UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Early Cold War - Army Special Operations

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.

In 1952 COL Aaron Bank and COL Russell Volckmann, both former OSS members, convinced Army officials of the need for unconventional warriors. Bank established the new organization's headquarters at Fort Bragg, recruiting former OSS officers, airborne and ranger troops, and seasoned war veterans.

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. Most were familiar with the customs of their target countries. 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 Tolz, 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.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

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