Sergeant Major William Bowles had an amazing career that stretched from Post-Word War II Germany as a young signals operator, to becoming one of the original members of the Special Forces Regiment. As a Special Forces Communications Sergeant he deployed to South Korea, conducted a top-secret mission to Laos, and was with the first two ODA’s to arrive in Vietnam.
Thankfully, he recorded his experiences in a fictionalized manner, names changed to protect the innocent, in his novel, Covert Loves. I was honored to have the chance to ask Sergeant Major Bowles a few questions after reading his book last month.
JM: In your book Covert Loves you write about the period in which the US Army desegregated. While there was some presumption that this would create chaos in the ranks it seems that it was a far cry from the apocalyptic scenario that some would have believed. It struck me that this was also the case with the recent repealing of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now allowing gays to serve openly in the military which has also shown its self to be a non-issue. What do you think this says about the United States military? Are we sometimes more progressive than the media and the public would give us credit for?
WB: I think that it says that the military is an equal opportunity career, It also says that the military follows the US laws while it’s members do give up some rights upon entering the military. Discipline is the name of the game and the military demands and enforces it to its everlasting credit.
The military is not a society for testing social programs and trends. The military since WWII has been in the forefront in conforming to and enforcing lawful social changes within the military.
JM: As a young man deployed to Post-Word War II Germany you describe the awful conditions that the Germans were living in and the social effect that the war had on the civilian population. What did the war do to the Germans? Not just the destruction if infrastructure, but what was the effect you witnessed on the German psyche at this time?
WB: They were all mostly destitute, stunned and bewildered by the end of the war, their country divided, families and homes gone forever. The introduction of the “Marshall Plan,” gave them hope once more.
JM: What path did you take from being a Signals Sergeant to getting into Special Forces? Special Forces was a new and untested unit at that time so what motivated you to sign up?
WB: I was assigned to the 82nd Abn Division as a Plt Sgt. We had no mission. Korea was over. I grew tired of shepherding draftee recruits to the motor pool each weekend. Through a friend I learned of the 77th SFG on Smoke Bomb Hill, I investigated the unit and found it to be more of my type unit . So I transferred over to SF.
JM: Back in those days Special Forces was a very small community, unlike today where you don’t have a clue who is in another Special Forces Company or Battalion, never mind in a different Group. What was it like to be one of the “originals”?
WB: While the unit was small, the originals were in the old 77th and the newly activated 10th SFG located in Bad Tolz Germany.
It was a pleasure to serve with trained professionals who were all of the approximate same rank or a little higher. No 2Lts, no one below the rank of SGT. We trained each other in classes and in the field on the several MOS’s of the A Team. It all paid off big time in the years ahead. Most of those early personnel went on to become the future team leaders and team sergeants that fought in Vietnam.
JM: What were the conditions like over on Smoke Bomb Hill at Ft. Bragg back in those days? What kind of facilities and equipment did you have at your disposal? Also, I regret to inform you that Hey Street has been somewhat cleaned up since the 1960’s…
WB: We lived in wooden barracks built in the first days of WWII and earlier. Two story barracks, no air conditioning,coal heated and miserable. We taught each other the different mos specialties. We had very limited equipment, and very little external support. We were heavily involved in learning and mastering the tactics and principles of guerrilla warfare.
I have been on Hay street in the past several years. “WHAT A CHANGE.” I will be there next month for the SFA convention and our 60th anniversary.
JM: In your book you mentioned conducting Unconventional Warfare training in South Korea. What did this training entail and was is presumed that this was in preparation in case war broke out on the Korean peninsula again?
WB: In the 1st SFG (Okinawa) my company was assigned Korea as an area of operations. We taught and trained the South Korean units in unconventional warfare, guerrilla warfare and in weapons employment. We also taught them parachuting and small unit tactics.
JM: Before there was Vietnam, there was Laos for the Green Berets. What was the task and purpose of “Operation Hotfoot”? What were your impressions of Laos back in 1959?
WB: The North Vietnam-supported Pathet Lao guerrillas were taking over parts of Laos. We were assigned the mission to train the Laotian army units in self-defense. Teach them how to organize and train in the art and tactics of war, using more modern weapons.
My impression of Laos was,” It was the backwater of the Orient.” A pitiful excuse for a nation.
JM: You were among the very first Special Forces troops into Vietnam. Two ODA’s flew in on a C-130 and dropped ramp in At Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon in 1961. What were you thinking that day? Did any of you have any inclination as to the escalation that would happen in Vietnam or was in just another mission to you like in Laos?
WB: I was just thinking that it was another training mission. We were in civilian clothes. No one among our group had any idea that it would escalate. We were forewarned however to be prepared to protect ourselves if we were attacked by the Viet Cong. That training mission cost my team three team members. Eleven years later it all ended.
JM: In the book you write about plowing into the the jungle with a 12-man team, clearing a section of forest, building an A-Camp, and training the locals for war against the enemy. It seems your team did this with little more than determination and improvisation. Today we would call this the “man test.” Amazingly, your team passed that test, including direct combat with the enemy. Could you describe this experience of going into the jungle with almost nothing and beginning to conduct an unconventional warfare campaign?
WB: We did drive two old 2-1/2 ton trucks with Jurai Yards as far past the village of Plei Mrong as we could before the jungle stopped us. We were very close to the Laotian border west of Pleiku. The team leader said “we will build our camp here.” With axes and cross cut saws and loads of C-4 we cleared out the trees and undergrowth. We worked from morning till night. Hired natives to build bamboo huts and a messhall and dispensary. We also trained at the same time . We had to introduce to the native yards what a weapon was and how to use it. We would use at times three interpreters English, French, Vietnamese and then Jurai language. What a nightmare.
We conducted patrols, ambushes, and got into firefights. We also continued to build our camp. Dug trench lines and a berm. Built a 32 wire double apron barbwire fence around the camp and defended it all.
No matter what you may call such actions today. I can assure you under those circumstances it is pure hell!
JM: One topic briefly mentioned in your book was a CIA agent who worked with your team during the early years in Vietnam. How would you describe the relationship and interactions that Special Forces and the CIA had at this time?
WB: The relationship with the CIA agents were superb. You could not ask for a better relationship. They supported our teams in every thing we did. They supplied us with weapons, money, and other equipment. They directed our actions and locations. It was a great relationship.
Ken Fisher joined the army after World War II ended. He had always wanted to travel and see the world; however, post-war Germany is nothing like what he expected it to be. Instead of beholding beautiful landscapes and thankful citizens, Ken finds gritty despair and racism in a country still greatly in need of salvation.
Amid the chaos, Ken inexplicably falls in love with a charming German girl named Elona. But love isn’t simple after war, especially because Ken is an outsider. When Elona and Ken decide to get married, their application for a marriage license reveals dark, terrible secrets, bringing their love deeply into question.
Eventually, Ken leaves Germany and love behind and becomes a Green Beret. He serves several tours and gains knowledge of unconventional warfare in South Vietnam, where he learns to be a true soldier.
At this point, Ken’s military career could have ended. He could have continued teaching ROTC kids and living a peaceable, happy existence. Instead, he is sent to the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where he is given a final assignment that will test his beliefs and his promise to serve and protect.
When faced with this assignment, Ken must make a life-changing choice between accepting army orders and maintaining country and upholding his own beliefs in right and wrong.