Many thanks to Chris McDonald, a former paratrooper and currently a member of the 3rd BN 172 IN (MTN), “the US Army’s only Mountain trained Infantry Battalion” with the motto “Ascend to Victory.” In a recent letter, Chris, who lives near Burlington, Vermont, wrote that he has had “a long fascination with the Force” and asked for information on the Force’s training at Burlington’s Fort Ethan Allen in 1943.
Chris said: “While the time here [in Burlington] was split between Leave, Operations in the Aleutians, and training and is not addressed in most histories of the force, I am interested professionally and historically in this period.
“Undoubtedly the Force spent time training in Jericho/Underhill at Camp EthanAllen Firing Range which was an artillery range and had a machine gun schoolduring WWII. It also has decent mountaineering areas as does MT Mansfieldnearby and the Bolton Mountain range which forms the backdrop for the range.
“… To my knowledge the records of FT Ethan Allen were taken away when the installation closed down in the 1950's. Portions of the fort and the whole firing range are currently part of the VT army national guards camp.
“…. I would like to gather information on where they trained and use it in our training.”
To answer Chris’s question: I first consulted the histories on the Force. As Chris pointed out, the FSSF trained at Fort Allen twice, both before Operation Cottage in the Aleutians and immediately afterwards, before embarking for Europe. In An Adjutant General Remembers, Maj. Gen. Ken Wickham wrote: we went to Fort Allen “to specialize in assault training on pill boxes and small fortifications.” (p. 34.)
Robert Todd Ross’s Supercommandos (p. 91) states that the Force embarked on “twenty to thirty mile” marches and performed “live-fire” training exercises. Army inspectors examined the Force at Ft. Allen, and deemed them fit for combat.
Adleman’s and Walton’s Devil’s Brigade pointed out that Fort Allen was where the FSSF’s 3rd Regiment commander and future Force leader Lt. Col. Edwin A. Walker joined the outfit. Walker’s arrival was one of many leadership changes Force commander Colonel Robert T. Frederick implemented. The Force had just returned from the Aleutian campaign, and Frederick, who found some of his officers lacking, cleaned house. (p. 103)
But for the definitive history, I phoned Bill Story, a FSSF veteran and current executive secretary of the FSSF Veterans Association.
Bill pointed out that many new and legendary Force men like Lt. Col. Walker, Major Ed Thomas, and K.R.S. ‘Mike’ Meiklejohn jumped and got their wings at Ft. Allen. Bill remembered the live-fire exercises well: “crawling under [barbed wire] while machine guns fired above our heads on set lines of fire.”
One training demonstration that impressed army inspectors was a fire and movement exercise brought to the Force from the Canadian contingent. Led by Stan Waters, commander of 2nd Company, 2nd Regiment, the exercise was a marching drill that simulated fire and flanking movements. “You’d march out onto the field, go 20 paces, and then turn right flank or left flank. This taught us how to lay down fire, and perform pincer movements. It was also the strategy involved in house-to-house fighting.”
Bill Story remembered the long marches, often, like much of the Force’s field training, at night. In one telling incident, Story accompanied Major (later Lt. Col.) Walter Gray on an exercise to meet up with 2nd Regiment and its commander Colonel Don Williamson. “We had gone out ahead of the regiment, and the rest of the regiment was supposed to meet us. But at the scheduled meeting time there was no 2nd Regiment. Gray was frantic. ‘Are we supposed to be here?’ I said, ‘Yes sir, we’re in the right place.’ It turned out that Williamson got lost. He couldn’t read a map. (Frederick would later relieve Williamson of his command after the Force’s battle on Monte la Difensa, Italy.)
Story confirms that the Force passed muster with army inspectors. As early as 1950, Story heard from Col. George Walton (who would later co-write The Devil’s Brigade) that the Inspector General was so impressed with us that “the grading went off of the sheets. … We came out first class, better than first class.”
Many Force men remember Fort Allen as their last moments with wives and family before shipping overseas. Sgt. Joe Glass of Helena, Montana remembers the large rolling skating rink at Burlington. The most poignant personal memory of that time comes from Wickham’s book. After leaving Fort Allen, the Force went off to war. Just before shipping out, “one of our good lieutenants came to me and said that as they were taking medical examinations a woman doctor asked him what he did at night. He said: “Nothing particular.” She asked: “Why don’t’ you come and live with me? There won’t be any commitments, and we can enjoy ourselves. You’re going to be shipped out in five days. It might be fun.” I presume he chose to stay with her. I hope he did, and they did enjoy themselves. He was a fine officer, and I regret to say he was killed in combat in our first few weeks in Italy.”
I’m passing on Bill Story’s email address to Chris McDonald, and I’d like to wish him and the 3rd BN 172 IN the best of luck in any training techniques culled from the memory of Bill and other Force veterans. Ascend to victory!