Black Devils remembered in film

By on July 21, 2016

On July 13, at Ephrata Main Theatre’s screening of “Victory Remembered: Legacy of the Black Devils,”

World War II veteran views the story he lived

ER20160720_pg1Blackdevilsatmain4by Laurie Knowles

In 1942, the United States and Canada joined to form an elite group of heroes.

Their mission would be a tough one. With just 1,800 members, the 1st Special Service Force was rigorously trained to fight the Nazis in World War II through mountain climbing, hand-to-hand combat, stealth and non-standard weaponry.

So feared and dreaded by the Germans, the combat unit became known as “die schwarzen Teufeln” or the Black Devils by the enemy. They would smear their faces with black boot polish and fight the Germans in the darkness of night. In several towns and villages in Italy and France, they are still heralded as heroes.

On July 13, at Ephrata Main Theatre’s screening of “Victory Remembered: Legacy of the Black Devils,” there was one frail, elderly man who watched the film with great interest. He was surrounded by an audience that was much younger. Some had never heard of the Black Devils and were amazed to discover the heroism of the 1st Special Service Force in World War II.

Bert Winzer, of Macungie, wasn’t there to learn about the Black Devils. He was one of them.

The 93-year-old World War II veteran served as a member of the 1st Special Service Force when he was just 19. He is one of less than 100 unit members still alive today. Many of them are unable to travel and in failing health in their 90s.

“I wanted to be here to see the story I lived,” said Winzer, who came to the Ephrata theatre from his home near Allentown. “It was a very, very long time ago, but I will never forget.”

Winzer went on to say that he was proud of his service to the country and pleased to see the recognition that the 1st Special Service Force was getting through the documentary film.

“There aren’t many of us left. I am happy I could make it,” he said, smiling broadly as two pretty female World War II reenactors planted big red lipstick kisses on each cheek.

His devilish grin and the original World War II uniform he wore with its red arrowhead-shaped 1st Special Service Force unit patch were the only hints that the aging hero was once a Black Devil.

“We are very pleased that Bert Winzer could be here,” said Les Owen, who directed “Victory Remembered: Legacy of the Black Devils.” “I have met a number of the men and it is humbling to be in their company.”

The 90-minute World War II documentary was produced by Kevin Carvell and the Winters Leadership Memorial with Owen as director. For more than 15 years, Carvell has worked on producing films and projects that tell the story of World War II.

“This is a film that I am proud to be a part of,” said Carvell, who was executive director.

The film is a production of Treehouse Dreams and features original music by Adrian Hernandez. It was produced, written and directed by Owen, who was a saxophonist with The United States Army Field Band at Ft. Meade, Md., before embarking on a career in historic education and filmmaking.

The screening of “Victory Remembered” was a benefit, and Ephrata Main Theatre was packed with veterans, World War II reenactors, families and those who were curious to know more about the Black Devils.

The tickets were $10 for the screening of the film, and proceeds were earmarked for the Ephrata Veterans of Foreign Wars-Cocalico Valley Post 3376. Before the show, more than $500 in advanced ticket sales had been raised. With the crowd who attended, it looked like the proceeds would exceed $1,000.

“I am very grateful for this donation,” said Dwayne MacKenzie, senior vice commander of the VFW post, adding that money would be used toward veterans services and operation of Beacon House in Akron and Veteran’s Place in Ephrata for homeless veterans. “And I am very interested in learning more about the Black Devils.”

The local World War II reenactors were intrigued by the stories of the 1st Special Service Force, and proud to be in the company of an authentic Black Devil. After the film, many of them shook hands and embraced Winzer with a heartfelt, “Thank you for your service.”

“This is a story that needs to be told and we are glad to be here for that,” said reenactor Erik Garces. His wife, Yvette Garces, was one of the two ladies who kissed Winzer. The other was Danielle Worrell, who attended with her husband, Tom Worrell.

That story began in the early 1940s, when 1,800 young men from the U.S. and Canada volunteered and were accepted into the elite force. These were hardcore fighting men, who were rigorously trained. Many had been previously employed as lumberjacks, forest rangers, hunters and game wardens, who knew the land and working in tough outdoors conditions.

Their commander was Lt. Colonel Robert T. Frederick, who would lead them on stealth attacks in the dead of night. The name of Black Devils came from the diary of a German soldier who was overwhelmed by their secret attack mode.

The formation patch they wore on their uniforms was a red spearhead with the words USA written horizontally and CANADA written vertically. The branch of service insignia was the crossed arrows formerly worn by the U.S. Army Indian Scouts. Members of the unit wore a red, white, and blue shoulder cord made of parachute shroud lines. They were trained in Montana, eventually sailing to the Aleutian Islands.

The Black Devils arrived in Italy in 1943, heading to the Italian front near Naples. At Monte la Difensa, at the ancient town of Rocca d’Evandro, the 1st Special Service

Forces wiped out a strategic enemy defensive position in the steep mountains. They continued their attack, assaulting Monte la Remetanea and capturing Monte Sambúcaro.

Their losses were high. During the mountain campaign the 1st SSF suffered more than 1,000 casualties, and replacements were needed.

In the film, many family members retraced the steps their fathers and grandfathers had been. Some had never met their ancestors, who died on those mountains.

The Special Force brigade landed in Anzio, south of Rome, replacing the 1st and 3rd Ranger battalions, which had been decimated at Cisterna. During Anzio, the 1st SSF fought for 99 days without relief. They were among the Allied units who were first to enter Rome to secure the bridges and pursue the retreating Germans.

On Aug. 14, 1944, the 1st SSF landed at Îles d’Hyères during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, then moved with the 1st Airborne Task Force to defensive positions on the Franco-Italian border. During the war, the 1800-man unit accounted for some 12,000 German casualties, capturing more than 7,000 prisoners.

They were officially disbanded Dec. 5, 1944, in a field near Villeneuve-Loubet. A parade was held to honor the unit in Villeneuve-Loubet. In the film, the parade was reenacted as villagers waved to the representatives and relatives of the 1st SSF.

In 2015, 40 members of the unit were able to travel to Washington, D.C., where they were awarded with the Congressional Gold Medal, as then Speaker of the House John Boehner honored them in a tearful ceremony.

“It would have meant a lot to those who couldn’t be there,” said Winzer.

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