On a dark night in 1977, a dozen Green Berets exited a C-130 aircraft, parachuting into a very different type of war. Aircraft hijackings had become almost commonplace, to the point that Johnny Carson would tell jokes about the phenomena on television. But it was no laughing matter for the Department of Defense, who realized after the Israeli raid on Entebbe that America was woefully unprepared to counter terrorist attacks.
This mission would be different. The Special Forces soldiers guided their MC-3 parachutes toward the ground, but their element became separated in the air, some of the Green Berets landing in the trees. The others set down alongside an airfield, landing inside a thick cloud of fog. Their target lay somewhere through the haze: a commercial aircraft that had been captured by terrorists. On board, there were no hostages, but a black box, a classified encryption device that could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
Airfield seizures were really a Ranger mission, but someone had elected to parachute in an entire Special Forces battalion for the operation. The HALO team was an advanced element, inserted ahead of time to secure the aircraft prior to the main assault force arriving. Despite missing a number of team members at the rally point, the Green Berets knew they were quickly approaching their hit time. They had to take down the aircraft and soon.
Armed with suppressed Sten guns, they quietly advanced through the fog. Using the bad weather to their advantage, they were able to slip right between the sentries posted to guard the aircraft. Storming the plane, they quickly secured the black box. Seizing the initiative, the team leader decided to assault the barracks next. It wasn’t part of the plan, but their fellow Green Berets were due to jump onto the airfield in minutes. The enemy resting in the barracks would almost certainly come out and start shooting at the paratroopers once they realized what was happening.
The HALO team began their assault on the barracks, when suddenly, a second assault element appeared, attacking the target from another angle. It was the rest of their advanced element who had landed in the trees, who had exactly the same idea they had. The two elements converged on the barracks and secured the objective as Green Berets began falling from the sky, dangling under their static-line parachutes.
Afterwards, an evaluator named Larry Redman, sent down to South Carolina to oversee the training excercise from Readiness Command (REDCOM), told Mark Boyatt, the Special Forces team leader, “I don’t know how you pulled it off, but the force was with you,” referencing George Lucas’s “Star Wars” films, which had recently came out in theaters. The two-pronged assault looked like it had been planned, coordinated, and rehearsed, but Boyatt and the evaluator both knew that he had gotten lucky this time around. As the military attempted to grapple with terrorism, a new and emerging threat, having luck on your side was more than welcome.
The aircraft takedown and airfield seizure exercise had been conducted by 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group as a part of the Army’s yearly Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercises (EDRE). Fifth Group’s 3rd Battalion was assigned as the D-pack, part of a rapid-deploying force assigned to the 18th Airborne Corps to respond to emergency situations. At this time, the military had no dedicated counterterrorism unit, so Rangers and Special Forces were tapped to respond to terrorist attacks and other contingencies.
Terrorism was a quickly escalating threat in the 1970s. Black September, the Red Army Faction/Baader-Meinhof gang, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and other Marxist-inspired groups had committed a rash of hijackings and murders around the world. In June of 1976, PLO terrorists hijacked an Air France airliner, capturing over 100 hostages, many of them Jews and Israeli citizens. The flight refueled in Libya and then flew on to Uganda, where then-President Idi Amin had recently had a falling-out with the Israeli government. Amin had reached a pre-arrangement with the PLO, who then turned the hostages over to the Ugandan military, forcing the Israeli government to deal with a combination of state and non-state actors.
On the night of July 3rd 1976, Israeli Special Forces executed a bold hostage-rescue operation. Using speed, surprise, and violence of action, the Israeli counterterrorist force stormed the terminal in Entebbe where the hostages were held, killed dozens of terrorists and Ugandan soldiers, and then flew back to Israel with the newly liberated hostages. The raid stands as a high-water mark in the history of special operations to this day.
A few days later, General Jack Hennessey, the commander of REDCOM, at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, received a phone call from the Pentagon asking if REDCOM could accomplish what the Israelis did in Entebbe. General Hennessey replied that he had the men, but they were not properly trained or equipped (Lenahan, xi). The previous year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) had hashed out a concept plan to deal with a range of potential terrorist activities, but nothing ever came of it. At the time, there was widespread skepticism about special operations forces, a lackadaisical attitude held by some officials that terrorists couldn’t hit the United States, and bureaucratic infighting amongst military commanders as to who got what and what was in it for them (Lenahan, 1). After Entebbe, the 1975 counterterrorism plan was given a second look.
This led to the establishment of two contingency task forces: JTF-7 and JTF-11. The first was focused on the Middle East and Africa, the other covered Asia and the Pacific. Training exercises for these task forces were rolled up into the five-year cycle of JCS worldwide training exercises, which put the U.S. military through its paces in a multitude of potential future warfare scenarios. These were the EDRE training missions that Rangers and Special Forces participated in.
Assembling a rapidly deploying Special Forces element to respond to terrorist attacks came just in the nick of time. In March of 1977, the Green Berets assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group up on Fort Bragg’s Smoke Bomb Hill were in for a surprise, one that came in the form of terror that is almost forgotten today: black militancy.