JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington - The 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) kicked-off Menton Week during an opening ceremony Dec. 7 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. The annual week-long celebration, Dec. 7-11, honors the history of the First Special Service Force, the predecessor to modern day Special Forces, which was disbanded 76 years ago in Menton, France Dec. 5, 1944.
Unlike the years past, this ceremony, like many events across the country, has been limited to adhere to local COVID-19 mitigation guidance. The week typically comprises multiple opportunities to gather with families, retirees, and our partnered forces around the world. Despite cutting back on social events, 1st SFG (A) will still be hosting the team competition. The event will test six different 10-man teams on a wide range of skills to include swimming, rucking, shooting, and lifting.
“This is traditionally a week of competition, remembrance, and comradery,” said Col. Ryan Ehrler, Commander of 1st SFG (A). ”Although we have had to limit social events this year due to the ongoing pandemic, rest assured we are still getting out and training, pushing our limits, and honoring the legacy of our roots.”
These roots started in 1942 with the First Special Service Force (FSSF). The FSSF, an elite American-Canadian commando unit, was organized for unconventional warfare deep in enemy territory.
“The FSSF was trained in airborne, amphibious, and winter warfare operations, and was originally organized to fight an extended guerrilla campaign behind enemy lines,” said Lt. Col. (ret.) Hank Cramer, a former company commander with 1st SFG (A) from 1984-1988, and son of the unit’s first Vietnam casualty of war, Cpt. Harry G. Cramer. “We still hold those skills today.”
Earning their reputation from rigorously trained stealth tactics in foreign theater, to executing missions, otherwise not accomplished, the FSSF was comprised of about 1,800 men: one service battalion, and three small regiments, from 1942-1944.
“Today is not just a day to remember those who came before us and laid the foundation for special operations, it is a day to honor our special heroes,” said Ehrler.
In the winter of 1943, the FSSF successfully penetrated the Bernhardt Line Defenses by capturing a heavily fortified German defensive position located atop a mountain surrounded by steep cliffs at Monte la Difensa in Italy, after American and British forces sustained many casualties in prior attempts to do the same. The actions of the FSSF led to the eventual success of Allied Forces during the Anzio Campaign and the capture of Rome in June of 1944, during WWII.
The Battle of Anzio in 1944 is what inspired their nickname, “The Devil’s Brigade”, where a German soldier described them as “Die schwarzen Teufel” or “Black Devils” because of black boot polish smeared on their faces, to blend in with the night, during surreptitious raids against German forces.
While the FSSF made strides against German Forces, Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) also played a vital role in World War II. Their presence in Burma with the Kachin tribesman became a part of the ultimate blueprint that U.S. Special Forces continue to build from.
“Detachment 101 overcame huge cultural and language barriers to organize a guerrilla fighting force composed of an ethnic minority known as the Kachin tribesman, in Burma,” said Cramer. “This set the example of Special Forces soldiers becoming language-proficient and culturally nuanced to work with different cultures throughout our Area of Operation.”
As a wartime intelligence agency of the United States, the OSS was also used for unconventional warfare. They orchestrated espionage activities behind enemy lines for all branches of the United States military during World War II.
The OSS assisted in supplying and training resistance movements in areas occupied by Axis powers during World War II, in places like China. This effort was in favor of the “Dixie Mission” encouraging the establishment of official relations with the Communist Party of China and the People's Liberation Army.
On September 20, 1945, President Truman signed Executive Order 9621, terminating the OSS. Two years later, the Central Intelligence Agency was then established as the first permanent peacetime intelligence agency.
By 1945, both the FSSF and the OSS were deactivated. Former members like Col. Aaron Bank took command of 10th Special Forces Group, and Lt. Col. Albert Scott Madding took command of the 14th Special Forces Operations Detachment in 1956, continuing the legacy of elite teams and meticulous training.
In 1957, 1st SFG (A) was officially activated with Lt. Col. Albert Scott Madding as commander and Master Sgt. Robert L. Voss, as the unit sergeant major.
That same year, the 1st and 77th Special Forces Group went to war in Vietnam. During their time in Vietnam, the wearing of green berets was authorized by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
“(Kennedy) championed the Special Forces by authorizing them to wear the green beret as a ‘symbol of excellence’, and by providing the resources to greatly expand the size of SF,” said Cramer.
Kennedy’s vision for Special Forces was to be of service to countries in need. When he shifted America’s national security strategy from nuclear deterrence to flexible response, it became necessary to have an elite force to fulfill those roles.
Kennedy regarded the creation of Special Forces and the Peace Corps as part of his administration’s flexible response to counter Soviet influence in the developing world, said Cramer. “Special Forces Soldiers could train small countries to defend themselves, without U.S. ground troops.”
With new engagement strategies on the horizon to tackle the special warfare counterinsurgency challenges in Southeast Asia, the Special Action Force Asia was born ultimately assigning 1st SFG (A) with the responsibility of reinforcing medical, engineering, civil affairs and intelligence units, in order to facilitate operations and strengthen defense relationships across the Asian-Pacific Region.
The initial mission of the Special Action Force was changed to foreign internal defense and development focusing on advisory support, training, and operational advice in order to assist host countries engaged in counterinsurgency operations.
In June of 1974, 1st SFG (A) was deactivated after their historic contribution to the Asia-Pacific Region.
“Of the seven special forces groups in the active Army, 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 8th were deactivated. Only 5th, 7th, and 10th were retained,” said Cramer. “Of the 1st SFG (A), only one detachment remained on active duty and that was the U.S. Army 39th Special Forces Operation Detachment-Korea, now known as 39th SFOD.”
Ten years later in March of 1984, the Army recognized a need for the reestablishment of a more permanent unconventional force in the Asian theatre.
“With the new configuration, the Army wanted the (special forces) groups to be "sustainable", from the standpoint of family support, and professional development,” said Cramer. “So, the new 1st SFG (A) was configured with one battalion in Okinawa, and group headquarters and two battalions at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.”
As 1st SFG (A) continues to pay homage to the unit’s roots, the reputation of the Green Beret has never changed. Throughout time, the excellence and grit portrayed by the members of the First Special Service Force are key characteristics instilled within every modern Green Beret.
“The Black Devils were the embodiment of excellence, and were integral in leading the way to victory during World War II,” said Ehrler. “Their legacy gave rise to a new generation of professional Warriors that carry a weight of responsibility upon their backs that far exceeds that of the average person. Like the Black Devils before them, our soldiers continue to venture forth to deliver death and destruction on those who have given in to evil, who prey upon the innocent, and who would oppress.”