The Origin of Special Forces
Special operations are nothing new to the American soldier. Before Green Berets were teaching counterinsurgency to foreign armies, there were grim-faced men stalking the enemy in woods and swamps during the French and Indian War. Known as Rogers' Rangers after their commander Major Robert Rogers, they were the first of America's unconventional forces.
Though the era they lived in was simpler than the present age, the skills necessary to become an elite soldier were the same. Rogers' Rangers fought in terrain that normal men shunned. They crept up on an enemy with the stealth of a slithering snake, and delivered blows with the lethality of a Cobra bite. "Move fast and hit hard," Rogers told his men, and they obeyed, thereby setting the standard for generations to follow. The tradition continued during the American Revolution with Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox who led daring guerrilla raids on British forces in South Carolina and Georgia. His troops harassed the enemy with a success out of all proportion to their small numbers because Marion used the element of surprise to its greatest potential.
In the Civil War, Colonel John Singleton Mosby of Virginia formed a band of Confederate raiders that became the terror of Union generals. Operating from the outskirts of his enemy's capital, Mosby and 300 select volunteers cut off communications and supplies, wrecked railroads and raided headquarters behind enemy lines. Because of his stealth and uncanny ability to avoid capture, Mosby came to be known as the Gray Ghost.
Well-trained and well-disciplined, Mosby and his men set a model for guerrilla warfare: weaken the enemy's front line, weaken the enemy's infrastructure and win the support of the people. Mosby accomplished the latter by protecting the local population from plundering Union soldiers and by sharing their captured wealth with those in need.
However, it was not until World War II that special operations troops finally left their unstoried peripheries and came into their own. In quick succession the public soon would come to know the names of such units as the Devil's Brigade, Darby's Rangers, Merrill's Marauders and the Alamo Scouts.
Elite Units of World War II
Known more formally as the 1st Special Service Force, the Devil's Brigade was a joint Canadian-American venture that began July 9, 1942, at Fort William Henry Harrison, Montana. Airborne-trained and honed to the sharpness of a cold steel blade, the Devil's Brigade saw most of its action in Italy, but also fought in France, where it was inactivated in 1944. Its forte was close-quarter combat against numerically-superior forces, a task which it accomplished with a raw power that gave the brigade its nickname.
Darby's Rangers was the moniker given to the 1st Ranger Battalion in honor of its commander, Maj. William 0. Darby. The unit was activated June 19, 1942, in Carrickfergus, Ireland. It fought throughout Western Europe, but achieved its greatest fame when it scaled the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Merrill's Marauders was the title given to Col. Frank D. Merrill's 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), a 3,000-man force that staked out a piece of Burmese jungle and dared the Japanese to challenge it. They did, and wound up losing to the Marauders in five major battles and 17 skirmishes. The Marauders' greatest feat, and the one that made them an inspiration 20 years later to American soldiers once again slogging through Asian jungles, was their march of miles through thick Burmese foliage en route to the capture of an airfield at Myitkyina.
In the Pacific, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger established a small elite force and called them the Alamo Scouts, probably after his native San Antonio. In perhaps their greatest feat, the Scouts led U.S. Rangers and Filipino guerrillas in an attack on a Japanese prison camp at Cabantuan, freeing all 511 allied prisoners there. Never numbering more than 70 volunteers, the Alamo Scouts earned 44 Silver Stars, 33 Bronze Stars and four Soldier's Medals by the end of the war. In nearly 80 hazardous missions, they never lost a man in action.
Besides these organized special operations efforts, a number of U.S. Army officers conducted guerrilla operations behind Japanese lines in the Philippines. Colonel Russell Volckman, who later would play an important role in the birth of Special Forces, escaped from the enemy and formed a Filipino guerrilla band in northern Luzon, which by 1945 consisted of five regiments. Major Windell Fertig, a reservist, raised his own guerrilla force that ultimately totaled some 20,000 fighters.
These special operations units of the second World War were known as the Army's elite. Their philosophy was simple: shock the enemy with quick strikes and deep thrusts, leaving him paralyzed and confused. It was the 20th-century application of principles first formulated by Rogers' Rangers, and it became the basis of the modern-day Ranger force.
But at the same time, in areas that even the Devil's Brigade and Darby's Rangers never ventured, there was a whole different ball game being played by a whole different team. It consisted of small parachuting units operating behind enemy lines, developing a network of contacts, giving instructions to local fighters, and waging guerrilla warfare on a helpless enemy. It was a new kind of special operations, taking a bit of the Swamp Fox and a bit of Mosby, and combining it with new techniques of airborne and guerrilla fighting. There wasn't a name for it yet, but the agency that developed it was called the Office of Strategic Services.
Shadow Warriors: The OSS
The Office of Strategic Services was the product of William Donovan, an imposing man-mountain of a visionary whose propensity for freewheeling activity earned him the nickname of "Wild Bill." Donovan was tough and smart, a veteran of World War I who received the Medal of Honor for heroism on the Western Front in October 1918, and who made a fortune as a Wall Street lawyer during the Twenties and Thirties. When World War II finally erupted in Europe and threatened to engulf the United States, Donovan was able to convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt that a new type of organization would have to be formed, one that would collect intelligence and wage secret operations behind enemy lines.
In 1941, President Roosevelt directed Donovan to form this agency, called the Coordinator of Intelligence (COI), and Donovan, who had been a civilian since World War I, was made a colonel. COI blossomed quickly, forming operational sites in England, North Africa, India, Burma and China. In 1942, the agency was renamed the OSS and Donovan became a major general. The primary operation of the OSS in Europe was called the Jedburgh mission. It consisted of dropping three-man teams into France, Belgium and Holland, where they trained partisan resistance movements and conducted guerrilla operations against the Germans in preparation for the D-Day invasion. Other OSS operations took place in Asia, most spectacularly in Burma, where OSS Detachment 101 organized 11,000 Kachin tribesmen into a force that eventually killed 10,000 Japanese at a loss of only 206 of its own.
After the war, President Harry S. Truman disbanded the OSS, but not before it had left a legacy still felt today. From its intelligence operations came the nucleus of men and techniques that would give birth to the Central Intelligence Agency on September 18, 1947. (Indeed, the first directors of the CIA were veterans of the OSS.) From its guerrilla operations came the nucleus of men and techniques that would give birth to the Special Forces in June 1952.
Colonel Aaron Bank and Colonel Russell Volckmann, two OSS operatives who remained in the military after the war, worked tirelessly to convince the Army to adopt its own unconventional guerrilla-style force. They had an ally in Brigadier General Robert McClure, who headed the Army's psychological warfare staff in the Pentagon. Bank and Volckmann convinced the Army chiefs that there were areas in the world not susceptible to conventional warfare - Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe especially - but that would make ideal targets for unconventional harassment and guerrilla fighting. Special operations as envisioned by the two men, and by Bank in particular, were a force multiplier: a small number of soldiers who could sow a disproportionately large amount of trouble for the enemy. Confusion would reign among enemy ranks and objectives would be accomplished with an extreme economy of manpower. It was a bold idea, one that went against the grain of traditional concepts, but by 1952 the Army was finally ready to embark on a new era of unconventional warfare.
Special Forces: The Early Years
The new organization was dubbed Special Forces, a designation derived from the OSS whose operational teams in the field were given the same name in 1944. The Army allocated 2,300 personnel slots for the unit and assigned it to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In the spring of 1952, Bank went to Fort Bragg to choose a suitable location for a Psychological Warfare/Special Forces center. He chose a remote area of the post known as Smoke Bomb Hill, not knowing that within ten years it would become one of the busiest places in the Army.
He then went about assembling a cadre of officers and NCOs who would serve as the hard-core foundation of the new unit, and who would act as a training staff to perpetuate and flesh out the fledgling organization. Bank didn't want raw recruits. He wanted the best troops in the Army, and he got them: former OSS officers, airborne troops, ex-Ranger troops and combat veterans of World War II and Korea. They were an unusual lot, a motivated bunch, men who were looking for new challenges to conquer - the more arduous the better. Virtually all spoke at least two languages, had at least a sergeant's rank, and were trained in infantry and parachute skills. They were all volunteers willing to work behind enemy lines, in civilian clothes if necessary.
That last item was no small matter. If caught operating in civilian clothes, a soldier was no longer protected by the Geneva Convention and would more than likely be shot on sight if captured. But these first volunteers didn't worry about the risks: they were long accustomed to living with anger. Many of them had come from Eastern Europe where they had fled the tyranny of communist rule at the end of World War II.
After months of intense preparation, Bank's unit was finally activated June 19, 1952, at Fort Bragg. It was designated the 10th Special Forces Group, with Bank as commander. On the day of activation, the total strength of the group was ten soldiers - Bank, one warrant officer, and eight enlisted men. That was soon to change.
Within months, the first volunteers reported to the 10th Group by the hundreds as they completed the initial phase of their Special Forces training. As soon as the 10th Group became large enough, Bank began training his troops in the most advanced techniques of unconventional warfare. As defined by the Army, the main mission of Bank's unit was "to infiltrate by land, sea or air, deep into enemy-occupied territory and organize the resistance/guerrilla potential to conduct Special Forces operations, with emphasis on guerrilla warfare." But there were secondary missions as well.
They included deep-penetration raids, intelligence missions and counterinsurgency operations. It was a tall order, one which demanded a commitment to professionalism and excellence perhaps unparalleled in American military history. But Bank's men were up to the challenge.
They had been through tough training before; their airborne and Ranger tabs were proof of that. But working for Special Forces was not going to be simply a rehash of Ranger techniques. If the volunteers didn't appreciate the difference between Rangers and Special Forces when they first signed up, they did when they went through Bank's training. As Bank put it, "Our training included many more complex subjects and was geared to entirely different, more difficult, comprehensive missions and complex operations."
The Rangers of World War II and Korea had been designed as light-infantry shock troops; their mission was to hit hard, hit fast, then get out so larger and more heavily armed units could follow through, much the same as the modern Ranger force. Special Forces, however, were designed to spend months, even years, deep within hostile territory. They would have to be self-sustaining. They would have to speak the language of their target area. They would have to know how to survive on their own without extensive resupply from the outside.
After less than a year and a half together as a full Special Forces group, Bank's men proved to the Army's satisfaction that they had mastered the skills of their new trade. So on November 11, 1953, in the aftermath of an aborted uprising in East Germany, half of the 10th Special Forces Group was permanently deployed to Bad To1z, West Germany. The other half remained at Fort Bragg, where they were redesignated as the 77th Special Forces Group.
The split of the 10th and the 77th was the first sign that Special Forces had established themselves as an essential part of the Army's basic structure. For the rest of the 1950s, Special Forces would grow slowly but consistently into a formidable organization. On April 1, 1956, 16 soldiers from the 77th were activated as the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment; in June they were sent to Hawaii, and shortly thereafter to Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam. Special Forces were now casting their glance to the Far East, departing from their previously heavy European orientation.
(This was not the Special Forces' first involvement in the Far East. By the end of 1952 the first Special Forces troops to operate behind enemy lines had been deployed to Korea on missions that remained classified for nearly 30 years. Anti-communist guerrillas with homes in North Korea and historical ties to Seoul had joined the United Nations Partisan Forces-Korea.
Known in Korean as "fighters of liberty," the UNPFK soon became known as "donkeys" by Americans who derived the nickname from the Korean word for liberty, dong-il. From tiny islands off the Korean coast, the Donkeys conducted raids, rescued downed airmen and maintained electronic facilities. Under the guidance of the Special Forces and other U.S. cadre, they eventually numbered 22,000 and claimed 69,000 enemy casualties.)
The activation of the 14th SFOD was shortly followed by three other operational detachments, each designated for Asia and the Pacific - the 12th, 13th and 16th. These were soon combined into the 8231st Army Special Operational Detachment. On June 17, 1957, the 14th and 823 1st joined to form the 1st Special Forces Group, stationed in Okinawa and responsible for the Far Eastern theater of operation.
By 1958, the basic operational unit of Special Forces had emerged as a 12-man team known as the A-detachment or A-team. Each member of the A-detachment - two officers, two operations and intelligence sergeants, two weapons sergeants, two communications sergeants, two medics and two engineers - were trained in unconventional warfare, were cross-trained in each others' specialties, and spoke at least one foreign language. This composition allowed each detachment to operate if necessary in two six-man teams, or split-A teams.
By the time John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president in January 1961, the three Special Forces groups - the 10th, the 7th (redesignated from the 77th on June 6, 1960) and the 1st - had firmly entrenched themselves as the Army's elite. With the ascension of President Kennedy, word of their prowess spread worldwide. But even more importantly, Special Forces grew at a speed unthinkable to Bank and other SF proponents of the early 1950s.
In 1961, President Kennedy visited Fort Bragg. He inspected the 82nd Airborne Division and other conventional troops of the XVIII Airborne Corps and liked what he saw. But what he liked even more were the Special Forces. As a student of military affairs, President Kennedy had developed an interest in counterinsurgency - the art and method of defeating guerrilla movements. As he gazed at the ranks of Special Forces troops, he realized he had the ideal vehicle for carrying out such missions. With President Kennedy firmly behind them, new Special Forces groups sprang up with rapidity. On September 21, 1961, the 5th Group was activated followed in 1963 by the 8th Group on April 1, the 6th on May 1, and the 3rd on December 5.
President Kennedy's interest in the Special Forces also lead to the September 21, 1961, adoption of the green beret as the official headgear of all Special Forces troops. Until then, the beret had faced an uphill fight in its struggle to achieve official Army recognition. After his visit to Fort Bragg, the president told the Pentagon that he considered the green beret to be "symbolic of one of the highest levels of courage and achievement of the United States military." Soon, the green beret became synonymous with Special Forces, so much so that the two terms became interchangeable.
And, indeed, it was fitting that the men of the Special Forces finally had the right to wear their own headgear because they were now on the brink of proving just how courageous and committed they were. Vietnam was beckoning.
Special Forces in Vietnam
Nam Dong, Lang Vei, Dak To, A Shau, Plei Mei - these were just some of the places Special Forces troops fought and died for during their 14-year stay in South Vietnam. It was a stay that began in June 1956 when the original 16 members of the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment entered Vietnam to train a cadre of indigenous Vietnamese Special Forces teams. In that same year, on October 21, the first American soldier died in Vietnam - Captain Harry G. Cramer Jr. of the 14th SFOD.
Throughout the remainder of the 1950s and early 1960s, the number of Special Forces military advisors in Vietnam increased steadily. Their responsibility was to train South Vietnamese soldiers in the art of counterinsurgency and to mold various native tribes into a credible, anti-communist threat. During the early years, elements from the different Special Forces groups were involved in advising the South Vietnamese. But in September 1964, the first step was taken in making Vietnam the exclusive operational province of 5th Group when it set up its provisional headquarters in Nha Trang. Six months later in February, Nha Trang became the 5th's permanent headquarters. From that point, Vietnam was mainly the 5th's show until 1971 when it returned to Fort Bragg.
By the time the 5th left Southeast Asia, its soldiers had won 16 of the 17 Medals of Honor awarded to the Special Forces in Vietnam, plus one Distinguished Service Medal, 90 Distinguished Service Crosses, 814 Silver Stars, 13,234 Bronze Stars, 235 Legions of Merit, 46 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 232 Soldier's Medals, 4,891 Air Medals, 6,908 Army Commendation Medals and 2,658 Purple Hearts. It was a brilliant record, one that was built solely on blood and sacrifice.
Not to be overlooked, other Special Forces training teams were operating in the 1960s in Bolivia, Venezuela, Guatemala, Columbia and the Dominican Republic. Counter-insurgency forces of the 8th Special Forces Group conducted clandestine operations against guerrilla forces, carrying out some 450 missions between 1965 and 1968. In 1968, Special Forces were involved in tracking down and capturing the notorious Cuban revolutionary, Che Guevara, in the wilds of south-central Bolivia.
Southeast Asia, however, was to remain the Special Forces' primary focus. Through their unstinting labors, Special Forces troops eventually established 254 outposts throughout Vietnam, many of them defended by a single A-team and hundreds of friendly natives.
The Special Forces earned their reputation in places like Song Zoai and Plei Mei, where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese threw everything they had at them but found out that wasn't enough. They won their Medals of Honor in places like Nam Dong, where Captain Roger H.C. Donlon claimed the war's first Medal of Honor for his actions on July 5, 1964, when he led Nam Dong's successful defense against a Viet Cong attack, despite sustaining a mortar wound to the stomach. "Pain, the sensation of pain, can be masked by other emotions in a situation like that," Donlon recalled. "I was fighting mad right from the start; I also felt fear from the start ... fear anybody would feel. It got to the point where we were throwing the enemy's grenades back at them. Just picking them up and throwing those grenades back before they could blow."
Back home in America, a confused public searching for heroes in a strange and unfamiliar war quickly latch onto the Special Forces. John Wayne made a movie about them, Barry Sadler had a number-one hit song, "The Ballad of the Green Beret", and the Green Beret took its place along side the coonskincap and cowboy hat as one of America's Mythic pieces of apparel.
But fighting in remote areas of Vietnam - publicity to the contrary - wasn't the only mission of the Special Forces. They were also responsible for training thousands of Vietnam's ethnic tribesmen in the techniques of guerrilla warfare. They took the Montagnards, the Nungs, the Cao Dei and others and molded them into the 60,000-strong Civil Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). CIDG troops became the Special Forces' most valuable ally in battles fought in faraway corners of Vietnam, out of reach of conventional back-up forces. Other missions included civic-action projects, in which Special Forces troops built schools, hospitals and government buildings, provided medical care to civilians and dredged canals. This was the flip side of the vicious battles, the part of the war designed to win the hear and minds of a distant and different people. But although the Special Forces drew the allegiance of civilians almost everywhere they went, the war as a whole was not as successful.
President Lyndon Johnson had committed the first big conventional units to the war in March 1965, when Marine battalions landed at Da Nang to provide perimeter security to the air base there. Then in June, the Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade entered the country, followed in July by the 1st Air Cavalry Division. From then on, a continual stream of Army and Marine units flowed into Vietnam until they numbered over 500,000 by 1968. But although American conventional forces scored successes in every major battle they fought, there was still no clear end in sight to a war many Americans back home regarded as a quagmire.
So in 1969, after President Richard M. Nixon took office, the United States began its withdrawal from Vietnam, a process known as Vietnamization. Gradually the Special Forces turned over their camps to the South Vietnamese. On March 5, 1971, 5th Group returned to Fort Bragg, although some Special Forces teams remained in Thailand from where they launched secret missions into Vietnam. But by the end of 1972, the Special Forces role in Vietnam was over.
Special Forces: Since Vietnam
The years immediately following Vietnam were lean ones for the Special Forces. The 3rd, 6th and 8th Special Forces groups were inactivated, and there was a general de-emphasis of special operations as the Army concentrated once more on conventional warfare, turning its gaze from the jungles of Asia to the well-worn tank paths of Europe.
To prevent a further emasculation of their capabilities, Special Forces leaders adopted a program called SPARTAN - Special Proficiency at Rugged Training and Nation-building. SPARTAN was designed to demonstrate the multiplicity of talents Special Forces troops possessed, showing that they were not outmoded simply because the war was over.
Under the aegis of SPARTAN, the 5th and 7th groups worked with Indian tribes in Florida, Arizona and Montana to build roads and medical facilities, and provided free medical treatment to impoverished citizens of Hoke and Anson counties in North Carolina.
But however noble SPARTAN was, it was not entirely what Special Forces were designed for. They were designed to train and fight unconventional warfare, and as President Ronald W. Reagan took office in 1981, they got that chance once again. With the advent of the Reagan presidency, defense policy received a renewed emphasis. Special Forces in particular were among the beneficiaries of this new attention. The need for Special Forces capabilities had become apparent with the rise of insurgencies as far away as Africa and Asia, and as close to home as Central America. To meet the challenges of a changing world, the Army injected a revitalized esprit into the Special Forces.
The Special Forces qualification course was made longer and tougher to see that only the highest-caliber soldiers joined ranks with the Green Berets. In June 1983, the Army authorized a uniform tab for wear on the left shoulder solely by Special Forces troops. The Army established on October 1, 1984, a separate career field for Special Forces. The warrant officer career field soon followed and, on April 9, 1987, the Army Chief of Staff established a separate branch of the Army for Special Forces officers.
But despite going through numerous changes after Vietnam, the basic element of Special Forces - the A-detachment - has remained largely unchanged. The only detachment position to have changed fundamentally is the team executive officer, which is no longer filled by a lieutenant, but by a warrant officer with several years of A-detachment experience.
During the 1980s, Special Forces teams were deployed to dozens of countries around the globe, facing the challenges of foreign internal defense. Missions varied from training U.S.-allied armies to defend themselves to offering humanitarian aid, like medical care and building construction, in remote villages of Third World countries on nearly every continent. Special Forces proved particularly successful in El Salvador and Honduras, preventing civil war in neighboring Nicaragua from spreading beyond its borders.
In December 1989, Special Forces were called upon to serve alongside conventional Army units in the Operation Just Cause invasion of Panama. Designated Task Force Black, soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group, many of whom were already stationed in Panama, supported the entire operation by conducting surveillance and implementing blocking tactics.
Task Force Black at H-hour secured a bridge at the Pacora River, engaged Panama Defense Forces in an intense fire fight and, despite being outnumbered, succeeded in preventing PDF reinforcements from reaching U.S. Rangers. The Green Berets suffered no casualty and set a standard of excellence for Special Forces of the 1990s and beyond.
Special Forces in the 21st Century
To meet the challenges of the future, Special Forces are training harder than ever before. They have to. As conflict continues to threaten dozens of U.S. allies throughout the world, the Defense Department looks for an answer more and more to the unique training and experience of the Green Berets. Fort Bragg's John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, where prospective Special Forces soldiers are carefully selected, is training more men than ever for Special Forces qualification and dangerous tasks like freefall parachuting, escape missions and maritime operations.
The June 1990 reactivation of Fort Bragg's 3rd Special Forces Group has brought to five the number of Special Forces groups on active-duty status. Other Special Forces groups are the original 10th Group stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, with its 1st Battalion still stationed at Stuggart, Germany; the lst Group at Fort Lewis, Washington, with C Company, 1st Battalion, stationed in Okinawa; the 5th Group at Fort Campbell, Kentucky; and the 7th Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. National Guard units include the 19th and 20th Groups.
These forces are not standing idly by, waiting to be challenged. They are deployed where the threat of conflict is real - in Latin America, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa - training U.S. allies to defend themselves, countering the threat of dangerous insurgents, serving as teachers and ambassadors while developing important international relations. They are following the admirable principles of the Special Forces Creed.