Vet recalls service in the Devil’s Brigade

Ted Conover’s last day of combat in the Second World War brought trauma and recognition.

“It was the 1st of May, 1944, and we’d been very successful in getting prisoners up to that point,” Conover said. “What we were unaware of was that the area where we were to take up our position was mined by the Germans with shoe mines.”

Shoe mines were a untraceable, small explosives made of wood making them untraceable by standard mine sweeps. They were not designed to kill. Their purpose was to mutilate.

“My scout was up ahead and he stepped on a mine and just went up,” Conover recalled. “I ran in to grab him and stepped on a mine and went up. My sergeant ran in, picked me up and he stepped on a mine and we both went up.”

Such acts of bravery, shown by Conover and his sergeant, were typical of what was expected among the Devil’s Brigade.

“You do these things without thinking,” he said. “You see one of your friends or somebody you know in trouble you go and help them.”

Seventeen men lost their legs in Conover’s platoon that morning. Conover lost the heel of his foot, ending his active service in the war. He returned to his hometown of Brampton, Ont., where he has lived since.

Conover, 91, is a surviving member of The First Special Service Force. Also known as the Devil’s Brigade, the regiment consisted of a joint U.S. and Canadian unit trained as specialists in paratroop operations, ski patrols and assault landings. Following one of their battles with German troops, the Germans nicknamed the regiment “The Black Devils.” Devil’s Brigade was the loose translation.

In 2008, Conover received a call from the U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs telling him he would be awarded the Bronze Star. This summer he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honour possible from the United States Congress. He has also been awarded the Queen’s Silver and Diamond Jubilee medals for his service.

On Nov. 11, Conover attended Remembrance Day ceremonies at his local legion. The observance acknowledged his courage and bravery as one of Canadian’s few surviving members of the Devil’s Brigade. But Conover also remembered his comrades.

“I think back about all the good guys I knew that didn’t make it back. Not just the guys in the Devils Brigade, but friends I went to high school with,” he said. “So many didn’t make it back.”