Category Archives: SF History and Lore

Ballad of the Baseball Cap — a blast from SF history

BarrySadler4Is there any song in history more translated, converted, twisted and parodied that Barry Sadler’s1 The Ballad of the Green Berets? We’re probably too close to the issue to have an opinion, but it sure seems like that to us. In SF, particularly, the song is more likely to be lampooned than taken seriously.

In any event, here’s something that we had lying around. It dates from 1971, when SF “left Vietnam” — at least, when 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne) cased its colors, to fly them again back home at Fort Bragg, NC. This created a problem for the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MAC-V) Studies & Observations Group (formerly, Special Operations Group) — the clandestine joint element whose key Ground Studies Group ran, among other things, SF-led reconnaissance teams into denied areas. SOG’s Army elements had always been “covered” for status with an assignment to 5th SF, which was no longer possible.

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Army baseball hat. This was never a well-loved piece of headgear, and the Rangers stuck with the 1951 patrol cap, the design of which was used for the BDU hat.

The compromise was the creation of new cover units: for each Vietnamese Corps or equivalent task force, there’s be a TF “Advisory Element,” technically subordinate to US Army Vietnam (USARV). Advisory, my eye; they just kept running recon with combined American/Indigenous teams. But because the new cover unit was not SF, the men couldn’t wear their hard-won green berets in camp any more. Instead, they had to don the issue baseball cap, with rank (and, optionally, parachute badge). If you were a Marine, you might say that they had to wear a cover cover.

Sounds like a cue for a Ballad of the Green Berets parody, if ever there was one:

Fighting Soldiers from the sky,
Fearless men who cheat and lie,
All they do is eat and nap
The brave men of the Baseball Cap.

Faced with hardships their spirits sag,
Cause they’re assigned to USARV TAG
Why not take their pay away?
They don’t jump no more, no way.

Put Baseball Caps upon their heads
Make them wish that they were dead.
Throw your Rolex watch away,
You have to look like legs today.

USARV’s the patch they wear,
Why not grow long flowing hair?
Go downtown and buy some grass,
You’ll soon forget you’ve got the ass.

Take their Wings right off their chest.
Take away their special crest.
One hundred men will test to day,
Don’t let them wear the Green Beret.

Put Silver Wings on my son’s chest.
Make him one of America’s Best.
He’ll want to be just like his Pap.
So issue him a Baseball Cap

This command directive wasn’t always followed in all things, and it’s very unlikely the reflagging fooled anybody: certainly not the intelligence organizations of the PAVN and its international sponsors.

If you must have one, Bay State Militaria has this one in stock. We'll get by without it.

If you must have one, Bay State Militaria has this one in stock (and some others, including ones with embroidered jump wings, illegal by Army regs but popular in-country). We haven’t owned a baseball cap since getting our first beret and throwing ours away.

Fortunately, theres a happy ending for men of the baseball cap: after the war they have always been recognized as an SF unit, even if they had to fib about it at the time. Even the few recon-runners that were not SF qualified at the time were awarded the tab and qualification administratively after the war; they’d proven that they earned it.

Incidentally, the departure of SF from Vietnam was at the insistence of MAC-V commander General Creighton Abrams, who loathed SF (and all paratroops, and all football backs, all of whom he thought of as  glory hounds). This personality tic of Abrams rubbed off on some of his protégés, like Bernard Rogers, and led to decades of ill will between Big Green and SF. (Abrams did play on the West Point football team, then one of college football’s finest, as a youth. Naturally, he was a lineman). Abrams wanted SF gone, but he didn’t want to give up his daily intel dope-fix of SOG reports!

Notes

1. The song is actually credited to Barry Sadler and Robin Moore. The two were friends and drinking buddies, and Robin told us that his contribution was that he wrote the words to the last verse: the one that begins, “Back at home, a young wife waits.” In Sadler’s original, the mother of the dead young soldier’s son was a Saigon bar girl! Robin also said he was instrumental in getting Sadler a recording contract, and Sadler repaid the favor by posing for the cover of the paperback of Moore’s The Green Berets. 

Rob Marsh, top Country Doctor: ex-SF Medic and Delta Doc

Rob Marsh’s father was Secretary of the Army John O. “Jack” Marsh. Most of Rob’s colleagues, when he was an enlisted SF medic or when, after he followed the path of many SF medics to medical school and wound up as the special operations unit called Delta’s command surgeon, didn’t know that detail about him.

They just knew he was a good mofo. Like a lot of folks, he got wounded in October, 1993, and like a lot of them, it was the end of a military career — but not of a career of service. Marsh was recently named Country Doctor of the Year, due to his practice which combines the best of modern medicine with the values of a Norman Rockwell family doctor. Here’s a small excerpt from a profile at Western Shooting Journal:

The following day, what Marsh says was simply a lucky shot for some unskilled Somali mortar crew landed in the midst of a group of soldiers with whom he’d been standing, killing one elite U.S. fighter and inflicting devastating wounds on Marsh’s lower body and legs.

Quick thinking by his comrades in arms prevented him from bleeding out on the spot, he says, but Marsh would never again deploy with Delta and retired in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

“I never regained the physical skills I needed to stay on jump status,” he says. “I probably could have stayed in Army medicine, but I just didn’t feel that calling, I felt another calling, that I wanted to come do family medicine practice back in Virginia, where I grew up.”

Home in the valley

Marsh, a devout Christian, said he felt he was following God’s direction for his life when he returned to Virginia for good in 1996, but he still had some doubts. He opened a clinic in remote Middlebrook — near his newly purchased farm and just five miles from the place his grandmother was born — and began taking patients.

“I was a little worried how that transition was going to be,” he said. “You know — doctor of the high speed army unit coming back here.”

But the transition felt natural, he said, because once he settled in, the amount of responsibility that immediately fell on his shoulders was huge. Today he has 3,500 active patients. Not only is the number far higher than the typical primary care doctor’s 2,300 patients, his range of services for his patients is wider than normal.

“I think being in a rural area, one, your patients want you to do as much for them as you can,” he said. “By that I mean, they don’t like to be referred” to other, distant doctors.

As a result, Marsh was handling more complex cases than do most primary care physicians in an age of hyperspecialization. And it felt kind of like the Army.

“Instead of gunshot wounds,” he said with a chuckle, “chainsaw injuries.”

One of the advantages of civilian life back in 1996 was going to be more time with his wife and four children, now high-school and college age, he says. But his practice in Middlebrook—which grew enough that he in recent years opened a new office next to a giant truck stop on the interstate in Raphine—has become as absorbing as his Army work ever was.

His wife, Barbara, a registered nurse who works in the Middlebrook office, grew up in the suburbs of Newport News, Virginia, and said the practices of country medicine took came as a surprise.

via Former Delta Force Doctor is Top Rural Physician in America.

Rob Marsh is a good guy, and he’ll be slightly embarrassed by this honor, and otherwise, completely unchanged. We’re a little biased because he did some repair work on a friend in the interstitial period between the big fight and his own near-death experience, and we never would have gotten to meet the guy without Rob and the unit medics.

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

simple_sabotage_field_manual_coverWe thought for sure we had featured this already, but if so, we can’t find it on the site. This is a sabotage manual  dating to 17 January 44 . It was classified SECRET but was declassified long ago — 14 June 76, to be precise.

It is only 32 pages long, typeset but with no illustrations. It’s rather typical of OSS training materials in that it seems to use a sort of Socratic method, where the book, film or other training method is not aimed to teach people simple rote skills, but to spur deeper discussions and thought.

Despite its limits, there is a lot to be had here, including from the introduction by BG William Donovan to the closing suggestions, “General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creat­ing Confusion.” (And yes, it does seem like that last part of the manual has been in use by everyone in DC for quite a few years).

Some of the suggestions border on the whimsical:

Saturate a sponge with a thick starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string, and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down a W. C. or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand to its normal size and plug the sewage system.

Here is the book in .pdf:

SimpleSabotageFieldManualStrategicServicesProvisional.pdf

Or, if you want it in .mobi for Kindles and Kindle-reader apps, or, in .epub for iBooks, or several other file formts, you can find it at web.archive.org.

 

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Afghan M4 Makeover, Step 2: Knight’s RIS

We’ve unboxed it, and dressed it up (down?) with the actual buttstock from our 2002-03 tour of Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and “other places,” a stock retired from military service to an ignominious end in a dumpster (kind of like what the VA does to us, now that we think about it).

Now it’s time and past for the next phase in our Makeover. We’ve taken care of the proximal end of our combat appendage, now we need to move closer to the distal end and add a 2000-era SOPMOD I style rails system. The 6920 came with the latest version of CAR-15 inspired handguards. Again we weighed it; the scale has given us 6.5 and 6.6 pounds (Sunday, it gave us 6.60 pounds and 6 pounds 8 ounces. Wait, what?) We suspect the variations are environmental. We haven’t recorded temperature, but it’s in a basement held steady at about 40% humidity by dehumidifier.

m4a1_sopmod_pre_rails_on_scale

You can see a hint of the rails to come at the bottom of that image! At this point, we’ll insert a jump to keep the blog’s front-page manageable, because this post is ~2400 words and lots of big pictures which embiggen substantially. (We apologize for the quality of the pics, which are cellphone specials. We really need to get a DSLR again).

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A cool 1911 graphic

We saw this blurbed at Instapundit:

1911_graphic

The full thing by artist Jacob O’Neal is something you have to see. Because as cool this is, even clicked-to-embiggen, this is just one small part of it, as a static graphic. The real thing offers several views, and is animated. 

Boy. Sure wish we’d had this back in Weapons School, when two of us ran a study hall late into the night to try to save the guys who had been recycled from the class before us. (We did, but it was hard work — mostly by them, we just happened to be college boys with good study habits who could help out).

Go to his animations site, animagraffs.com and enjoy Jacob’s artistry. Along with the gun he’s got jet and piston engines and a tarantula. Then come back, hear?

Back now? Was that 1911 animation cool, or what? So, now go see the animated infographic he did for SilencerCo some time back. (And all you 1911 bashers who wanted a Glock, guess what’s hosting the SilencerCo Osprey in the graphic?)

Guy’s a talented artist. Some website looking for differentiation ought to commission him. (We don’t think we can afford him without crimping the toy budgets).

Afghan M4 Makeover, Step 1: Vintage Stock

We remember seeing the 6921 as it shook out of the box yesterday. It came with a maybe-good-we-dunno Rogers Super-Stoc, which is not what we had in the hills of the Hazarajat.

unbox_20_new_stock

So we needed to go to the parts box for an original Colt Fiberite stock, of which we had a number even before putting in the order for the carbine.

But it turned out, we had a guardian angel looking out for us. One day, while the 6921 sat waiting for the stamp, we got a ring from an old friend who was then still in the old unit.

“What was your rack number?” Easy enough to remember. Jeez, we inventoried the team, and even the unit, weapons often enough. (The Army requires frequent serial number inventories which must be done by two officers or senior NCOs). Normally used and broken weapons parts are turned in, but the unit had a shipment of new SOPMOD stocks, and someone somewhere made a decision that the decade-plus-old, war-weary and well-worn stocks, were dumpster food. It would cost more to collect and ship them to DRMO than they could possibly bring at auction. So they were thrown out.

Needless to say, any of the guys who wanted one, brought one home. And our buddy — God bless him — brought ours home.

unbox_28_revert_to_fiberlite_stock

Dang. A real piece of the exact gun we had in Afghanistan, is the first part of our reproduction of that stalwart companion. Who else can say that?

Now, practically, the stock is inferior to the Rogers stock on several planes. It’s a little looser and shakier on the stock extension. The Rogers has the trick locking lever, which is nifty. Neither one really has a good cheek weld, but the Rogers curved buttplate is a lot more ergonomic.

And, of course, there are other superior stocks out there. But, like the Marine mantra about This is my rifle, “there are many like it, but this one is mine.” Not to go all seagull or anything.

(Note: we were wrong yesterday if we said the initial weight of the 6921 with the Rogers was 6.6 and then we established it was 6.5 after weighing the rifle with the Fiberite stock. As this photo, which we didn’t look at when writing the post, reveals, the second set of weights was 6.6, meaning the 6.5 was the initial weight result).

There’s a long way to go in our M4 Makeover. Next installment? Rails and foregrip.

Colt M4LE Model 6921 Unboxing

Objective: build the best possible transferable replica of an Afghanistan, early war, Special Forces carbine. Specifically the one we toted around Kandahar, Bagram, and on Operation Roll Tide with the 3rd Battalion of the Afghan National Army in the Khamard and Madr Valleys of central Afghanistan.

We started with noting what a young(er) WeaponsMan toted around the hills: an early M4A1 to which the SOPMOD I kit came as an afterthought (and because our company was remote from, and in a different state from, Battalion and Group HQ, we didn’t get the whole kit until we returned, because the Group S4 ratholed it and forgot about it. Supply, a most under-appreciated field of endeavor). We figured the nearest we could come to it was a Colt LE M4, as it would have roll marks similar to the combat-carried weapon, and the correct barrel length. We ordered the gun two years ago, and it came quickly to our FFL.

unbox_01_box_end

The trip to the workbench was long and eventful. An attempt to set up new trust came unglued, and after a second attempt, we moved forward with an individual purchase. (And yes, that means when we get the trust straightened out we’ll have to pay another two bill transfer tax to put it in the trust). Then, of course, ATF fell far behind in approving NFA transfers. They finally got the paperwork after all of our delays in March, 2014; in October, at the 6-month point, we called NFA Branch for an update.

“It’s all good,” the examiner said. “There’s nothing wrong with your packet, and it’ll probably be approved.”

“Great!”

“…in January.”

“Oh. Well, thanks. Out here.”

But the examiner underpromised and overdelivered. In November, we got a call with the welcome note: “Your stamp’s here!”

Cool. Two months early! We couldn’t pick it up till this month, so it was like getting an early Christmas gift.

You’ve seen the box; overleaf, there’s a photo-rich set of detail pictures of the carbine after the jump below. The photos are unretouched except for cropping, setting levels, erasing serial numbers (a bit silly, as the guys who scan the net for serial numbers already have this one) and stripping EXIF data.

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The Past: Lecture on Survival, Evasion and Escape, 1970s

The following film of a live lecture appears to date to the 1970s. (Ignore the placeholder picture, which seems to be some posed nonsense, and ignore that fact that the idjit who posted it to YouTube thinks it’s SF-related). It’s definitely post-1973 as they refer to the experiences of returning Vietnam POWs. The lecturer, Capt. Arthur, a Medical Service Corps officer, wears the combat field medical badge, suggesting he is a Vietnam veteran, but he’s too young to be 15-20 years out of combat, which rules out most of the 1980s. In addition, he’s wearing the men’s khaki Class B uniform, which went out of service in October, 1981. A woman in the class is wearing one of the oddball 70s womens’ uniforms that went out sometime between 1980 and 81.

While YouTube bills this as an SF class, it is no such thing. As the podium reveals, this was a lecture period from the Army Medical Institute of Health Sciences, and CPT Arthur refers to “all of us in AMEDD” — the Army MEDical Department.

In the late 1970s, Col. James N. “Nick” Rowe revitalized SERE training in the Army. Prior to Rowe’s creation of the SERE course, a handful of men went to Air Force or Navy survival training and came back to pass the lessons on. Afterwards, Rowe’s course became mandatory for SF officers and NCOs, and later still became a must-pass gate in the training pipeline.

Survival, Evasion and Escape doesn’t come up until about 16 minutes in, and Resistance is never covered (as it never was, before Rowe). At about 19 minutes he displays a blood chit, part of an escape kit. At about 24 minutes, he explains why stealing a weapon is a bad idea for an evader. At 30 minutes or so, there is a discussion of the display of the Red Cross, something that has remained a subject of discussion or argument to date. Right after that, there’s a discussion of whether it does medical personnel a disservice to train them on the Geneva Conventions when so many of our opponents don’t honor them. This was, to us, the most interesting moment in the whole thing.

We had never thought about the situation medical officers were in, when captured; they’re supposed to have a special status called “retained,” and be allowed to treat their wounded. In Vietnam, one doctor was captured, and we learned from this lecture that he was treated no better than other POWs. This seems to have been the norm on the Eastern Front in WWII, on both sides, as well.

This video is a glimpse of what passed for Survival, Evasion and Escape training in the Army, and even in SF, before Rowe. And it’s still about what you’ll get in much of the Army today: an earnest and well-prepared officer delivering a briefing on the Code of Conduct in a classroom environment. It’s also a glimpse of what Death By PowerPoint looked like in the decade before PowerPoint’s invention.

It’s also a glimpse of the earnest belief that many in Big Green still have in the laws of land warfare and those laws’ protections of noncombatants such as medical officers. The last enemy we fought that even paid lip service to these rulebooks was Nazi Germany, a lifetime ago. Every subsequent enemy has made less attempt to honor the conventions than the one before him.

A Slice of SOF History on GunBroker

These pistols for sale on GunBroker come with a rare claim: they were used by one of the nation’s most important special operations units during a period in the mid-oughts when that unit was flat-out in a radical optempo on worldwide CT missions (and other missions as well).  Not just “pistols like these,” but these exact pistols are represented as having been used in that particular SOF unit. They have a letter of authenticity from a former unit member who did have access and placement to know about the unit’s armament initiatives at the time.

sti_40s

And they’re pretty good pistols, but the bid of $6,500 at press time hasn’t broken the reserve. Here’s what the auction says:

Both of these STI 2011 .40 caliber pistols saw actual issue and use in a US Army SOF unit in 2006-2007. One pistol is in 93%+ condition and the other is in 96%+ condition. They are consecutively serial numbered and are quite possibly the only consecutively numbered set to be offered for sale. This consecutively numbered set comes with the following items: *** individual letters of authenticity from Larry Vickers (www.vickerstactical.com) for each pistol— original, unedited versions will be provided to the buyer *** six 140mm 17 round magazines *** one 170mm 22 round magazine *** one issued Surefire X200A light *** issued Safariland 6005 light bearing holster with end user modifications *** two Eagle Industries pistol cases

via US SOF issued STI 2011 pistols. Consecutive SNs. : Semi Auto Pistols at GunBroker.com.

STI no, 1

We did some looking into this and the unit in question did indeed experiment with a batch of 60 STIs in .40 during the 2006-7 time frame. They ultimately decided not to go that way, and returned the guns to STI. Some of them were very worn and beat-up; STI went through them and then sold them as used through their distributors. These two guns have a letter from Larry Vickers of Vickers Tactical, but a lot of the others are out there without any such letter. Not sure why some are authenticated and others are not, but it obviously boosts the auction appeal of the letter-of-authentication guns.

STI No. 2

As far as we know, these are the only operator-used guns from this unit that have ever gotten out, although there may be personal weapons and presentation weapons out there somewhere. Since the Clinton Administration, the military has generally made a practice of destroying firearms rather than letting Americans buy them. Even weapons given or sold to foreign allies are sold with can’t-let-American-civilians-get-‘em strings attached.

These are very good pistols. Unless you’re famous for your shooting, they probably shoot better than you do. With proper maintenance, they’re reliable as a watch. (There were some complaints about environmental malfunctions — i.e., choking on sand — in extreme conditions).

Parsing the redacted letters of authenticity, it’s interesting to see what Larry said, and what he didn’t say. He’s not some lawyer who practices picking his words to mislead, so we may be reading too much into this, but he does say they’re the only weapons sold “outside the unit.” Have some unit members, like generals, been given the privilege of retiring with their sidearms?  We don’t know, and think it somewhat unlikely, but along with some of the best shooters, that unit has usually gotten some of the the best support people in the Army — including the best lawyers. So it’s possible.

One thing for sure: the people who have a lot to say about that unit don’t know, and the people who know about that unit don’t have a lot to say. Which is as it should be.

If you want the STIs, or just to see more pictures,  the auction is here.

(Thanks for the tip off — you know who you are).

This is why there is an AOD in your rig

AOD is an automatic opening device, and these jumpers, who look like beginners at relative work, give theirs the acid test.

Only two of the three jumpers, a base guy and a camera guy, join up. The smiling base guy is by convention supposed to be the one watching altitude, but he doesn’t look at his altimeter as the two struggle to get together. As far as the camera guy goes, you can see his altimeter, first barely in the red arc of the altimeter (you can guess what that means) and then you get a glimpse of it buried in the middle of the red.

These guys come that close to making the sickening sound that no one ever forgets if they’ve heard it once. They are saved because their AODs fire. (Both divers had the Cypres AOD, we think the Cypres 2).

The AOD works by electronically monitoring the speed of the fall versus the altitude. Older models were mechanical and worked off barometric pressure. Early SF freefallers used the Czech made Mikrotechnika KAP-3, an exported version of one designed in Russia. You had to wind it like a watch!

Years ago, skydivers were macho about AODs and didn’t use them; the military made them mandatory decades before skydive businesses started doing it, except with beginners. (At least they did it for beginners, but on some level they know that killing beginners is bad for business).

This double save shows how easy it is to get task saturated with a mission task even when you’re doing something that needs a very large part of your full attention, like falling straight down at 120 miles per hour. The first AODs were brilliant solutions to that problem of task saturation.

It’s not just jumpers that do it… we’d guess that every air force in the world has lost a fighter bomber whose pilot was so target fixated he followed his rounds or bombs on to it. We always wonder about guys who are credited for ramming enemy ships or forts or airplanes with their own plane — was it intentional, kamikaze-style, or did they just get task saturated?

Programmable software creates the opportunity to make AOD-like advances in some other operational areas. Food for thought.

And in the meantime, the Cypres is there to save you, if your forget to save yourself like these two very, very lucky fellows.