First Special Service Force members on a few days of rest (Alan on far left), Italy, 1943.Alan Blackwell
Alan atop Mount La Difensa in Italy, 1943.Alan Blackwell
Alan Blackwell (left) and his friend, Charles Van Tine (right) in London, England, 1945.Alan Blackwell
Certificate for the United States Bronze Star Medal, March 2007.Alan Blackwell
Alan Blackwell's Bronze Star medal.Alan Blackwell
"I never even had a scratch, which is amazing because shrapnel flew everywhere from that bomb and I never even had a scratch except being bruised up and knocked over by the blast. Another one of those lucky calls."
I joined up when I was 18 years old at Vanderhoof, B.C. That’s where I was working at the time and all my friends had gone to the army, so I decided I would join them. After I enlisted in Vanderhoof, I was sent to Vernon [British Columbia] and there I did basic training in Vernon. And then I carried on from there to Nanaimo [British Columbia], where I spent a winter in Nanaimo waiting to go to trade school. And I put in a very miserable winter in the Nanaimo. It was damp and cold, which I wasn’t used to because it’s dry here.
Then I went back to Vancouver. I spent one term there at trade school as an electrician and then I was sent to Hamilton, Ontario, where I finished my time in trade school as an electrician and then when I graduated from trade school, they asked for volunteers for the First Special Service Force. And so I joined and it was a very rigid test, I can tell you. But anyway, I was accepted and I went to Helena, Montana, where we took our training.
And that’s where we took all our training for the Special Forces. We trained there for about a year. Well, then we were sent to, well, we were originally meant to go into Norway, but we found out there was some spies close at hand that we didn’t realize and so they called that off and I guess, according to the books and stories I read, that they almost thought of disbanding the force, but then they decided to send us to the Aleutian Islands. And so we went from Helena, Montana, to Norfolk, Virginia, where we took a bunch of training. And then we went over to San Francisco and went to the Aleutian Islands.
And we sat and trained there for about a month on Amchitka and then there was three regiments in our force and the first regiment landed on Kiska in rubber boats and second regiment, which is what I was in, we sat in the airplanes on Amchitka, waiting to jump. But anyway, when the first regiment landed, they found that the Japs [Japanese] had sneaked off in the fog and that there was only a few booby traps and things left on the island.
But one thing they did find, to good luck for us, is that the beach we were supposed to jump onto was supposed to be gravel. It turned out it was big boulders. So if our regiment would have had to jump there, we’d probably have some broken legs and backs and so forth. But anyway, luckily, we didn’t have to do it. And so then we stayed on Amchitka for a while and decided what they were going to do with us. And then they shipped us back to Helena, Montana and then over to Norfolk, Virginia and then we went over to Casablanca [Morocco], across Northern Africa by train, which they unloaded the Jeep and off the car, put a little straw in the bottom and loaded us on and with our sleeping bags. And then we went from there to Oran [Algeria] and by that time, it was a few days, we all smelt like a bunch of sheep. And that was the beginning of our fighting experience because we went from Oran to Italy where we got into the real fighting.
I was in Italy most of the time. We fought all up through Italy and then we were in the invasion of southern France, and then in December 1944, they decided that they didn’t have any more use for spearhead forces, so they disbanded the First Special Service Force and I was shipped back to England as an instructor. And so I spent from December until August in England.
We were, Monte La Defensa [Italy] was our first battle and that was probably the toughest. We lost a lot of men, but we climbed the mountain in the dark and the engineers put ropes and stuff up ahead of time. And we camped at the foot of the mountain and then after dark, we climbed these ropes and things in the dark with all our gear, and at daylight in the morning, we were on top of the mountain, behind the Germans. Then all hell broke loose, and we had one hell of a fight, lost a lot of men, but in five hours, we had the mountain.
It was a tough fight. Lost some of my best friends there. It was very awakening, I can tell you that, from the quiet life that I led here on a cattle ranch to going into a war zone like Italy and I mean, it was almost unbelievable that you could even live through it. But I guess I was one of the lucky ones because I had lots of close calls and still came through with, well, I got one leg banged up, but otherwise than that, I came out in pretty good shape.
I’ll tell you, when I was called, like, I was an instructor in England, and they called out the names of 17 people to fly back to Canada on the [Consolidated B-24] Liberator. So I was lucky to be one of those called out and I’ll tell you, it was unbelievable that I heard my name called because I was all set to go to Germany, an army of occupation. And when I came back to Canada, I tell you, it was good to feel Canada under my feet.
One of my comrades, who was Mexican, his name was Raymond Elizondo, and him and I were working our way through a mine field and I stepped on what they call a ‘Bouncing Betsy’. They were about the size of a jam can and they jump up in the air about four feet and then they explode and they’re full of ball bearings and stuff. So, you know, you’re pretty well dead if you step on one of them. Well, I stepped on one and it was a dud, so that was one of my thankful experiences.
Another friend of mine, his name was Leroy Napp, and him and I, we were just moving forward when we were going towards Rome. And he was about 15 or 20 feet from me. And a mortar landed between him and I, and he was killed instantly and I was blown off my feet, but I never even had a scratch, which is amazing because shrapnel flew everywhere from that bomb and I never even had a scratch except being bruised up and knocked over by the blast. Another one of those lucky calls.