The Special Forces Regiment lost a great link to its past when retired CSM Edgar Britt passed away on December 14. Several of the SF Facebook groups reported that he was in hospice care and was very ill and that he passed on Saturday. He will be missed.
Britt was born in 1931 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He was 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. While his older brothers went off to serve and fight in World War II, Britt had to wait until 1949 to enlist. After basic combat training at Ft. Dix, he served in the air defense artillery (ADA) in the conventional military.
During the Korean War, he served as an automatic weapons crewman in the ADA. He re-enlisted for Airborne training and graduated with his jump wings in August 1955. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division where he served for nearly five years in the 80th AAA (Anti-aircraft artillery). He re-enlisted for Special Forces in May 1960 and found his calling.
He was on the field when President John F. Kennedy made his now-famous visit to Ft. Bragg on October 12, 1961, when he authorized the Green Beret to the troops and would later say it was “A symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom.”
Britt would serve the next 13 years in Special Forces groups (1st, 5th, 6th, and 7th SFGs) and would become an O&I sergeant (Operations and Intelligence) before becoming a Team Sergeant of a Special Forces A-Team. He served two tours in Vietnam, as well as the Dominican Republic and four classified deployments with SF.
In 1970, Britt, then a Master Sergeant, was chosen to be a member of the Son Tay Raid, where Colonel Bull Simons would lead a raid to free American POWs from a North Vietnamese prison camp at Son Tay just outside of Hanoi.
The men trained at Duke Field on Eglin AFB and built mockups of the prison camp using a very detailed model, built by the CIA, which was known as Barbara. Britt was an alternate for the assault team, known as “Blueboy Element.”
The task force flew to Udorn, Thailand and then to a secret CIA compound for their jumping-off point into North Vietnam. It was only then that they were briefed on where their exact mission was to take place. “After the hundreds of hours, the hard training, hours of rehearsals, studying and planning, we knew where we were headed, and why,” he said in an interview a few years ago. To get the North Vietnamese attention off of the Son Tay area, they needed a diversion.
“The Navy Task Force Group 77 flew 59 sorties, with 200 aircraft dropping illuminations to draw fire over Haiphong Harbor to the east,” Britt said. “And it worked.”
The raid went off nearly perfectly: Gunships destroyed the guard towers, while miniguns blasted the barracks where enemy soldiers were billeted. The assault elements fulfilled their tasks with lightning precision, accomplishing everything within 28 minutes. But there was one major issue. There were no POWs. Unbeknownst to the task force, a recent flood had forced the Vietnamese to move the prisoners a few miles down the road to another camp.
The raiders were devastated believing they had let down their comrades. They flew back to Thailand in total silence. From there it was back to the United States. By Thanksgiving, everyone was back at Fort Bragg. “Joy should have been in our hearts,” Britt said. “But it was very sad for our comrades we left behind.”
It wasn’t until years later, when the POWs were released, that they learned that several of the prisoners watched from a distance as the raiders hit Son Tay prison. Their spirits were buoyed by the realization that they were not forgotten and their country was actively trying to get them out. As a result, conditions for the POWs improved.
Britt earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Master Parachutist’s Wings and the Combat Diver’s Badge. He was HALO qualified in the era before HALO wings were issued. Among his many awards and decorations are the Legion of Merit, three Bronze Stars with V for Valor, two Purple Hearts and more than a dozen other service awards.
Britt and I were bound by our service in SF; but also by family. Britt’s older brother Howard, who served in the 26th Infantry (Yankee Division), in World War II married my aunt.
Just before Edgar retired as the CSM of 3rd Bn. of the 68th ADA (Hawk Missiles), Howard learned of my ongoing Special Forces training and gave me Edgar’s address which was a walking distance away from the old SF company area in COSCOM.
I walked by his house twice, not sure if it was a good idea to drop in unannounced. I shouldn’t have worried. His wife Helen (they were married 46 years until her death in 2011) saw me and called out asking if I was lost.
After quick introductions, I witnessed what everyone had already told me about CSM Britt: he was among the most down-to-earth, easygoing Sergeant Majors — at least if you were family — there were. He laughed and said for me NOT to drop his name around the older guys who were instructors out at Camp Mackall. “They’ll single you out as a volunteer for everything,” he said. We spent some time talking about family members and I asked him about some of his SF experiences: he downplayed them as if he didn’t do anything interesting enough to mention. But we all knew better.
Not long after that, he retired and moved to Sebastian, Florida where he remained active in Veteran’s affairs as well as the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces Associations.
Special Forces indeed lost a legend and one of the last of the Son Tay Raiders.
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