Before September 11, 2001 America faced ather terrible year: 1942. During this dark juncture of WWII, before the Green Berets, Delta Force, and Navy Seals, the United States had only one special army it called upon to do the impossible: the First Special Service Force (FSSF), or as the enemy called these men, the 'Black Devils.' Created when the US and her allies were losing the Second World War on every front, the FSSF was conceived by the British to spearhead a daring invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe through Norway. The British passed on their plan to breach Fortress Europe with a small and exquisitely trained commando unit to the U.S., and American's first special operations army was born. Due to the demands of this arduous mission, American leaders put out a call for the toughest and best men in the US army and, to satisfy British participation, the Canadian army as well. The men selected for the FSSF would have to be skilled in the ways of the wilderness (skiing, mountain climbing and arctic survival), and willing to volunteer for an operation in which ne were expected to return. Thousands of hardy men volunteered. Only 1,800 were selected. Commanded by the charismatic and visionary leader Colonel Robert T. Frederick, they were trained in an isolated base near the frontier town of Helena, Montana whose harsh conditions (high mountains, cold winters, and endlessly open spaces) proved to be an excellent training ground. On weekends these special soldiers invaded the saloons, homes, and even churches of the old gold-mining capital of Helena, and soon forged an unbreakable bond with this community. Although their young wives did t kw it, the men of the FSSF were eventually dispatched to Europe with a mission as crucial as the aborted Norway invasion: to break the impasse in the mountains of central Italy by seizing a key German position high atop an alpine crag kwn as Monte la Difensa that had successfully repelled a series of attacks by full divisions of men. Realizing his unit faced extinction if it failed, commander Frederick called upon his commandos to do what they had been trained for: the impossible. Before dawn on December 3, 1943 they attacked the Germans by way of a route deemed utterly impassable and they won the peak in a two-hour fire fight that officially initiated a short, intense, and bloody campaign history.
John Nadler is a contributing correspondent to CanWest Newspapers, Canada s largest newspaper chain, and writes for Variety magazine. His articles have appeared in TIME, Maclean s, Canadian Business, the Ottawa Citizen, The Gazette (Montreal), the National Post, and The Independent in the UK. He lives in Hungary. From the Hardcover edition.