Note: this is part of a series about America’s first counterterrorism unit. You can read part one here. Another EDRE training mission came as policymakers struggled to find a force capable of dealing with aircraft hijackings. One CT-EDRE was called ‘End Game’ and took place in the fall of 1977. Colonel Mountel told some of the Green Berets in 5th Group to pack for the tropics. The Special Forces alert force grabbed their gear and flew down to Hunter Army Airfield, where they linked up with 1st Ranger Battalion. The Rangers shrugged into their T-10 static-line parachutes and boarded the aircraft. The Green Berets didn’t feel like wearing their parachutes for the entire trip, so the Special Forces sergeant major asked the flight crew to give them a 30-minute warning when they were approaching the drop zone.
When they got closer to the target location, the Green Berets donned their parachutes and the flight crew opened the door of the C-130 aircraft. That was when they realized that Mountel had played a little joke on them by saying they should pack for the tropics. They could see nothing but white below them. The Rangers and Green Berets were about to jump into Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. The troops jumped into the exercise and drove on with the mission.
Once on the ground, a pop flare shot up into the night sky. One of the Ranger lieutenants froze right in the middle of a road, so the Special Forces soldiers moved away from the infantrymen. Next, the Rangers decided to slog their way through a frozen swamp on the way to the objective. This was the last straw for the Green Berets, who separated from the Rangers and walked around the swamp.
Soon, Green Berets had the target in sight. It was the president’s Boeing 707, which, technically speaking, becomes Air Force One once the president is on board. Of course, President Carter was not on board this night. Inside the aircraft were role players pretending to be hostages and terrorists. Blue Light infiltrated the target area and penetrated the aircraft, coming right up into the cockpit using an ingress technique the pilots of the plane did not even know existed.
The aircraft takedown was just another test shot as the Pentagon tried to figure out how they were going to deal with hijackings in the future.
Coming back from an exchange program with the British Special Air Service (SAS) in 1962, Special Forces officer Charlie Beckwith realized that America was missing a certain special operations capability. The idea that America needed an elite force of commandos who were more than airborne light infantry, like the Rangers, or trainers, like Special Forces, was something that stuck in Beckwith’s mind.
“We have never been able to do special operations well,” Beckwith wrote. “Special Forces, yes, they teach and train, but we’ve never been able to do special operations very well.” At the time, terrorism was just a sideshow in the larger geopolitical context of the Cold War. America’s main threat was the USSR, and terrorism was not really on the U.S. government’s radar. Guerrilla or revolutionary warfare, yes, but not terrorism.
Originally, Beckwith envisioned a unit based upon the SAS structure, one that would conduct unilateral direct-action missions with a highly trained, permanently assigned force. The capability that Beckwith pitched to the Pentagon was a unit that could conduct POW rescue missions like the Son Tay raid in Vietnam. He argued that, instead of assembling a rescue force on an ad hoc basis, America should have a permanent, professional force to execute such missions. He encountered resistance to his concept for years, until terrorism reared its ugly head in full force during the 1970s.
The Son Tay raid, officially known as operation Ivory Coast, was a mission led by Bull Simmons to recover 61 American POWs held in North Vietnam. With Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) hopelessly infiltrated by communist spies, the U.S. military put together an ad hoc force of Green Berets to carry out the rescue. To avoid having the mission compromised, they conducted their training and rehearsals at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The Special Forces soldiers launched from Thailand in helicopters to the POW prison on November 21st, 1970. The POWs had been recently moved, and the mission ended in failure, however the Son Tay raid led to the development of new tactics, techniques, and procedures needed for a strike force designed to rescue imprisoned American soldiers.
“A single factor that sold the future of Delta Force more than any other was terrorism…one of the weaknesses in other organizations is that they are only part-timers in this field. Semipros or gifted amateurs, no matter what their individual abilities or potential are, can be no match for international terrorists,” Beckwith wrote (Beckwith, 104).
The idea for a standing unit within Special Forces that could conduct such operations had been kicking around since an infantry conference at Fort Benning, Georgia in 1976. One of the men at that conference was Charlie Beckwith, but others in Special Forces felt that the capability could be developed in-house using lessons learned from the Son Tay raid.
In 1977, the post-Vietnam drawdown had not been kind to the Army. “It was not popular to be in or to stay in,” one Special Forces soldier remarked as he recalled this era. Due to personnel shortages in other Special Forces groups, 5th Group was really the only group that could possibly be tapped to establish a dedicated POW rescue team that also drew inspiration from the Vietnam War-era MACV-SOG and Bright Light missions.
Charlie Beckwith was still working with General Kingston and General William De Puy to create a unit altogether separate from Special Forces, styled after the British SAS model. Beckwith had undertaken the long, painful process of putting together and pitching the unit proposal, but the Pentagon was dragging their feet—up until GSG-9 executed their aircraft takedown in Mogadishu in October of 1977. Once he got the green light to form what would become known as SFOD-D (Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta) or Delta Force, “Charlie said he needed 24 months to screen and properly train a force, and lots of money” (Lenahan, 9).
After Delta received activation orders, Beckwith gave a briefing to the REDCOM commander, General Hennessey, in which the general said, “I want to make it very clear to you, Colonel, that if something of a terrorist nature goes down in my area of responsibility, and I’m directed to respond, I’m going to call you!”
“Well, that won’t do you any good,” Beckwith replied. “Because I don’t have anybody at this time. We’re just getting started, sir. It’s going to take two years to build this force.”
“You weren’t listening, Colonel. If I have a problem, I’m going to call you” (Beckwith, 119).
“General Hennessey wanted a group trained for such surgical missions as urban hostage barricade and aircraft recovery situations now, not 18 months down the road,” (Lenahan, 10). With Beckwith needing two years to select and train Delta Force, an interim unit needed to be created, a stop-gap to respond to acts of terrorism until Delta would be activated a few years later. This task fell to General Mackmull who had been at the briefing with Beckwith and General Hennessey. General Mackmull assigned responsibility for this interim unit to Colonel Mountel, the commander of 5th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg.
Jim Morris, who served in Special Forces with Colonel Mountel in Vietnam, described him as “one of the finest soldiers and men I ever worked with or for. He was smart, calm, incisive, and insightful.” When SOFREP asked SEAL Team Six founder Richard Marcinko about Mountel, the first thing he did was hold his hand up to his mouth like he was smoking a pipe. Sure enough, Colonel Mountel smoked a pipe periodically and was nicknamed “black gloves” by some because he often wore a pair of black driving gloves. More often, he was known as RAM, for Robert Anthony Mountel. Mark Boyatt said that Mountel “knew the troops, trusted the troops. He had total confidence in his people and their full respect.”
Mountel quickly set about establishing the 5th Group counterterrorism unit, recruiting enlisted men via the good-old-boy network, all of them Vietnam veterans known to be “good in the woods.” The only members of the new unit who had not served in Vietnam were a few of the officers. Roger was of those brought into the fold, and came into work one morning to receive quite a shock. “Get your ass down to the Green Light building,” he was ordered.
Getting assigned to a Green Light team was very serious business. Highly classified at the time, Special Forces soldiers assigned to Green Light were trained to parachute deep behind enemy lines with atomic devices that could be detonated by Special Forces teams to halt enemy advances—dropping bridges, closing mountain passes, and generally creating large obstacles along high-speed avenues of approach that would delay, if not halt, Soviet advances.
“What the fuck is this?” he thought as he walked into the building and saw who was there. “Half of these motherfuckers are Green Light; is this an alert mission?” He thought this was another quick-alert EDRE excercise. Major Kline Williamson, who was the group operations officer, gave the men a mission brief once they were all seated. From there, they were instructed to get on a deuce-and-a-half truck that would drive them out to Mott Lake on the other side of Fort Bragg.
Mark Boyatt was the HALO team leader of ODA 572 at the time, and had already heard about Blue Light. One morning, he was walking along on Smoke Bomb Hill when Colonel Mountel asked him if he wanted to join the unit. When he replied in the affirmative, Mountel told him, “Then get your ass on over there tomorrow.”
Master Sergeant Jake Jakovenko jumped into Bragg following a training excercise. Getting picked up at the drop zone, he was told that he needed to go to 5th Special Forces Group headquarters. When he got there, he was told he was being assigned to something called “Blue Light.” He was shown a roster of his ODA on Blue Light, but the only name he recognized was his own. “I will come, but I have an A-Team,” Jake said. “I don’t go if my team is not included.” Colonel Mountel must have really wanted Jake, who had been on the Son Tay raid in North Vietnam, because he allowed him to take his entire ODA with him over to Blue Light.
A 5th Group sergeant major was called into Colonel Mountel’s office. “Look, we’ve got a mission, and I want you to put together a force,” the 5th Group commander told him. “You can have anybody you want out of 5th Group. Once you put this program together, how long would it be before you can have this unit shooting?” The sergeant major, a Son Tay raider himself, told the colonel that he could do it in a week. Mountel didn’t believe him, but the sergeant major made it happen.
The enlisted men brought into Blue Light were seasoned, to put it mildly. At least 10 percent of the men had participated in the Son Tay raid—men like Tiny Young and Frank Roe—or in MACV-SOG, such as Lowell Stevens and Larry Kramer. The remaining 90 percent were men who had served in Special Forces assignments in Vietnam, including Project Omega, Project Delta (which Charlie Beckwith commanded in 1965), Project Sigma, and Mike Force. Another Son Tay raider, John Ward, was in charge of Blue Light’s flight detachment.
Blue Light’s compound was established out at Mott Lake, the buildings most recently used as 7th Group’s isolation facility. What the compound had been used for before that varies depending on who you talk to. Some say it was a power station for a transmission facility used by Voice of America. Others say it was where Cubans were trained for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. One way or the other, it was Blue Light’s new home, and America’s first counterterrorism unit was now in business.