Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He was a Devil with a heart and soul

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It was a heavenly Sunday in September, a day seemingly sent by the angels, when they gathered to say goodbye to one of the last of the Devil's Brigade.

They being mostly the family, friends and a lone comrade-in-arms of Alan John Lennox.

He was 88 when he died on Sept. 15 at the Deer Lodge Centre, not far from Albany Street, where he lived his whole life.

Except for those war years.

But Al Lennox was lesser-known in Winnipeg as a heroic member of a historic fighting unit than he was as a piano salesman at Eaton's, and the man, according to his family, who sold Burton Cummings' mother his first piano.

That's not who he was to his nieces and nephews, though, who were like the children he never had.

One by one they stood and sometimes tearfully -- but mostly joyfully -- spoke of how special this special forces man had been to them.

"ö "ö "ö

He spent only a few years in combat, and 38 years selling pianos.

But, unlike so many veterans who never talked about the war, Al Lennox gloried in that time with the First Special Service Force, a joint Canadian and American commando unit that became the forerunner of America's Green Berets and Canada's secretive Joint Task Force 2 commando unit.

The Devil's Brigade was the Allies' version of shock troops.

It was the Germans who gave them the name.

The story goes that it was a German soldier, writing in his diary, who called them "black devils" because of the shoe polish they smeared on their faces during after-dark raids. And, no doubt, because of the calling cards they left on corpses.

The message was written in German, but it was devastating in any language.

"The worst is yet to come."

And it was.

But not just for the Germans.

Al was wounded at Anzio, on the road to Rome. A mine exploded on the beach, peppering the left side of his face with shrapnel.

One of his nieces recalled that as a child she used sit on his knee and pick at the purple pellets in his face, as he showed off the bullet-wound scars in his arm and told war stories over and over.

Another nephew told of the time, as an adult, he lived with his uncle Al.

The phone would ring at 3 a.m. and there would be a whispered voice on the other end.

Uncle Al instructed him to always answer.

Apparently it was one of the Devil's Brigade, calling from somewhere in North America, wanting to talk to "Lippy," as he was nicknamed for talking out of turn once to an officer.

Peter Cottingham, another Devil's Brigade veteran who at age 88 drove from Neepawa to be at the memorial service, has another nickname for Lippy.

He calls him "the soul" of the unit, because of how he looked after "Devils" who called on him.

Among them, the legendary Tommy Prince, who died an alcoholic after selling his medals.

Tommy would come to Eaton's looking for a loan. Al would always slip him $10 or $20. And, according to what Al told one nephew, Tommy would always pay him back.

Al Lennox's way with his "brothers" in arms was a natural fit for the Devil's Brigade, both during and after the war.

He had been like a father to his two younger brothers.

But his special way with people he considered family was never more apparent than with his nieces and nephews.

As they stood individually last Sunday to deliver their eulogies, the messages became a chorus.

He was the best uncle anyone could ask for. They spoke again and again of his generosity. How he made each one of them feel like he was giving them his undivided love and attention.

One of the nephews, who listened to the rest, summed it up perfectly.

The nephew said he thought his Uncle Al only lavished all that attention, all that generosity and love on him.

He said that jokingly, but that's how it felt to all of them.

"ö "ö "ö

Al Lennox wanted to die at his home on Albany Street.

But after he had a stroke, the nurses who looked after him so affectionately at the Deer Lodge Centre had made it his home.

The family had long instructed that, in the event his heart stopped, everything be done to save his life.

In the end, though, they were convinced there would be no heroic measures for a man who had seen, and been a part of, so much heroism.

In the end, one of his nephews suggested, the old soldier was worried about our young soldiers in Afghanistan, and war -- and the stories he had told over and over -- had lost their glory.

But then, in the end, it wasn't the war or being one of the Devil's Brigade that really defined Al "Lippy" Lennox.

It was his humanity.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 26, 2009 B1

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