By Col. John W. Frye
During the summer and fall of 1954, the 77th Special Forces Group (SFG), Airborne, was in an expansion and training status at Smoke Bomb Hill, Fort Bragg, N.C. The 10th (SFG), Airborne, had deployed to Germany in late 1953 leaving a severely understrength 77th as the sole Special Forces (SF) unit at Fort Bragg.
The independence verging on autonomy and the high priority previously enjoyed by SF at Ft. Bragg was waning rapidly with HQ, XVIII Airborne Corps and Ft. Bragg exercising ever-tightening control.
One hot morning, CPT Miguel (Mike) de la Pena and I were sneaking an illicit Coca-Cola during training hours when we were caught red-handed by the 77th's severe commanding officer, Col. Edson F. Raff II. Steeling ourselves for at least a few caustic remarks on our weakness in violating orders regarding strict attendance by all during morning training, we were relieved when, instead of chewing us out as we expected and deserved, the CO began to philosophize on the lowering priorities and independence we were experiencing and their effect on esprit.
Looking for ideas, he put forth a trial balloon that perhaps some kind of distinctive headgear such as a colored baseball cap would partially substitute for our waning recognition. Fortunately, Mike de la Pena collected military berets and suggested that an appropriately colored beret would be just the thing to help bolster esprit. Col. Raff immediately seized on the idea. he asked Mike and me to report to him the next day with several berets so he could see how they would look.
After we had 'modeled' the berets that Mike had brought for the purpose, Col. Raff was sold on the idea and, typically, took off with it at a dead run. Not listening to our suggestion that it should be 'rifle green' or red, the colonel decreed that it would be adopted in branch-immaterial colors which unfortunately for the purpose are teal blue and gold - a teal- blue beret with gold piping around the sweat band.
The word spread rapidly through the group and aroused in everyone emotions ranging from displeasure to outright fury. Mike and I bore the brunt - enlisted men scowled sullenly and officers snarled openly at our approach. We were keenly aware that we were held responsible and everyone expected us to put a stop to the indignity that was about to be perpetrated upon them.
A fortuitous turn of events saved our bacon. A 'prop-blast' party was held to initiate newly qualified parachutists at which, under the influence of liberal lubrication by strong libation, skits lampooning the sacrosanct were a feature. the main skit caricatured our CO wearing an immense teal-blue 'chicken' and draped to the wearer's elbow. Col. Raff, a strict teetotaler, took it all with good humor, but he shortly thereafter commented to Mike and me that he had the impression that our beret idea wasn't being received with much enthusiasm.
We, not willing to let our idea drop, said that it wasn't the idea of a beret, but the outrageous color that was generating the opposition. The interview ended with Col. Raff accepting the suggestion that our new headgear be rifle green in the tradition of the famous British Royal Marine Commando units.
The next episode involved then CPT Frank Dallas who was detailed to find a source for berets. In the short time allowed, Frank had to take what he could get - what looked like man-sized Girl Scout berets complete with a half-inch pig-tail sticking up out of the center of the crown.
The first version of the beret was sold for a few months by the Ft. Bragg Exchange for something less than two dollars. The pigtail could be easily clipped off flush with nail clippers and, in spite of their suspected origins, the berets were presentable and military in appearance.
It was not until the first really public appearance of the beret that two conflicting trends became apparent. the 77th, wearing the new beret, participated with a large contingent in the retirement review for Lt. Gen. Joseph P Cleland. Afterward, you could hear spectators and troops asking, "Who were those foreign troops at the review?"
Perhaps because of the furor or maybe for other unguessed reasons, the beret captured the 77th's imagination and was taken fiercely to heart as the symbol of their self-image. The contradictory trend was the skepticism - even opposition - to the beret by "higher headquarters" who understandably wanted to know who authorized the wearing of "those tams".
Col. Raff, never short on courage, stood up to the new XVIII Airborne Corps (ABC) commander, Lt. Gen. Paul D. Adams, who demanded to know the authority for adopting the beret. By this time, Col. Raff had succeeded to the command of the Psychological Warfare Center which included the PSY War Board. Col. Raff designated the beret as a troop-test item and we blithely continued to wear it in spite of the XVIIIth ABC.
The opposition didn't slack off in the face of our colonel's stand and the wearing of the beret became more and more limited. First, it wasn't permitted off-post, then it could only be worn in the field. The handwriting was on the wall, but fortune again kept a spark of life in the beret. The CO and other members of the 10th SFG, while at a conference at Ft. Bragg in 1955, had seen the beret and also adopted it. Stationed at Bad Tolz, Germany, the 10th was out of reach of the counterpressures at Ft. Bragg and withstood whatever local opposition it encountered.
When it became apparent that the beret would 'fly', Col. Raff assigned then CPT William V. Kock the mission of obtaining real military berets to be sold through the Castro-Payne Chapter of the Airborne Association of which Bill Koch was president. After overcoming incredible and, in retrospect, hilarious obstacles which would make a story in themselves, Bill Koch was able to obtain and bring through customs Canadian military berets. The berets, now the prized badge of SF qualification, were snapped up at something over six dollars each.
Exercise Sagebrush in Louisiana almost sounded the death knell of the beret. The SF contingent was abruptly withdrawn from the maneuver following some overenthusiastic actions with which the
conventional forces could not cope. Under close scrutiny, the 77th was severely limited in its actions and options and was forced to choose a path of accommodation.
The 82d Airborne Division, choosing the worst moment possible, drove the final nail in the coffin. When their request to DA for red berets was turned down, they presented the argument that SF was wearing berets. DA countered - the 77th was ordered to give up the beret. Just as the DA order fell over us in midsummer 1956, a contingent of several A teams, B teams and a C team was enroute in 13 C-119 aircraft from Camp Hale, CO, to Ft. Bragg. We in the 77th were sure that our opponents on the Airborne Corps staff would be present at Pope AFB to catch our troops deplaning in the now-forbidden beret.
I radioed to an enroute stop and obtained the hat size of each man on the aircraft and instructed them to remain aboard the aircraft until they'd been released on arrival at Pope. Each aircraft was met on arrival and the despised field caps were issued. I wish I could relate that the troops deplaned each wearing a well-fitting cap. Each man was wearing a field cap, but the caps couldn't have been distributed deliberately to provide a worse fit.
Officers and men, not being party to the recent developments, confusedly fell in by their aircraft with field caps perched precariously atop their heads, down over their eyes or any way but properly fitted. Many had arctic caps, others summer - but no one wore a beret. The frustration of those who were there to "catch us red-handed" was obvious.
There had been a few "end-run" attempts to gain approval for the beret. One such entailed out troops in Colorado presenting a beret to President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he was visiting the new Air Force Academy in Denver, but he was hospitalized with a heart attack at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. President Eisenhower received the beret, but made no comment. The beret was kept alive in Germany by the 10th and on Okinawa by the newly formed 1st SFG and it remained close to our hearts in the states.
Just after the field-cap incident I regretfully left the 77th for a field artillery assignment at Ft. Sill, OK, and subsequently in Germany. I don't know how the beret was kept alive at Ft. Bragg, but alive it remained. When President John F. Kennedy visited Ft. Bragg in the early 1960s he was extremely impressed by the SF's part of the demonstration and said that he wished he had 10,000 men like these who wore the green beret.
A beret was presented along with a request for authorization to wear it. The request was granted in recognition of the prowess of those who had so clearly earned it. The quest for authorization was long and difficult. Men such as Col. Raff stood up under heavy pressures and sacrificed promotion and career to enable the present generation to have this symbol.
Not until an imaginative leader, President Kennedy, had the clear vision to perceive the immense value of SF did its symbol become universally recognized in the Army. Recognition by the world of the SF's Green Beret finally came only with the tragedy of President Kennedy's assassination. Sgt. Maj. Francis J. Ruddy, a member of the graveside honor guard, stepped forward, removed his beret and laid it on the temporary grave - giving back for all SF men the honor that our President had given us. Television and press coverage of that terrible hour seemed to insure that the green beret would be known and respected throughout the world.
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