By Philip R. Devlin.
PFC Melvin Baron of East Haddam (1925-1944)
War Hero and Member of the
First Special Services Force
“Enterprises must be prepared, with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror…leaving a trail of German corpses behind them.” –Winston Churchill June 6, 1940.
Winston Churchill uttered these words exactly four years to the day before the D-Day invasion. A meeting was held at Chequers—the country retreat of the British prime minister– in late March 1942 with American representatives for war planning. General George Marshall accepted the British idea of forming an elite commando unit for special missions known as the First Special Services Force (FSSF). Marshall appointed General Robert T. Frederick to head this joint American-Canadian strike force.
Beloved by his men, General Frederick was called by Churchill “the greatest fighting general of all time.” He led from the front. Frederick earned 8 Purple Hearts—the most ever by one soldier; in addition, he earned a Silver Star, 2 Distinguished Service Medals, 2 Distinguished Service Crosses, 2 Legion of Merit commendations, and 2 Bronze Stars.
PFC Melvin Baron of East Haddam was one of forty-two men from Connecticut who were part of the FSSF. Following a breakout from the Anzio beach head largely engineered by the FSSF, PFC Baron was onboard an American truck on Route 6 on June 4, 1944, headed toward Rome to liberate the “Eternal City” from the Nazis. A German Tiger Tank, part of a rearguard action to slow the American advance on Rome, obliterated Baron’s truck with one shot of its 88 mm gun—the best gun of the war. He died instantly.
The “Force” had harassed and intimidated their German opponents near Anzio. Under cover of darkness, FSSF members used to crawl toward enemy lines and kill Germans, often while they slept. Their weapon of choice was a special stiletto (the V-42) designed by General Frederick. Experts at psychological warfare, Force members would always leave a calling card on a dead German body, stating in German, “Das Dicke Ende Kommt Noch!” (“The worst is yet to come!”) The following note found on a German POW is telling: (You are)”fighting an elite Canadian-American Force. They are treacherous, unmerciful and clever. You cannot afford to relax. The first soldier or group of soldiers capturing one of these men will be given a 10 day furlough.” The Germans referred to FSSF members as “Schwarzen Teufel”— Black Devils.
Eventually, PFC Baron’s remains were returned to Moodus in 1948 on the Liberty ship USS Carroll along with 83 other Connecticut men who had been killed in Italy. The August 12th edition of the now defunct New Era newspaper had this to say about PFC Baron’s funeral: “After the services at the community center, attended by a very large crowd, the body was placed on a caisson, which was the same one that carried the body of Theodore Roosevelt to Arlington Cemetery, and was carried to the cemetery in Leesville.”
The legacy of the First Special Service Force was best captured in a 1955 article in a Helena, Montana, newspaper near to the FSSF training site: “. . . the Force never in all its service yielded an inch of ground nor left a battle with an indecisive conclusion. The Force won everything it fought for . . .”
Six men from East Haddam paid the ultimate sacrifice in World War II:
James R. Douglas
Peter P. Golec
Edward J. McMullen
Wavel B. Smith
Lewis R. Soffer
The names of three of these men appear on the American Legion post building in East Haddam: Baron, Smith, and Golec.
Of the 45 Connecticut men in the FSSF, 3 died in action: T. Schultz of Union City, Robert S. Buckley of Plainfield, and Melvin Baron of Moodus.
Those interested in knowing more about the FSSF may want to watch the 1968 film based on their actions in Italy. It is called “Devil’s Brigade,” starring William Holden and Cliff Robertson.