Photo courtesy of Dennis Warriner/detachment-a.org.
On this date 32 years ago, the U.S. Army Special Forces — commonly referred to as “Green Berets” — were officially established as a basic branch of the U.S. Army. But their history began much earlier.
From the days when the 10th Special Forces Group was commanded by “the father of Army Special Forces” Colonel Aaron Bank and numbers barely ticked double digits to Green Berets today serving in 149 countries across the globe — the battlefields may change, but the principles remain the same.
One of the pillars of Army Special Forces (SF) is their language and cultural capabilities. This enables them to insert into any foreign land, link up with groups of resistance fighters or governed armies, and dismantle whatever chaos is unfolding in the region. At the conclusion of World War II, the United States and its allies recognized the spread of communism by the Soviets, and a new law was passed with the intention of stunting the growing ideology.
On June 30, 1950, Congress passed the Lodge-Philbin Act, which was named after Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. This allowed foreign nationals to enlist into the U.S. Army, particularly SF. According to the book “Forging the Shield: The US Army in Europe 1951-1955” by Donald Carter, Lodge’s intentions were to recruit Eastern Europeans into the Volunteer Freedom Corps, yet some trickled into the ranks of Bank’s new force. The transition was a gift as they lived rugged lives in post-World War II Europe. Those who enlisted were guaranteed American citizenship if they served honorably for five years, a trade-off that served both sides well. The training commissioned their language skills, knowledge of the culture, and physical attributes to traverse the terrain, which earned “The Lodge Boys” immediate respect.
One lesser known Lodge Boy named Rudolph G. Horvath shared a similar upbringing as his compatriots, and he went to great lengths to be part of the elite unit. The Hungarian refugee heard “Voice of America” radio broadcasts in July 1950; he journeyed through Czechoslovakia and discreetly at night through the Russian-controlled territory of Austria. He swam across the Danube River and waved down an American military police jeep. The law was so new that German and some American authorities weren’t aware of it. After several months of stonewalling, Horvath and 50 other recruits passed the required tests and joined the 10th Special Forces Group by September 1952.
In a 1987 interview with the LA Times, Bank spoke about the hoops he had to jump through to impress a unit modeled on the Office of Strategic Service: “[We] 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, the objections of the CIA who were fearful of their charter.”
The CIA had competition with Bank’s new troops as they too pulled from Eastern Europeans, some being Nazi collaborators, to fulfill a secret mission dubbed Operation Bloodstone. The CIA’s goal was to inflict political warfare, which ultimately led to broader tasks such as assassinations and sabotage. Considering that their other options were prison or death, it was an offer many Nazis could not refuse, so they did the dirty work to obtain information on the Soviets and Eastern European nations.
For Bank, however, pairing Lodge Boys with special operations veterans from World War II was his answer.
Lauri Allan Törni made soldiering a career — one that reads more like an action-packed series of adventure novels than a war story. As Adolf Hitler was closing in on Finland as a strategic infiltration point to attack the Soviets, Josef Stalin countered with an attack on the Finns in what became known as the Winter War from 1939 to 1940. Törni trained as an elite member of the Finnish Alpine Ski Troops, who fought the Soviets behind enemy lines using only what they could pack on their backs and the sleds they pulled. His extensive experience and finesse under fire made him a prime candidate to join the best of the best amongst the German military.
In June 1941, Törni volunteered and was selected for the Waffen-SS, serving for a year before returning to the Finnish military to fight in the Continuation War against the Russians. His methods using guerilla warfare in deep penetration operations earned him instant notoriety, his unit going as far as to name themselves “Detachment Törni.” They struck fast with overwhelming precision and escaped before retaliation could be made. The Soviets put a bounty of 3 million Finnish Marks on his head, which equates to $65,000, a huge price for one officer.
The Finns awarded him the 144th Knight of Mannerheim Cross, which is equivalent to the Medal of Honor. Törni bounced between learning advanced sabotage training for a pro-German resistance force in 1945 to his eventual imprisonment after World War II for his Nazi relations. He escaped from prison in December 1948 before the Finnish president pardoned him, a nod to their shared service in Detachment Törni. At age 35 and fighting for two armies, Törni boarded a Swedish ship for Venezuela before diverting to the United States. The Finnish communities in New York City aided his transition before he had enough of his life as a carpenter and enlisted into the U.S. Army under the Lodge Act using the name Larry Thorne.
Thorne immediately transferred his alpine expertise to younger Army paratroopers and, in 1960, commissioned as an officer into 10th Special Forces Group stationed in Bad Tölz, Germany. When a U.S. Air Force aircraft transporting sensitive documents crashed and splattered the papers across the Zagros Mountains, a 14,000-foot mountain range that rests between the Iran-Soviet border, an urgent rescue operation went into effect. Previous attempts by the Air Force and the West Germany army failed; Thorne and his team of special forces were the last hope. Not only did they reach the aircraft stuck on an icy glacier, but they also brought the bodies — and the top-secret records — home.
In a lifelong atonement to crush the spread of communism across any battlefield, Thorne deployed to Tin Biehn, Vietnam, as a member of the 7th Special Forces Group A-734. On his second tour, he and other Green Berets led unconventional warfare as members of MACV-SOG, operating in South Vietnam and performing air reconnaissance missions into Laos during the fall of 1965. On Oct. 18, 1965, the first MACV-SOG cross-border mission carried Thorne and his team on South Vietnamese Air Force helicopters, but as the mission progressed, the weather and lack of visibility forced Thorne’s helicopter into the earth.
In 1999, his remains were found and returned to the United States. After being identified as Thorne, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on June 26, 2003.
Although the Lodge Act ceased in 1959, many Lodge Boys made a career out of the Army. Lieutenant Colonel Alpho Marttinen led an effort while in the Finnish military that hid an enormous cache of weapons and equipment in the event the Soviets invaded. He and his band of loyal officers were considered traitors as their plans and intentions of a guerilla warfare-style resistance was revealed. The “Marttinen’s Men” were told to leave the country in 1945 or they would be arrested. Marttinen evaded capture, escaped through Sweden, and became part of one of the first groups under the Lodge Act to enter Army Special Forces.
Henryk “Frenchy” Szarek, a Polish native who first served as a civilian barber for the German military at a concentration camp, witnessed firsthand the suffering the Nazis promised to unleash. By 1945, he managed to link up with the Polish army as a linguist fluent in several languages. With research gathered by retired Army Special Forces officer Bob Seals from Szarek’s unpublished manuscript “Under Five Flags,” Szarek recalled, “I hated the Russians then … Nazi brutality was mild compared to what I had seen from the Russians.”
Szarek hopped between five armies, served as a founding member of the Legion Airborne Battalion in Algeria, and made several combat jumps into Vietnam in 1950. Like many others in his position, he learned of the new program requesting foreign nationals and served as a Green Beret in Berlin. After completing three years in Germany, he was sent to a Special Forces reserve unit in Massachusetts, obtained his U.S. citizenship and high school diploma, and lived happily with his family in a Polish community. Szarek died in 2011 and was buried in Massachusetts Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
The Tampa Bay Times published an obituary for Jan Janosik, a former Czechoslovakian border guard, who made a career out of the Army Special Forces after escaping to the U.S. under the Lodge Act. Master Sergeant Janosik served as a member of 1st, 5th, 7th, 8th, 77th Special Forces Group, and the 46th Special Forces Company, which took him to Vietnam (twice), Laos, Thailand, and Panama. While in Laos, he served on “White Star” teams that conducted covert counterinsurgency operations often while wearing civilian clothes and backed by the CIA. The units’ missions lasted from 1957 to July 1962. Once retiring and putting away his uniform covered with medals of valor — including the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart — he donned another public service uniform as a Jail Deputy for Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Bob Charest from Detachment (A) Berlin Special Forces Brigade shed some insight on the little-known unit responsible for “stay behind” plain clothes missions during the Cold War — many of the members of the unit were the result of the Lodge Act, including “men like Peter Astalos who served in the Romanian and German armies during WWII; Martin Urich who participated in the largest tank battle of WWII ‘Krusk’, and many more.” Much of the unit’s history is cloaked in secrecy and remains classified.
Despite the Lodge-Philbin Act’s short duration, the heroism of the Eastern Europeans who earned their American citizenship set a new precedent for how Special Forces preparations may set the stage for global conflicts in the future.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.