das dicke Ende kommt noch” that translates to “The worst is yet to come.”
“There should be more stories about this brigade. It’s fascinating. Even if you ask a seasoned vet or someone that knows a bit about WWII, I don’t know how many would know, if asked, what’s the inspiration for today’s special forces. There’s not a lot of scholarship,” said Dolski.
Dolski’s father once told him that Benedict was shot out of the sky as he was parachuting. He is not so sure.
“In my brief research on what was going on that day [Dec. 25, 1943], there was a heavy assault on Monte Sammucro. It appears that they were hunkered down assaulting this mountain and that leads me to believe there weren’t any airborne activities that day. I could be completely wrong – I just haven’t confirmed airborne missions on Christmas day,” said Dolski.
Dolski continues to research his commando cousin. He plans to reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs and visit some WWII museums.
For a personal connection, he plans to purchase a replica V-42 combat knife – the same knife Benedict carried into battle. It is a blued stiletto made exclusively for the Devil’s Brigade and is considered an iconic fighting knife.