This is a brief but surprisingly candid description of the formation of a Special Service Force in the U.S. Army in 1942, made up jointly of Americans and Canadians. They underwent intense training at a camp near Helena, Montana, the object being to ready them for combat in difficult terrain like mountains. After many wash out, the men who were left underwent a brief course in parachute jumping -- two weeks instead of the usual four months.
Their first assignment was to assault the Japanese holding Kiska Island at the farthest end of the Aleutia chain in Alaska. The amphibious assault used rubber boats. The men found that the Japanese occupiers had folded their tents and quietly slipped away. The Allies were surprised, just as they had been surprised at the successful and unexpected withdrawal of the remaining troops on Guadalcanal.
Next stop, Italy, where they used the night to assault the Germans atop a mountain providing the Germans with an important observation post, much like Monte Cassino. They successfully scaled the mountain and took the peak but at the cost of many casualties. They also helped establish the mismanaged beach head at Anzio and were used often as reconnaissance patrols.
I think Robert Mitchum starred as a member of one of these patrols that were cut off from their own lines but don't bother watching the feature film. Mitchum seemed to walk through his part and at times appeared to be drunk. They fought their way to Rome where they may have been the first of the Allies to enter the open city. But maybe not.
After more combat and more casualties in Italy, they were involved in the landings in southern France, on the Riviera, where they encountered so little opposition that it became known as "the champagne campaign." Finally the six hundred or so unit was returned to Helena, where it was disbanded. The Canadians went home and the American were absorbed into other units, mainly paratroopers, much to everyone's chagrin because they were losing bonds of friendship that had been formed in battle.
I said this was a candid documentary and it is, within limits. The mistakes made under General Mark Clark, who always saw to it that his command was referred to in the press as "Mark Clark's Fifth Army," are briefly mentioned.
There was also a rumor that the Germans had dubbed the unit "the Black Devils." I've always had reservations about these nicknames. I don't believe that the P-38 was ever nicknamed "the forked tail devil," for instance. The frightening nickname were likely made up by the press, and the film acknowledges this Nicknames of enemy weapons were usually colorful but not scary. To the Germans, a B-24 was "the furniture van". To the Allies, the fearsome Nebelwerfer was "the screaming meemees." Lots of combat footage and talking heads, mostly participants but with one or two experts. Nicely done.
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