CFB PETAWAWA - Today’s soldiers could certainly learn a thing or two from this seasoned veteran of three wars who has seen his share of combat.
Albert E. Brum was born into one of Petawawa’s founding families who eventually established one of the area’s most endurable businesses. However, Col. Brum’s horizons expanded well beyond the confines of his native Ottawa Valley, taking him to the shores of Italy and the jungles of Cambodia.
The former senior officer’s role in the annals of history will be honoured this weekend when he puts on his uniform one more time to receive the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal -- the highest civilian award in the U.S. alongside the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Brum is one of the few surviving members of the 1st Special Service Force, the joint American-Canadian commando unit that gained fame during the Second World War as the Devil’s Brigade.
In 2008, he received the Bronze Star for meritorious achievement as a jumper with the 2nd Canadian Parachute Battalion, a sub-unit of the 1st SSF, during the Italian and northwest European campaigns.
The medal will be presented to him by a delegation including members from the Canadian government and the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate.
In advance of his excursion to Washington, D.C., the soldier who left here as a mere boy retraced his own roots and the beginning of his remarkable military career more than 70 years ago.
The son of Gustav and Matilda Brum, young Albert left his job at the family dairy to enlist with the Black Watch (Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment).
“I didn’t want to milk cows, carry out manure, do homework or all that good stuff,” Brum said with a laugh.
His commanding officer knew the family and that Brum was underage. So he was transferred to the Royal Canadian Air Force as an aircrew student pilot.
Flying planes did not satisfy his desire to serve his country, prompting him to answer a recruitment call for sharpshooters to join a newly formed unit that was standing up at Fort William Henry Harrison in Montana. He had already won the King’s Medal for Marksmanship as the best shot in Canada and the second best in the British Empire. It was a skill he honed shooting rabbits and groundhogs.
The Devil’s Brigade landed in Anzio, Italy, and immediately tangled with four German divisions, including Herman Goering’s personal division. During their engagement along the Mussolini Canal, then-Pte. Albert Brum’s orders were to move up to the front lines, establish a sniper’s nest and, as he politely put it, “neutralize enemy positions,” which included taking out opposite snipers, observation posts and machine gunners.
He credits the 1st SSF, under the command of Brig.-Gen. Robert T. Frederick, with reaching Rome before any other allied troops.
“He was a soldier’s soldier,” Brum said, noting his commander was wounded seven times in that campaign alone.
The unit was disbanded in southern France in December 1944. Transferred to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, Brum continued seeing action in the Second World War, in Belgium, near Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and eventually in Germany, where he participated in the largest single-day airborne drop in history - Operation Varsity. More than 16,000 allied paratroopers landed on the eastern bank of the Rhine River in an attempt to secure a foothold in western Germany. Along with the 6th British Airborne Division, Brum jumped over the town of Wesel at 10 in the morning. The
German paratroopers, called the Fallschirmjager, were massed in crops of trees below him.
“This was a massive area of dust and dirt, and the German defenses were excellent,” he explained. “We had the highest respect for the Fallschirmjager. They were professionals, unlike the SS.”
Brum still harbours resentment towards the Waffen SS, the vicious paramilitary force, which he believes murdered his 21-year-old brother, Charles, when his Spitfire crashed near Caen, France, in August 1944. After the war, three French witnesses came forward to testify that the SS pulled his wounded brother from the downed aircraft’s cockpit and beat him to death.
“He was a very bright person,” Brum added. “I should have died, not him. He had it all put together.”
Years later, he confronted the non-commissioned officer in charge of the SS group that killed Charles (a charge the NCO denied to his face). Brum erected a monument to his brother at the French village where he died. Today, it used by the community as a gathering place for special ceremonies.
As the division fought its way eastward towards the Baltic Sea, their commander, Eric Bols, received an urgent message from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
“The message said ‘Proceed with haste. Do not link up with the Russians. Stop them,'” Brum said. “The Germans we took prisoner told us we were fighting the wrong enemy. We were holding the line and the Soviets were trying to move through our lines.”
His unit engaged in several firefights with the Red Army, including squads of crack female infantry.
“I’ve never seen such battle-hardened, tough Russian women in my whole life,” he recalled. “The ladies were armed to the hilt and carried drum magazines on their machine guns.”
When the war ended, Brum returned to Pembroke, Ont., under demobilization. He found adjusting to civilian life quite difficult.
“I didn’t want to go back to farming. I wasn’t really qualified for anything else other than being a sniper. I went to school, but I couldn’t get along with the children,” he recalled. “I don’t ever remember being a teenager.”
Brum earned his high school diploma and then enrolled in Royal Military College, where he was commissioned as an officer. He re-enlisted in the Royal Canadian Artillery and was dispatched to Korea for two tours of duty between 1949 and 1951. As an exchange officer with the Korean Military Assistance Group, he fell once again under the command of the U.S. Later, he would take out American citizenship and join the U.S. military.
In 1963 and again in 1965, Brum was deployed to Vietnam and moved across the border into Cambodia with the U.S. Special Forces. Their mission was to win the hearts and minds of the local populace in the villages around the fire bases they established. They provided first aid and sanitation, constructed bridges and infrastructure, and trained the locals to defend themselves.
“If that process had continued, we would have been in good shape and they would have had a great country, but the politicians gave it away," he said.
He retired from the military in 1972 and found work as a Del Monte plant manager. Today, he lives in Hawaii with Dorothy, his wife of 59 years. He has three grandsons serving in the military today. His oldest, Scott, has completed eight tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Scott went out on those deployments, his grandfather advised not to be a hero and keep his head down.
“The other thing I told him is, if you are going to do some house clearing or going after the bad guys .. keep the door down, throw the grenade in and ask questions later.”