A Halifax architect’s past with an elite WWII commando unit
J.D. (Don) Mitchell, at right, getting ready for parachute jump training at Fort William Henry Harrison near Helena, Montana in 1942.
By Ryan Van Horne 4 November 2016 Share this story
During the Second World War, Lt. J.D. (Don) Mitchell of Halifax jumped out of planes, climbed mountains, and snuck around at night with black shoe polish on his face, all to destroy the Nazi war machine.
When he got back to Halifax, he became an architect and started to build things: hospitals, universities, theatres, and a family. He had five kids, and his youngest, Greg, has fond memories of sitting in the den listening to his father.
“It was funny as heck,” Greg Mitchell says. “He used to love getting a head rub, so he’d sit on the floor and I’d sit on the couch and I’d rub the top of his head in exchange for him telling me stories.”
Often Greg Mitchell would get quite engrossed, especially if it was a story of a mission in Italy.
“He would take me back into the pitch of darkness, when he was on a patrol deep behind enemy lines,” Mitchell says. “He would sit there for an hour and walk me through what they saw and what they felt.”
He recounts one story about a midnight patrol when there was no moon. His father and his fellow soldiers ducked behind a low wall to conceal themselves from a German patrol just a few feet away. As he retells the story, he starts to use “we” as if he was there with his dad.
“As I would sit there and rub his head, we would be creeping along this stone wall two feet high. If it got to three feet high, we thought that was a luxury because we could straighten up a bit. If anybody breathed a sigh, all hell would have broken loose,” Mitchell said. “They were that close.”
Mitchell, who was around 12 years old at the time, recalls being so engrossed in this story that he stopped rubbing his dad’s head.
“I was there experiencing that with him in my mind’s eye,” he said. “What I eventually began to feel was not the fear, but the skullduggery that was involved in what they had to do; the extreme patience and extreme discipline.”
J.D. Mitchell would later write his experiences down and self-published a book called The War As I Saw It From My Foxhole. The unit was the subject for a 1968 movie called The Devil’s Brigade, which inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Vernon Doucette of Lower Wedgeport, was in the unit with Don Mitchell, who co-signed his papers when the two joined the Canadian Parachute Battalion and later the First Special Service Force.
“When you’re young, you think you can do anything,” said Doucette, who was in the Signal Corps at the time and wanted to get out. “I thought I might as well go all the way.”
Don was promoted to officer, despite not being much older than his comrades. Still, Doucette says he was “one of the boys. He was in there crunching and grinding like the rest of us.”
Ken Hynes, curator of the Canadian Army Museum at the Halifax Citadel, says a display about the unit at the museum is popular, especially among the many American visitors who learn the unique story of the unit.
“The First Special Service Force is very important from an historical perspective because it is the genesis of all special service forces,” Hynes said. “It was the only time the Canadian and American army formed a combined unit.”
Despite being around for just two years, the unit had a tremendous record of achievement when it was disbanded in December 1944.
After the war, the two met up in Halifax and Mitchell told Doucette he was going to study at Dal.
“I told him: ‘They’re going to take a dumb nut like you in college?” Doucette said. “I think I’ll join you. If it hadn’t have been for Don, I probably wouldn’t have gone to university.”
Doucette became a geodist, a land surveyor who makes maps, with the federal government and Mitchell, who studied architecture, became a partner in Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, one of Halifax’s largest architectural firms.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.
Ryan Van Horne is a reporter, photographer, columnist, and editor based in Halifax.
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