If life were like fiction, retired Army Col. Aaron Bank of San Clemente--who’s known as the father of the Green Berets--would be the leading character in one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th Century.
The time: 1945, the final months of the war in Europe. The setting: a large country estate outside Paris where the American Office of Strategic Services has assembled a company-sized unit of German defectors, mostly POWs, for training in unconventional warfare tactics.
Outfitted in German uniforms with enemy weapons, documents and explosives, the 150 men will parachute into the Inn Valley region of the Austrian Alps, where Allied intelligence indicates top Nazi leaders will take refuge with black-shirted SS storm troopers serving as their defense.
A Daring Mission
The mission--described as the most daring European operation to be attempted by the OSS--is called Iron Cross. And Bank is the Army captain assigned to command the top-secret unit.
While posing as a German mountain infantry company, the American-led unit will conduct ambushes, raids, sabotage and other guerrilla actions against the enemy. The unit’s ultimate objective, however, is more ambitious: to capture high-ranking Nazi leaders and--if at all possible-- der Fuehrer himself.
But real life, alas, seldom lives up to fictional standards.
Iron Cross, to Bank’s lifelong regret, was aborted at the last minute because of bad weather over the Austrian Alps. A few days later the American 7th Army moved into the Inn Valley and the mission was scratched altogether. (Adolf Hitler, as it turned out, was in Berlin anyway.)
“Iron Cross was the best mission I had and the mission that had a tremendous potential,” Bank says. “Had that gone through and had it been successful, the war would have been over overnight.”
The Iron Cross mission is just one of the colorful incidents in Bank’s recently published nonfiction book, “From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces” (Presidio Press: $16.95).
Written as a first-person narrative, the book offers a detailed account of Bank’s involvement with the OSS, the government agency organized during World War II to gather intelligence and organize resistance and guerrilla forces behind enemy lines.
During the war, Bank was involved in the OSS’ large-scale Jedburgh Mission, an operation in which dozens of three-man teams parachuted into occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands prior to D-Day and organized local civilian forces in conducting guerrilla attacks against the Germans. After the aborted Iron Cross mission, Bank was sent to the jungles of Indochina to search for Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
The OSS was disbanded in 1946. But based on the agency’s success, Bank and others were convinced the Army should have a permanent unit whose wartime mission is to conduct unconventional warfare. In the early ‘50s, as the book recounts, Bank and another guerrilla warfare veteran, Lt. Col. Russell Volckmann, fought--and won--what Bank wryly refers to as “the battle of the Pentagon” to get approval for the establishment of an elite special forces unit.
In 1952, Bank organized and served as the first commander of the Special Forces unit, whose members would later become known for their distinctive headgear, the green beret.
Since the Special Forces were founded nearly 35 years ago, many of the key figures involved have died, including Volckmann who, as Bank says, was “the only other one really who could tell the story.”
That explains why Bank finally sat down to write the book in 1985--at the age of 83.
‘Last of the Mohicans’
“People kept telling me I should write it, that it’s a story that’s going to die because I’m about the last of the Mohicans that had anything to do with it all the way from World War II,” Bank said in an interview at his home in San Clemente.
It took Bank about a year to complete the manuscript, which he wrote in longhand evenings and on weekends. Catherine, his Luxembourg-born wife of 38 years, typed it and handled the spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Bank said he could have written the book faster if he had had the time. Indeed, although he retired from the Army in 1958, the colonel has not been goldbricking. For the past 15 years, he has worked full-time as chief of security at a private oceanfront community in Capistrano Beach. Says Bank: “It’s good therapy for me--it keeps me outdoors, active and alert, and it’s exciting sometimes.”
Although he abandoned his daily swim around the San Clemente pier when he was 74 (“I got fed up with that icy water in the winter”), the old soldier is still fit and vigorous. Bank, who became a grandfather for the first time last year (he has two daughters in their 30s), works out regularly on a rowing machine for 30 minutes, takes brisk half-hour walks and maintains his lifelong diet regimen in which he shuns “fats of any kind and loads up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains.”
‘The Only Thing You Own’
In an accent that retains the flavor of the streets of New York City where he was born, Bank explains his Spartan ways: “Ever since I was a kid of 15 and got inspired by a magazine called Physical Culture, I figured the only thing you own is your body. They can take everything else away from you. But that’s yours, so take care of it.”
While he insists he is neither a writer nor a journalist, Bank nevertheless writes with the flair of a natural-born storyteller.
“I tried to write it in a style that would appeal to everybody, not just the professional soldiers, but to the public as well,” he said. “There’s blood and guts in it; there’s tragedy and humor, I believe. I’ve mixed them up.” With a chuckle, he added, “There’s practically no sex, of course.”
Although Bank has forgotten the names of some of the minor players in his wartime drama--where memory fails, he uses pseudonyms--the book provides a remarkably detailed account of the birth of Special Forces.
As Bank says, “A lot of water went over the dam since then and washed away a lot of memories, but the highlights remain.”
While the book does not deal with Bank’s prewar years, his civilian life is nearly as fascinating as his military career.
As a “young buck” in his teens, he landed a summertime job as a lifeguard and swimming teacher on the beaches of New York. In the late 1920s, he was a lifeguard and swimming teacher during the winter in Nassau in the Bahamas.
“There,” he said, “I met a lot of the international set, and they arranged for me to do the same thing in Biarritz, France, in the summertime, so I used to alternate from Nassau and Biarritz and that would keep me going year around. . . . Oh, it was wonderful. They used to call me the golden boy.”
Between seasons, Bank would travel around Europe by car. In the process he learned a lot about the terrain and became fluent in German and French--skills that would later cause him to be chosen to work in the OSS.
In the late ‘30s, however, Bank returned to the United States and joined the Army as a private.
“I had started to spend more time in Germany between seasons, and I could see the war coming,” he said, recalling seeing a two-block-long line of Germans waiting to get into a Nuremberg art museum where a new painting of Hitler was being shown. “The women would get in front of it and get on one knee and genuflect. That’s how much that man had them mesmerized.”
By the time the United States entered the war, Bank had been commissioned a second lieutenant and was working in an intelligence unit in the War Department in Washington. By 1943, he was assigned as a tactical training officer to a railroad battalion stationed at Camp Polk, La.
That’s the point where Bank opens his book.
“I was fed up with that lousy post and I was getting nowhere with that railroad battalion,” he said.
When he saw a bulletin announcing that volunteers with foreign language capabilities would be interviewed for “special assignments,” he jumped at the chance.
“The officer who was recruiting was limited in what he could tell you, and he just said ‘behind the lines activities,’ ” recalled Bank. “I figured that kind of intelligence work is exciting, and I was willing to take the risk. I mean, I had taken risks all my life being a lifeguard, so I wasn’t unused to that.”
‘In Real Good Shape’
At age 40, Bank said, he was the oldest person to participate in the Jedburgh Mission in Europe. But, he said, as a former long-distance swimmer, amateur wrestler and gymnast, “I was in real good shape, better than most of the younger fellows by far.”
As commander of one of the three-man Jedburgh teams, Bank and his team parachuted into southern France. Posing as civilians, they helped French resistance leaders organize a dispersed guerrilla force of up to 2,000 members who blew up bridges, power lines and railroad tracks, ambushed German columns and delayed elements of a Nazi armored division on its way to Normandy.
During his tour of duty in Indochina late in the war, when he was looking for Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in the jungles, Bank met and spent time with Ho Chi Minh who, Bank said, “was very friendly to the few Americans he ran across.”
Ho Chi Minh, Bank believes, “could have been right in our lap” if President Truman had decided to support Ho instead of the French after the war. As Bank sees it, “We cut our throat; we backed the wrong side.”
“Ho was a commie and we knew it, but supporting him were not just commies,” Bank said. “There were a lot of nationalists (supporting Ho) because they knew he was the only leader available who could unite the nation. They (the nationalists) had a strong influence and had we supported him, their influence would have kept him from going overboard as far as (becoming a) total Communist government. They’d still be with the West but a form of socialism.”
Despite the far-flung locales and variety of dangerous operations he was assigned to during the war, Bank, at the time, didn’t feel he was living the adventure of a lifetime.
“It was happening so fast--one thing after another--that it became sort of a normal thing,” he said. “But as I look back, why, it was a great adventure. Marvelous. When reassigned from OSS, I never felt that way again. Except when I took over Special Forces. That was a thrill.”
A Change of Attitude
Although Bank traces unconventional warfare back to biblical times, he said that “military men looked upon unconventional warfare as slimy, underhanded business, a disgraceful, ungentlemanly type of warfare that didn’t fit into their code of honor.”
That attitude began to change during World War II.
“With the results of World War II, a lot of the military became convinced it was a necessary type of warfare,” Bank said, noting that the combined efforts of the OSS and its British counterpart prompted Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower to declare that the contribution of the resistance in Europe alone had been the equivalent of 15 infantry divisions.
In early 1951, after serving in Korea with the 187th Airborne Regimental Combat Team, Bank was assigned to the Army Psychological Warfare staff in the Pentagon where he was given the task of trying to influence the Department of the Army to incorporate an OSS-style organization into the Army.
Bank said he and his fellow staff member Volckmann “trod a pretty tortuous path through that maze that is called the Pentagon, and gradually we were able to brush aside the doubting Thomases, who were the traditionalists and the orthodox, and the objections of the CIA who were fearful we’d tread on their charter.”
The payoff for Bank’s and Volckmann’s efforts came in 1952 when the Army approved 2,300 spaces for men in a Special Forces organization.
A footnote: Although Bank recommended that members of Special Forces wear either a wine-colored or green beret, the Army at the time would not allow any distinctive headgear. In the early ‘60s, however, President Kennedy decided Special Forces deserved recognition and approved the wearing of berets. Kennedy, Bank noted, “picked the green because he was an Irishman.”
A few weeks ago, Bank returned to Ft. Bragg, N.C., the home of the Green Berets, where he was named Honorary Colonel of the First Special Forces Regiment.
‘I’d Come Full Cycle’
“I felt I’d come full cycle--I had been their organizer and first commander way back in the early ‘50s, and now I’m the first honorary commander of the regiment,” said Bank, who spent hours autographing copies of his book on the base and at a nearby bookstore.
Capt. William Gerhards, a public affairs officer at Fort Bragg for the First Special Operations Command, of which Special Forces is one component, said of Bank:
“He’s a legend--he’s the man. That’s why he is serving in that position as the honorary colonel of the regiment. It’s a hell of an honor.”
As a unit, Bank said, Special Forces had its first opportunity to show what it could do in Vietnam.
“But remember, they fought a different kind of battle (in Vietnam),” Bank said. “They fought a counterinsurgency fight. They were doing just the opposite of the classic operation.”
The traditional wartime mission of Special Forces is for small teams to infiltrate enemy-occupied territory and organize local resistance and guerrilla forces to fight the enemy. In peacetime, Special Forces’ activities include providing training in anti-guerrilla warfare for friendly foreign nations that request their assistance. In 1986, 40 mobile training teams were sent to various countries, including Nigeria and Honduras, according to Gerhards.
Bank said that the United States had never conducted the traditional type of Special Forces operation before World War II and has never done it since.
He maintains, however, that “the opportunity will come some day. I’ll tell you when: When oil gets scarce. When the Russkies are running out of oil, and we’re running out of oil. Who’s going to get the remaining oil in the Middle East? If it’s going to come, that will bring it.”
Bank paused, then said: “1995.”
With a grin, he said, “It would make a good book, wouldn’t it, if one put a book out now (about) what happens in 1995 and shows what Special Forces can do? It would take a lot of work, but it’s a good plot.”
Bank, however, already has another plot in mind for a novel he plans to write. It would be based on the Iron Cross mission. Only this time, he said, the mission won’t be aborted.