70 years and Counting: U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School celebrates anniversary

By Christopher E. Howard, History Office, U.S. Army Special Operations CommandApril 10, 2022

FORT BRAGG, N.C. - This year, the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School celebrates its 70th anniversary.

Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough met President John F. Kennedy in 1961
1 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough, U.S. Army Special Warfare Center Commander, met with President John F. Kennedy during the President’s Oct. 12, 1961, visit to Fort Bragg, NC. This moment inspired the statue of the two men that currently stands outside Kennedy Hall on the USAJFKSWCS campus. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Psychological Warfare Center & School
2 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Col. Charles H. Karlstad, Psychological Warfare Center & School commandant, and Col. Aaron Bank, Center Executive officer, along with Lt. Col. Lester L. Holmes, 6th RB&L Group commander, and Lt. Col. John O. Weaver, Chief of the Psywar Division of the Army General School at Fort Riley, Kansas, pose by the Headquarters sign on Smoke Bomb Hill, Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL
Psywar Center distinctive unit insignia
3 / 3 Show Caption + Hide Caption – The Psywar Center distinctive unit insignia, first approved in 1952, remains the DUI for the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School 70 years later. (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

The U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School is the Army’s Special Operations Center of Excellence, serving as the proponent for all U.S. Army Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Forces doctrine and training.

In April 1952, with war raging on the Korean Peninsula and Cold War divides deepening globally, the U.S. Army formally established the Psychological Warfare (Psywar) Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Assigned to the Third U.S. Army, the Psywar Center absorbed all psywar-related functions and personnel previously located at Fort Riley, Kansas. Then-Brig. Gen. Robert A. McClure, the Army’s Chief of Psywar, selected Col. Charles H. Karlstad as the Center’s first commander. A combat veteran of two World Wars and former Chief of Staff of the Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Georgia, Karlstad was the right man for the job.

Early Psywar Center missions included conducting individual training and supervising unit training for Psywar and Special Forces; testing and evaluating equipment; and developing doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures for Psywar and Special Forces, the Army’s unconventional warfare specialists.

Assigned units were the 6th Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Group, the Psychological Warfare Board, and 10th Special Forces Group. The latter was the first of its kind, having been activated June 11, 1952.

That October, the Center added the Psychological Warfare School, consisting of Psywar and Special Forces departments. The Army approved the Center and School’s insignia design on Nov. 28, 1952, which is still in use today.

In December 1956, the Army renamed the Psywar Center and School as the Special Warfare Center and School.

During the early 1960s, the Special Warfare Center and School grew in response to the massive expansion of Special Forces and increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Much of this growth occurred under the leadership of Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough. The Center added counterinsurgency operations courses and created an Advanced Training Committee to develop methods of infiltration and exfiltration, such as military freefall and underwater operations.

In 1964, the Center was redesignated as the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center. This was to memorialize the recently slain President, who was an avid supporter of U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. A year later, the Center consolidated all unit-level dive training into the Special Forces Underwater Operations course, conducted at Key West, Florida.

In May 1969, the Center was renamed the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Center for Military Assistance, and the School was renamed the U.S. Army Institute for Military Assistance.

On Sept. 15, 1971, the U.S. Army Civil Affairs School transferred from Fort Gordon, Georgia, to Fort Bragg, coming under the Center, alongside Special Operations and Psychological Operations.

A year later, the Center was assigned to the new U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), becoming the Army’s proponent for Army Special Operations Forces.

Meanwhile, Special Forces regrouped amid post-Vietnam War force reductions, refining its mission and how it trained. One result of this was the implementation of the Robin Sage unconventional warfare exercise in 1974, which replaced earlier exercises such as Operation Snowdrop, Cherokee Trail, and Gobbler’s Woods.

The 1980s were a period of revitalization and transformation for Army Special Operations Forces, and the Center was deeply involved in this process. In 1982, it became an independent TRADOC activity, under the name U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center.

Concurrently, the Army activated 1st Special Operations Command, which assumed command of operational Army Special Operation units, allowing the Center to focus on special operations training and doctrine.

In 1986, the Center was redesignated once more, taking its current name of U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School (USAJFKSWCS). It reorganized into six training departments: Special Forces; Special Operations Advanced Skills; Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, based on the Vietnam-era POW experience of Special Forces officer James N. ‘Nick’ Rowe; Foreign Area Officer; Civil Affairs; and Psychological Operations.

It established a Noncommissioned Officer Academy in 1987, later named in honor of Master Sgt. David K. Thuma.

The following year, the Center initiated a three-week Special Forces Assessment and Selection course to test Special Forces candidates physically and psychologically, prior to entering the Special Forces Qualification Course.

In 1989, 1st Special Warfare Training Group was activated, initially consisting of three training battalions and one support battalion.

In June 1990, USAJFKSWCS was reassigned from TRADOC to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, activated on Dec. 1, 1989 to control all components of Army Special Operations forces, less forward deployed units.

During this decade, the Special Operations Academic Facility (now Bank Hall) opened, military freefall training relocated from Fort Bragg to Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, and foreign language training was instituted as part of Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, and Special Forces qualification.

In the two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, USAJFKSWCS expanded and evolved to meet the growing demand for Army Special Operations forces, imposed by the Global War on Terrorism.

Organizational changes included the activation of the Special Warfare Medical Group; the creation of the Special Warfare Education Group and Special Forces Warrant Officer Institute; and the activation of additional battalions under 1st Special Warfare Training Group.

Additionally, Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations instituted their own assessment and selection courses, modeled off Special Forces Assessment and Selection. In 2012, the Army designated USAJFKSWCS as the U.S. Army Special Operations Center of Excellence.

Today, USAJFKSWCS consists of the Special Warfare Center, Special Forces Warrant Officer Institute, Noncommissioned Officer Academy, and three training groups: 1st Special Warfare Training Group, 2nd Special Warfare Training Group, and Special Warfare Medical Group.

Combined, they offer over 100 separate courses to Civil Affairs, Psychological Operations, Special Forces, Allied and Sister Service students, from assessment and selection and military occupational specialty qualification, to foreign languages, advanced skills, and leader development.

After 70 years, USAJFKSWCS continues to provide the nation with highly trained, educated, disciplined, and adaptive Army Special Operations Soldiers, capable of operating in a complex, multi-dimensional world.

For more information, please visit https://arsof-history.org.