Two Rochester natives will be honored Tuesday in Washington for their service as members of an elite commando unit during World War II.
Thomas W. Hope and Thomas W. Johnson were members of the First Special Service Force, a predecessor to the Army’s Green Berets.
On Tuesday, leaders of the U.S. House and Senate will present a Congressional Gold Medal to honor the members of that unit for their contributions to the liberation of Europe and end to World War II.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will take part in the ceremony.
Dubbed the “Devil’s Brigade” by the German opposition, the FSSF was a special operations unit that comprised 1,800 soldiers from the United States and Canada. It was the only unit formed in WWII with troops from the U.S. and Canada, and was instrumental in targeting military and industrial installations. Original plans for a European invasion called for these commandos to parachute into Norway, destroy power plants, and fight their way south to Germany.
Hope, a Brighton resident, plans to be in attendance for the ceremony along with his sons Dana, Vince and Steve.
Johnson, who passed away in 2008, will be represented by his widow, Evy, daughter Cathy Kwit and son Tom Johnson.
Drafted out of college, Hope was a combat photographer whose use of high-speed photography helped change the way paratroopers were instructed to land — feet together rather than apart. He was able to determine that many injuries were caused because one leg took the full shock of impact.
Hope served with the FSSF during their mountain invasion training before leaving to run the Army’s Motion Picture School. He later joined the Ninth Army, which fought at the Battle of the Bulge and led the push into Germany and Berlin. Hope wrote several books about his military experiences, including a 2008 book about the FSSF called “Bonding for Life.”
Johnson was was drafted out of Marshall High School in 1942 and had just turned 18 when he joined the Army’s 1st Ranger Battalion in North Africa. After his unit was wiped out in the Battle of Anzio, he joined the FSSF as they fought their way through Italy toward Rome. Johnson helped liberate French towns in southern France and later served in Norway, where he meet his future wife, Evy. They were married after returning to Rochester in 1946 and settled in Irondequoit.
Veterans of the FSSF met for a reunion in 1946 and have met every year since, alternating between locations in the U.S and Canada. Although the number of surviving members has declined over time, their family members have kept the effort going strong.
“It has become like a big family to us,” said Johnson’s daughter Cathy Kwit. “We travel together to France and Italy and take tours of the places where our fathers fought.”
About 100 of the men who served in the the unit are still alive, according to Kwit, and several dozen of them are expected to travel to Washington for the ceremony.
Vince Hope says his dad, who is 94, has been “silently ecstatic” about receiving this honor. He has worked hard to recover from a stroke last December so that he could be cleared to attend the ceremony in person.
“The recent public recognition for World War II veterans has allowed this generation to add years to their lives,” Vince Hope said. “My dad has found a new spark in the last 15 or 20 years.”
Thomas Hope helped found the local chapter of Honor Flight, and was president of the local organization of Battle of the Bulge veterans.
“Most of these men never talked about their experiences,” Kwit said. “If my dad were here today he’d be proud but humble.”
Article provided by the Democrat and Chronicle, Reporter Sean Lahman.
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- Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife, commando knife.