First in a series of four photo features on U.S. Special Operations units in Vietnam

US. Army Special Forces, popularly known as Green Berets, became famous for their exploits in Vietnam but trace their roots to World War II’s 1st Special Service Force (which had an arrowhead-shaped shoulder patch adopted by the Vietnam generation), the Office of Strategic Services and Alamo Scouts.

The green beret, designed in 1953, was approved as part of the Special Forces uniform by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In June 1952 the 10th Special Forces Group was formed under the command of Col. Aaron Bank. The unit was reorganized in May 1960 as the 7th Special Forces Group. Formed too late to play a significant role in the Korean War, the Special Forces honed their skills and doctrine in the crucible of Vietnam.

Directly subordinate to U.S. Special Operations Command, the Special Forces troops were ready and able to operate with other allies as circumstances demanded. Their extensive training enabled them to perform a variety of functions that ranged from establishing village medical facilities to engaging in covert or overt combat.


  • Special Forces Capt. Vernon Gillespie Jr., working with troops from Vietnam’s Montagnard ethnic group, calls his outpost by walkie-talkie radio in 1964. / Getty Images
  • At Nha Trang, a school operated by the 5th Special Forces Group puts trainees through a three-week course in the techniques of long-range reconnaissance patrolling in 1967. / Getty Images
  • Col. James Lilland, center, Special Forces commander, works in the field with local militiamen on Oct. 1, 1969. / Getty Images
  • A medic attends a wounded Special Forces soldier as South Vietnamese and Montagnard troops attack to retake an outpost overrun by the Viet Cong near Ha Thanh on Sept.1, 1968. / AP photo: Larry Burrows
  • Special Forces troops under Gillespie train a South Vietnamese strike force on the .30-cal.machine gun. / Getty Images
  • Gillespie contacts his base camp while South Vietnamese soldiers burn a Viet Cong hideout. / Getty Images
  • Gillespie supervises cleanup after a banquet of buffalo meat for his troops and their Montagnard hosts. / Getty Images
  • Capt. John Gantt rides an elephant before Montagnard villagers in Tra Bong on April 2, 1968. Gantt led an effort to transport elephants 200 miles via cargo plane and helicopter to the mountainous area for work in a lumber mill. / AP Photo-Eddie Adams
  • After two days of combat, U.S. Special Forces and South Vietnamese troops reoccupy a hilltop outpost near Ha Thanh on Sept. 3, 1968. / AP Photo-Dana Stone
  • In a rehearsal for one of many noncombat roles they played in Vietnam, Special Forces troops build bridges and new water pipelines for remote villages during a joint disaster relief exercise in Taiwan in April 1972. / AP Photo-Horst Faas

What makes the Special Forces “special,” in large measure, is the multitude of specialties they have to master, among them an array of weaponry (including the enemy’s), airborne operations and foreign languages.

Special Forces units have limited, but highly focused capabilities that allow the Army to use them as an economy of force tool. The Special Forces were recognized as a separate branch of the Army in 1987. They are prepared to take on a variety of missions wherever they are sent, from Laos in 1959 to Afghanistan in 2021. V

This article appeared in the June 2021 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more stories from Vietnam magazine, subscribe here and visit us on Facebook: