- Historic Sites
The least-understood branch of our military was born 60 years ago but today is coming into prominence as never before
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
Strong support from Secretary of the Army Frank Pace got the proposal adopted in September 1 950, and to no one’s surprise, McClure was chosen to lead the new organization. The next spring he moved quickly to fill his headquarters’ small Special Operations Section with veterans who had served with the OSS, Merrill’s Marauders, and other such units. The most senior positions went to Colonels Wendell Fertig and Russell W. Volckman, who had commanded guerrilla operations against Japanese troops in the Philippines, and Aaron Bank, who had led three Jedburgh missions into France and one into Indochina, where he worked with Ho Chi Minh.
Responding to high-level Army dissatisfaction with the Rangers’ lack of foreignlanguage ability and limited training, McClure and his staff pressed for the establishment of more highly trained Special Forces Ranger Units. But unlike the Rangers, whose duties were confined to raiding and patrolling close to the front lines, these soldiers would operate—some in uniform, some not—with indigenous guerrilla groups deep in enemy rear areas.
All the Ranger companies were deactivated in 1951, and this opened 2,300 manpower slots within the Army. McClure managed to have many of these assigned to his newly created empire at Fort Bragg, North Carolina: the Psychological Warfare Center and its Special Forces School, whose graduates would fill the regimentsized 10th Special Forces Group. McClure tapped Bank to command the group. There was no reference to the Rangers in either the school’s or the group’s title; not only was the Special Forces’ mission to be “entirely different,” Bank explained, but the Army held that “all reference to Rangers should be deleted because Special Forces would be involved in subversive activities.”
Airborne soldiers and former Rangers made up most of the early volunteers. Men with OSS experience got unit commands and important training jobs, and Army personnel from Eastern Europe were included in every A-team of 2 officers and 13 seasoned noncommissioned officers (sergeants), built on the OSS model. The basic pattern for today’s Special Forces training can be clearly seen in the original routine established at Fort Bragg: intensive instruction in clandestine activities, survival methods, and techniques for training guerrillas. The course was made even more demanding by its focus on cross-training. Every man had to master more than one duty, so that troopers could work independently and a unit would not be incapacitated if it lost specialized personnel.
No sooner had the new Special Forces outfit completed its initial training session, in the summer of 1953, than East Berlin exploded in a revolt that was bloodily suppressed by Soviet tanks. The U.S. Army immediately sent overseas its one unit capable of controlling and directing resistance movements that might develop in Eastern Europe. Fully half the 10th Special Forces Group was deployed to Bad Tolz, a former German officers’ training center south of Munich; the rest of its men stayed behind to form yet another Special Forces group, the 77th, at Fort Bragg.
At first the staff officers planning for World War III in Europe weren’t sure what to do with the newly minted outfit. Planners would ask “how many men the 10th Special Forces Group would put on the line on D-day,” in the words of Col. Charles M. (“Bill”) Simpson. “The answer, of course, was ‘none.’” Special Forces had to educate the planners and make them understand that these soldiers were not some kind of super Rangers, that if Soviet divisions smashed their way into West Germany, the job of the 10th was not to fight in the streets of Berlin but to parachute teams far behind Soviet lines and link up with contacts that the CIA had developed before hostilities broke out.
SPECIAL FORCES WAS-AND STILL IS DESIGNED TO WORK TOWARD LONGTERM OBJECTIVES RATHERTHANQUICK BATTLEFIELD FIXES.
SPECIAL FORCES was—and still is—designed to work toward long-term objectives rather than quick battlefield fixes, because the personal trust necessary for partisan networks to fight effectively takes time to develop. Simpson wrote that “It would be months before effective guerrilla operations could start.”
They never had to start, of course, because the war didn’t come. In the years following the East Berlin revolt, direct confrontation with the United States grew less attractive to the Soviet Union and China, and they increasingly turned to “wars of national liberation” as a means of expanding their influence while minimizing their own risk. Special Forces soldiers had always thought of themselves as resistance fighters—indeed their motto remains De oppressa liber (to liberate the oppressed)—and in the new environment, who better to fight guerrillas than one who is trained to be a guerrilla?