Special Forces History

Special Forces grew out of the establishment of the Special Operations Division of the Psychological Warfare Center, activated at Fort Bragg, N.C., in May 1952. The Army allocated 2,300 personnel slots to be used to stand up the first SF unit when the Ranger companies fighting in the Korean War were disbanded. The 10th SF Group was established with Colonel Aaron Bank as the first commander. Concurrent with this was the establishment of the Psychological Warfare School, which ultimately became today’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.


Bank assembled a cadre of officers and NCOs to serve as the foundation of the new unit and act as a training staff for 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-Rangers and combat veterans of World War II and Korea. After months of preparation, the 10th SF Group was activated on June 11, 1952, at Fort Bragg. On the day of its activation, the total strength of the group was 10 Soldiers – Bank, one warrant officer and eight enlisted men. Within months, the first volunteers reported to the 10th SF Group by the hundreds as they completed the initial phase of their SF 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 the 10th SF Group 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.” As Bank put it, “Our training included many more complex subjects and was geared to entirely different, more difficult, comprehensive missions and complex operations.”


After less than a year and a half as a full SF group, Bank’s men proved to the Army’s satisfaction that they had mastered the skills of their new trade. On Nov. 11 1953, half of the 10th SF Group was deployed to Bad Tolz, West Germany. The other half remained at Fort Bragg, where it was re-designated as the 77th SF Group. The split of the 10th and the 77th was the first sign that SF had established itself as an integral part of the Army’s basic structure. For the rest of the 1950s, SF would grow slowly but consistently. By the end of 1952, the first SF 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 as “Donkeys” and “Wolfpacks,” the guerrilla units and their American cadre operated from tiny islands off the North Korean coast. The partisans conducted raids on the mainland and rescued downed airmen. Under the guidance of a select group from the 10th SF Group and other U.S. cadre, they eventually numbered 22,000 and claimed 69,000 enemy casualties. On April 1, 1956, the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment with select members from 77th SF Group, 12th, 13th and 16th operational detachments, under the cover unit of the 8251st Army Service Unit, transferred to Fort Shaffer, Hawaii from Fort Bragg, N.C., in June 1956. Shortly afterward, the 12th, 13th and 16th SFOD (Regiment) were moved to Camp Drake, Japan under the cover unit identification of 8231st Army Unit. 1st Special Forces Group was officially activated on June 24, 1957 at Camp Drake, however, the activation ceremony was held on July 14, 1957 at Camp Buckner, Okinawa. On Oct. 30, 1960, all SF groups were reorganized under the combat arms regimental system. 1st SF Group was regimented 1st SF Group in recognition of its lineage with the First Special Service Force of World War II.


By 1958, the basic operational unit of SF had evolved into a 12-man team known as the SF ODA. Each member of the team – 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 SF groups – the 10th, the 7th (re-designated from the 77th on June 6, 1960) and the 1st – were actively engaged in missions around the world. Under the patronage of President Kennedy, SF flourished. In 1961, President Kennedy visited Fort Bragg. He inspected the 82nd Airborne Division and other conventional troops of the XVIII Airborne Corps. 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 SF troops, he realized he had the ideal vehicle for carrying out such missions. With President Kennedy firmly behind them, new SF groups sprang up rapidly. On Sept. 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 Dec. 5. In April 1966, the 46th SF Company was activated at Fort Bragg. Formerly Company D, 1st SF Group, 46th Company deployed to Thailand to train the Royal Thai Army until November 1967.


President Kennedy’s interest in SF resulted in the adoption of the Green Beret as the official headgear of all SF 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 SF.


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