Green Beret Heraldry

BG Emerson to JFK Center


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

The Center Story
Beverly Lindsey

"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. Captains Herb 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."

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