As U.S. Special Forces recently turned 67 years old, it is interesting to take a look back at this public service announcement from the 1960s about the legendary Green Berets. Check out the video to learn more, but you may also enjoy this interview I did with Sergeant Major (Ret.) William Bowles. Sergeant Bowles passed away in 2012, a few months after our interview.
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 Airborne Division as a platoon sergeant. 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 my type of 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 2nd lieutenants, no one below the rank of sergeant. We trained each other in classes and in the field on the several MOS specialties 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 Fort Bragg back in those days? What kind of facilities and equipment did you have at your disposal? Also, I regret to inform you that Hay Street has been somewhat cleaned up since the 1960s…
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 it 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 ODAs 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 it 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 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 crosscut saws and loads of C-4, we cleared out the trees and undergrowth. We worked from morning ‘til 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 was superb. You could not ask for a better relationship. They supported our teams in everything we did. They supplied us with weapons, money, and other equipment. They directed our actions and locations. It was a great relationship.