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Rostraver man, WWII 'Devil's Brigade' may receive Congressional Gold Medal

| Friday, June 14, 2013, 10:32 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Newspaper clippings and photographs of Charles Kaifes of Rostraver from when he served in the first special service forces in World War II. Kaifes is among six men in the state who is being recommended for the Congressional Gold Medal. The six were members of the distinguished Devil’s Brigade, a predecessor to today’s Special Operations Forces.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
The jump wings and official patch of the first special service forces that belong to Charles Kaifes of Rostraver from when he served in the in World War II. Kaifes is among six men in the state who is being recommended for the Congressional Gold Medal. The six were members of the distinguished Devil’s Brigade, a predecessor to today’s Special Operations Forces.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
A shadow box of all of the service medals earned by Charles Kaifes, from when he served in the first special service forces in World War II ,hang in his home in Rostraver. Kaifes is among six men in the state who is being recommended for the Congressional Gold Medal. The six were members of the distinguished Devil’s Brigade, a predecessor to today’s Special Operations Forces.

The notion he could bring home extra pay for indulging his adventurous side was enough motivation for Chuck Kaifes of Rostraver to volunteer for a new Army parachute unit while he was waiting to be shipped overseas during World War II.

“He said, ‘I was the first one up there,'” according to his wife, Evelyn.

“They told them jump pay was 50 bucks a month,” his son-in-law Jim Miller said. “That was his first motivation. ‘Hell yeah, I'll jump out of a plane for 50 bucks.'”

By volunteering, Kaifes unwittingly became part of the 1st Special Service Force.

That secretive American-Canadian collaboration of elite soldiers would become universally feared by the Nazis as the “Devil's Brigade” and lay the foundation for modern-day special forces such as the famed Green Berets.

Now, nearly 70 years after the Devil's Brigade was disbanded, the 1st Special Service Force is inching toward a Congressional Gold Medal.

A Senate bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 1st Special Service Force was introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in April and referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs.

Pennsylvania senators Bob Casey and Pat Toomey, who sits on the committee reviewing the bill, are among its 43 co-sponsors.

“The Devil's Brigade was a valiant force that played an important role in liberating Italy and France during World War II,” Toomey said. “The unit's proud legacy is shared by today's Special Operations Forces who fight with the same bravery and skill as their World War II forefathers. All Americans can be proud of this magnificent unit, whose surviving veterans include six Pennsylvanians, the most of any state.”

The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee requires at least 67 senators co-sponsor any Congressional Gold Medal legislation before the panel will consider it.

A corresponding bill passed the House of Representatives by 415-0 vote on May 21.

In some of its first combat action during December 1943, the Devil's Brigade cracked the Winter Line — a previously impregnable series of German mountain fortifications in Italy — but at a heavy price.

In just one month of service, the unit had lost 1,400 of its 1,800 men.

“I think had they known what they were in for, they wouldn't have done it,” Miller said. “They probably couldn't tell them.”

And Kaifes, now 90 and in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer's disease, rarely, if ever, spoke of the violent details of his service with his wife, daugher Kathy, or his grandsons Matt, Brendan and Kevin.

“He didn't talk about it for a lot of years,” Evelyn Kaifes said. “I didn't know him when he came home from the service; I met him later. But all these years, he didn't talk about it very much.”

“He made a comment, ‘Isn't that wonderful,' and that's about the only thing he said,” Evelyn said of Chuck's reaction to learning about the bill. “He would have been much better if he had a good day.”

Kaifes “would tell happy stories, like when him and another guy took a motorcycle off a German army courier and rode into town, or that they were the first ones into Rome and he got rosary beads from the Pope,” Miller said. “He'd tell stories like that, he'd never tell (stories about the violence), I mean, you can only imagine the violence and gore that these guys saw in two years.”

After its mission in the mountains, the unit moved to the beachhead at Anzio.

“My favorite outfit at Anzio was called the 1st Special Force,” Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and World War II veteran Bill Mauldin wrote in his memoir, ‘The Brass Ring.' “... They had the Germans terrorized.”

The Devil's Brigade was one of the first Allied forces into Rome, then moved on to missions in France before being disbanded Dec. 5, 1944, in a field near Menton, France.

Army Special Forces still honor the unit with Menton Week each December.

“It's amazing, the things they went through,” Miller said. “And he came back and went to church every Sunday of his life and raised his kids and is a great, loving grandfather to my kids. He's as good a father-in-law as you could have.”

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or greinbold@tribweb.com.

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