History of Special Forces

For veterans by veterans

The 1st Special Service Force of World War II is considered the antecedent of the present U.S. Army Special Forces. In the spring of 1942 the British Chief of Combined Operations, Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, introduced to U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall a project conceived by an English civilian, Geoffrey N. Pike, for the development of special equipment to be used in snow-covered mountain terrain. This plan, named PLOUGH, was designed for attack on such critical points as the hydroelectric plants in Norway upon which the Germans depended for mining valuable ores. American manufacturers working on equipment for the project developed a tracked vehicle known as the Weasel and eventually standardized as the M29.

General Marshall concluded that an elite force recruited in Canada and the United States would be the best military organization for conducting the raids and strikes; he selected an American, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Tryon Frederick, to assemble, organize, train, and command the U.S.-Canadian 1st Special Service Force.

Made up of three regiments of two battalions each, the unit became a separate branch of the service, with the crossed arrows of the Indian Scouts, by then inactivated, as its insignia. The men were trained in demolitions, rock-climbing, amphibious assault, and ski techniques, and were given basic airborne instruction. They fought under Allied command with great bravery and considerable success in the Aleutians, North Africa, Italy, and southern France. The 1st Special Service Force got its nickname, "The Devil's Brigade," during the Italian campaign from a passage in the captured diary of a dead German officer who had written: "The black devils are all around us every time we come into line and we never hear them." The force was inactivated in southern France near the end of World War II.

On 20 June 1952 the first of the Special Forces groups, the 10th Special Forces Group, was activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; it became the nucleus of the Special Warfare Center, now known as the John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, at Fort Bragg. The next unit to be formed was the 77th Special Forces Group, which was also activated at Fort Bragg, on 25 September 1953.

By July 1954 the U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group, Vietnam, numbered 342. In October of that year President Dwight D. Eisenhower promised direct aid to the government of South Vietnam, headed at that time by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. From 1954 to 1956 Viet Minh cadres were forming action committees to spread propaganda and to organize the South Vietnamese to oppose their own government. In July 1955 the People's Republic of China announced an agreement to aid the Viet Minh, and the Soviet Union announced aid to Hanoi. In August Diem's government rejected for the third time Hanoi's demands for general elections throughout the two Vietnams, and in October South Vietnam was proclaimed a republic by Premier Diem, who became the first president.

U.S. Special Forces troops actually worked in Vietnam for the first time in 1957. On 24 June 1957 the 1st Special Forces Group was activated on Okinawa, and in the course of the year a team from this unit trained fifty-eight men of the Vietnamese Army at the Commando Training Center in Nha Trang. The trainees would later become the nucleus, as instructors and cadre, for the first Vietnamese Special Forces units.

In 1959 and 1960 the insurgents in South Vietnam, known to the South Vietnamese as Viet Cong, a contraction for Vietnamese Communists, grew in number and in power to terrorize the people. Clashes between government forces and armed Viet Cong increased in number from 180 in January 1960 to 545 in September of that year. Thirty Special Forces instructors were sent from Fort Bragg to South Vietnam in May 1960 to set up a training program for the Vietnamese Army. President John F. Kennedy announced on 21 September 1961 a program to provide additional military and economic aid to Vietnam. The government of the United States was by this time deeply concerned over the insurgency in South Vietnam and the necessary steps were being taken to help the republic to deal with it.

On 21 September 1961 the 5th Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, which would eventually be charged with the conduct of all Special Forces operations in Vietnam, was activated at Fort Bragg. It was at this point, in the fall of 1961, that President Kennedy began to display particular interest in the Special Forces. His enthusiasm, based on his conviction that the Special Forces had great potential as a counterinsurgency force, led him to become a very powerful advocate for the development of the Special Forces program within the Army. President Kennedy himself made a visit to the Special Warfare Center in the fall of 1961 to review the program, and it was by his authorization that Special Forces troops were allowed to wear the distinctive headgear that became the symbol of the Special Forces, the Green Beret.

Up to 1961 the government of South Vietnam and the U.S. Mission in Saigon in dealing with the insurgency had placed primary emphasis on developing the regular military forces, which for the most part excluded the ethnic and religious minority groups. Under the sponsorship of the U.S. Mission in Saigon, however, several programs were initiated in late 1961 to broaden the counterinsurgency effort by developing the paramilitary potential of certain of these minority groups. Special Forces detachments were assigned-to the U.S. Mission in Saigon to provide training and advisory assistance in the conduct of these programs, which eventually came to be known collectively as the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program. The development of paramilitary forces among the minority groups became the primary mission of the Special Forces in Vietnam.

Originally attention was concentrated on the Montagnards, who lived in the strategic Central Highlands. The first step was taken in October 1961 with the beginning of a project designed to prevent the Rhade tribesmen in Darlac Province from succumbing to Viet Cong control. Exploratory talks were held with Rhade leaders in Darlac to seek their participation in a village self-defense program. One Special Forces medical noncommissioned officer participated in that first effort. Early in 1962 the government of the United States under President Kennedy began to set up the actual interdepartmental machinery for aiding South Vietnam. The Executive Branch, the Department of State, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the United States Information Agency, the Agency for International Development, and the Central Intelligence Agency were all involved. Because of the nature of the growing conflict in Vietnam and because the Special Forces was designed for unconventional warfare, it was inevitable that the Special Forces would play a conspicuous role. It was also plain that the actions and suggestions of the various government agencies would heavily influence that role. more...

Vietnam Studies
U.S. Army Special Forces

CMH Publication 90-23
Department of the Army
Washington, D.C. 1989 (First Printed, 1973)

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