CENTERVILLE — It’s been nearly five years since Billy Kirkbride left the Earth and another 60 or so since he left the battlefield, but the legacy he built in both domains continues to thrive.
Kirkbride, a Davis County area veteran who fought in World War II with an American-Canadian special forces unit nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade, posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal earlier this month at Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center in Washington, D.C.
The entire brigade — which went by the proper name of the First Special Service Force — was also honored with the medal, which is given by Congress and represents the highest civilian award in the United States.
Kirkbride, a native of Dayton, Idaho, who lived in Clearfield after landing a job at Hill Air Force Base, joined the 1,800-member unit in 1942. The brigade was made up of equal parts Americans and Canadians, and was one of the most elite and effective commando units during World War II. It’s seen today as a precursor to other special forces groups like the Navy Seals.
The unit conducted night raids that were highlighted not only by parachute jumps into enemy territory and demolitions, but also by seemingly unconventional war tactics like rock climbing and skiing.
According to “A Commemorative History: First Special Service Force,” written by Ted Kemp, recruitment letters sent out to Army units in the West, Southwest and along the Pacific Coast asked for single males between the ages of 21 and 35 who held occupations like rangers, lumberjacks, woodsmen, hunters, prospectors, explorers and game wardens.
Once selected, members trained at an Army base in Helena, Montana. Due to the secrecy of the mission, members of the exclusive unit were told only that they had been selected to train for a parachute unit. Many of them were transported to Helena on trains with blacked-out windows and were initially unaware of their training location. The group also trained in Virginia and Vermont.
During the war, the group battled in the Aleutian Islands, Italy and southern France before it was eventually disbanded in December 1944.
According to his wife, Mary, Kirkbride performed 27 parachute jumps during his time with the unit, including two jumps behind enemy lines. Like many others in the unit, Kirkbride bolstered his stealthy nighttime descents by covering his face in black shoe polish.
Kirkbride was injured in the Italian mountains during one of the unit’s bloodiest battles. In 1943, the group was ordered to attack two heavily fortified German positions at Monte La Difensa and Monte La Remetanea. At La Difensa, where Kirkbride was injured, the unit scaled a cliff reported to be more than 1,000 feet high, with ropes tied together in freezing and rainy conditions.
“Bill was hit with mortar shells and it threw him up in the air and he landed in kind of a little ravine,” Mary said. “He laid there for three days before the medics found him.”
A small amount of morphine in his pocket helped him grit through a shattered arm and other injuries, and he was eventually rescued, although he encountered Nazi fire as he was taken out of the area on a stretcher.
“He was lucky then,” Mary said. “He told me the one (carrying the stretcher) at the head said, ‘Let’s drop this stretcher and save ourselves,’ but the one on the bottom said, ‘Where we go, this kid goes.’ ”
During the mountain battles, the Devil’s Brigade suffered 511 casualties, with 91 dead, 9 missing, 313 wounded and 116 cases of exhaustion, according to Kemp.
After World War II, Kirkbride served for a short time in the Korean conflict. He was awarded two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and several other service medals.
He and Mary wed in 1946 and eventually had five daughters together, who, along with Mary, attended the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony.
Family members said they were given only two tickets for the event and had to rely on Utah Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee for the final four tickets.
“It was a really touching ceremony,” said Kirkbride’s daughter Jill Chandler, who lives in Ogden. “They had several members of the unit who were still alive and a lot of them were in wheelchairs, so as the Army band played, they brought them out first. It was just very emotional.
“We knew it was really special what our dad had done, but to have people stand up there and actually say, ‘You saved our country from the Nazis, you did what no other men would do’ — it was just really special.”
At the ceremony, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and several others gave the unit high praise.
On Feb. 4, the day after the gold medal was awarded, Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, spoke of Kirkbride in a speech on the floor of the House.
“He doesn’t just represent the strength of our armed forces. He represents American values that continue to make our nation great, and millions of us are grateful for his service,” Stewart said in his speech.
“Bill would have been elated,” Mary said. “He was very proud of the unit he was in.”
Mary Kirkbride and her five daughters said that while they’re proud of their father’s war-time heroics and recent national recognition, those exploits are much less important than what he achieved as a husband and father. He’s described by his daughters as someone who had much grit and determination, but also someone who was kind, loving and attentive.
“He was a very good husband to me,” Mary said. “He put me first in everything, and I think he was hoping maybe to get a boy each time, but he was great to his five girls, too. We’re all very lucky to have had him.”