The 36th Division Archive
Sergeant Delmar P. McMilan
1st Section, 5th Company, 2nd Regiment, First Special Service Force
Born in the lazy riverfront town of Rainier, Oregon in 1910, Delmar McMilan did not stay in the town very long before his father, an entrepreneurial Virginian, decided to take a career risk by opening his own sawmill in Willamina with his family. Run by his father and uncle, the mill was the McMilan family lifeblood and a constant throughout Delmar’s early life. After graduating from high school he joined his relatives at the mill full time, cutting down and processing the rugged forests of their Oregonian home. This was the mode of life until tragedy struck when Delmar was only 20. One day while driving home they found a car wrapped around a high-energy electric line pole with loose wires strung all about the road. Delmar’s father, not wanting to leave the scene, decided to investigate and see whether anyone was hurt and what had happened. Going ahead of Delmar, he attempted to dig through some of the wreckage when he came in contact with a live wire. The high voltage struck immediately, electrocuting him severely, burning his body, and igniting his clothes. Delmar no doubt attempted to quench the flames, but the shock and heat were too much and his father died alongside him. The tremendous loss took a toll on Delmar and his family, leading them to close the sawmill and leaving Delmar and his uncle to look after his family. In pursuit of this, the family moved down to Portland and settled in the city, Delmar taking a series of odd jobs until he settled as a contractor and salesman with the West Oregon Lumber Company.
As war broke out Delmar’s time in civilian life came to an end when he was selected in an early round of the draft and joined officially in March 1942. It was not very long after he entered the army that word spread about the formation of a new secretive commando unit seeking men who had experience in more rugged, wilderness-based careers and with his time spent logging, presumed it would be a good fit. It was then that Delmar found himself a member of the newly created First Special Service Force. The FSSF, intended for operations in the mountains of Norway, was slated to be the first multinational combat unit sharing men from both Canada and the United States. Delmar, part of the American force, arrived alongside 1,400 of these other specially selected soldiers at Fort William Henry Harrison in Helena, Montana where the force was tasked to learn the tools of their designated trade. Assigned to Canadian Lieutenant Larry Story’s 4th Section, 5th Company, 3rd Regiment, Delmar and his comrades underwent a training regimen the likes of which had been never before seen. From intense world-standard skiing, a series of rushed but efficient Airborne qualification jumps, specialization in mountain climbing and tactics, advanced training in hand-to-hand combat, practice in amphibious warfare, familiarization with all Allied and Axis weapons of war, and general instruction on surviving and performing without exception in the world’s harshest climates, the men of the FSSF became the army’s most elite and highly-skilled combat unit.
By April 1943 the unit had completed its specialized training in Helena from which it moved to Camp Bradford for advanced amphibious training which led to specialized preparation for their first combat deployment: Operation Cottage. Cottage, the planned Allied invasion of Kiska Island in the Aleutians, was intended to throw off the nearly 2,500 Japanese soldiers who had been occupying the island since 6 June 1943. The FSSF, with its specialty in mountain and winter warfare, was a natural selection for the task force and thus assigned to partake in the primary landings. The force was naturally eager to finally get themselves into the action and after a summer of training, found themselves off the coast of the island watching naval bombardments soften up the Japanese forces for the GIs. Delmar and his unit, now 5th Company, 2nd Regiment, unfortunately, were told they would have to wait to participate and instead were stationed on nearby Amchitka Island in reserve. Although not in the boats themselves, Delmar and his comrades were still on high alert and were told to stand ready in full airborne assault gear for the possibility of a needed combat drop to support the amphibious assault teams. On 15 August 1943, the rest of the FSSF and other Allied units made their way onto the rocky Kiska beaches all the while Delmar and his regiment stood at the ready with their C-47s in anticipation. Fortunately for the troops on the ground, however, the island was completely empty. As Japanese forces managed to escape under cover of darkness in the days leading up to the landing, Delmar and the FSSF would have to wait for their baptism in fire.
The FSSF returned to San Francisco not long after the island had been declared entirely secure. Unsure of what would come next for the elite but fresh commandos, the men were all given a 10-day furlough which Delmar used to return to Portland to visit his mother and sister one last time before he went off for good. Unbeknownst to Delmar, however, this would be the last time he ever got to see his mother alive, as she would pass the next year while he was in Italy. Nonetheless, the furlough came to an end and Delmar quickly found himself back with the unit that had been flagged for a potential new operation. General Mark Clark, commander of the 5th Army, invaded Italy at the beginning of September and found himself in dire need of effective combat troops, especially those accustomed to the mountainous terrain of the Italian peninsula. In October the FSSF made its way to Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia where men were reorganized and promoted in preparation for their trip to the Mediterranean theater of war. It was around here that Delmar was recognized as a combat leader, promoted to sergeant, and put in command of his own section. As a section leader, Delmar was now directly responsible for 12 other men as he led one of the six primary sections comprising his company. On 28 October the FSSF set sail on board the Empress of Scotland, arriving in Casablanca a few weeks later. The journey continued on from there as the men took old WWI-era boxcars on a train to Oran, finally setting sail once before arriving in Naples on 19 November 1943.
The situation in Italy was dire. Kesselring, commander of the German forces, had set up his infamously impenetrable “winter line” across the southern mountain ranges of Italy and the 5th Army had spent a tremendous amount of man and firepower attempting to break through. At this point General Clark had two specific mountains holding up a critical part of his advance, La Difensa and La Remetanea. These two hills, located within the Camino range, were an essential part of the advance towards Cassino and thus a high priority for the Allied forces to secure. Held by a force of roughly 400 veteran German troops of the 15th Panzer-Grenadier Division, the 3,100-foot-tall La Difensa became the primary target for the FSSF. Following a series of failed assaults by the 3rd Infantry Division, the presumably insurmountable obstacle was given a fresh take through the force. As Delmar and the FSSF made their way towards their new objective, they were officially assigned to the 36th Infantry Division as their new immediate commanding and supporting unit within the II Corps. Upon arrival, the Force began working with pathfinders from the 142nd Infantry Regiment to map out possible routes up the hill, leading to a daring plan wherein the 2nd Regiment of the FSSF would be tasked with climbing the sharp cliff face to surprise the Germans at the rear of their positions. The task was a daunting one but by 1430 on 1 December Delmar and the 2nd Regiment began making their way in full combat gear to the base of the mountain.
Working their way through the constant rain and bogged, rocky, and muddy mountain paths, the 2nd Regiment reached the bottom and began their main climb at 2000 in complete darkness, reaching the final cliff face by 2230. These last 200 meters required a series of rope ladders and beginning at 0100, the 1st Battalion started to make their way up onto the peak. At around 0430 the 1st Battalion reached the top and began moving into position, allowing for Delmar and his battalion to scale the cliffs themselves. Unfortunately, their climb would prove a little direr. Despite an intensive artillery barrage the entire day before, German troops still managed to keep watch throughout the night hours and upon hearing the slipping of falling rocks by Forcemen from the 1st Battalion, opened fire upon them who seemed to have appeared from thin air. Taken completely by surprise, the German troops found themselves engaged with an exceptional Allied force all around them. The next few hours were full of machine-gun, mortar, howitzer, and other small arms fire as the 1st Battalion attempted to push towards the central German lines. Meanwhile, Delmar and his battalion were slowly making their way to the top to engage in the fray. It was likely a rather stressful situation for Delmar, having to sit on the cliff-top clutching his Thompson submachine-gun watching as German fire rained down around his unit while he waited for the rest of the men to join them and begin their own assault. The cold and rainy night climb gave way to a foggy sunrise as the final men from Delmar’s battalion reached the top of the cliffs and the entire 2nd Regiment could finally engage the German troops.
With darkened faces, muddied uniforms, and tight grips on their weapons the 2nd Battalion took the left flank of the attacking force and attempted to secure the dip between the two major points on top of the crest. Thankfully for the Forcemen, they not only had the element of surprise, but superior firepower as Delmar and others utilized the numerous automatic weapons employed by the Force such as the Thompson and Johnson Light Machine Gun. By 0800 the main position at the top of Difensa was officially within the hands of the Force and with a lack of ammunition, decided to dig in and prepare for a German counterattack. Despite the defensive posturing, the regiment was not free from combat, however, as German mortar and artillery fire began to pound their positions in retaliation. In addition, many of the sections were sent on combat patrols to seek out German strength and clear the area of snipers which were extremely prevalent. These patrols, led by section leaders such as Delmar, were crucial to the security of the Force position and allowed the Forcemen to seize and hold their objective with minimal risk. According to a postwar study of the battle by the Combat Studies Institute,
“Unit leaders were the key. They had effectively seized the opportunity and had moved to the objective. The troopers had confidence in their fellow soldiers, who, when out of sight, would achieve their objective. This individual initiative, coupled with confidence in their fellow soldiers, was vital to the success of the final coordinated attack on the mountaintop.”
The rest of the day consisted of these varied patrols across the mountain and the sustainment of withering artillery fire. By the dawn of 4 December, however, the Force still stood strong albeit critically low on supplies. Heavy patrolling continued to dominate the actions of the day, gathering intelligence and eliminating points of danger to the broader combat force. Despite attempts by German forces to regroup and advance against the Forcemen, the patrols and a healthy barrage of artillery managed to continually disrupt all operations against them. By the end of the day, the top of La Difensa was secured.
The morning of 5 December saw the Forcemen on Difensa sorting wounded and tending to their own needs. With minimal food and insufficient winter gear, extreme exhaustion, frostbite, and lack of sleep plagued the 2nd Regiment troops who had largely attempted to relieve themselves from the rain and tiredness on rock beds wearing nothing but a poncho. It was on this day that as his battalion began to move towards their next combat objective that Delmar called for medical assistance and was told to evacuate down the mountain for symptoms of extreme cold and exhaustion. Leaving his comrades at 1500, by 1800 he arrived at the 16th Evacuation Hospital in Caserta for recovery. Although leaving his section behind, Delmar’s ferocity left them in good hands and within the next few days, the Force was able to push the Germans off the entire ridge and secure the area for the 5th Army advance.
After he recovered Delmar rejoined the Force while they recouped in Santa Maria all the while receiving high praise from those above them. The weeks of rest were interrupted on 21 December when the 1st Regiment was tasked with assisting the 141st Infantry Regiment to secure the ridge of Monte Sammucro in a Christmas surprise attack. While the 1st Regiment took the brunt of the fighting, Delmar and the 2nd Regiment played the role of packing supplies up the mountain to the engaged troops. The battle proved successful and the various regiments went on to continue capturing more objectives along the winter line. Delmar and the 2nd Regiment spent several days at the end of the month going into early January 1944 fighting through German defenses at Monte Radicosa, clearing heavy minefields and strongholds for advancing troops. Following the battles here the Force was once again taken from the line and told to begin preparations for their next major assault at Anzio. For Delmar, however, these mountain battles proved his last with the First Special Service Force.
In late January as the Force was prepping for Anzio, Delmar caught a severe case of Tuberculosis which utterly crippled him. He was evacuated to a hospital in Italy where he stayed for the next four months before shipping back to the United States for further care. While his comrades were fighting to reach Rome Delmar was taken into Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado where he remained to recover. Besides the distress at leaving the Force in Italy, it was during this stay that Delmar also learned of his mother’s passing at the end of May. On 22 November 1944, he was cleared enough to receive a discharge from the hospital and was officially discharged from the army only four days later, a little under two weeks before the FSSF was entirely disbanded itself in France.
Upon his return home Delmar found a rather empty house with only his sister remaining. The emptiness was only temporary though, as he married his local sweetheart, Wilma, in December. Once he was strong enough to work again he started up his own fiberglass boat business making and repairing vessels for customers in Portland. This lasted for several years until his doctors expressed worry over the lasting impact of tuberculosis on his ability to perform such strenuous work. Distraught and unsure of where to go, Delmar took up an offer from a friend to work part-time in his clock-making shop. For all the rugged experiences Delmar had in his past, the practice grew on him and after years in a partnership, in 1966 opened his own clock shop in Salem, Oregon. Being one of the only clockmakers in the entire state, the niche of his field did not stop Delmar from achieving a degree of success in his business. Amidst the success he went through a divorce and remarried in 1978, never letting a little struggle best his spirit. Throughout these years of his life he retained a hobby in boating, teaching safety courses through his local Coast Guard Auxiliary, starting a yacht club, and running a charter fishing boat. In 1993 Delmar passed at the ripe age of 83, living a full life serving his community, his country, and his brothers-in-arms in the legendary First Special Service Force.