Special Forces


FACED WITH a stalemate in New England and the Middle Atlantic colonies during the American Revolution, the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780. The enterprise looked like a complete success until a trio of large guerrilla bands coalesced under Thomas Sumter, Andrew Pickens, and Francis Marion. Although Marion would become the best known of the commanders—it helps to have a catchy nickname—all three greatly disrupted British operations, and they worked in varying degrees of cooperation with the conventional Continental Army under Gen. Nathanael Greene.

The British never succeeded in establishing a solid base of operations in the Southern colonies, and as they plodded north toward their final defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, they were closely beset by even more guerrilla bands under William Davie and William Lee Davidson in North Carolina. But despite the activities of Sumter (who had a fort in Charleston Harbor named after him) and the other guerrilla leaders, Marion is generally acknowledged as the father of the Green Berets.


Modern Special Forces, however, can be traced directly to organizations formed during World War II. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the American Army was strictly a conventional force. Highly trained, specialized units like those of the British Special Air Service had to be built from scratch, with no established doctrine, let alone such things as field manuals, to help them. The crush of events inexorably channeled the evolution of American special operations into two general categories: raids behind enemy lines by large battalion- or brigade-sized units that Major Rogers would have felt at home with and “unconventional warfare” performed by small, specialized teams that, like the Swamp Fox, either gathered intelligence or organized guerrilla forces in enemy territory.

Particularly effective raiding units included the 5307th Composite Group (Provisional), better known as Merrill’s Marauders; a joint U.S.-Canadian brigade called the 1st Special Service Force; the 1st Ranger Battalion, which scaled the sheer cliffs at Pointe du Hoc during the Normandy invasion; and the Alamo Scouts, who aided the Rangers in the liberation of more than 500 POWs from a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. As for the unconventional warfare category, it was the exclusive province of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), organized 60 years ago, in 1942.


Burmese tribesmen formed into the Kachin Rangers by OSS Detachment 101 protected the flanks of Merrill’s Marauders and conducted devastating raids and ambushes that peaked during the Japanese retreat from northern Burma. They ultimately killed 5,428 Japanese soldiers at the cost of only 22 Americans and 184 Kachins dead. (How was such an exact figure obtained? In part from counting Japanese corpses on the battlefields, but also from the long bamboo tubes filled with ears that the tribesmen would bring in after their attacks on isolated Japanese patrols. The OSS soldiers spent months trying to get the Kachins to abandon the practice, but it was never fully curbed.)

Operations in France also generated spectacular results and were especially impressive considering the remarkably small number of troops committed. Twenty-two OSS Operational Groups of 15 men each parachuted into France to conduct specific sabotage and intelligence operations, sometimes in conjunction with the Underground, while 87 threeman Jedburgh teams linked up with existing partisan groups to give them training, arms, and guidance. Even before the Germans were driven from France, the exploits of the Jedburgh and French guerrilla bands, especially their operations against the railroads, had become famous. (The “Jeds” were named after Scottish guerrillas who had fought against the English in their country’s Jedburgh region during the twelfth century.) The OSS was disbanded after the war, but its intelligence personnel and techniques became the foundation of the new Central Intelligence Agency, established in September 1947. The unconventional warfare mission of its highly successful guerrilla operations, meanwhile, was left unclaimed. Many former OSS officers and their men thought this was a grave mistake, but the Army was undergoing its inevitable postwar contraction, and the matter was out of their hands.

One highly regarded officer had other ideas. Eisenhower’s former psychological warfare chief, Brig. Gen. Robert McClure, had seen how unconventional warfare could support wider strategic objectives, and he bided his time until he was in a position to renew that capability within the Army. The invasion of South Korea in 1950 provided that opportunity. McClure vigorously pressed for the establishment of a separate psychological-warfare staff reporting directly to the Army chief of staff, all the while keeping quiet about his plans to develop an unconventional-warfare element within the proposed headquarters until it was too late for any traditionally minded officers to mount an opposition.