A unit “truly without equal”

From 1956 to 1984, a secret unit of select Special Forces men existed behind de facto Russian lines in the enclave of West Berlin. The existence of the unit, called the 39th Special Forces Company, or Berlin Brigade Detachment A, is now declassified, and the men who made it up have been honored at the US Army Special Operations Memorial Plaza. The quote in the title came from USASOC CG Charles Cleveland, who said also that they “played a crucial role in vanquishing an existential threat to our country and our way of life.”

Det A memorial stone is unveiled by CW4 Jimmy Spoo and MG Sid Schacknow, (both ret'd). Bob Charest seated left. Charlie Cleveland, seated r.

Det A memorial stone is unveiled by CW4 Jimmy Spoo and MG Sid Schacknow, (both ret’d). Bob Charest seated left. Charlie Cleveland, seated r.

Cleveland sees Det A, as SF men have long known the unit, as not only a success on its own level, but as a model for today’s Special Forces soldiers. “[T]hough the mission is hard, carries untold risk and is fraught with uncertainty, it is one that has been done before and done well by the Special Forces professionals of Det. A,” he said. Major General Cleveland was joined by Det veterans Gene Piasecki (the last CO), Sid Schacknow, Jimmy Spoo, and Bob Charest.

Very little of Det A’s operations have been declassified, although the unit’s participation in the ill-fated Iranian hostage rescue of 1980 has been widely reported. This is largely because the clandestine tactics, techniques and procedures, and operational intelligence sources and methods, employed by the unit, are evergreen and must be preserved for the future — and, perhaps, the present. The Army press release:

Detachment A was created from carefully screened and selected members of the 10th Special Forces Group, located in Bad Toelz, Germany. In August 1956, six Operational Detachment Alpha teams and a staff element left Bad Toelz in privately owned vehicles for Berlin.

On 1 September 1956, the organization officially moved to the top floor of building 1000B at McNair Barracks, West Berlin and was designated as the Security Platoon, Regimental Headquarters, 6th Infantry Regiment, APO 742, Berlin, Germany.

It was out of Berlin, where the detachment was stationed, that Detachment A deployed from in order to conduct their highly dangerous missions deep into East Germany.

On the snow-covered USASOC memorial plaza, about 40 Detachment A members and their families made their way to their seats as the ceremony began.

After rendering Honors to the Nation, the memorial stone was unveiled by Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Sidney Shachnow, a former commander of Det. A, and Chief Warrant Officer 4 (Ret.) Jimmy Spoo, an intelligence sergeant on Team Four from 1981-1984.

Bob Charest (MSG, Ret.) speaks at the ceremony.

Bob “Snake” Charest (MSG, Ret.) speaks at the ceremony.

Master Sgt. (Ret.) Bob Charest, the senior communications sergeant on Team One Scuba Team from 1969-1972 and 1973-1978, stated: “Today is a very historic moment. It took a lot of time, a lot of effort, to get this stone and get it in the ground.”

The idea originated from Spoo, who was willing to pay for the stone himself. Charest got the members of Det. A involved. Collectively, they raised enough money to pay for the stone and $2,000 extra that they will give to the Green Beret Association.

The memorial stone is engraved with a depiction of the Berlin Wall falling with the SF distinctive unit insignia, Special Forces Tab, and a set of Master Parachutist Wings.

“For many here, the dedicating of this beautiful stone closes a circle, and for all of us it renders fitting recognition for a group of quiet professionals that is long overdue,” said Lt. Gen. Charles T. Cleveland, U.S. Army Special Operations Command commanding general.

After the stone was unveiled, the Detachment’s Colors were cased and permanently retired by Lt. Col. Eugene G. Piasecki, and Command Sgt. Maj. George Bequer, USASOC Command Sgt. Maj.

Detachment A’s Colors are special in that they are an anomaly. Det. A’s original request that it be issued organizational colors was denied due to the fact 39th Special Forces Detachment and its location in Berlin was classified. The Detachment then resubmitted the request to the Berlin Brigade and Berlin Command asking that Colors be issued to Detachment A Berlin Brigade. To the unit’s surprise, the request was approved.

via Detachment A recognized for Cold War efforts in commemorative stone laying ceremony | Article | The United States Army.

Det A instigated, underwent or hosted a number of interesting events over the years. They also had some run-ins with conventional buzz-cut Berlin Brigade bosses who didn’t like the idea that a “rabble” of SF guys with European clothing and hairstyles were operating under their noses, impersonating civilians (and foreign ones at that), and sometimes doing operations the details of which even the commander himself had no “need to know.” One of these commanders’ deputies took great measures to try to “expose” the unit, including demanding uniforms, haircuts, and formations. The deputy got the men into uniform, at least once, when the Berlin Brigade commander was out of the city, but it cost him his own hopes of promotion, and he retired as a colonel after one more assignment. (NB that we were not there for this, but it’s a legend in SF, so like most legends it might be a little off. Last we heard the SF-hating deputy was very ill with Alzheimer’s. Wouldn’t wish that on anybody, even him).  

Perhaps in fifty more years, some of the stories of Detachment A will be released.

The Berlin Brigade itself was an interesting force with an interesting war plan. A small American force, it certainly wasn’t an insuperable problem for the 22-division Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, but it was a problem nonetheless, and had the mission of delaying and disrupting a Russian attack in the event of The Big One. (There were even smaller token French and British elements in Berlin. Under the 4-Power Treaty, neither the West nor East German armies were permitted in the occupied city). But one reason the Brigade planned to sell itself dear in a lopsided Alamo-like situation was to allow American and Allied intelligence operations in the city — including the men of Det A — time to disperse, or in the case of technical collectors, to shut down and destroy classified materials and equipment. Berlin was extremely useful as an intelligence platform that was, as it happened, deep in the midst of the enemy’s forces (and his emitters). And that all came about by accident of the treaties that closed World War II and the events which transitioned a wartime alliance into a non-shooting (mostly) Cold War.

2 thoughts on “A unit “truly without equal”

  1. Woodsman

    Thanks for sharing this historical tidbit. The story sounds very familiar to what I’ve read about some of Sir Winston Churchill’s “special duties branches” during WWII. I don’t remember the name used to describe them, but is seems to be fairly similar, though a tad bit different in scope.

  2. Stefan van der Borght

    Not buying the “vanquished” bit anymore. While the walls, hills, deserts and seas were guarded, the enemy were inside the gates all along.

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