An honor long overdue

Lynne Shelton and younger sister Lilly Megard are learning that their father, Leonard Goodman, was no ordinary soldier.

Lynne Shelton and younger sister Lilly Megard are learning that their father, Leonard Goodman, was no ordinary soldier.

Local sisters on journey of discovery about father’s role in the First Special Service Force

WHATCOM — Lynne Shelton and Lilly Megard didn’t realize how much they did not know about the World War II service of their dad.

Through his years living in Whatcom County until his death in 1997, Sigmundur “Leonard” Goodman had told a lighthearted story or two, but his two daughters never tried to put the bits and pieces together — they weren’t history buffs.

That has changed in recent years. They are now deep into the details of Goodman’s membership in the First Special Service Force, an elite specially trained unit of 1,800 Canadian and American fighters whose story is told in the 1968 movie “The Devil’s Brigade.” They earned the name “black devils” from the Germans for their nighttime and face-blackened forays into enemy territory.

The daughters knew of their dad’s 1942 training at Fort Harrison in Helena, Mont., and of later reunions that Goodman was usually too busy to attend, as he was a farmer, builder, fisherman and plywood plant worker locally.

The biggest boost to the unit’s visibility came in 2013 when Congress passed a bill honoring it with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest civilian awards in the United States. Shelton and Megard, who live in Ferndale and Laurel, respectively, were unable to go to Washington, D.C., in February of this year, however, as Gold Medal awards were given out to about 40 remaining survivors of the World War II commando force.

“It is mind-boggling,” said Shelton as she sat with Tribune and Record reporters to share details they have dug up.

 

Shelton and Megard with the fruits of their research.

Shelton and Megard with the fruits of their research.

The Force

Shelton and Megard both recognize now that their father’s reticence when it came to his history in the FSSF was partly borne of his need to deal with the trauma in his own way. But also much of the official history remained classified for decades after the war ended.

Still, even before official declassification took place, some work was done to document the stories of the men who served in what they simply called “The Force.”

Goodman himself participated in an oral history project led by the late Claire Rhein, a researcher at the University of Montana.

In that interview, recorded in 1986, Goodman recounted in first-person terms what he experienced while training and fighting with the predecessor of all modern special military operations units.

Goodman, a native of Leslie, Saskatchewan, with Icelandic heritage, was one of 900 Canadians selected of the 5,000 that applied. His interviewers, he said, described the new unit as “a one-way ticket.” But Goodman didn’t take that very seriously. Although he knew it was likely a hazardous assignment, he rightly figured out that the interviewers were trying to scare the applicants and weed out the weak-kneed.

The unit had been formed at the behest of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt. Goodman also correctly guessed during the interviews that the first targeted war theater was supposed to be Norway — though that plan changed. As it turned out, the interviewers were interested in his mastery of the Icelandic language, which was similar enough to Norwegian to be an asset. This, and Goodman’s background as a logger, canceled out the one strike against him: He was newly married.

Goodman had already volunteered for the regular Canadian army and had quickly discovered how much he hated the disciplines of ordinary military life. So when he got wind of the new unit, Goodman jumped at the chance.

The other 900 men of The Force formed the American portion. Once joined, the men were commanded by Gen. Robert Frederick, an American officer with a unique leadership style that eventually earned him eight Purple Hearts.

Goodman observed in the interview that the differences between the Canadian and American men were stark. Many of the Americans were disciplinary cases, not fully volunteering for duty. At morning reveille, the Canadians reported promptly for parade. A large number of the Americans just blew it off and stayed in bed. They hadn’t, after all, been selected for their sense of discipline. They were, to a man, rough and accustomed to hard work in the outdoors.

The budding unit was distinctive in every way. Men and officers mingled freely together. The uniforms were American while commands were a collection of the best from each army.

One unfortunate aspect to Goodman’s new position was a disparity between Canadian and American pay. The Americans were apparently allotted a relatively high wage by the U.S. government while the Canadian government decided that it couldn’t match it. In reality, Goodman said, the Canadian government didn’t want anyone in its military to be paid more than members of its Royal Canadian Air Force, even though the U.S. was willing to make up the difference.

 

Forcemen learned to jump before the process had been refined, leading to many broken legs.

Forcemen learned to jump before the process had been refined, leading to many broken legs.

Training

Force members trained extensively for everything. They hiked, climbed and did pushups before bed. They learned to ski and had to complete two high-altitude jumps.

Wartime parachuting was so new, Goodman said, that they weren’t given the best instructions on how to land — Instead of keeping their feet together, they were told to keep them straight down from the hip. Later jumpers learned to keep them together so they hit the ground at the same time.

The poor technique, combined with the height and speed of the descent resulted in 17 percent of the men injuring themselves, often with broken legs.

Goodman had never been in an airplane before he took his first jump — and he was first out of that plane. The whiplash of his chute opening cracked two of his ribs — something he kept secret so he could get his second jump out of the way as soon as possible.

The second jump came the very next day. As Goodman stood in line in the plane’s fuselage, two men ahead of him refused to step outside, holding up the line. So impatient was the injured Goodman that he squeezed past them and jumped.

Later, while he was in the hospital healing, he overheard a doctor say that the men of the Force must be the most courageous he’d ever seen (jumping with injuries).

“What I didn’t tell him was that I was doing it because I was a coward and didn’t want to wait any longer thinking about it,” Goodman said in the recording.

Once training was complete in 1943, the new unit, formed into companies and regiments, made its way first to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, recently vacated by the Japanese. They then moved to the European theater, starting in Morocco and finally Italy.

 

Devil’s Brigade

According to Goodman, members of the First Special Service Force grew to believe, during their training, that they could be and were the best at all they learned, whether it was close combat or demolition. In Italy, they had a chance to prove it, but not without a heavy cost.

Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to the First Special Service Force, in 2013.

Congressional Gold Medal, awarded to the First Special Service Force, in 2013.

The Force, while attached to the 36th Infantry Division, played the key role in attacking and capturing the heavily-defended Monte La Difensa and other strongholds along the “Bernhardt Line” that barred the way to Rome. Until the arrival of The Force, the battle for La Difensa had been a costly stalemate. Just as costly, though, was the price the Force paid to capture it — over 70 percent of the men were killed or wounded.

During that fight, Goodman’s regiment was hit hard while serving as reserve for the second regiment at Hill 720. He briefly described the scene as a chaotic one.

“We got trapped. … It was devastating,” Goodman said. “That was the very first time we had seen anyone killed. It was tremendous: It was raining, cold and there was the constant call for medics,” he said.

Goodman and a Louisiana man known as “Rebel” tended their platoon leader’s leg wound with a tourniquet while jumping in and out of a fox hole to avoid enemy fire. There were no unused litters to carry him down the mountain, though, so Rebel and Goodman carried another man down, intending to return for the platoon leader. Instead, an officer at the bottom stopped them from returning, intending to reorganize the remaining force there.

Goodman said the decision to obey the order and stay haunted him long after the war.

“I wish I had disobeyed that order because I think we could have saved him,” Goodman said.

The Force continued major operations in Anzio, Italy, and Southern France. In Anzio, the FSSF bragade held a large strategic area against four German divisions for 99 days. It was there that the Germans started calling them “black devils,” which then led to their “Devil’s Brigade” moniker. The branding was partly by design, as they used psychological means to intimidate their enemies and gain an edge.

The Devil’s Brigade was formally dissolved in December 1944. Many of the Americans passed into other active combat units. Goodman ended up in England and Scotland with other Canadians, serving eventually as an MP guarding military prisons full of rebellious soldiers he tended to identify with. Thankfully, that only lasted a relatively short time before he was repatriated back to Canada.

Out of the 90 men in his original 5th Company, Goodman was one of just five men to make it back to Canada without being killed or wounded. But the brigade, as a whole, is credited with capturing 30,000 enemy troops during its operations in Southern Europe.

 

Back home

Life in the decades after the war was marked by Goodman’s intense work ethic. In 1949, he became a U.S. citizen and the family settled along the West Badger Road near Sunrise.

Goodman worked a variety of jobs, many simultaneously. While driving for Darigold at late hours, he worked construction during the daytime. He eventually worked a farm before he left that behind to start fishing. He even tried his hand at bricklaying and eventually bought a share in the Mount Baker Plywood mill.

Goodman’s wife Laura was an American. While he was gone fighting, she had settled with her parents in the Blaine area. He had spent a little time with Laura and Lynne when she was an infant at Fort Harrison. However, by the time he made it back from the war, Lynne was already 3 years old and treated her grandfather like her dad.

“When he came home, it was a little unsettling and I don’t think he really knew that he really had to court me a little,” Shelton said, noting that learning about their father’s military service has helped the sisters understand a man with whom they didn’t always relate. “This has been great for us. It has helped us get to know our father.”

The generation of descendants of the men who fought in the First Special Service Force has taken it upon themselves to keep the tradition alive into a new century through the FSSF Association. The association maintains a website at www.firstspecialserviceforce.com.