This site is no longer updated. Please visit the new site at arsof-history.org

SFDK and ROKA Special Forces free falling in Korea.
SFDK and ROKA Special Forces free falling in Korea.

SF Detachment 39

SFLE in Korea

The U.S. Army Special Forces’ relationship with the Republic of Korea is almost as old as Special Forces itself. In 1953, seventy graduates (officers and noncommissioned officers) of the second and third Special Forces qualification course were sent to Korea as individual replacements to the 8240th Army Unit, which was the backbone of U.N.-sponsored partisan operations during the war. That U.S. Army Special Forces presence ended shortly after the armistice, but the necessity to train foreign soldiers in unconventional warfare to combat insurgencies in the Pacific region did not.

1 The U.S. Special Forces Detachment–Korea that formed in 1960 should not be confused with the U.S. Air Force Unit “Det K,” Special Activities Unit #1, which had absolutely no connection with Special Forces. See Michael E. Haas, Apollo’s Warriors: United States Air Force Special Operations During the Cold War (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1995), 56–65.

Wars of national liberation were being fought in countries of Southeast Asia and the southwest Pacific during the 1950s. The French had been fighting the Viet Minh in Indochina while the new Philippines government had been combating a HUK rebellion since 1946. The Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu marked the beginning of the end of French colonialism in Indochina and by the end of 1955, the HUK revolt had been put down. Unrest in Indonesia emphasized the “domino theory” of Communist aggression during the Cold War. With 10th Special Forces Group focused on postwar Europe, the 77th SFG was initially responsible for the rest of the world. The 77th SFG spawned the 7th SFG oriented to Latin America and the 14th SF Operational Detachment (14th SFOD) for the Pacific region. The Army’s Special Forces, still in their infancy, were spread thin.

2 Cherilyn A. Walley, “A Century of Turmoil: America’s Relationship with the Philippines,” Special Warfare, September 2004, 8.

Original 1st SFG beret flash
Original 1st SFG beret flash
Original Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) 1st Special Warfare Group shoulder patch
Original ROKA 1st Special Warfare Group shoulder patch
Korea Military Assistance Group shoulder patch
Korea Military Assistance Group patch
LTC Albert S. Madding
LTC Albert S. Madding

The decision to provide dedicated unconventional warfare support to American allies in the Pacific was made in 1956. In April of 1956, four regionally oriented Special Forces detachments were formed: the 14th Special Forces Operational Detachment (Area) (Airborne) (SFOD) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina; the 16th Special Forces Detachment (District B) (Airborne) with its two subordinate elements, the 12th and 13th Special Forces Detachments (Regimental) (Airborne) at Camp Drake, Japan. All four detachments were classified and had a cover designation: the 14th SFOD was openly referred to as the 8251st Army Unit and the other three SF detachments were collectively the 8231st Army Unit. All four detachments were ultimately assigned to 1st Special Forces Group when it was activated in June 1957 on Okinawa, Japan.

3 Shelby L. Stanton, Green Berets at War: United States Army Special Forces in Southeast Asia 1956–1975 (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1985), 1–2.

Basic Airborne Training Course certificate presented to ROKA 1st LT Jai Soo Lee
Basic Airborne Training Course certificate presented to ROKA 1st LT Jai Soo Lee, 29674, at Camp Buckner, Okinawa, May 1958.
Numbered ROKA parachutist identity card
Numbered ROKA parachutist identity card
Basic parachute badge, ROKA
Basic parachute badge, ROKA
Original insignia of ROKA 1st Special Forces Battalion
Original insignia of ROKA 1st Special Forces Battalion

The Republic of Korea (ROK) was in “the center of the radar screen” for U.S. Army Special Forces in the Pacific in 1957, when the Army decided to form an SF battalion. The first seventy ROKA Special Forces soldiers graduated from basic airborne training on Okinawa on 14 May 1958, and returned to Korea. 1st SFG Mobile Training Team (MTT) 12A conducted advanced SF training in Korea and graduated the first class of ROKA Special Forces on 20 August 1958. The 1st SFG teams rotated into Korea to help the ROK Army SF cadre conduct training and assess field training exercises during their formative years.

4 Stanton, 6–7; H. R. “Mike” Burns, M. Eugene Hall, Charles Randall, Dennis Veal, Al Gramando, Walter Cribbe, Craig Firth, and Choi Jang Hoon, interview by Dr. Cherilyn A. Walley, 3 June 2004, Yongsan Garrison, Republic of Korea, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

CPT John G. Firth
CPT John G. Firth

The first indication that the U.S. Army considered a formal SF liaison with the ROKA Special Forces appropriate was in 1959. Captain John G. Firth was reassigned from the 77th SFG at Fort Bragg to 1st SFG on Okinawa with duty station Korea, effective 16 September 1959. However, those orders were amended; CPT Firth’s assignment to Korea ended at the 1st SFG headquarters on Okinawa. Firth spent most of 1960 commanding FA-32 and FA-33 (FA = the old designation for ODA) and conducting MTTs and field training exercises in the region. Among them were several infiltration exercises in Korea in January, February, and May 1960, and Exercise Strike Back near Seoul from 11–16 July 1960. By the fall of 1960, 1st SFG planned to assign a dedicated American SF training cadre in Korea.

5 Extract, Paragraph 63, Department of the Army Special Order 183, dated 16 September 1959, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Amendment of Orders, AGPA-O 210.31 dated 30 September 1959, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

6 Captain John G. Firth, “After Action Report for Infiltration Exercise of FA-32,” 11 January 1960, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Captain John G. Firth, “After Action Report for Exercise “Detroit” (FA-33),” 24 February 1960, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Captain John G. Firth, “After Action Report, Exercise “STRIKE BACK” (11–16 July 1960),” 19 July 1960, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

Original ROKA Special Forces basic airborne training site in Korea. Note that ROKA troops slept in shelter-half pup tents

The first effort at permanence consisted of “stringing together” a series of temporary duty assignments for a split team (an officer and four enlisted men) led by Captain Firth that started 3 November 1960 and ended 8 June 1961. Despite this “TDY cobbling,” Department of the Army, in January 1961, had begun to assign personnel to 1st SFG with duty station Korea. Hence, a de facto stable 1st SFG presence under the operational control of Korea Military Assistance Group (KMAG) had been created.

7 “Award of the Army Commendation Medal” and “Citation,” General Order 104, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands, dated 27 November 1961, Local Order 11-41A, Headquarters, 1st Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, dated 2 December 1960, Local Order T-745, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands and IX Corps, dated 13 December 1960, Local Order T-745A, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands and IX Corps, dated 7 February 1961, Local Order T-745B, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands and IX Corps, dated 10 April 1961, Major General Hamilton H. Howze, “Letter of Appreciation” to Captain John G. Firth, dated 20 June 1961, “Award of the Army Commendation Medal” and “Citation,” General Order 104, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands, dated 27 November 1961, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

8 Extract, Paragraphs 17–20, Special Order 294, Headquarters U.S. Advisory Group, Korea, dated 12 December 1961, Extract, Paragraph 65, Special Order 171, Headquarters XVIII Airborne Corps and Fort Bragg, dated 25 July 1961, and Extract, Special Order 230, Headquarters U.S. Army Advisory Group, Korea, dated 23 September 1961, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

Once established it was perpetuated by giving the detachment a specific unit designation in November 1961. KMAG and 1st SFG recognized the element as “FA Detachment 40” and CPT John Firth received an Army Commendation Medal for his meritorious service as “Detachment Commander, FA Detachment 40, C Company, 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne).” While the detachment functioned semi-independently, it was still very much a part of 1st SFG in Okinawa.

9 “Award of the Army Commendation Medal” and “Citation,” General Order 104, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands, dated 27 November 1961, Extract, Paragraphs 17–20, Special Order 294, Headquarters U.S. Advisory Group, Korea, dated 12 December 1961, and Extract, Paragraph 7, Special Order 58, Headquarters 1st Special Forces Group, 1st Special Forces, dated 2 May 1962, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

U.S. Navy submarine, SS-395/AGSS 395 Redfish
MAJ Frank Dallas and FA Detachment 40 provided submarine infiltration training to twenty-nine ROKA Special Forces using the U.S. Navy submarine, SS-395/AGSS 395 Redfish, 6–7 May 1962.
Honorary Submariner card given to MSGT Richard Schevchenko
Honorary Submariner card given to MSGT Richard Schevchenko, MAJ Dallas, and SSG Paul Redgate (medic) after training with the SS-395 Redfish 6–7 May 1962.

CPT Firth’s split team acted as a Special Forces Liaison Element (SFLE) providing current SF course materials and advice, coordinating the 1st SFG MTT support to the ROKA 1st Special Warfare Group, and acting as liaison with KMAG, Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA), and American special operations elements training in Korea. Firth specifically helped the KMAG and ROKA prepare a new Table of Organization and Equipment (TO&E) for 1st Special Warfare Group, facilitated parachute badge exchanges during joint exercises by arranging U.S. military aircraft, and assisted in planning several ROKA and joint field training exercises, including small boat and amphibious operations. The SFLE mission required considerable ingenuity, resourcefulness, dedication, and solid rapport with ROKA and American commands in Korea as well as the confidence of 1st SFG in Okinawa. As a former member stated, “It was tough duty, but somebody had to do it.”

10 Lieutenant General Chang Do Young, “Letter of Appreciation” to Captain John G. Firth, dated 2 June 1961, Captain John G. Firth, Letter to Major Edgar Albrick, dated 11 May 1961, and “Award of the Army Commendation Medal” and “Citation,” General Order 104, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Ryukyu Islands, dated 27 November 1961, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

Major Frank J. Dallas, reassigned from the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, became the second commander of Detachment 40 at the end of May 1961. During Dallas’ tenure the unit designation was changed to FB Detachment 40. Major Miguel de la Peña took command on 1 July 1962. A month later, 1st SFG referred to FB Detachment 310, C Company, as the Republic of Korea Resident Detachment. Major de la Peña changed command in early November 1962, with Captain (P) Charles W. Norton Jr. at Camp Mercer. Sometime prior the unit had moved from Camp Eiler. During Norton’s tenure as third commander, the unit was redesignated B Detachment 310. When Captain (P) Hugh R. “Mike” Burns took command in mid-December 1963, it was Detachment “B” 310. A jeep accident investigation caused KMAG to assume administrative control from the Army Support Command and disciplinary authority over “B” 310 in Korea. As part of its SFLE mission, the detachment not only supported ROKA Special Forces training—submarine infiltration training, mountain climbing and rappelling, and airborne training—but because of political unrest, provided riot control training.

11 Colonel Cho Moon Whan, Republic of Korea Army Special Forces, Letter of Appreciation to Major Frank J. Dallas, dated 30 June 1962, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Captain John G. Firth, Letter to Major Edgar Albrick, dated 11 May 1961, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

12 Local Order 5-1, Detachment 40, 1st Special Forces Group, dated 8 May 1962, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Major Frank J. Dallas, “Letter of Appreciation” to Staff Sergeant George-Paul Redgate, dated 30 June 1962, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

13 Special Order 122, Headquarters, 1st Special Forces Group, dated 20 August 1962, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

14 Major Miguel de la Peña, “Letter of Appreciation” to Master Sergeant Richard Shevchenko, dated 27 November 1962, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

15 The change of UCMJ jurisdiction came after Major “Mike” Burns administered an Article 15 to the Det K sergeant for the DUI-related jeep accident before the Army Support Command received the daily MP “blotter report.” Sergeant Major Louis Brown recommended the action to preclude the automatic “one-stripe reduction” for DUI effectively ruining the SF soldier’s career. The UCMJ jurisdiction change and “strong verbal counselling” of Major Burns precluded future circumventions of policy. Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) H.R. “Mike” Burns, interview by Dr. Kenneth Finlayson, 8 December 2005, Hope Mills, NC, digital recording, USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

MAJ Frank J. Dallas
MAJ Frank J. Dallas
MAJ Charles W. Norton Jr.
MAJ Charles W. Norton Jr.
SFDK soldiers provide flood rescue training (rappelling) to ROKA helicopter crews using the Dallas Towers in 1979.

Detachment 40, then FB Detachment 310, then B Detachment 310, then Detachment “B” 310, and eventually B-310 by the late 1960s—performed the SFLE mission that the resident Special Forces detachment in Korea still fulfills. Although designated a “B” detachment throughout much of the 1960s, the team never grew beyond a twelve-man “A” detachment (ODA). Most often it fell below that “out of 1st SFG hide” level. While theoretically capable of acting as a B team headquarters that would command & control several “A” detachments teams, B-310 functioned as an “A” team with a SFLE mission. Independence, like that enjoyed by 46th SF Company in Thailand, almost killed the mission.

39th SFD Liaison Element locations in Korea
39th SFD Liaison Element locations in Korea

Being semi-independent from 1st SFG eventually was not sufficient for B-310. On 6 May 1969, Detachment B-310 (by then referred to as Special Forces Detachment, Korea) became U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment, Korea (SFDK) under the KMAG. Less than a year later, the KMAG began to question the value of the SF Detachment [having operational control and administrative support responsibilities (funding)] and suggested inactivation. Having lost KMAG support, the SFDK went to EUSA and convinced the G-3 of the viability of its SFLE mission in Korea. In mid-August 1971, SFDK was then reassigned from A Company, 1st SFG and KMAG to Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, under the staff supervision of the Assistant Chief of Staff, G3, and attached to 4th Signal Group for UCMJ and the Yongsan Garrison for administrative and logistical support. Functionally, the mission and responsibilities were the same, but the “out of hide” detachment for Korea was no longer part of the Special Forces permanent force structure.

17 Master Sergeant (Retired) M. Eugene Hall, Jump Log, entries dated 7 September 1965–8 October 1966, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC; Letter of Instruction, U.S. Army Pacific, dated 6 May 1969, as referenced in Letter of Instruction 8-2, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 16 August 1971, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

18 General Order 316, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 16 August 1971, Henrickson, “United States Army Special Forces Detachment (Korea): 1970–1973,”, Letter of Instruction 8-2, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 16 August 1971, and General Order 335, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 23 August 1971, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

The SFDK independent period lasted for nearly fifteen years. While there were numerous orders and letters of instruction of detachment and reattachment within the EUSA, the most significant order was General Order 116, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Pacific, which organized Special Forces Detachment, Korea, as a TDA (Table of Distribution & Allowances) element. Effective 1 June 1974, the TDA authorized strength for U.S. Army SFD-K was one officer and eight enlisted men . . . to be assigned from locally available personnel. Once the reorganization was complete, SFDK was attached to the EUSA Headquarters Commandant for UCMJ and administrative and logistics support. SFDK was the only permanent SF presence in theater. Deactivation was raised again in 1980, but the detachment proved its continued value to the Army as a special operations coordinator for joint training exercises like FOAL EAGLE and TEAM SPIRIT.

19 Letter of Instruction 1-4, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 18 January 1974; General Order 41, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 23 January 1974; General Order 42, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 23 January 1974; General Order 116, Headquarters, U.S. Army, Pacific, dated 29 May 1974; General Order 275, Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 21 June 1974; General Order 317, Headquarters, United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 22 August 1975; General Order 357, Headquarters, United Nations Command, U.S. Forces Korea, Eighth U.S. Army, dated 15 October 1975. Copies of all the above in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

20 H. R. “Mike” Burns, M. Eugene Hall, Charles Randall, Dennis Veal, Al Gramando, Walter Cribbe, Craig Firth, and Choi Jang Hoon, interview by Dr. Cherilyn A. Walley, 3 June 2004, Yongsan Garrison, Republic of Korea, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

SFC Spencer Gay jumpmastering a U.S. Army H-21 Chickasaw helicopter
SFC Spencer Gay jumpmastering a U.S. Army H-21 Chickasaw helicopter
Original senior military free fall parachute badge, ROKA
Original senior military free fall parachute badge, ROKA
SFDK and ROKA Special Forces free falling in Korea
SFDK and ROKA Special Forces free falling in Korea
SFDK and 1st SFG developed a rough terrain advanced parachute course for the ROKA SF.
SFDK and 1st SFG developed a rough terrain advanced parachute course for the ROKA SF.
SFC Spencer Gay
SFC Spencer Gay prepares to accompany ROKA SF battalion on FTX.
LTC Kim leads his SF battalion on a roadmarch during a FTX.
LTC Kim leads his SF battalion on a roadmarch during a FTX.
SFCs Burris, Spencer Gay, and Kilmer with ROKA SF Colonel and his SGM before an FTX.
SFCs Burris, Spencer Gay, and Kilmer with ROKA SF Colonel and his SGM before an FTX.
SGM Richard Henrickson, SSG Dewberry, LTC Lim Dong Won (retired LTG), SFC William Taylor, and SGM Chay at the ROKA SF command post during a field exercise circa 1970–73
SGM Richard Henrickson, SSG Dewberry, LTC Lim Dong Won, SFC William Taylor, and SGM Chay
ROKA SF Sergeant Kim during summer field exercise.
ROKA SF Sergeant Kim during summer field exercise.
SFC Spencer Gay in the field with his ROKA SF battalion.
SFC Spencer Gay in the field with his ROKA SF battalion.
SFC Page and SSG Flowers enjoying another C-Ration meal before going to the field in the winter with the ROKA Special Forces.
SFC Page and SSG Flowers enjoying another C-Ration meal before going to the field.
SFC Spencer Gay during a summer field exercise with ROKA Special Forces.
SFC Spencer Gay during a summer field exercise with ROKA Special Forces.
SFC Spencer Gay having lunch in the field with the ROKA Special Forces.
SFC Spencer Gay having lunch in the field with the ROKA Special Forces.
MSG (E-7) Ruben Michel during Medical Capability (MEDCAP) with the ROKA Special Forces. Note master parachutist wings on beret ILO 1st SFG flash.
MSG (E-7) Ruben Michel during Medical Capability (MEDCAP) with the ROKA Special Forces.
SSG Phillip Quinn (medic) sets up for MEDCAP with ROKA Special Forces circa 1970–73.
SSG Phillip Quinn (medic) sets up for MEDCAP with ROKA Special Forces circa 1970–73.
Temporary sign advertising the joint SFDK/ROKA SF MEDCAP exercise.
Temporary sign advertising the joint SFDK/ROKA SF MEDCAP exercise.
ROKA Special Forces pass out Psywar products during MEDCAP with SFDK.
ROKA Special Forces pass out Psywar products during MEDCAP with SFDK.
SSGs William Bassett, Robert Maya and Specialist Four Powell
SSGs William Bassett, Robert Maya and Specialist Four Powell circa 1966–67.
SFC Walter Patterson (detachment operations sergeant) circa 1966–67.
SFC Walter Patterson (detachment operations sergeant) circa 1966–67.

It was U.S. Army Forces Command that brought SFD-K and the Berlin Detachment back into the fold. On 1 October 1985, U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment–Korea was reassigned from EUSA to 1st Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that a year later transferred it back to 1st Special Forces Group, Fort Lewis, Washington, a year later. After seven years as an “out of 1st SFG hide” element and almost thirty years as a TDA unit, SFD-K effective 16 October 2005, became a permanent TO&E (Table of Organization & Equipment) unit designated 39th Special Forces Detachment (Airborne). The 39th SFD (authorized one officer and fifteen enlisted personnel) is assigned to U.S. Army Special Forces Command, Fort Bragg, and attached to EUSA in Korea for UCMJ and the 1st SFG for Title 10 support. In the midst of organizations, reorganizations, activations, and inactivations the 39th Special Forces Detachment in Korea has certainly “enhanced ROK/US interoperability by providing liaison between U.S. SOF and ROKA SF during war, crisises, and armistice” while providing a continuity of SF presence in the Pacific for over forty years.

21 Permanent Order 191-18, Headquarters, U.S. Army Forces Command, dated 10 December 1985, and Permanent Order 25-7, Headquarters, U.S. Army 1st Special Operations Command (Airborne), dated 13 February 1986, copies in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

22 Permanent Order 161-10, Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command (Airborne), dated 9 June 2004 (effective 16 October 2005), copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

23 “SFD-K Mission and METL” contained in Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Forces Command (AOSO-GG-FS) Memorandum subject: Force Design Update (FDU)—Conversion of the Special Forces Detachment–Korea to a TOE Unit dated 26 July 2002, copy in USASOC History Office Files, Fort Bragg, NC.

Special thanks to Colonel Craig Firth, Sergeant Major Jack Hagan, retired Lieutenant Colonel Mike Burns, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Randall, Command Sergeant Major Richard Henrickson, Master Sergeants Richard Shevchenko, Eugene Hall, Paul Redgate, and Spencer Gay for providing photos and documents to support this article.

Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units

Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units
Shoulder patches of the ROKA Special Operations units