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Aaron Bank, 101; OSS Officer Became ‘Father of the Green Berets’

Times Staff Writer

Retired Army Col. Aaron Bank, who led a number of daring missions during World War II but was best known for his postwar role in organizing and serving as the first commander of the Army’s elite Special Forces, has died. He was 101.

Bank, who was known as “the father of the Green Berets,” died Thursday of natural causes at his home in an assisted-living facility in Dana Point, said his son-in-law, Bruce Ballantine.

During World War II, Bank was a special operations officer for the Office of Strategic Services, the top-secret government agency formed to gather intelligence and organize resistance forces behind enemy lines.

The OSS, forerunner of the CIA, was disbanded soon after the war. But Bank and others were convinced that the Army should have a permanent unit whose mission would be to conduct unconventional operations.

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In 1951, the chief of the Army’s Psychological Warfare staff, who had been impressed by OSS Special Operations during the war, instructed Bank to staff and obtain approval for the creation of an OSS-style operational group.

In 1952, after Bank and other key staff members had made their case, the Army approved 2,300 spaces for men in a Special Forces unit -- the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) -- at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

“I wanted none but the best,” Bank said in a 1968 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “First, they had to be double volunteers; that is, they had to volunteer for parachuting and behind-enemy-lines duties, which takes a special flair, a special type of personality. We had to work up all the manuals and training procedures for demolition, sabotage, new and different ways of handling weapons.”

But most important, Bank said, “We had to teach them the classic aim and purpose of their service -- the organizing of civilian natives into guerrilla forces in enemy-held territory.”

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Bank later wrote a memorandum suggesting that Special Forces soldiers be allowed to wear berets as a mark of distinction. He listed three possible colors for the berets: purple, wine-red or green. But the Army didn’t allow distinctive headgear at the time and the idea was turned down.

It wasn’t until 1962, four years after Bank retired from the military, that President John F. Kennedy authorized Army Special Forces to wear berets. Kennedy, Bank later said, “picked the green because he was an Irishman.”

Today there are about 7,700 soldiers in five active-duty and two National Guard Special Forces groups.

Continued Respect

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At Ft. Bragg, which is still the home of the Green Berets, Bank is considered a military icon.

“Col. Aaron Bank is a legend within the Special Forces community,” Maj. Robert Gowan, spokesman for the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, said Thursday. “His commitment and service to our country is unsurpassed. He was a man far ahead of his time.... His vision and initiative allowed the Army to create Special Forces as we know them today.”

Born in New York City, Bank began working summers in his teens as a lifeguard and swimming teacher. He liked the work so much, he later said, that by the late 1920s it had become something of a career.

“I’d go to Nassau in the Bahamas to work during the winter and then to Biarritz in southern France during the summer,” he recalled in the 1968 interview. “It was a plush life.”

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He was in and out of Europe over the next decade and learned to speak French and German fluently. But in the late 1930s, sensing the inevitability of war, he returned home and joined the Army. By the time the United States entered the war, Bank had been commissioned a second lieutenant.

In 1943, the 40-year-old Bank was serving as a tactical training officer to a railroad battalion stationed at Camp Polk, La. when he saw a bulletin announcing that volunteers with foreign language capabilities would be interviewed for “special assignments.”

Once in the OSS, he said, he began a long training course that taught him “to do all the things that regular branches of the service frowned on” -- guerrilla warfare, sabotage, espionage, escape and evasion tactics.

He also learned parachuting. As commander of one of the three-man teams that dropped into southern France before the Allied Mediterranean invasion in August 1944, he and his men posed as civilians and helped French Resistance leaders organize a guerrilla force that blew up bridges, power lines and railroad tracks, and ambushed German columns.

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Top-Secret Mission

In December 1944, Bank received what he considered the most extraordinary assignment of his career: to recruit and train 170 anti-Nazi German POWs and defectors who would parachute with him into the Austrian Alps, where they would pose as a German mountain infantry company.

The primary goal of the top-secret mission, dubbed Iron Cross, was to capture high-ranking Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler, who were expected to seek refuge in the area as the war in Europe neared an end.

Had the operation gone through and had they been successful in capturing Hitler, Bank told The Times in 1987, “the war would have been over overnight.” But in April 1945 -- after three months of training in France -- the mission was scrubbed.

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“I never cried in my life, but I damn near cried when they told me it was aborted,” Bank said in a 1993 Times interview.

Bank said he had heard two versions of why the mission was canceled. “One was that the American 7th Army was ready to crack into the Inn Valley. And it was a short time later that they did.” And because many of the Germans on the mission were pro-communist, he said, he heard that “the State Department didn’t want to drop a big team of party communists into Austria toward the latter part of the war.”

Hitler, it turned out, was in Berlin at the time; he committed suicide on April 30, 1945.

After the aborted Iron Cross mission, Bank was parachuted into the jungles of Indochina to search for Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. His team located 165 French internees at three different locations in the Vientiane area of Laos.

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Bank, who also served in the Korean War, retired from the Army in 1958 and moved to San Clemente.

In 1972, at age 70, he began working full time as chief of security at a private oceanfront community in Capistrano Beach, a job he held until he was 85.

Physically Fit

Extremely fit and vigorous most of his life, the 5-foot-8, 140-odd-pound Bank swam around the San Clemente pier every day until he was 74. He then took to running 40 minutes a day on the hilly streets near his home.

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Bank continued a daily regimen of lifting weights, riding a stationary bike, walking and participating in an exercise class at the assisted-living facility in Dana Point until he was hospitalized three weeks ago.

Over the years, Bank wrote two books: “From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces” (Presidio Press, 1987); and “Knights Cross” (Birch Lane Press, 1993), a novel co-written with E.M. Nathanson, author of “The Dirty Dozen.”

“Knights Cross” was based, in part, on Bank’s real-life exploits with the aborted Iron Cross mission, but the novel had a twist: The mission to capture Hitler is not aborted and Bank’s fictional alter ego succeeds in capturing the German leader.

“I think of Aaron as a national treasure,” Nathanson told The Times. “He was a gracious gentleman and a dedicated warrior. There would seem to be a conflict between those two phrases, but they went together very well with him.”

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Bank is survived by his wife, Catherine; their two daughters, Linda Ballantine of Dana Point and Alexandra Elliott of Anaheim; and a granddaughter.

A funeral service, with full military and Special Forces honors, will be held at 1 p.m. Monday at Riverside National Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, P.O. Box 14385, Tampa, FL 33690.


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