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House Speaker John Boehner, left, Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole, second from left, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, far right, applaud First Special Service Force members Eugene Gutierrez Jr., centre, and Charles Mann, second from right.Susan Walsh/The Associated Press

A group of Canadian veterans received the United States' highest civilian award Tuesday for their role in a legendary military unit whose exploits dazzled moviegoers at home and tormented Nazis abroad.

In a stately ceremony at the U.S. Capitol building, the Second World War vets received the Congressional Gold Medal – an extremely high distinction, even rarer for non-Americans.

The award was given to more than 40 surviving members of the Devil's Brigade, the elite Canada-U.S. unit that was the precursor to both countries' modern special forces.

Politicians told stories about their role in the liberation of Europe, particularly with the invasion of Italy.

"These men saved the free world," House Speaker John Boehner said. "Now [they] are free to savour the triumph and to share their stories for years to come."

The First Special Service Force members earned their nickname after Nazis supposedly referred to them as the "Black Devils" – for the shoe polish they smeared on their faces to attack under cover of night.

The top member of the Senate, meanwhile, compared their exploits to Hollywood.

"Sometimes truth can be more impressive than fiction," Senate Speaker Mitch McConnell said. "Some of their more daring mission plans would have made James Bond blush … But this isn't some Hollywood script."

Actually, it was a Hollywood script, years later. They inspired the 1968 movie, The Devil's Brigade, starring William Holden.

Veterans Affairs Minister Erin O'Toole noted the rarity of Tuesday's honour. The only Canadian believed to have received that congressional medal also inspired a Hollywood movie. That was Ken Taylor, the Canadian diplomat who helped U.S. hostages escape Iran in events captured in the movie Argo.

As for those honoured Tuesday, they responded with humility. When asked about one of the colourful compliments, Canadian vet Charles Mann played it down.

"Well, James Bond was a pretty wild character. I don't know that we were that wild," said the Ontario vet. "We did our jobs the best we knew how. We were well-trained – and we could handle ourselves pretty good."