Bedtime stories in Tricia Hofeld’s childhood home had little to do with fictitious heroes. Instead, her grandfather recounted real life acts of valor.
Decades after returning from World War II, Harold “Ted” Johnson regaled Hofeld with stories from the battlefield — most notably how he survived a raid on the Germans in the mountains of Italy, even after taking a piece of shrapnel in his chest.
Johnson, who was raised in St. Paul, was part of the First Special Service Force, a joint American-Canadian unit that was the precursor to American special forces such as the Navy SEALs and Green Berets.
On Tuesday, the commando unit will collectively receive the Congressional Gold Medal — the highest civilian award in the U.S. — for the bravery exhibited nearly 70 years ago. About 42 of the living veterans are expected to attend the event in Emancipation Hall at the United States Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.
“They did the impossible,” said Hofeld, who’s attending in memory of Johnson, who died in 2007. “When somebody couldn’t take a mountain in three months, they did it in three hours. They never lost ground. They only moved forward.”
The 1,800-member unit was nicknamed the “Devil’s Brigade” and the “Black Devils” by German troops because they’d cover their faces in black boot polish for tactical missions at night. Hollywood glorified the force in the 1968 movie “Devil’s Brigade” starring William Holden.
John Hankes, 93, of Hastings, will be one of the few living Minnesota veterans attending Tuesday’s ceremony. His nephews, Tom and Mark Johnson, accompanied Hankes to D.C. so he could reunite with fellow soldiers he hasn’t seen in years.
“I’m just honored to get him here,” Mark Johnson said. “Their efforts saved a lot of lives.”
Hankes enlisted in 1942 with six other Hastings men but grew bored while stationed out west, Johnson said. In an effort to see more action, he signed up for the volunteer-only unit that began high-intensity training near Helena, Mont.
The force is credited with several large victories in the Aleutian Islands and Europe, particularly for their ability to fight through German lines set up between two Italian mountains. They were the first Allied troops to enter Rome in 1944.
In 2013, Congress passed a bill honoring the unit. In part, it reads: “The United States is forever indebted to the acts of bravery and selflessness of the troops of the Force, who risked their lives for the cause of freedom.
“The efforts of the Force along the seas and skies of Europe were critical in repelling the advance of Nazi Germany and liberating numerous communities in France and Italy.”
Hankes was one of the lucky few from the unit to make it home uninjured. After the war, he returned to Minnesota and worked as 3M’s head of security for 32 years.
Each year the unit holds a reunion, alternating locations between the U.S. and Canada. Family members estimate fewer than 150 men from that force remain.
As a new board member for the unit, Hofeld helps coordinate the reunions — which largely center around the family members of veterans who have since died. For her family, Tuesday’s ceremony recognizes the heroism her grandfather and his fellow soldiers displayed at such a young age.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Hofeld. “Being on the right side of the war is not something to belittle.”
The ceremony for the “Devil’s Brigade” will begin at 2 p.m. Twin Cities time on Tuesday. A live webstream of the event can be seen at http://www.speaker.gov/live.