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From World War II to Nunn-Cohen

The 45 years between America’s entry into World War II and the signing into law of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 were ones of astonishing growth, decline, resurgence, and retrenchment for American Special Operations Forces and their advocates. Not until Goldwater-Nichols and the follow-up Nunn-Cohen Amendment in 1987 were signed into law would Special Operations finally achieve institutional stability.

Three major conflicts dominated the period: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and Special Operations Forces made important contributions in each. But once beyond the exigency of the conflict, the merits of those contributions repeatedly proved insufficient for bureaucratic survival. The cost and inefficiency of creating units, and disbanding them following the end of a conflict, only to recreate them under different names during the next is self-evident, and it was an admirable testimony to the strength and flexibility of the nation and its men-at-arms that the country could repeatedly and quickly build and field such highly-trained specialized units.

World War II saw the largest and most diverse number and use of Special Operations units. Every service branch as well as the new intelligence bureau, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had at least one unit – even Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall for a time “owned” a unit, the 1st Special Service Force. The Marines had Paramarines, the Marine Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion, and the Marine Raider Battalions, the most famous of which were Edson’s Raiders (1st Marine Raider Battalion) and Carlson’s Raiders (2nd Marine Raider Battalion). The Navy had the Naval Scouts and Raiders, Naval Combat Demolition Units (NCDUs), and the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs), the Army Air Force had the 1st Air Commando Group, and the OSS had the Jedburghs and the Operational Groups. The U.S. Army had the Ranger battalions, the 5,307th Composite Unit (Provisional) – blessedly better known as Merrill’s Marauders, the 1st Special Service Force, also known as the Devil’s Brigade, the Alamo Scouts, and the Alaska Scouts.

A UDT swimmer, after being recovered by a pickup boat offshore, works on the data he has gathered during a reconnaissance swim at Balikpapan, Borneo, on July 3, 1945. National Archives photo.

While there were obvious institutional and specific duty differences, these units all shared a number of traits that continue to this day: they were composed of volunteers who had to pass extremely rigorous mental and physical tests and exercises, and who were trained and cross-trained to an extraordinary level.

World War II was not yet five months old for the United States and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall was in the middle of the greatest call-up and mobilization in U.S. history. From the beginning he recognized that the country would need elite units that were highly trained in a variety of skills to conduct specialized operations. Once Congress declared war, he was free to act upon those beliefs. In an April 23, 1942, memorandum marked “secret” to Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, he wrote, “I have directed Gen. [Leslie] McNair to assemble certain officers in Washington for duty with Lord Mountbatten’s commando headquarters.” The two officers specifically mentioned in the memo were then-Col. Lucian Truscott and Maj. Theodore J. Conway; a third officer selected by Army Air Corps commander Gen. Henry H. Arnold would accompany them. They would file reports about British SAS and Commando training and operations that would prove invaluable in the development of the Army and Army Air Corps’ (later Army Air Force) units.

But, in what would become a bitter legacy, the need for Special Operations units did not bring with it acceptance by the conventional force-dominated parent service. As it turned out, even Marshall had to defend Special Operations units from his own bureaucracy. (It should be noted that the term “Special Operations units” is used throughout this article for convenience purposes.) His most powerful opponent within the Army was one of his deputies, Army Ground Forces (AGF) commander Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, who argued with his boss against the creation of what he called “glory outfits” that would skim the best soldiers, thus lowering the standards of the conventional units. But Marshall remained firm, and McNair, with varying degrees of good grace, bowed to the inevitable and gave support to their development, though always with conditions.

In one example, McNair established an Airborne Command in March 1942 under Col. William Lee to create and train what would become the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. One of the parachute battalion commanders was Maj. William P. Yarborough, who devised the distinctive parachutist badge awarded all qualified jumpers. Yarborough would have a long and distinguished career in Special Operations and retire a lieutenant general. To lessen the impact of quality manpower drain, McNair insisted the divisions be “light,” with a lower number of men and less weaponry and equipment than a regular division. But he allowed Airborne Command to eliminate any man who scored in the bottom half of the Army intelligence test, a privilege given no division commander of conventional units.

Rangers of the 1st Battalion defend a captured gun position at dawn during Operation Torch in Algeria, North Africa, after a night of fighting, on Nov. 8, 1942.  National Archives photo. 

The creation of the 2nd and 3rd Ranger battalions was another example of McNair finding a way to take away with one hand what he had to give with the other. Following the success of the 1st Ranger Battalion at Oran during Operation Torch in November 1942 under Lt. Col. William Darby, the 2nd and 3rd Ranger battalions were authorized. McNair refused to make them permanent. If he did, then together the three battalions under the new table of organization triangular system would constitute a regiment and a regiment was a permanent organization with all the required command, logistic, and staff support. Thus, the 2nd and 3rd Ranger battalions were labeled “provisional” – temporary – with Darby, promoted to full colonel, as the overall commanding officer, but without the authority and staff that was part and parcel of a permanent unit.

One of the more unusual Special Operations units of World War II was the international 1st Special Service Force under the command of Lt. Col. (later Brig. Gen.) Robert T. Frederick, comprised of men from the United States and Canada. This unit particularly aroused McNair’s ire because administratively it was under the authority of the office of the Army Chief of Staff (Marshall) and not McNair’s AGF. As such, Frederick could train it and equip it as he chose, and with Marshall’s blessing. It does not take much imagination to guess how well that situation was received in the office of the AGF. Before McNair would allow it to be deployed overseas, he insisted the unit take and pass the AGF series of tests. A passing grade for each test was 70 percent. The men of the 1st Special Service Force – called braves – recorded scores that were off the scale. On some tasks measuring strength and speed, their scores were 200 percent, performing the required tasks carrying twice as much or finishing in half the time required. Skills in night navigation, even under adverse conditions, produced similar spectacular results.

The Navy’s NCDUs and UDTs performed invaluable service reconnoitering amphibious landing sites and clearing beach obstacles in every theater they were deployed, and the Air Commandos performed invaluable service in support of guerilla operations in occupied countries in Europe and Southeast Asia.

A number of factors helped contribute to the demobilization of the Special Operations units during or after the war. Some units were either created by or built around charismatic leaders, replacement of whom would be difficult if not impossible. Requests for weapons, supplies, and support often disrupted normal channels. It also didn’t help that in many cases, the reasons for such requests were labeled top secret. Some units were created to address specific purposes that, upon the war’s conclusion, no longer existed or were regarded as outmoded for future conflicts. Another weakness was that with rare exception there was no formal system in place to select, train, and provide proper replacements for the inevitable casualties.

A 1st Special Service Force private near Radicosa, Italy. In addition to its unusual personnel organization of Canadian and American troops, the 1st SSF was, along with the U.S. Marines and the Dutch, the only unit to use the M1941 Johnson Light Machine Gun, shown here. National Archives photo.

The consequences of this last point were tragically revealed in the Italian campaign. Through a combination of a lack of understanding by superior officers about how to best employ the elite units under their command and an overall manpower shortage, some units were disastrously misused. The 2nd and 3rd Ranger battalions were virtually wiped out at Cisterna, near Anzio and the 1st Special Service Force was severely weakened through overuse. The Devil’s Brigade that later fought in France was not the same one that earned its name and reputation in Italy. In the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations, under the code-name Galahad Force, Merrill’s Marauders were in action for so long and under such horrendous conditions that when their operation in Burma ended, the exhausted men had been pushed to the edge of mutiny and the unit was disbanded.

The Marine Corps, because of its ethos, was never comfortable with its Special Operations units – in effect, of having elite units within an elite service. Its Paramarines never saw action under their original mandate. Despite the successes of Carlson’s Raiders and Edson’s Raiders at Makin and Guadalcanal, and later the 1st Marine Raider Regiment and the 2nd Marine Raider Regiment (Provisional), the Marine Raiders were withdrawn from combat following victories against the Japanese at Munda and Bougainville. By Feb. 1, 1944, both regiments were disbanded and the Marines in them transferred to other units.

This was just a foretaste of what was to come. In the post-World War II drawdown, each branch saw its manpower strength and budget drastically reduced. Under this new reality where even an elite service, the Marine Corps, found itself in a bare knuckles fight to retain its existence, there was no hope of retaining Special Operations units in the other services. One after another the units were disbanded and its members scattered to surviving conventional units or returned to civilian life. In the new world of a Department of Defense that combined the old Navy and War Departments, nuclear bombs, and the new air war doctrine promulgated by the newly independent Air Force, Special Operations appeared to be a thing of the past.

Then, in the pre-dawn hours of June 25, 1950, tanks and troops from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea moved south across the 38th Parallel. The Korean War had begun. Suddenly, the big-war square peg of massive air power and nuclear arms would not work in the round hole of regional conflict containment. In the coming months, such familiar Special Operations units such as the Navy’s UDTs would be reformed and would be joined by new units including the Airborne Ranger Companies, the Joint Advisory Commission, Korea (JACK), the 8086 Army Unit, the 8240 Army Unit (also known as Combined Command for Reconnaissance Activities, Korea, or CCRAK), Far East Command/Liaison Group (FEC/LG), as well as Mustang Raiders, Leopards, and Wolfpacks. Joining in the Special Operations mix was the new CIA created in 1947. Broadly, their Special Operations activities in Korea fell into two categories: coastal raids and reconnaissance and guerilla/partisan operations.

Korean War era Airborne Rangers preparing for a nighttime combat patrol. U.S. Army photo.

In the early weeks of the war, the priority was to maintain the defensive Pusan perimeter where the combined South Korean and U.S. forces had retreated. Until forces could be sufficiently built up for a counteroffensive, the only way to relieve North Korean pressure on the Pusan perimeter was to conduct amphibious raids along the coast. That responsibility fell upon Rear Adm. James H. Doyle and Task Force 90. Under his command he had Maj. Edward P. Dupras, USMC – who would be an important leader in TF 90’s raiding operations – newly formed UDTs, and the high speed transports (ADPs); Horace A. Bass, Begor, Diachenko, and Wantuck. Joining the task force as well was the submarine Perch, which would make a prominent name for itself in Special Operations during the war. Also under Doyle’s command were South Korean raiders and British Royal Marine Commandos.

It is virtually a given that Special Operations members are unsung heroes. But even in this select group, there was one individual whose exploits earned him a special place in their ranks: Cmdr. Eugene Franklin Clark. Clark began the war as a lieutenant, and led a number of raiding missions throughout the conflict. But his distinction came from leading arguably two of the most important Special Operations missions of the war: the reconnaissance of the harbor of Inchon prior to Operation Chromite, the U.N. forces landing, and Operation Sams. Beginning at the end of August to early September 1950, Clark led a combined U.S., Royal Marines, and South Korean force that conducted raids, captured outlying islands off the coast near Inchon, and gathered reconnaissance about the channel leading to the port.

Operation Sams was a mission unusual even by Special Operations standards. In early 1951, the North Koreans were claiming that U.N. forces were conducting biological warfare against the troops and civilian population. Particularly damaging was the claim that one of the biological agents was bubonic plague baccilus – the Black Death. Such claims, though false, could neither be ignored nor go unchallenged. The problem, of course, was how to obtain evidence not just to refute the accusations, but to also provide the Far East Command the necessary medical information it needed to protect the troops and civilians under its jurisdiction.

Far East Command Surgeon General Brig. Gen. Crawford S. Sams was the only doctor in the region with experience in the disease. Despite the risks of having another general captured by the North Koreans, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of all U.N. forces, approved the mission. The team was led by Clark, now a lieutenant commander. In addition to Sams, it would include Special Operations, Navy, and South Korean troops and would be assisted by the CIA. The team would land near Wonsan, on the east coast of North Korea, and attempt to find evidence of an epidemic. In the middle of March 1951, after a series of fruitless attempts to get ashore that succeeded in alerting the North Koreans, the team landed and reached the village of Chilbro-ri. There Sams conducted examinations of a number of patients and individuals. He discovered that the disease they were infected with was not bubonic plague, but rather variola major, a virulent strain of smallpox also known as hemorrhagic smallpox. With the facts in hand, the team quickly returned and Sams made his report to FEC headquarters at Sasebo, Japan. His conclusion was that the large amount of infected Chinese communist troops overwhelmed the primitive North Korean health care system. A number of the facts about the mission and Sams’ findings were later made public, much to the North Korean government’s embarrassment. For their roles in the mission, Clark received the Navy Cross and Sams was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

The Korean War period had another milestone in Special Operations history. In 1952, the 10th Special Forces Group, which traced its lineage to the 1st Special Service Force, was activated under the command of Col. Aaron Bank, the former leader of Jedburgh Team Packard. The distinctive green berets its members wore were introduced by Edson Raff, and in 1961 it became an authorized part of the uniform for all Special Forces units.

Maj. Gen. William P. Yarborough with Special Forces and South Vietnamese officers in the early days of the Vietnam War. National Archives photo.

The conclusion of the Korean War once again saw a drawdown of Special Operations units, though not as completely as what occurred after World War II. The next big chapter in the history of Special Operations would open in Southeast Asia with the Vietnam War, and involve the third generation of Special Operations warriors: Special Forces, SEALs, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, Tiger Force, and Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG).

The primary role of Special Operations was in counterinsurgency, and involvement began well before the United States officially committed itself to combat operations in 1965. The first contingent of instructors from 1st Special Forces Group arrived in South Vietnam in 1957 to train what would become a nucleus of South Vietnam’s Vietnamese Special Forces. In 1960, the program expanded to include the training of 60 Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) Rangers by instructors from 7th Special Forces Group. This program increased again in 1961, this time to include more instructors and advisors from 1st Special Forces Group and 5th Special Forces Group. One of the most important roles the Special Forces instructors played was in the training of ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Montagnards to fight communist insurgents. This work became the basis for the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG).

It was not until October 1964 that 5th Special Forces Group officially arrived in South Vietnam and solidified what had been uncoordinated and understaffed efforts. It was at this time that the role of Special Operations expanded to include long range reconnaissance projects, beginning with DELTA, SIGMA, and OMEGA. In 1966, Gen. William Westmoreland, MACV commander, ordered 5th Special Forces Group to create the MACV Recondo School to train U.S. and allied personnel from major combat units in long-range reconnaissance techniques. Peak strength for USSF troops reached 3,542 personnel at the end of September 1968.

As their name suggests, the duty of the Marine Force Reconnaissance companies was to conduct patrols in the I Corps area and send in reports of enemy activity to Marine headquarters. Most missions were of short duration. One notable exception was Team Killer Kane, led by 1st Lt. Andrew Finlayson of the 1st Force Recon Company. The unit operated in enemy held territory in the Hiep Dup Valley for nine months in 1967, and participated in 34 patrols, resulting in an estimated 500 enemy dead, an unknown amount wounded, the capture of nine enemy troops, and the gathering of vast amounts of weapons, supplies, and documents.

Gen. Wallace M. Greene Jr., commandant of the Marine Corps, talks with members of a Marine Force Reconnaissance patrol in Vietnam. National Archives photo.

The Air Commandos performed a wide variety of missions, including supporting Special Operations ground patrols, and conducted search and rescue, reconnaissance, and psychological operations.

The SEALs worked along the littoral and riverine sections of South Vietnam, primarily in counterinsurgency and civic action missions. In April 1972, SEAL Lt. Tommy Norris was involved in the most complex search and rescue operation of the war. Norris’s harrowing rescue of Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, 21 Battalion, would earn him the Medal of Honor.

The trauma of the Vietnam War had a disastrous effect on all the services, which lasted for years beyond the conflict’s conclusion. Morale reached its lowest point, discipline problems were endemic, and the reputation of all the services hit bottom. Once again, Special Operations units found budgets slashed, endured personnel shortages, and saw units disbanded.

During this period of severe retrenchment, a new threat arose in the world: terrorism. Groups including the Japanese Red Army, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Black September, the South Moluccans, the Italian Red Brigades, and the PLO, as well as the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland and the Basque separatist group ETA, amongst others, were staging terrorist attacks throughout the industrialized world. One of the most infamous attacks was the capture and execution of Israeli athletes by Black September during the 1972 Olympic Games at Munich. Yet, there were successes against the terrorists: Operation Nimrod, Britain’s 22nd Special Air Service Regiment rescue of hostages in the Iranian Embassy in London on May 5, 1980; Operation Thunderbolt by Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal – the rescue of Air France Flight 139 at Entebbe, Uganda on  June 27, 1976; and Operation Fire Magic, the rescue of Lufthansa Flight 181 by Germany’s GSG9 at Mogadishu, Somalia on Oct. 18, 1977. The success of these Special Operations units profoundly influenced one man who was convinced that in this new world environment the United States needed a similar elite unit. That man was Col. Charles A. Beckwith, and after years of bureaucratic in-fighting he succeeded in his goal, the creation of a counterterrorism unit.

Beckwith was heavily influenced by the SAS, whose methods he experienced first-hand while serving on attached duty training with 22 SAS Regiment. On November 19, 1977, Beckwith embarked on a culling and training program that was extraordinary even by Special Operations standards. At 7:00 A.M. on Nov. 4, 1979, Beckwith was awakened by a phone call that informed him that the American embassy at Tehran had been captured and the staff was being held hostage.

The mission to rescue the Americans was initially code-named Rice Bowl. It was a combined operations mission of enormous complexity. The Special Operations Task Force would conduct the rescue and be supported by assets provided by every branch of service as well as the CIA. The Tehran hostage rescue mission could not have happened at a worse time for the United States military. The force reduction following the Vietnam War had been accelerated by additional budget cutbacks enacted in the early years of the Carter administration. This meant, amongst other things, that SOF did not have the specialized transportation and most of the equipment it needed. The most glaring deficiency was in helicopters, particularly the CH-53 Super Stallion that was the only aircraft that fit into the mission profile. The cupboard may not have been bare, but it was damn close to it.

Crewmen perform last-minute preflight maintenance on RH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters parked on the flight deck of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68). The helicopters were taking part in Operation Evening Light/Eagle Claw, the failed hostage rescue mission to Iran that indirectly spawned changes leading to the creation of SOCOM. DoD photo.

It seemed a million and one problems and crises arose during the planning. Each was solved and, on the evening of April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw, as it was now known, was launched.

Less than 24 hours later, the survivors of the disaster at Desert One had returned, their mission a failure. Helicopter mechanical problems that reduced the number of aircraft below the minimum requirement, and the fiery collision between a CH-53 and a C-130 tanker at Desert One doomed Operation Eagle Claw.

Yet, there was a silver lining within the disaster that took the lives of eight men and embarrassed a nation. Amid the recriminations and soul-searching that followed the debacle, President Carter commissioned the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a comprehensive investigation. The commission was headed by former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James Holloway. The Holloway Commission Report was a comprehensive document that examined the failures and shortcomings of Operation Eagle Claw and made 23 recommendations. On the one hand, it was a damning document. On the other, it gave Special Operations advocates the ammunition they needed to change the state of affairs that had chronically inhibited Special Operations.

Administratively, work began in creating a joint operations command designed to, if not overcome, at least ameliorate inter-service rivalry, and in effect get everyone on the same page of combined operations.

These initial steps got their first real test in 1983 with Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada to rescue American medical students held hostage by the pro-Marxist government. The invasion was successful. But at the same time the planning and execution of the amphibious and air assault revealed many glaring deficiencies remained, including the lack of a unified command structure and the inability of different units from different services to communicate with each other, with consequent lack of coordination. Senior political and military leaders, after reading the after action reports, soberly realized that had the attack been made against a larger and more experienced adversary, Operation Urgent Fury might have ended in disaster.

Clearly something more had to be done to change the way the United States military conducted its operations; nothing less than a complete reworking of the entire command structure. But for that to happen, legislation would have to be proposed, debated, and then signed into law. It would take individuals of impeccable credentials and political savvy to initiate and accomplish what many knew needed to be done. The two men who stepped forward to do so were Senator Barry Goldwater and Representative William Flynt “Bill” Nichols.

A group of U.S. Army Rangers gather their gear at Point Salines airfield during the multiservice, multinational Operation Urgent Fury. The failings of Urgent Fury gave impetus to the push for jointness and a separate Special Operations Command. DoD photo.

At the same time, a few visionaries on Capitol Hill were determined to overhaul SOF. They included Senators Sam Nunn and William Cohen, both members of the Armed Services Committee, and Representative Dan Daniel, the chairman of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. Senators Nunn and Cohen, and Representative Daniel felt strongly that the Department of Defense was not preparing adequately for future threats.

On May 15, 1986, Senators Nunn and Cohen introduced the Senate bill, calling for a joint military organization for SOF. For the first time, Congress mandated that the President create a unified combatant command. The bill also called for the establishment of an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. President Ronald Reagan approved the establishment of the new command and the Department of Defense activated U.S. Special Operations Command on April 16, 1987.

This article was first published in U.S. Special Operations Command – The First 20 Years.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...