On May 21, 1979, Special Forces had one its true legends take from it prematurely. Arthur “Bull” Simons died at the age of 60 and was buried in Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida. He was one of the best SF commanders to have ever served but never made it to General Officer rank because he lacked the prerequisite education he and that held him back.
Simons rose to the rank of Colonel and although he was involved in three famous rescue missions that have been very well documented, precious little has been written about Simons who was quintessential “Quiet Professional” in his long military career. So who was “Bull” Simons?
Early Life and Career: Simons was born in New York City in 1918 but at an early age he moved to Missouri and attended the University of Missouri – Columbia and graduated with a degree in Journalism which is interesting because later in life, he’d develop a healthy disdain for journalists who he felt had done a great disservice to the American fighting men.
He joined ROTC and graduated in 1941. He also met his wife Lucille in college and they remained married for 37 years until her death from cancer in 1978. His first assignment was with the 98th Field Artillery Battalion as a 2LT. The 98th was a unit that was towed by pack mules and Simons was an unhappy camper there. When his unit was dissolved, it became a part of the 6th Ranger Bn, commanded by LTC Henry Mucci.
Simons became the Commander of B Company and later the Bn XO. One of his first mission in the Rangers was to blow up a Japanese radio station. The story of the mission was told by H. Ross Perot to John Gresham for a piece in “The Year in Special Operations 2010 – 2011.
“They sent him along with a team of Rangers over to an island to destroy a Japanese radio tower,” Perot said. “They went over by submarine at night, surfaced, and went ashore in rubber rafts. They then stored the rafts in a triple-canopy jungle, and then in classic Simons style, he did a lot of reconnaissance on the radio station himself, and kept his men in the jungle. He had a total of 16 people up at the base camp, with one man on duty all the time. He never told his men they had to eat whatever they could find in the jungle, and they were there for over 30 days, while he waited for the right conditions to make the attack.
“Finally, they had a monsoon-like rain one night. Simons knew from his observations that the guard never looked down the cliff. So he climbed the cliff with explosives on his back and a knife during the storm, caught the guard totally by surprise, took him out with the knife, and took the guard’s rifle, went into the Japanese barracks and shot the other 15 Japanese soldiers in their sleep.
“He told me this story in front of a nice lady who responded, ‘… He shot them in their sleep?’ He told the woman, ‘Lady, when you’re in combat, you don’t wake your enemy up and say, “Let’s fight!”’ Once all the Japanese in the barracks were dead, he went back outside, personally blew up the radio tower, and needed to send one more signal to his troops that the job was done, so he lighted his cigar! He was a big cigar man! Bull then walked down the face of the mountain, where his men met him in the jungle, they having walked completely around the mountain. They then called the submarine back in, and took the rubber rafts back to the submarine to go home.”
Later, after the invasion of the Philippines, on the island of Luzon, he was involved in the raid on the Prisoner of War camp at Cabanatuan. The 6th Ranger Bn freed nearly 500 POWs and 33 civilians that had been held by the Japanese since the fall of Bataan. The Rangers, Alamo Scouts, and Philippine guerrillas killed 523 Japanese soldiers with the loss of just 2 Rangers and one POW who died of a heart attack during the raid. He was awarded the Silver Star for heroism for that operation.
Simons was separated from the Army after World War II and had a five-year break in service. But he was recalled to the Army during the Korean War. He was assigned to train Rangers at Eglin AFB in jungle and amphibious warfare. After a brief stint as a PAO (Public Affairs Officer) at Ft. Bragg, NC he joined Special Forces in 1957.
He was assigned to the 77th Special Forces Group, later renamed the 7th. In 1961, Simons was promoted to lieutenant colonel and with the conflict in Southeast Asia on the horizon went to Laos to command a 107-man Mobile Training Team as part of Operation White Star.
Returning from Laos, Simons was named as the Commander of the new 8th Special Forces Group in Panama. He commanded the unit there from 1962 to 1964. Then it was back to Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, Simons was assigned to the Military Assistance Command’s Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG), the joint unit that was responsible for many of the cross-border intelligence gathering and special operations missions of the Vietnam war.
In 1970 Simons was tasked to lead Operation Ivory Coast, the rescue of American POWs at Son Tay Prison just a few miles outside of Hanoi. The hand-picked unit of Army Special Forces and Air Force pilots trained in Eglin, AFB before launching the mission in November.
Because of an intelligence snafu, flooding from the swollen river had caused the Vietnamese to move the prisoners a few miles down the road. The raid, however, went extremely well, the SF operators eliminated the guards in the camp and only suffered one minor injury. Although no prisoners were freed, it sent shockwaves thru the Vietnamese high command as American Special Forces were able to penetrate their defenses so close to Hanoi and raid a POW compound and escape without any loss to themselves.
As a result, the prisoners were brought together in larger groups instead of the solitary confinement they’d been subjected to. Their treatment improved markedly and as they watched the raid unfold, they knew that they’d not been forgotten. Their morale increased.
Simons was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by President Nixon at the White House after returning to the states. An interesting footnote to the Son Tay raid was the Assault Force element (Blue Boy) commander CPT Richard Meadows would be heavily involved in the formation of the Army’s Delta Force and would later be involved in the Iran Hostage Rescue attempt in 1980.
Simons retired from the Army in 1971 and bought a pig farm in Red Bay, Florida and was enjoying retirement until his wife’s passing from cancer in 1978. But his career of prisoner rescues was not over. Following the Iranian Revolution, members of H. Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems company (EDS), who were working in Iran were arrested by the revolutionaries.
Perot contacted Simons, having remembered him from the Son Tay raid. Paying for the entire operation out of his own pocket, Perot recruited Simons to send a team into Iran, free his employees and bring all of the people back to the United States. The mission was successful and Perot’s employees, as well as all of Simons’ men, returned safely.
But he wasn’t able to enjoy retirement for long. Shortly after returning from Iran, Simons suffered a heart attack and subsequent surgery couldn’t save him and he died on May 21, 1979. He’s buried in Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida not far from Pensacola Naval Air Station. His close friend, Meadows who died in 1995, is buried close by.
The Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) commissioned a statue of Simons, next to the Special Forces Museum at Fort Bragg (called “Simons Hall”), and it is a continuing tribute to his memory and legacy in the special warfare community. USSOCOM bestows a yearly award bearing his name to the top special warfare professional.
Photo courtesy of US Army