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Special Forces 101—History, Training, and Organization
As with most SOF components, the Army Special Forces have a proud history of service to the nation. Special Forces can trace their roots back to the mid-1700s and the tactics of Major Robert Rogers and his men during the French and Indian War. My own notion of Special Forces goes back a ways, but not quite that far.
In January 1965, I received my copy of National Geographic magazine. I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy, and my mother back in Indiana saw to it that my subscription never lapsed while I was in school. On the cover was a soldier in a green beret toting a World War II–era M1 carbine and leading two files of Asian soldiers along a dirt road. The beret had a red and yellow flash, which I later came to know as the mark of the 5th Special Forces Group, the group stood up for duty in Vietnam. The handsome officer with the serious look on his face was Major Edwin Brooks. Brooks commanded the U.S. Special Forces in an area of South Vietnam known simply as the Highlands, a mountainous area populated by thirty-some hill tribes and contested by the North Vietnamese. I was in my second year at Annapolis, and my focus was trying to keep my grades at a passing level, which I did, and prepare for an upcoming Army-Navy indoor track meet, which didn’t go so well. I beat my cadet that year, but Army won. For underclass midshipmen at the time, the war in Southeast Asia was still small and very far away. At Annapolis, it was academics, parades, uniform inspections, and all the military stuff that goes with preparing young officers for duty in the fleet. There were a few of us who had an inkling that we wanted something different and hoped to become frogmen—members of the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams. In my class, the Class of 1967, seven of us ultimately became Navy frogmen. We knew little of SEALs, a secret organization that had been in existence only a few years. The men in National Geographic certainly appeared to be serious men at war. But what kind of war was this? It seemed to me that what these guys called Army Special Forces were doing looked a lot different from what we midshipmen at the Naval Academy were being groomed for.
The National Geographic article featured an Army captain by the name of Vernon Gillespie. Gillespie and another SF officer, along with ten enlisted soldiers, formed what I learned was Special Forces A-Team—the Operational Detachment Alpha, or ODA. Gillespie and his men were encamped near a village called Buon Brieng along with several thousand refugee tribesmen. These twelve soldiers had trained and equipped a seven-hundred-man force of these tribesmen, who were called Montagnards, and led them into the field against the Vietcong. They also helped manage the daily affairs of the village. This was their village and their tribe, the Rhade tribe. Captain Gillespie and his team were running a municipality, fighting a war, and surrounded by Communist insurgents. Gillespie also had to serve as a diplomat as well. In addition to fighting the Vietcong, he had to manage the tension between the small contingent of the Vietnamese army at Buon Brieng and the Montagnards. The Vietnamese and the hill tribes disliked and distrusted each other. However, both liked and trusted Americans like Captain Vernon Gillespie, so he was able to deal with both sides.
Gillespie was like a shuttlecock, bouncing between his team, the Montagnard battalion commander (a man who, by tribal ritual, was his blood brother), the Vietnamese garrison commander, and Major Brooks, who was stationed at Ban Me Thout. Sometimes Gillespie, dressed in a green field uniform, was out inspecting security positions with his Montagnard battalion commander. At other times, he’d be seated with the council of elders, dressed in traditional Rhade tribal attire and sipping rice beer through a long bamboo straw. When he spoke with Major Brooks, they talked about supply problems, enemy movements, air support, and the ongoing Vietnamese-Montagnard tensions. At the council of tribal leaders, topics ranged from military training to veterinary needs. Often this involved ceremonies in which Gillespie and his mountain people consulted with and/or placated the endless number of spirits that control such things among the Rhade. In the photos associated with this story of the Special Forces at Buon Brieng, Captain Gillespie and his team sergeants looked haunted and tired. Whether they were on patrol, on security duty, training with their tribesmen, or catching an hour’s sleep in team hut, they were never more than an arm’s length from their rifle. Who were these men? I wondered as I reread the article in my room at Annapolis. And how can a twenty-seven-year-old Army captain from Lawton, Oklahoma, have so much responsibility in such a faraway place?
This is a classic example of the work of modern Special Forces. Captain Gillespie and his team were responsible for the care, feeding, and welfare of over two thousand souls and the combat deployment of a seven-hundred-man irregular force. They were forty minutes by air from any American base or any American support. Each day, they made decisions that ranged from life and death to pedestrian. They built schools, hired retainers, established security positions, constructed an airstrip, handled supplies, observed tribal customs, arbitrated local disputes, put down revolts, managed a medical clinic, reasoned with elders, and fought a war. Most combat units today deploy to a base and discharge their duties within a single, narrow focus—security, supply, combat patrol, air control, or some other specialty. Gillespie and his men did it all—what might be expected of a brigade staff with dozens of support personnel and camp followers. War is never inexpensive, but if there is war on the cheap, this was it. In Gillespie’s case, compare the cost of keeping a seven-hundred-man U.S. Army battalion or a battalion of marines in the field to the cost of a twelve-man Special Forces team and supplying their indigenous force, usually with obsolete weapons and dated surplus field equipment. And regarding this indigenous force, since it’s their homes and their country, they’re often more effective than a deployed American combat battalion. Furthermore, when they are fully trained and on the job, our troops can then go home—or never have to leave home. Special Forces have done this all over the world, just as they are today in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Looking back at my own experience in Vietnam as a Navy SEAL, it was primarily a direct-action war. It was dangerous business and often quite terrifying out there at night on the canals or in the mangrove looking for Vietcong. But we SEALs usually had a safe haven to return to, a place where we could get a hot shower, a hot meal, and, if there were no mortar attacks, some undisturbed rest. When we were not in the field, a base security element watched over us. For the most part we were among other Americans or with American support close by. Life was simple—eat, sleep, and go out and look for bad guys. The Special Forces detachments out there living with the hill tribes enjoyed none of these amenities. And detachment commanders like Captain Gillespie had a lot more on their plate than simply leading combat operations. I stand in awe of them and what they were able to accomplish in that war.
A decade after Rogers’s Rangers fought the French and Indians, our nation waged a war of independence against England. A man named Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox for his daring raids against the British in South Carolina and Georgia, built on the special operations legacy of Robert Rogers. In the Civil War, Colonel John Mosby formed a band of volunteers that conducted slashing, behind-the-lines actions against Union supply lines. Mosby became known as the Grey Ghost. He not only led a small, well-trained force, but in true guerrilla fashion, he occasionally shared plundered wealth with those in need. Mosby’s sensitivity to the local populations was an important step in the evolution of special operations forces. Prior to Mosby, these small, unconventional units were primarily strike forces that relied on discipline, speed, surprise, and daring—characteristics that perhaps have more in common with our modern Rangers than Special Forces. Mosby operated behind the lines in an effort to weaken the enemy’s infrastructure and morale while making some effort to care for the civilian population. This set him apart from the pure raiders that came before him.
The First World War was a trench-war slugfest that ground up major armies, and there was little special operations activity in that conflict on the Allied side in Europe. The Germans, however, sent small teams of engineer/sapper-type elements into the Allied lines to generate havoc and confusion. But there were some fine unconventional-warfare practitioners operating away from the European theater on both sides—T. E. Lawrence in the Middle East and Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa. It was not until the Second World War that SOF forces on both sides were to play a significant role.
On the German side, Hitler had a love affair with all that was special—jet aircraft, rockets, and commando raiders. The German army was a highly professional force that conducted many special operations. Two stand out as classic SOF actions. The first was the taking of the Belgian fortress Eben Emael. Hitler’s army planned to enter France by way of Belgium, but the Belgian fortifications, an extension of the Maginot Line, were arrayed along the Albert Canal and anchored by the largest fortress of its day, Eben Emael. Eben Emael was a concrete, earth, and steel complex that bristled with artillery. Well before dawn on 10 May 1940, sixty-nine German paratroopers attacked the fortress, landing on the parapets in gliders. They overwhelmed a Belgian force of close to seven hundred. The attack was so meticulously planned and executed that it succeeded even though the assault leader was not present. Lieutenant Rudolf Witzig was to lead the attack, but because of a glider mishap, he arrived after the fortress was taken. The raiders took and held Eben Emael until they were relieved by advancing German infantry. Rudolf Witzig, a story unto himself, led other storied raids and fought in Crete, North Africa, Russia, Poland, Holland, and France. Though severely wounded, he survived the war.
Perhaps the most famous German commando action took place on 12 September 1943, when Otto Skorzeny, know as Hitler’s commando, rescued Benito Mussolini from the Campo Imperatore Hotel on top of Gran Sasso mountain. That previous July, due to military disasters in North Africa and Greece, Mussolini, who had ruled Italy since 1922, was deposed and exiled in secret. The Italians kept Il Duce at several locations, but German intelligence finally located him at the Campo Imperatore in early September. Hitler wanted to rescue Mussolini and keep Italy in the war on the Axis side. The hotel on Gran Sasso was remote and all but impervious to a surprise ground action. In a classic glider-borne assault, much in the mold of Witzig’s taking of Eben Emael, the German force under Skorzeny achieved tactical surprise. In a death-defying act, Skorzeny ordered his glider pilot to crash-land next to the hotel. The final assault was one characterized by Skorzeny’s bravado rather than force of arms. Skorzeny had brought along an Italian Carabiniere general by the name of Ferdinando Soleti. Soleti’s presence put the Italian guard force in check, while Skorzeny brazenly marched through the hotel lobby and up to the room where Mussolini was being held. While the German paratroopers took control of the hotel grounds, Skorzeny took control of Il Duce, all without firing a shot.
On the Allied side, there was also a great deal of SOF activity. A number of American units came into the public focus as “special.” There were names such as the Devil’s Brigade, Merrill’s Marauders, Darby’s Rangers, and the Alamo Scouts. These units were not unlike the German commando units under Witzig and Skorzeny. They were highly trained light infantry schooled in quick-strike operations. Considered one of the forerunners of our current Special Forces was the First Special Service Force, a joint U.S.-Canadian unit. Organized in July 1942 at Fort Harrison in Montana, this was an airborne unit that cross-trained in mountain and amphibious warfare. It saw action in Italy and France before it was inactivated in 1944. Today’s Special Forces trace their modern military lineage to the 1st Special Service Force. The 2nd and 5th Rangers were activated in June 1942 and scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc during the invasion at Normandy. They went on to fight throughout western Europe. In the China-Burma-India theater, there was the three-thousand-man 5307th Composite Unit, or Galahad Task Force. Called Merrill’s Marauders by the press, this unit fought many engagements with the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. Also operating in the Pacific were the Alamo Scouts and the 6th Rangers, both formed by Lieutenant General Walter Krueger. The most storied action of these units was the rescue of American POWs at the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan, in the Philippines.
On 30 January 1945, 128 men from the 6th Ranger Battalion, with a contingent of the Alamo Scouts, rescued 512 American POWs from the Japanese prison camp at Cabanatuan during the closing days of the Second World War. The 6th Battalion was commanded and trained by a tough, no-nonsense lieutenant colonel named Henry Mucci. The attack on the POW compound itself was led by the unflappable Captain Robert Prince, a quiet Stanford graduate. The Alamo Scouts guided the Rangers through Japanese lines and close to camp for a night attack. The force executed a clever diversion and made a coordinated assault. It was over in twenty minutes. The Rangers escorted and carried the freed Americans back through enemy lines to safety. While it was true that the Japanese were reeling under the combined forces of the American advance in the Philippines, the fact remains that there were over 8,000 Japanese troops within a five-mile radius of the Cabanatuan prison compound, and that the Rangers were outnumbered two to one in the camp. Accounts vary, but between 300 and 500 Japanese were killed by Rangers and partisans with the loss of only 2 Rangers. It was a magnificent raid—a classic that’s been studied by generations of special operators. This was one of the few actions in the Second World War with joint, combined support. Reconnaissance and diversion sorties were flown by Army Air Corps P-61s and Filipino resistance forces served in a diversionary role and as a blocking force. This daring rescue is the subject of the bestseller Ghost Soldiers, by Hampton Sides, and the movie The Great Raid.
These are only a few of the Ranger/raider-type special operations of the Second World War. Perhaps the best text on raids is SPEC OPS, by Bill McRaven. This book details these and other modern special operations raids. Again, raids and other direct-action operations are within the Army Special Forces charter. But Special Forces are not Rangers, and this is not what makes the Special Forces special. The Second World War did, however, provide the first examples of the work currently being done on a regular basis by modern Special Forces.