Jimmy Summersides, a World War II veteran, was an adult on paper but just a kid at heart. Acoording to Dan Dakin, Welland Tribune's journalist, at 19 years old, there was Jimmy Summersides, hunkered down in a trench on the beachhead of Anzio, Italy in the spring of 1944. It was his first night of fighting in the Second World War, and it wasn't long before the bullets started to fly.
“The Germans made us scared that first night. With their optics, they probably knew we were there. They shelled the bejeebers out of us. It gave us a real good idea that 'hey, this is war.'”
Born on Burgar St, Summersides voluntarily enrolled in the army at 18 years old. “I decided they weren't going to call me into the army and put me where they wanted me, I was going to join it and then I'd have a say,” he said. “That was, perhaps, my mistake.”
He was sent to basic training in Orillia and advanced training at Camp Borden before being shipped off to Nova Scotia to wait for his turn to go to war.
“The draft was always alphabetical, so when your name starts with 'SU', you were at the tail end of it,” he said. “We ended up going into further training until the next draft.”
Just before Christmas, 1943, Summersides was sent to England and stayed there less than a month before being sent to Italy, where the allied forces had taken over a bombed-out city.
It was there that Summersides and two others from Welland volunteered to join a newly-formed special forces squad made up of American and Canadian soldiers.
“Within a month, we were on the Anzio beachhead,” he said.
Although it's a lesser-known battle site of the Second World War, Anzio beach was one of the deadliest fighting grounds in the war with tens of thousands of casualties.
“It stood for many years as a pain in the neck for the allies. That's when I found out we weren't run of the mill anymore,” he said. “We were special.” That first night on Anzio beach “gave us an indoctrination,” Summersides said. “That was the first time we had ever been shot at.”
The 1st Special Service Force played a major role in the Anzio battle, serving 99-straight days without a break. It was the Germans who dubbed them the Devil's Brigade. They were an elite group of commandos who are now considered the grandfathers of the modern American and Canadian special forces.
Summersides said there were a total of 2,400 men who served in the Devil's Brigade, and no one escaped uninjured.
“We never missed taking an objective, we never backed up once and more than a few of the guys were wounded more than once,” he said. “I got tickled pretty bad once,” Summersides said when asked about his own injuries.
That was more than seven decades ago, yet the memories remain vivid for the 90-year-old Welland native, a distinguished soldier with a distinguished career. Summersides served in what became known as the Devil's Brigade, a unit immortalized in a 1968 Hollywood movie of the same name.
This week Summersides will be in Washington to receive an American Congressional Gold Medal Tuesday for his exceptional service in the war with the international elite special forces squad.
The ceremony will take place Tuesday afternoon, and it's expected U.S. President Barack Obama will present the medals to Summersides and the other 150 remaining members of the 1st Special Service Force -- the Devil's Brigade. Summersides is one of 46 remaining Canadians who served in the squad.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honour in the U.S. It was first presented to George Washington in 1776.
The entire U.S. Congress voted in 2012 to award the Gold Medal to the 1st Special Service Force.
It's not something that's run of the mill. It's really a high honour and it humbles you to think how high it is,” said Summersides, who flew to Washington Monday with his wife Margaret and other family members.
Margaret, his wife of 68 years, said she knows life could have turned out much differently.
“With everything he went through, he was lucky he got home because there were so many who didn't,” she said. “We've been over in different countries and the graveyards, you just can't help but cry when you walk through them and see row after row after row of these 18 and 19-year-olds.” The other two Welland men who served in the special force survived the war but have since died, Summerside said.
“This is something we must have earned. Somebody thought we were worth it,” Summersides said. “With only 150 of us left, it's a privilege to be able to go and attend it.”