The unit, however named, was a very hard sell to Big Green, and conventional officers’ confusion did not help. The conventional warriors were confused about what special operations planners saw as distinct differences between the Ranger/commando operation on one hand, and special forces operations on the other. Rangers (then) operated in the enemy’s rear, but near the front lines, on combat and reconnaissance patrols of short range and short duration. SF units were envisioned as operating deep in the enemy’s rear, mostly “by, with and through” indigenous forces or guerrillas, often covertly or clandestinely, and of, essentially, indefinite range and duration. Entirely different personnel and training were required for the different tasks of unilateral Ranger operations and joint/combined/interagency Special Forces ops.
For several years a small cadre of WWII-experienced guerrillas and spooks tried to sell the idea of a permanent SF organization to Big Green. These included Col. Aaron Bank, BG Robert McClure and primary planner Col. Russell Volckmann, Col. Wendell Fertig, and Lt. Col’s. Mel Blair and Marv Waters. These guys were a who’s who of long-range SOF operations: Bank had done OSS missions behind German and Japanese lines; Volckmann and Fertig led Filipino resistance forces, and Volckmann had gone on to run guerrillas and agents into North Korea; Blair and Waters had slogged through Burma with Merrill’s Marauders. McClure, for his part, was an early proponent of psychological warfare, a high-functioning staff and intelligence officer who held several positions working for General Dwight D. Eisenhower in WWII and became, by happenstance, a leader then a fervent proponent of psychological warfare. McClure was, in the early 1950s, the founding head of the Psychological Warfare Center, which would sponsor the creation of Special Forces.
In 1952, the Ranger companies established for the Korean War had been squandered by the leadership of the divisions to which they were attached; thrown away in WWI-style frontal assaults, they were disbanded after suffering over 50% casualties. (Some companies, like the 8th, suffered over 100% casualties). The Ranger school still existed, but Big Green didn’t want to see special units of any kind come back. If they did they wanted divisional commando companies, Rangers for short attacks in a Division Commander’s area of influence. But by and large, their attitude towards special units was negative. The Commander in Chief, Europe complained that “Rangers, as a whole, drain first class soldiers from infantry organizations.” His counterpart, the commander of the Army Field Forces had a different objection: “Envisioned special forces will in all probability be involved in subversive activities.” He didn’t want Americans doing that, especially not Americans identified as part of his Army.
On the other hand, some leaders wanted to see the Ranger lineage preserved in the Army, even if it was in a unit with a different mission. So when one early plan — having companies or platoons, each made up of Lodge Act volunteers from one of the various enslaved satellite states, led by American volunteer NCOs and officers — fell flat, a subsequent overhaul envisioned a unit of up to 3,000 men led by a colonel. Its mission was clearly an SF unconventional warfare/guerrilla warfare mission, and its operational element was a recognizable ODA, although still called by its OSS name, “Operational Group.”
That unit was initially defined as the “Special Forces Ranger Regiment.” By the time Big Green was getting on board, the first draft Table of Organization and Equipment no longer used the R-word. The unit was the Special Forces Group. The Rangers contributed two things: the disbandment of the Ranger Companies left some personnel spaces up for grabs (but not 3,000, which is how we got the current size SF group). And later, the Army Institute of Heraldry would assign the lineage and honors of the World War II and Korea Ranger units to Special Forces, along with those of the Canadian-American First Special Service Force. After the Ranger Battalions were established starting in 1974, it took them over a decade to get their history back!
You might ask, why doesn’t the OSS-derived Special Forces simply use the lineage and honors of OSS? Well, as a joint interagency wartime agency, the OSS does not have any history, lineage and honors, at least as far as the heraldry geeks at the Army Institute of Heraldry are concerned. Not that it matters. SF knows whence we were begotten.
A careful reading of Paddock’s rather dry book illuminates some other doctrinal and terminological dark spots, as well. For instance, how did the Operational Detachment Alpha get its name? Early draft papers by Bank and Volckmann, as we’ve noted often referred to the small SF team as the “Special Forces Operational Group,” reusing OSS terminology. (Bank was an OSS vet; Volckmann, who was a guerrilla leader in the Philippines, worked closely with Bank and other OSS vets in developing the concept, which drew on the OSS and British (SOE) experience in Europe, Africa and the CBI, as well as on the more informal, even ad-hoc organizations and concepts used by Volckmann, Fertig and the other Pacific Theater guerrillas). But “Group” had a specific meaning in Army lingo: a unit formed of two or more battalions, like a Regiment, but less permanent and more flexible. (Originally, a Brigade was a Regiment-sized field formation with combined arms: infantry, artillery and cavalry). Very large Support and Service Support formations are often organized as Groups. Some of these heraldic and historical distinctions have become moot with time, but Volckmann was trying to sell a new capability to a suspicious Army, who saw any kind of Special Forces or Rangers as a way to peel away the regulars’ best-motivated NCOs.
It is interesting to contemplate what would have happened to the SF/UW concept if Bob McClure and Russ Volckmann hadn’t been extremely skilled at the knife fight that was (and is) advancing a project in the Pentagon. Certainly all McClure’s psychological warfare experience, and all Volckmann’s hard-won guerrilla savvy (not to mention that of their officer brain trust) got a workout in the period from approximately 1947-1952. A fictionalized (but much livelier than Paddock’s) version of some of this history is found in the WEB Griffin “Brothehood of War” novel series from the early 1980s.
Paddock, Alfred H. Jr. US Army Special Warfare: Its Origins. Washington: National Defense University Press, 1982.