US Special Forces in Korea

With the beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 the US military quickly rediscovered its need for all the sorts of unconventional forces it had relied upon in the big war. The military activated a Ranger company for the Eighth Army command two months into the conflict and then, in a frenzy of activity, sixteen more between that October and February 1951. These were direct action units, mostly assigned to infantry divisions. They were taken out of service in 1951, but Ranger training continued with the purpose of having a cadre of qualified experts in every army unit. About 700 Army Rangers, a couple of hundred marines in a provisional raider unit, a hundred UDT sailors, and nearly 250 British Royal Marine Commandos made up the United Nations special warfare force.

Almost simultaneously new entities appeared in Korea to focus on partisan activities akin to those of OSS Detachment 101 with the Kachin Rangers, or the British SOE with the Resistance in Europe. At least a half-dozen of these organizations materialized, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a special operations capability was created and then existed under a succession of cover names. It morphed constantly, mixing military and CIA officers in a kaleidoscope of patterns.

The nature of the war in Korea led to a particular style of operations. The Korean peninsula’s relatively small expanse posed problems. North Korea’s tight political controls limited the ability to recruit partisans. In particular after the late 1950 intervention by the People’s Republic of China, enemy troop density was very high and impeded operations. The difficult terrain complicated supply problems for troops in action. On the other hand there were many offshore islands ringing the peninsula. Special Forces began making incursions onto the islands, establishing bases on them, and then mounting attacks on the mainland. Unconventional warfare more resembled the commando raids of World War II than it did the Resistance war.

By 1952 the island-based raiding force was known as the Far East Liaison Detachment (Korea). An army component the 8240th Army Unit, ran the offshore partisans. Sections Leopard, Wolfpack, and Kirkland were the feld commands. Typically an American leader, senior staff, and communications specialists squired forces of Korean partisans. For example, Section Wolfpack in March 1952 had seven Americans but planned to recruit 4,000 Korean fighters. Some months later there were a dozen Americans for 6,800 Koreans. At that time Leopard was reporting its strength at 5,500. A few months later the high command reorganized again, taking cadres from this force to create the United Nations Partisan Forces Korea, which it anticipated would attain a strength of up to 20,000 within a few months.

The air force also replicated its Carpetbaggers from the big war. This began with a detachment of the Twenty-First Troop Carrier Squadron. Captain Henry (“Heinie”) Aderholt led this unit, which made supply drops and inserted agents throughout the theater. He used volunteers from his and other squadrons to fly low-altitude night missions, employed them for a month, and then sent them back to their units. On the offshore islands that lacked airfields, planes would land on the beach at low tide, doff their loads, then fly away before the water came up. Throughout the war the Carpetbaggers lost only two aircraft.

Air commanders also created an Air Resupply and Communications Service, with wings stationed in Europe, in the continental United States, and at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. The wings moved supplies, dropped leaflets, broadcast propaganda on loudspeakers, and flew liaison missions, using a mixture of B-29 bombers, flying boats, transport planes, and early model helicopters. The best-known-if not much celebrated-mission over Korea took place on January 15, 1953, when “Stardust 40,” a 581st Wing B-29 piloted by wing commander Colonel John K. Arnold, was shot down near the Chinese border. Three men died. Arnold and seven other crewmen bailed out and were captured. Held as war criminals, they were put on trial in Beijing, accused of making germ warfare attacks on China. There has been a persistent controversy over the veracity of these claimed attacks. The US airmen were released in 1955. The air force had meanwhile deactivated the special warfare units.

Cold War

Cold War competition put a premium on propaganda, which in the US military was the province of “psychological warfare,” another unconventional technique that had been given a powerful impetus by World War II. President Truman had an abiding interest in these tactics. In 1951 Truman established the Psychological Strategy Board as the unit of his National Security Council apparatus responsible both for spurring propaganda plans of all types and for approving US covert operations. The conjunction of psychological and unconventional warfare would result in the revival of Special Forces.

In 1950 the army created a chief of psychological warfare at the headquarters level. Robert McClure, who would rise to be a major general, got the assignment. In World War II McClure had been the chief of psychological operations for the supreme allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower. McClure’s staff division not only supervised “psy-war” efforts in Korea, it took on the special operations portfolio. General McClure gathered a small group of offcers who had led partisan resistance in the Philippines, or had fought with Merrill’s Marauders or with the OSS in Burma, China, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere. These men reviewed the record, convincing themselves that fomenting partisan resistance in war should be the goal for an unconventional warfare force, and that peacetime preparation would optimize that function. They encouraged General McClure to propose the creation of “Special Forces.” The general, very receptive to the proposal, also had a good relationship with army chief of staff General J. Lawton Collins, who liked the idea and pushed it through army channels.

At Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to the army’s huge airborne base Fort Bragg, General McClure had a Psychological Warfare Center. There, on June 20, 1952, the army created its Tenth Special Forces Group (Airborne), under Colonel Aaron Bank, a veteran of OSS missions from World War II and one of the unconventional warfare advocates from McClure’s office. Colonel Bank began with just ten men in his group. They were relegated to an abandoned barracks at a back corner of Bragg known as “Smoke Bomb Hill.” Since that day more than six decades ago, the United States has never been without Special Forces. Indeed they outlived the original infatuation with psy-war-the Psychological Warfare Center at Bragg would be supplanted by a (still extant) Special Warfare Center toward the end of 1956.

Very early on the Special Forces adopted the basic pattern of organization they have ever since maintained. The term “operational detachment” was quickly adopted but not used in the field. There were four echelons of command. The field unit was the “A-Team” (hence the current nomenclature “Operational Detachment A”). These teams were to recruit, train, and lead partisans or to perform special missions. At the intermediate level the B-Team would command all the bands in a region and furnish supplies and support to the field units. The C-Team was intended to perform the same functions for all Special Forces in a country, and the D-Team, a regional command, would control forces in two or more countries. The C-Team could be likened to an infantry company. The B- and C-Teams could be divided between a forward headquarters in the field and a rear echelon organizing the support and located at a “Special Forces Operating Base.” With the aim of fomenting behind-the-lines resistance to an enemy-at that time Soviet-occupier, the Tenth Special Forces Group oriented itself toward Europe.

The A-Team was designed to function along lines similar to the techniques used by the partisan commands in Korea. Americans would work with bands of up to 1,500 fighters. To train and lead those partisans the US officers and noncoms needed to possess all the military skills present in a much larger organization. Intelligence, communications, weapons expertise, demolitions, and medical care were all required specialties. In addition, since men could be killed or incapacitated and not easily replaced, Special Forces very early began to cross-train its soldiers in other disciplines so an operator could step up to fill in for a fallen comrade. Depending on the popularity of Special Forces and the size of the US Army at different times, A-Teams have fluctuated in size from a half-dozen to fifteen operators, with a dozen (two officers plus ten non-commissioned officers) being the most typical size. At times when staffing was tight the problem of cross-training became particularly acute.

In June 1953 riots in East Germany suggested the possibility of more intense uprisings in Eastern Europe. The Tenth Group had finished its training and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had hashed out issues over its place in American war plans. The Tenth Group was posted to Bad Tölz, Germany, a month later. There it perfected its craft in maneuvers against the US Seventh Army-the American contribution to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), created in 1947 to defend against a Soviet invasion of Europe-the forces of other NATO members, and in field exercises.

Tensions persisted between Special Forces and the conventionally trained combat commanders whose horizons ended with a vision of Soviet tanks flooding across the East German and Czech borders to attack NATO. The Special Forces received little support from Seventh Army brethren. Over time the strength of the Tenth Group tumbled by half. Under pressure from conventional commanders, with their desire for boots on the front lines, and without a practicable partisan resistance to organize, the Special Forces tended to drift more to Ranger-style missions, that is, the commando-type role, which had more appeal for NATO commanders. Special Forces trained with or engaged in exercises against foreign paratroops, rangers, commandos, and clandestine units of Germany, France, England, Norway, Greece, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan.

Nevertheless the Special Forces concept had been established. Perhaps the concept had not flourished, but the force expanded. A new group formed at Fort Bragg, deployed to Hawaii, and after changes in name and base, wound up on Okinawa as the First Special Forces Group, focused on Asia and sending missions to Thailand, South Vietnam, South Korea, the Philippines, and Taiwan, where they helped train Rangers or unconventional warfare units in those lands. This expanded the Special Forces envelope, introducing a task that would become a mainstay of its activity. It was here, in the Pacific, that the shadow warriors first created “Mobile Training Teams” for these instructional missions.

The silent warriors who had left Fort Bragg were again replaced, by a re-formed Seventy-Seventh Special Forces Group. As the 1950s ended, Special Forces formed an experienced-typically ten years in service and with average age of about thirty-and well-trained corps of unconventional warfare specialists with a presence in both Europe and the Pacific. There were three Special Forces groups totaling roughly 2,000 soldiers. The air force maintained its Carpetbagger capability in the form of an air transport detachment, still under Heinie Aderholt, most recently distinguished by cooperating with a CIA covert operation in Tibet. The marines kept up a ranger capability with their Force Reconnaissance Battalions. The navy lagged behind somewhat, having permitted its frogman force to atrophy after the Korean War. But all that was about to change.


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