The aisle up to the main stage was lined with 42 veterans of the Second World War.
We were members of a very elite unit – the First Special Service Force. We were marching toward centre stage where we were about to be presented with the American award – the Congressional Gold Medal. It is the highest civilian medal that can be awarded by the United States.
As I looked at my comrades, most of them over 90 years of age, my heart was filled with pride. These are the men who made such a great impact on ourselves and our enemies.
I could just picture them 70 years ago – laughing, joking, teasing, and really getting to know each other. It was then we started to act like family and when we went into action this bond tightened.
It was then we started to obey an unwritten law – ‘Always help your comrade when he is wounded.’ Later, I read something in the Bible that really brought this point home forcefully for it was written: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man laid down his life for his friends.’
This was love and respect and it was demonstrated very well by the men of the First Special Service Force.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. We were fighting in the mountains of Italy when I was shot. A buddy of mine, George Wright, from Picton, Ont., came to help me. He left the comfort and security of his foxhole. As he ran to me, he exposed himself to enemy fire. When he got to me, he bent down and asked, “Where ya hit, Pep?” Before I could answer, I heard the rattle of a machine gun and watched in horror as the pouches on George’s web belt seemed to explode before my eyes. George groaned and pitched forward. Soon, two medics jogged up, one carrying a stretcher. One worked on me, the other medic worked on George.
The medic who worked on me said my wound was not as serious as George’s, they’d have to take George out first. They’d be back for me in two hours. So, loading George on the stretcher, they made off to the rear.
Meantime, another friend, Len Anderson, from St. Charles, Minn., came over, helped me get in a shallow foxhole, threw me his water bottle and jogged off toward the fighting.
These are the kind of buddies, comrades, we had in our force – people you could count on, people you would risk your life to help at any time. I was so lucky to have served with heroes like these!
At last I reached the huge stage. It was in the prestigious Capital Building. I was welcomed by four dignitaries. They had be hold the precious medal our unit was to receive. It was the beautiful First Special Service Force, Congressional Gold Medal. Then a picture was taken. This proceeding was repeated 42 times so that each of the veterans of the First Special Service Force had the hour of holding the medal we had earned.
As I stood on the stage with the Congressional Gold Medal in my hands, many things were rushing through my mind. Forgotten was the mud, the slush, the cold, the snow, and the injuries. This was a time for joy, for love, for celebration! I was so fortunate to have joined the prestigious unit, the First Special Service Force.
I gazed around at some of my comrades and my eyes filled with tears. I really had to struggle with my emotions. Still, something came to my eyes to replace the tears. It was the amazing feeling of joy for being rewarded for our accomplishments.
I gazed at my comrades with a respect that knows no bounds. These were men who never gave up. Despite exhaustion, when the order came to advance, nothing could hold us back. We achieved every objective, never losing a battle, and that in itself was an accomplishment that was remarkable!
Now we stood with our families and proudly accepted the highest award we could ever imagine receiving. As I looked down at the audience, I saw my two daughters, Lark and Rosalee. The look of pride in their eyes made the whole joyous celebration complete.
That afternoon we were taken to another part of the Capital Building, Emancipation Hall where the First Special Service Force was being officially awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
There were six very important people on the stage. Each gave a speech honouring our unit, the First Special Service Force. I was most impressed by the speech given by the Honorable John A. Boehner, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. He gave a very touching and emotional tribute in which he included, “for these men saved the free world.”
Another guest speaker that impressed me was the Honorable Erin O’Toole, Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs.
Following the speeches, the dignitaries presented the Congressional Gold Medal to two of our veterans, Mr. Charles Mann representing the First Special Service Force Canadian veterans, and Mr. Eugene Gutierrez, Jr., representing the First Special Service Force American veterans. These two force members each spoke in turn and emphasized how impressed we were for being treated in such a friendly and dignified manner.
They told the dignitaries and the audience present we will never forget the honour and prestige the First Special Service Force received when they presented us with the Congressional Gold Medal.
I wholeheartedly agree! February 3, 2015, was my Congressional Gold Medal day and I proudly shared it with my First Special Service Force buddies!
I will never forget the pride and joy of this most important day!