Charles Mann standing in uniform with his Thompson sub-machine gun.Charles Mann
Charles Mann (front row, second from right) with members of the First Special Service Force.Charles Mann
"So our unit, having been trained in mountain climbing and what have you, was given the job of trying to remove the Germans off of a mountain called Monte La Difensa .”"
Back in 1937, when I was a young lad, and we were just coming out of the [Great] Depression, money was very shy. Being a young lad, I needed money and my parents didn’t have very much so I joined the militia in 1937 and the used to call us the ‘Saturday night soldiers,’ because on Saturdays, afternoons and evenings, we’d go to the local armouries and practice and drill and learn things about the army.
And then in the summertime, they would take us down to a place called Barriefield, just outside the city of Kingston [Ontario] for a two week sojourn in Barriefield, and again, mostly for military type training. And I did that up until World War II started in 1939 and when the war started, I got bypassed because I was too young, so I couldn’t join the army. So from there on, I worked at a factory in Port Hope for a while and then in 1940, when I hit 18, I joined up in the [Canadian] Active Service Force. And I stayed in the Active Service Force until spring of 1946.
I initially signed up in the active army. It was a Midland Regiment of the Durham Northumberland County area and I signed up in a town called Lindsay [Ontario] and from Lindsay, I was transferred to another town called Cobourg [Ontario], it was attached to the battalion headquarters as a learner clerk or clerk learner, whatever you want to call it. And from Cobourg, we went to Ottawa for a short while and we actually spent, we were camped under the grandstand in the football park. We lived under the grandstand and from Ottawa, we went down to St. John, New Brunswick, where we were employed as coastguard people, I guess, because we were there to try and detect any invasion, question marked by the Germans for a while, and we used to patrol the coast and had our headquarters in Barrack Green [Armoury] in the city of St. John, New Brunswick. And then from there, they brought the regiment up to the St. Catharines, Ontario area, where they put us on guard duty on what they call the Welland Canal, just in case there was any espionage type people trying to damage it because it was the main waterway throughout the Great Lakes.
And we were there for a while and then in the St. Catharines area, Ontario, we were transferred out to Edmonton, Alberta. And we were stationed in what they called the Prince of Wales Barracks, which are still there by the way. We were stationed there for two or three months and they moved us up to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. As a matter of fact, they divided the regiment up into different areas for shore duty because there had been a bit of a scare about a possible Japanese invasion. So then they took us up there to be prepared, shall we say.
It was while we were up there that I decided, when I saw a notice on the board, that I would like to get into a more active type regiment, if you want to call it that, so I volunteered for special duty, it was called, and I was accepted. So I, along with a few others from the regiment, who had also volunteered, were transferred down to the Currie Barracks in Calgary, Alberta, where a bunch of Canadians who had volunteered to serve in the same new unit were being assembled. And when they got them assembled, they put us all on trains and lo and behold, we went south. Well, south of Calgary, Alberta in Montana, United States and we wound up in the capital city of the state of Montana, a city called Helena. And we were placed in the old fort, which was called Fort William Henry Harrison, had not been active for umpteen dozen years, but all of a sudden, here we are with a brand new unit, needing a place to live and so they put us there, Fort William Henry Harrison, Helena, Montana. And I arrived in there in, oh, July or August of 1942.
We were located in Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana, from late July or early August until December. And we were supposed to be trained and ready for an invasion operation by December of 1942. And we were. But then the invasion operation was cancelled because the country that we were supposed to invade were not too fussy about having us blow up their power plants and what have you. So it was called off.
It was later taken care of by another group of specialists, I think it was the British SAS [Special Air Service] or something. Anyway, so we didn’t go on that operation, so here we were, December of 1942, no job. So we were put back in the training barracks and we kept on training and getting sharper, if that’s the word, and more training and more training and then all of a sudden, we were shipped out to Fort Ethan Allen, near Burlington, Vermont. And we were there for a short while and we picked up some more recruits and then we were shipped out from Burlington, Vermont, to San Francisco, California and placed on ships and taken up to the Aleutian Islands. And apparently some time in the 1940s, the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands and if you know your geography at all, you know that the Aleutian Islands extend from Alaska almost over to Russia.
And the Japanese had taken some islands out there and scared the Allies, I guess – this is speculation, I’m sorry, I can’t do any better – it looked like they were trying to establish an area to work from to move into invading Alaska and thus, Canada and Northwestern United States. So my unit and some other American and Canadian units were sent up to take care of the problem and we did. We went up to an island called Amchitka and we were stationed on Amchitka for a short while and we got ready to invade an island called Kiska. And the American Army had already cleaned the Japanese off an island called Adak, at a considerable cost to both the Japanese and the Americans, especially the Japanese.
Anyway, we got all ready and we were going to invade the island of Kiska and we were going to do what they called an amphibious invasion using rubber boats and some landing craft, to land the troops on the island of Kiska. And this was to take place on August the 15th, which it did, but there were no Japanese there. And we have since learned, since World War II finished, that the Japanese found out what was happening, and on July 28th, 9:30, somewhere in there, they took all their troops off of the island of Kiska back to Japan.
So we went in on August – notice the dates – there was nobody there. So it was a good practice invasion at least, but it did create a problem because there were a lot of people became frightened or not being sure about what was happening, but they were actually, I think, you notice I said the word think, there were about 27-28 friendly fire killed and wounded on Kiska.
Anyway, we were only there a couple days and we got a call from Washington, somebody wanted to know where the 1st Special Service Force was and he was told and he said, “Well, get them over to Europe, we need them very badly in Italy.” So Kiska, back to California, California back to Fort Ethan Allen, get refreshed, get equipment brought up to date. Then we went down to Virginia, got on the [RMS] Empress of Scotland and took off to Africa. I had better back up a little bit because we did, while we were in Fort Ethan Allen earlier, we did spend some time in Norfolk, Virginia. And we were trained on rubber boats and landing craft so that we could land from a ship onto the land. And of course, we used that training up in the Aleutians, which I had just previously mentioned.
However, the second time around, we got back to Ethan Allen, got restocked up so to speak, and then they took us down to Virginia again and refreshed us and then put us on the Empress of Scotland, took us to Africa and we landed in Africa and went from one port in Africa to another, got on a couple more troop ships and wound up in Naples, Italy, some time in September/October area, I’m not dead sure. I know the month, but not the date.
And we wound up in a camp which at one time had been a military camp where the Italian Army, when the Germans came to Italy, they took it over and it became a camp for the German Army. And then when we arrived, we took it over and the Germans were gone of course. And we were at a place called Santa Maria Capua [Vetere]. That was where the base was.
In due time, we were told that we had a job to do, we’re getting into November/December now, 1943, so we were taken up just outside of Cassino [Italy]. There was some mountains and hills up there that the Germans had pretty well defended and they wanted to get them out of the way because they were holding up the Allied advance, up through Italy. So our unit, having been trained in mountain climbing and what have you, was given the job of trying to remove the Germans off of a mountain called Monte La Difensa [also known as Hill 960], which we successfully did in two and a half hours in a night attack.