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U.S. Army Special Forces: "The Green Berets"

Origins of The Green Beret

"The Green Beret: Where It Began"
 by Col. John W. Frye


During the summer and fall of 1954, the 77th Special Forces Group  (SFG), Airborne, was in an expansion and training status at Smoke Bomb Hill, Fort Bragg, N.C. The 10th (SFG), Airborne, had deployed to Germany in late 1953 leaving a severely understrength 77th as the sole Special Forces (SF) unit at Fort Bragg.

The independence verging on autonomy and the high priority previously enjoyed by SF at Ft. Bragg was waning rapidly with HQ, XVIII Airborne Corps and Ft. Bragg exercising ever-tightening control.

One hot morning, CPT Miguel (Mike) de la Pena and I were sneaking an illicit Coca-Cola during training hours when we were caught red-handed by the 77th's severe commanding officer, Col. Edson F. Raff II. Steeling ourselves for at least a few caustic remarks on our weakness in violating orders regarding strict attendance by all during morning training, we were relieved when, instead of chewing us out as we expected and deserved, the CO began to philosophize on the lowering priorities and independence we were experiencing and their effect on esprit.

Looking for ideas, he put forth a trial balloon that perhaps some kind of distinctive headgear such as a colored baseball cap would partially substitute for our waning recognition. Fortunately, Mike de la Pena collected military berets and suggested that an appropriately colored beret would be just the thing to help bolster esprit. Col. Raff immediately seized on the idea. he asked Mike and me to report to him the next day with several berets so he could see how they would look.

After we had 'modeled' the berets that Mike had brought for the  purpose, Col. Raff was sold on the idea and, typically, took off with it at a dead run. Not listening to our suggestion that it should be 'rifle green' or red, the colonel decreed that it would be adopted in branch-immaterial colors which unfortunately for the purpose are teal blue and gold - a teal- blue beret with gold piping around the sweat band.

The word spread rapidly through the group and aroused in everyone emotions ranging from displeasure to outright fury. Mike and  I bore the brunt - enlisted men scowled sullenly and officers snarled  openly at our approach. We were keenly aware that we were held responsible and everyone expected us to put a stop to the indignity that was about to be perpetrated upon them.

A fortuitous turn of events saved our bacon. A 'prop-blast' party was held to initiate newly qualified parachutists at which, under the influence of liberal lubrication by strong libation, skits lampooning the sacrosanct were a feature. the main skit caricatured our CO wearing an immense teal-blue 'chicken' and draped to the wearer's elbow. Col. Raff, a strict teetotaler, took it all with good humor, but he shortly thereafter commented to Mike and me that he had the impression that our beret idea wasn't being received with much enthusiasm.

We, not willing to let our idea drop, said that it wasn't the idea of a beret, but the outrageous color that was generating the opposition. The interview ended with Col. Raff accepting the suggestion  that our new headgear be rifle green in the tradition of the famous British Royal Marine Commando units.

The next episode involved then CPT Frank Dallas who was detailed to find a source for berets. In the short time allowed, Frank had to take what he could get - what looked like man-sized Girl Scout berets complete with a half-inch pig-tail sticking up out of the center of the crown.

The first version of the beret was sold for a few months by the Ft. Bragg Exchange for something less than two dollars. The pigtail could be easily clipped off flush with nail clippers and, in spite of their suspected origins, the berets were presentable and military in appearance.

It was not until the first really public appearance of the beret that two conflicting trends became apparent. the 77th, wearing the new beret, participated with a large contingent in the retirement review for Lt. Gen. Joseph P Cleland. Afterward, you could hear spectators and troops asking, "Who were those foreign troops at the review?"

Perhaps because of the furor or maybe for other unguessed reasons, the beret captured the 77th's imagination and was taken fiercely to heart as the symbol of their self-image. The contradictory trend was the skepticism - even opposition - to the beret by "higher headquarters" who understandably wanted to know who authorized the wearing of "those tams".

Col. Raff, never short on courage, stood up to the new XVIII Airborne Corps (ABC) commander, Lt. Gen. Paul D. Adams, who demanded to know the authority for adopting the beret. By this time, Col. Raff had succeeded to the command of the Psychological Warfare Center which included the PSY War Board. Col. Raff designated the beret as a troop-test item and we blithely continued to wear it in spite of the XVIIIth ABC.

The opposition didn't slack off in the face of our colonel's stand and the wearing of the beret became more and more limited. First, it wasn't permitted off-post, then it could only be worn in the field. The handwriting was on the wall, but fortune again kept a spark of life in the beret. The CO and other members of the 10th SFG, while at a conference at Ft. Bragg in 1955, had seen the beret and also adopted it. Stationed at Bad Tolz, Germany, the 10th was out of reach of  the counterpressures at Ft. Bragg and withstood whatever local opposition it encountered.

When it became apparent that the beret would 'fly', Col. Raff assigned then CPT William V. Kock the mission of obtaining real  military berets to be sold through the Castro-Payne Chapter of the Airborne Association of which Bill Koch was president. After overcoming incredible and, in retrospect, hilarious obstacles which would make a story in themselves, Bill Koch was able to obtain and bring through customs Canadian military berets. The berets, now the prized badge of SF qualification, were snapped up at something over six dollars each.

Exercise Sagebrush in Louisiana almost sounded the death knell of the beret. The SF contingent was abruptly withdrawn from the  maneuver following some overenthusiastic actions with which the
conventional forces could not cope. Under close scrutiny, the 77th was severely limited in its actions and options and was forced to choose a path of accommodation.

The 82d Airborne Division, choosing the worst moment possible, drove the final nail in the coffin. When their request to DA for red berets was turned down, they presented the argument that SF was wearing berets. DA countered - the 77th was ordered to give up the beret. Just as the DA order fell over us in midsummer 1956, a contingent of several A teams, B teams and a C team was enroute in 13 C-119 aircraft from Camp Hale, CO, to Ft. Bragg. We in the 77th were sure that our opponents on the Airborne Corps staff would be present at Pope AFB to catch our troops deplaning in the now-forbidden beret.

I radioed to an enroute stop and obtained the hat size of each man on the aircraft and instructed them to remain aboard the aircraft until they'd been released on arrival at Pope. Each aircraft was met on arrival and the despised field caps were issued. I wish I could relate that the troops deplaned each wearing a well-fitting cap. Each man was wearing a field cap, but the caps couldn't have been distributed deliberately to provide a worse fit.

Officers and men, not being party to the recent developments, confusedly fell in by their aircraft with field caps perched precariously atop their heads, down over their eyes or any way but  properly fitted. Many had arctic caps, others summer - but no one wore a beret. The frustration of those who were there to "catch us red-handed" was obvious.

There had been a few "end-run" attempts to gain approval for the beret. One such entailed out troops in Colorado presenting a beret  to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was visiting the new  Air Force Academy in Denver, but he was hospitalized with a heart attack at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. President Eisenhower received the beret, but made no comment. The beret was kept alive in Germany by the 10th and on Okinawa by the newly formed 1st SFG and it remained close to our hearts in the states.

Just after the field-cap incident I regretfully left the 77th for a field artillery assignment at Ft. Sill, OK, and subsequently in Germany. I don't know how the beret was kept alive at Ft. Bragg, but alive it remained. When President John F. Kennedy visited Ft. Bragg in the early 1960s he was extremely impressed by the SF's part of  the demonstration and said that he wished he had 10,000 men like these who wore the green beret.

A beret was presented along with a request for authorization to wear it. The request was granted in recognition of the prowess of  those who had so clearly earned it. The quest for authorization was long  and difficult. Men such as Col. Raff stood up under heavy pressures and sacrificed promotion and career to enable the present generation to have this symbol.

Not until an imaginative leader, President Kennedy, had the clear vision to perceive the immense value of SF did its symbol become universally recognized in the Army. Recognition by the world of the SF's Green Beret finally came only with the tragedy of President Kennedy's assassination. Sgt. Maj. Francis J. Ruddy, a member of the graveside honor guard, stepped forward, removed his beret and laid it on the temporary grave - giving back for all SF men the honor that our President had given us. Television and press coverage of that terrible hour seemed to insure that the green beret would be known and respected throughout the world.


FM PRESUS THE WHITE HOUSE WASHDC
TO CG FT BRAGG
DA GRNC
BT
UNCLAS CITE WH670-61 FOR BRIGADIER GENERAL WILLIAM P. YARBOROUGH, COMMANDING GENERAL U.S. ARMY SPECIAL WARFARE CENTER FORT BRAGG, N.C. MY CONGRATULATIONS TO YOU PERSONALLY FOR YOUR PART IN THE PRESENTATION TODAY AT FORT BRAGG, AND ESPECIALLY FOR THE IMAGINATION AS WELL AS THE PRECISION WHICH YOUR DIRECTION GAVE TO A DIFFICULT SUBJECT. I CAME AWAY WITH A NEW APPRECIATION OF YOUR MISSION AND ENTHUSIASM FOR ITS PERFORMANCE. I KNOW THAT YOU AND YOUR MEN NOT ONLY SERVE AS GOOD INSTRUCTORS, BUT AS AN INSPIRATION TO THE ALLIED OFFICERS WHO ATTEND YOUR SCHOOL. PLEASE CONVEY MY CONGRATULATIONS AND MY APPRECIATION TO ALL OF THE MEN WHO TOOK PART. THE CHALLENGE OF THIS OLD BUT NEW FORM OF OPERATIONS IS A REAL ONE AND I KNOW THAT YOU AND THE MEMBERS OF YOUR COMMAND WILL CARRY ON FOR US AND THE FREE WORLD IN A MANNER WHICH IS BOTH WORTHY AND INSPIRING. I AM SURE THAT THE GREEN BERET WILL BE A MARK OF DISTINCTION IN THE TRYING TIMES AHEAD.
JOHN F. KENNEDY
BT
CFN WH670-61
13/0259Z RUEPWW


THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON
April 11, 1962

TO THE UNITED STATES ARMY:

Another military dimension -- "guerrilla warfare" -- has necessarily been added to the American profession of arms. The literal translation of guerrilla warfare -- "a little war" -- is hardly applicable to this ancient, but at the same time, modern thread. I note that the Army has several terms which describe the various facets of the current struggle: wars of subversion, covert aggression, and, in broad professional terms, special warfare or unconventional warfare.

By whatever name, this militant challenge to freedom calls for an improvement and enlargement of our own development of techniques and tactics, communications and logistics to meet this threat. The mission of our Armed Forces -- and especially the Army today -- is to master these skills and techniques and to be able to help those who have the will to help themselves.

Pure military skill is not enough. A full spectrum of  military, para-military, and civil action must be blended to produce success. The enemy uses economic and political warfare, propaganda and naked military aggression in an endless combination to oppose a free choice of government, and suppress the rights of the individual by terror, by subversion and by force of arms. To win in this struggle, our officers and man must understand and combine the political, economic and civil actions with skilled military efforts in the execution of this mission.

"The green beret" is again becoming a symbol of  excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom. I know the United States Army will live up to its reputation for imagination, resourcefulness, and spirit as we meet this challenge.

/s/ John F. Kennedy


[This letter LTG Yarborough to BG Emerson (CG of JFK Center for Military Assistance at Ft. Bragg) adds more important historical information to the story of the Green Beret]


12 May 1971
Dear Hank:

I have been following the articles in VERITAS concerning the inception of the green beret and I am inclosing a little more historical data which may bear on the question. The picture inclosed is of Captain Carlos C. Alden who was the Surgeon of the 509th Parachute Battalion during WW II. You will observe he is wearing a beret and you will recall that the 509th Parachute Battalion was commanded by Colonel Edson D. Raff who later became the commander of Special Forces at Fort Bragg in the period around 1953.

Ed Raff was the proponent for the wearing of the red beret by our paratroops who were attached to the British 1st Airborne Division prior to the invasion of Africa. Many of the paratroops, as evidenced by Doc Alden, did wear the red beret with Ed Raff's blessing. Just as the red beret was the mark of the British parachute soldier, the green beret was the badge of the British commando. It is easy to see how Ed Raff fathered the green beret as a result of his WW II affiliation with the Britishforces.

The rest of the story, as has been published, is fairly accurate. It was President Kennedy's Military Aide, General Chester V. Clifton, (a classmate of mine) who arrived at Fort Bragg in preparation for the President's visit and conferred with me on the Special Forces demonstration which was to take place for the President. I indicated to General Clifton the deep feelings that the Special Forces troopers had for the green beret -- many of them owned it and wore it surreptitiously. I had on several occasions tried to have the beret officially approved, but with results well known. I felt that this was the occasion to get some high level support for a symbol which would be most meaningful to the U.S. Army's most elite unit. Clifton agreed with me and sent me a communication which stated that the President would like to see our men in green berets. This was too much for the Army which then capitulated and a crash action insued to obtain enough "green beanies" prior to the President's visit. Although there were a number of authentic models which appeared, there were equal numbers of dime store, ladies' haberdashery and green headgear from other sources. The result was heterogeneous, but electrical. We discovered that there was no manufacturer in the United States who could provide the quality to match the British item. Consequently, our early procurement was from Canada (probably imported from Great Britain).

I hope these notes will add to your archives in a meaningful way. I look forward to seeing you in July.

Sincerely,

/s/
WILLIAM P. YARBOROUGH
Lieutenant General, USA


Brigadier General Henry E. Emerson
Commanding General
John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance
Fort Bragg, North Carolina 28307

The Center Story
Beverly Lindsey

THE GREEN BERET:
"something to set them apart"

"I do not consider wear of a (green) beret by U.S. soldiers to be in keeping with the American tradition, and its inclusion would give our uniform a foreign accent," wrote Major General Robert F. Sink, Ft. Bragg commander, to Lieutenant General Thomas P. Hickey, Third
U.S. Army commander, on Aug. 5, 1957.

Once again, the beret was packed away by the Special Forces (SF), of whom President John F. Kennedy once remarked, "These men have this special, dangerous job, and they need something to set them apart." He ordered his military aide, Major General Chester V. (Ted) Clifton, to try to get the beret authorized.

Prior to visiting the Special Forces on their home ground on Oct. 12, 1961, President Kennedy sent a telegram ordering the men on Smoke Bomb Hill to wear the beret with the Army uniform. The order ended the nine- year controversy (1952-1961) over the unique headgear.

In June, 1952, former Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operator Major Aaron Bank was recalled from the Korean War and sent  to select a site for the 10th SF Group (Airborne), the first unconventional warfare outfit in the Army's long history.

He selected Smoke Bomb Hill for two reasons. First, there were several hundred World War II wooden barracks standing idle, and second, the spot was not too far from the nation's capital and the office of Brigadier General Robert A. McClure, Chief, Psychological Warfare Division, who created the SF Division.

The modern Special Forces were conceived by men who "stayed behind" following the fall of Bataan and the Philippines - soldiers like Russell Volckmann and Wendell W. Fertig, who had raised large resistance groups in defense of the islands.

Many of the first SF-ers were former OSS types; however, an order went out at Ft. Bragg in 1952 that the elite new force would not be referred to as "OSS-type units."

Col. Volckmann later recalled that once established, Special Forces were difficult to maintain. Spaces were finally made available after Ranger companies were closed out at Ft. Benning, Ga.

Accounts differ on who created the idea of wearing berets. CaptainsHerb Brucker and Roger Pezzelle are called the "Fathers of the Beret."

Chaplain Vahan Sipantzi said men wore berets as early as 1952 and that he was sent by the commander of Detachment 22 to Fayetteville to try to locate berets.

Sergeant Major Henry D. Goodwyn said the beret was worn publicly in the fall of 1955, during FTX SAGEBRUSH.

So the stories continue, and they vary. One thing for certain - the men were determined to acquire something special for their uniforms. Red berets, worn by the British Parachute Regiment during World War II, "could be seen a mile away." The first green berets were ordered from the Dorothea Knitting Mills in Toronto.

Another episode took place which affected the legality of the beret: a confrontation between Colonel Edson D. Raff who insisted that the men be allowed to wear berets, and General Paul D. Adams, Ft. Bragg commander, who insisted they would not. Raff lost.

The photos accompanying this article were generously loaned by Major (Ret) Herb Brucker, who made the logical step from OSS to Special Forces. Brucker speaks fluent German and French. His intelligence background fit well as an instructor in clandestine operations for the new 10th Group.

Brucker recalled that in August, 1953, he and Pezzelle were having lunch at their office, and Herb sketched a camouflage uniform with matching beret. Pezzelle liked it, and after Brucker left for duty in Germany with the 10th Group, Roger checked on the beret. Then he, too, left for Germany.

One day the two got together at the Post Exchange and read a magazine article on the "snake eaters" in berets. The headgear had arrived at Bragg, and men were wearing them on their field training exercises. They were drawing quite a bit of attention.

Old timers on the hill remember that some of the Canadian-produced berets were far from ideal. When it rained, the color faced and turned the face green. They would also shrink. But in 1953, the flaws were overlooked, because the berets gave the men an air of eliteness that matched their morale.

Pezzelle, from Germany, visited French soldiers who wore felt berets. Brucker in turn found a haberdasher, Mutze Muller, who agreed to produce the headgear for the Americans. Men paid $1.75 from their own money for their headgear, and Brucker seemed to be the project officer for the deal.

By 1954 the Hill was crawling with SF-ers wearing berets. But they were still a point of controversy and were still worn "surreptitiously." Even after Gen. Adams' vehement disapproval, they were worn in the field. In addition, the berets were recalled after being approved for the 77th SF Group by the U.S. Continental Army Command. During the tenure of Center Commander Colonel George M. Jones, from 1958 until 1961, he tried to secure the beret for his men.

Why did the Department of the Army (DA) object to the berets  so strongly? Besides looking "too foreign," they set the men apart from the rest of the Army - and the sister services. They were not an item of issue, and baseball caps were.

In 1960 the 77th SF Group was renamed the 7th Group, and Brigadier General (then Colonel) Donald D. Blackburn, also a veteran of the Philippines' resistance movement, assumed command of the group. DA began emphasizing counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare. Khrushchev's avowal of supporting wars of national liberation was the kind of challenge for which SF had been trained.

In a memo dated June 25, 1960, Col. Blackburn wrote to Col. Jones: "... the green beret will act as a distinguishing part of the uniform, enhancing the prestige of Special Forces troops, and at the same time appear as a piece of headgear. The beret is in common usage by elite troops in nearly all armies of the world."

Then Colonel William Pelham Yarborough assumed command of  the center. He was a brilliant young strategist who had helped plan the initial concept and plan for the airborne phase of the North African invasion. He served alongside Darby's unconventional Rangers, leading the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment in spearhead assaults into Nazi-occupied southern France. By the time he came to Smoke Bomb Hill, DA  had softened up considerably. President Kennedy was turning to his elite troopers, and their stature caught his eye. When Gen. Yarborough greeted the Commander-in-Chief at McKellar's Lodge in 1961, every man stood proud and tall, wearing their long-cherished, legal, green berets.

President Kennedy asked, "How do you like the green beret?"

Gen. Yarborough, being watched closely by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied, "Fine, Sir. We've wanted them for a long time."

This article carried an "Editor's Note": Not all stories on the origin of the green beret coincide with all other stories on the origin of the green beret. What we know of the history of the green beret is part fact, part legend, and the legend part varies. We will probably never know who wore the FIRST green beret or who FIRST originated the idea. However, wherever and whenever it began, the beret survived and became a special symbol for the Special Forces.


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