When war unexpectedly erupted on the Korean Peninsula in 1950, the U.S. Army scrambled to recreate the special operations capabilities it had disbanded after World War II. Fortunately, the spirit of innovation and adaptability that characterized Army Special Operations Forces (ARSOF) in WWII lived on through the veterans of that war and was harnessed to great effect during the Korean War. By the end of that conflict, seventy years ago this month, numerous ARSOF units, institutions, and capabilities had been added to the Army’s arsenal, many of which persist to this day.
The Korean War unfolded in five distinct phases, the first of which began when the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) military, seeking to unite Korea under communist rule, invaded its southern neighbor, the Republic of Korea, on June 25, 1950. U.S.-led United Nations (UN) forces rushed to the defense of South Korea, forming a defensive perimeter in the southeast corner of the peninsula, around the port city of Pusan (now Busan). This critical location allowed the outnumbered U.S. forces and their partners to funnel reinforcements and materiel into the fight.
During the chaotic early days of the war, Army leaders, both in Washington, D.C. and in Korea, began rebuilding special operations capabilities that had been neglected since the end of WWII. In early July 1950, the General Headquarters (GHQ), U.S. Far East Command (FECOM), formed a provisional Raider Company to conduct commando-type operations behind enemy lines. The following month, the Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA) followed suit, establishing a Ranger Training Center at Kijang, near Pusan, to prepare a Ranger Company for missions similar to those carried out by the GHQ Raiders.
Meanwhile, FECOM faced a major humanitarian crisis among Korean civilians who had fled to Pusan to escape advancing North Korean forces. In Sept. 1950, Gen. Douglas A. MacArthur, FECOM Commander, ordered his chief of Public Health and Welfare, Brig. Gen. Crawford F. Sams, to organize a 60-man Civil Affairs (CA) unit to address the immediate problem of disease within the refugee population. This was among the first CA efforts during the war. Many more would follow.
Stateside, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, initiated an effort that led to the creation of the Ranger Training Center (RTC) at Fort Benning, Georgia (known as Fort Moore since 2023), in Sept. 1950. The RTC immediately set about training Ranger Infantry Companies (Airborne), or RICAs, six of which deployed to Korea, beginning in Dec. 1950. Gen. Collins also created the psywar Division under the Army G-3, placing Brig. Gen. Robert A. McClure, a WWII psywar veteran, in charge of rebuilding the Army’s neglected Psywar capability. The only active Army psywar unit in the interwar period, the Tactical Information Detachment, arrived in Korea in Oct. 1950, and was soon redesignated as the 1st Loudspeaker and Leaflet (L&L) Company.
By that point, the war in Korea had entered its second phase, the UN counteroffensive, which began with a daring amphibious assault at Inchon, near the South Korean capital of Seoul, on Sept. 15, 1950. After liberating the capital, UN forces moved north of the 38th parallel, seizing Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Continuing northward, UN forces neared the Yalu River, which separated North Korea from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), within a month of the Inchon landings. A UN victory seemed within reach and, with it, unification of the Korean peninsula under a non-communist government.
However, hopes for an early end to the war were dashed in late Oct. 1950, when the Communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army crossed the Yalu River into North Korea. With this, the war entered its third phase. The unanticipated Chinese Communist intervention prompted outnumbered UN forces to retreat below the 38th parallel and communist forces recaptured Seoul in early January 1951, bringing the war’s third phase to an end.
Aided by newly arrived RICAs from Fort Benning, UN forces went back on the offensive in early 1951 with the goal of regaining control of Seoul and driving the combined communist forces of China and North Korea north of the 38th parallel. This constituted the fourth phase of the war, during which UN forces successfully reclaimed Seoul in April 1951.
Several key ARSOF milestones occurred during this period. First, the EUSA established a Guerrilla Command to train and coordinate the activities of North Korean anti-communist partisans. Second, Brig. Gen. McClure, took charge of the newly established Office of the Chief of Psychological Warfare (OCPW). Third, the Army established a Military Government School at Fort Gordon, Georgia (known as Fort Eisenhower since 2023), to train Civil Affairs soldiers. Then, in March 1951, the 2nd and 4th RICAs participated in the first-ever combat airborne assault by an Army Ranger unit (Operation TOMAHAWK).
As the front lines stabilized in the late spring of 1951, the war entered its fifth and final phase, which could best be characterized as a stalemate along the prewar border between North and South Korea, with limited territorial gains made by either side. This remained the case until July 27, 1953, when the UN Command, DPRK, and PRC signed an armistice at Panmunjom, South Korea, after two years of negotiation.
Army Special Operations continued to evolve during the final two years of the war. The small CA element created by Brig. Gen. Sams in 1950 grew into the Korea Civil Assistance Command. The tactically focused 1st L&L Company was joined in late 1951 by the 1st Radio Broadcasting and Leaflet Group, a strategic psywar unit headquartered in Tokyo, Japan, that directly supported broadcasting operations on the peninsula. Back in the States, Brig. Gen. McClure and his OCPW staff took actions that led to the establishment of the Psychological Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina (known as Fort Liberty since 2023), in April 1952 as the Army’s proponent for psywar and unconventional warfare (UW). Two months later, OCPW efforts to establish a permanent UW capability bore fruit with the activation of 10th Special Forces Group, commanded by Col. Aaron Bank. The first of 99 Special Forces-trained soldiers deployed to Korea in February 1953 as individual augmentees to the 8240th Army Unit (one of the various names for Eighth Army’s longstanding guerrilla command).
The Korean War has been called the “Forgotten War,” falling as it did between World War II and the Vietnam War. However, it was truly a foundational period for ARSOF. Starting with almost nothing, the Army rebuilt effective Ranger, unconventional warfare, psywar, and Civil Affairs capabilities over the course of the three-year conflict, adapting and evolving them as the situation demanded.
By the time the armistice was signed, the Army had its first man, train, and equip headquarters for unconventional warfare and psywar. Now known as the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, it has been in continuous operation since its founding in 1952. The U.S. Army Civil Affairs School that first opened at Fort Gordon in early 1951 was brought under the Special Warfare Center and School in 1971. Army Special Forces, first chartered in 1952, recently celebrated seventy-one years of uninterrupted service to the nation. Although all Korean War Ranger Companies were disbanded by war’s end, the Ranger Training Center founded in 1950 continued on, first as the Ranger Training Command, and now as the Airborne and Ranger Training Brigade at Fort Moore, Georgia.
Visit ARSOF in the Korean War: 25 June 1950 -- 27 July 1953 (arsof-history.org) to learn more about this pivotal period in Army Special Operations history.