The modern history of 1st Special Forces Group commenced on 1 April 1956, with the activation of 14 Special Forces Operational Detachment (Area) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Hand picked from the 77th Special Forces Group (Airborne), the members of this detachment along with the 12th, 13th, and 16th SFOD’s–were specifically selected and trained for the purpose of establishing a special operations capability in the Asian-Pacific theater. These units were transferred to the Pacific in two increments. The 14th SFOD (Area), under the cover of “8251st Army Service Unit” was transferred to Fort Shafter, Hawaii in June 1956. Shortly afterwards, the 12th SFOD (Regiment), 13th SFOD (Regiment), and 16th SFOD (District) were moved to Camp Drake, Japan under cover of “8231st Army Unit.”
On 24 June 1957, the 1st Special Force Group (Airborne) was officially activated at Camp Drake Japan, although all its elements were either en route to Okinawa or on temporary duty in South Vietnam on that date. Group activation ceremonies were conducted 14 July 1957 at Fort Buckner, Okinawa, following arrival of the operational detachments and the 248th Quartermaster Detachment (Rigger). A staff officer from US Armed Forces Far East was initially assigned as Group Commander, but broke both his legs on his first parachute jump and was evacuated. Command of the Group was then assumed by LTC A. Scott Madding of the 14th SFOD, a highly decorated veteran who had served with Merrill’s Marauders and OSS in World War II and with Ranger and partisan units in Korea.
The period 1957-1960 was a time of intensive training for 1st Special Forces. A large contingent of Republic of Korea Special Forces troops were trained in Okinawa, while 1st Group sent mobile training teams to conduct missions in Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Vietnam. Simultaneously, 1st Group also conducted internal training operations to qualify Special Forces volunteers who had not been through training at Fort Bragg, as well as to cross-train qualified personnel in additional team skills. During the same period, the Group grew in strength from 55 personnel in July 1957 to 364 personnel by October 1960.
On 30 October 1960, all Special Forces groups were reorganized under the combat arms regimental system. 1st Special Forces Group was re-designated 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne), First Special Forces in recognition of its descent from the First Special Service Force. At the same time, the lineage and honors of B Company, 1st Ranger Battalion (World War II) and the 5th Ranger Company (Korean War) were assigned to 1st Special Forces Group.
The most visible change occurring at this time was the restructuring of the Group’s organization. To accommodate the growth in size and to streamline control and administration, the detachments were reorganized on 15 December 1961 into four lettered companies—A, B, C, and D. Each Company consisted of an Operational Detachment C, functioning as the company headquarters, and a varying number of subordinate ODB’s and ODA’s. A Company was the largest of the four companies, with a strength of 47 officers and 165 enlisted men. B Company was activated with 36 officers and 114 men; C Company with 40 officers and 120 enlisted. D Company was organized with only a cadre of five personnel. A fifth company. Company E (Signal), was activated on 19 February 1964 to provide communications support to deployed detachments. Group strength continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1963 of 232 officers, four warrant officers, and 1, 026 enlisted men.
With the advent of the 1960’s, 1st Special Forces Group’s activities increasingly focused on operations in the Republic of Vietnam. 14th SFOD had conducted the first mission to train Vietnamese Rangers near Nha Trang in the summer and fall of 1957. Commitment of 1st Special Forces teams to Vietnam increased steadily thereafter, with numerous detachments deploying from Okinawa on extended TDY missions to train and lead units of the Vietnamese Special Forces (LLDB), Rangers, and Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG). 1st Group established a forward headquarters in Vietnam, which was withdrawn in November 1962 and replaced by “US Army Special Forces Vietnam (Provisional).” This headquarters element directed SF operations in Vietnam from 1962-1964, although the manpower continued to come from detachments of the 1st Group on Okinawa and the 7th Group at Fort Bragg. In October 1964 USASFV (P) was replaced by 5th Special Forces Group, which deployed from Fort Bragg. Even after the arrival of 5th Group, however, 1st Special Forces continued to dispatch teams to Vietnam, maintaining at least six ODA’s in-country at all times to participate in Special Operation Group (SOG) reconnaissance missions. These missions frequently involved cross-border operations into neighboring Laos. Between 1957 and 1972, 1st Special Forces Group soldiers earned eight Distinguished Service Crosses, 44 Silver Stars, 244 Bronze Stars for Valor, 499 Air Medals, 554 Combat Infantry Badges, and 88 Combat Medical Badges in Vietnam. These honors were earned at a heavy price. Forty soldiers of 1st Special Forces Group were killed in Vietnam, two remain missing in action, and 293 were awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in combat. The first Special Forces soldier to die in Vietnam (Captain Harry G. Cramer, 21 October 1957), and the last Special Forces soldier to die in Vietnam (Sergeant Fred C. Mick, 12 October 1972), were both members of 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).
Operations in Vietnam were only one aspect of 1st Special Forces Group activities, however. The Group simultaneously carried out security assistance and civic action missions throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. A “Special Action Force Asia,” or SAFASIA, was organized with 1st Group as its nucleus, to support theater-wide military training, civic action, and disaster relief operations. Under this arrangement, 1st Group was augmented by the 97th Civil Affairs Group; 156th Medical Detachment; 400th Army Security Agency Detachment; 441st Military Intelligence Detachment and the 539th Engineer Detachment.
Much of the early civic action efforts were directed to Thailand and carried out in conjunction with military training missions. 1st Group’s commitment in Thailand eventually grew to such a scale that in 1967 the Group’s D Company was detached and permanently stationed in-country. Re-designated the 46th Special Forces Company, this unit operated in Thailand for the next four years. Among its accomplishments was the training of the Royal Thai Regiment (eventually a division), which afterwards deployed to Vietnam.
Increased experience in supporting civic action and. relief operations resulted in establishment of Disaster Assistance and Relief Teams, or dart’s. 1st Group organized a number of dart’s, each consisting of an A Team augmented by two doctors and 4-6 medics from the SAFASIA medical detachment. Engineers from Group of the 539th Engineers were attached as needed. These task-organized dart’s operated successfully in Luzon, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, and even in the outer island of the Ryukyu chain. The greatest successes of the program occurred during the 1971 Pakistan floods, and the 1972 floods and famine in the Philippines. Teams from 1st Special Forces Group were literally lifesavers during both calamities. Operating rescue boats, inoculating civilians, distributing food, and directing rebuilding efforts, the dart’s saved lives and salvaged livelihoods, and earned America many friends. The Philippines Presidential Unit Citation was awarded to 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) for the latter action.
In 1972, just prior to the Philippines Disaster Relief Operation, 1st Special Forces Group was again reorganized. Companies A, B, and C were consolidated and re-designated as 1st and 2nd Battalions, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne). The change was, for the most part, nominal. A “C” Detachment remained the command and control element, with a lieutenant colonel in command. Operational Detachments “B” were now designated as lettered companies of the battalions; the name and role of the “A” Teams remained unchanged. Even as these organizational changes were occurring, a chapter in the history of 1st Special Forces Group was coming to a close.
The disappointing conclusion to America’s Vietnam experience foreshadowed a shift of strategic emphasis away from Asia and the Pacific, back to NATO and Europe. The size of the Army was being reduced to peacetime levels, and decisions on these reductions were being made by leaders more concerned with maintaining armor and mechanized infantry strength than with maintaining unconventional warfare capabilities. Special Forces, which had grown to a force of seven groups in 1963, was cut severely in strength. 3rd Group was inactivated in 1969, followed by 6th Group in 1971, and 8th Group in 1972. In 1974, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) was also cut from the force, furling its colors on 28 June. Left behind was a single team, US Army Special Forces Detachment Korea, to provide a special operations presence in the Far East. During in-activation ceremonies held at Fort Bragg, Brigadier General Michael P. Healy remarked; “When we furl our colors and place them in the hands of the custodian of all combat unit colors, we carefully let it be known that those who remain are quite capable of re-surging. The beret flashes which are deposited to the rear of the Special Warfare Memorial will be held in abeyance for that day when we will unfurl those colors and proudly take our place in line.”
Ten years later, the resurgence of which General Healy had spoken came to pass. Once again the need for special operations forces in the Asia-Pacific Theater became apparent to the leaders of the Army and the nation, and 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) was once again called to duty. One battalion of the Group would be forward-stationed at Okinawa, while two battalions and the Group’s headquarters and separate companies would be organized at Fort Lewis, Washington.
The first element to be activated was Company A, 1st Battalion, which was reactivated at Fort Bragg on 15 March 1984. This company and the remainder of 1st Battalion were assembled and deployed to Torii Station, Okinawa during the spring and summer of 1984, under command of Lieutenant Colonel James Estep. An in-theater activation ceremony for the battalion was held at Torii Station on 19 October 1984, with Lieutenant General Alexander Weyand present, as reviewing officer.
Activation of the rest of 1st Special Forces Group (Headquarters Company, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, Service Company, Signal Company, and 1st Military Intelligence Company) officially commenced on 4 March 1984 at Fort Lewis, Washington. That date-Carrier day, or activation of the cadre”– was marked by a parachute jump and a rucksack march led by Colonel David J. Baratto, the 1st Special Forces Group Commander.
On 4 September 1984, a formal activation ceremony was held at the Fort Lewis parade ground. The Group’s colors were presented to Colonel Baratto by Major General Leroy N. Suddath, after which the 1st Special Forces Group passed in review. A number of distinguished guests were on hand for the ceremony, including General Maxwell R. Thurman, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army. One invited guest who could not attend was Colonel (Ret.) Charles M. Simpson, former commander of 1st Group and author of the book Inside the Green Berets. Gravely ill with cancer. Colonel Simpson could not attend the ceremony; instead, he wrote these words to the commander and soldiers of 1st Special Forces:
“It would give me the greatest pleasure to be present and see a unit I loved resurrected and back in the field. However, my physical status is so uncertain that I must regretfully decline. My heart will be with you when the colors are once again unfurled and the golden flash gleams from a thousand green berets, standing tall to face the challenge of the coming months and years. It is wonderful to learn that the Army sees fit to re-mobilize a unit that has contributed so much to the Army’s prestige throughout the Pacific Basin, and to know that once again the members of 1st Special Forces Group will be contributing in so many places and so many ways in that great area. You face the challenge of the past, when the Group you have the honor to command never once failed to accomplish its mission in an outstanding manner. That is a tough track record to maintain, but maintain it you will in the best traditions of Special Forces, as the officers and men of past years look on from the sidelines and shadows and cheer you on with a silent ‘Well Done!'”