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World War II - Army Special Operations

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. During World War II, Darby's Rangers and Merrill's Marauders continued the tradition of shocking the enemy with lightning-fast attacks and became the basis of today's ranger force.

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.

When WWII broke out in Europe, William Donovan proposed the creation of a military organization that could parachute behind enemy lines, develop a network of contacts and train local guerilla forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the potential in Donovan's plan and, in 1941, formed the Coordinator of Intelligence. It became the Office of Strategic Services in 1942.

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.

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Page last modified: 05-07-2011 01:34:42 ZULU