Since before the U.S. was even a country, elite and secret units have played important roles in military actions. The first recorded Ranger unit in the Americas took part in King Phillip’s War in 1670. A century later, Maj. Robert Rogers’s Rangers would follow his 28 Rules of Ranging in their fight with the French.

And then there are the Marines who, along with a group of mercenaries, captured Derna, Tripoli in 1805. First Lt. Presley O’Bannon led the eight U.S. Marines who fought in the battle, deposing Tripolitanian Bashaw Yusuf Karamanli. The men marched for six weeks to cover the desert from Egypt to Tripoli, and faced a force of over 2,000 when they arrived there. The fall of the city led to the surrender of Bashaw Yusuf. The Marines’ exploits are even immortalized in the Marines’ Hymn.

A Long History of Secret Units Fighting in America’s Wars

The history of the U.S. special operation units has its most commonly identifiable starting point in WWII. Every branch got in on the action, from the Navy’s frogmen to Doolittle’s Raiders. Yet, the history of secret U.S. military units does not begin there.

During the Civil War, Union soldiers known as “Jessie Scouts” donned Confederate uniforms and rode into enemy territory to gather intelligence. Working under Gen. Philip Sheridan, the Jessie Scouts even appear to have been involved in missions across the Mexican border following the end of the war.

The heritage of the earliest elite and secret units lives on to this day in the insignia of America’s warfighters. Even the crossed arrow patch worn by U.S. Army Special Forces tracks a lineage to the Native Americans who enlisted to serve as Army Scouts following the Civil War.

A World at War and the Flourishing of Special Units

Doolittle raid
Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle performs a full-throttle takeoff from the USS Hornet 650 miles from Japan. (U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. fought in WWI, but coming out of an isolationist footing, it wasn’t as involved in that first great war as it was in WWII. 

For the U.S. Navy, the move into special operations grew out of the need for intelligence on landing beaches. Phil H. Bucklew, credited as the “Father of Naval Special Warfare,” was with the first Amphibious Scouts and Raiders group formed in 1942. These brave men, who would not only reconnoiter landing sites, but hold them and guide in the assault waves, are considered to be the forebears of Navy SEALs.

Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle and his Doolittle’s Raiders from the 17th Bombardment Group, U.S. Army Air Forces, blazed the trail for airmen in special operations. Their famed raids, which reached Tokyo, had been preceded by extensive specialized training in night flying and other skills. When they launched from the USS Hornet on April 14, 1942, the 16 B-25s were on a one-way trip. The crews knew they would not be able to return to the American carrier. Fifteen of the crews crashed in Japanese-occupied China, and one landed in the Soviet Union, where they were interned.