A Combat First
Army SF Soldiers in Korea, 1953-1955
The Korean War is noteworthy in Army history for the first use of Army Special Forces (SF) soldiers in a combat theater. In 1953, ninety-nine graduates from the first two Special Forces Qualification Course classes deployed to Korea as individual replacements. Working alongside their conventional Army counterparts, they performed a variety of missions associated with the training and employment of guerrilla forces. Two, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Ivan M. Castro and Captain (CPT) Douglas W. Payne, paid the ultimate price for their service and were the first SF soldiers to die in combat. Some of the SF men remained in Korea until 1955, nearly two years after the signing of the Armistice. This article documents the experience of the SF soldiers who trained, advised, and ultimately demobilized the guerrillas.1
1 This article is based on an earlier effort, “Wolfpacks and Donkeys: Special Forces Soldiers in the Korean War”, by Kenneth Finlayson, published in Veritas, Vol 3, No 3, 2007, pgs 31-40. It incorporates material gathered since 2007.
The Korean War (1950-1953) ended in a negotiated ceasefire with the armies of North Korea and Communist China opposing the forces of South Korea, the United States and the United Nations coalition along the 38th Parallel. The first year of fast-paced, fluid, ground combat up and down the Korean peninsula was followed by a gradual stalemate as the armies of both sides hardened their defensive positions and jockeyed for control of key terrain along the Main Line of Resistance (MLR).2 While the conventional war ground to a halt, unconventional warfare (UW) operations continued on both coasts.
2 With few significant changes, the Main Line of Resistance in October 1951 became the Demilitarized Zone with the signing of the Armistice. It remains in existence today. See Walter G. Hermes, Truce Tent and Fighting Front (Washington DC, Center of Military History, 1992), 17-20, 36-40, 45-47, 507-508.
Far East Command (FEC) began to develop an UW capability in early 1951 by taking advantage of the large numbers of anti-Communist North Korean guerrillas on the northwest islands of Korea. This led to the formation of the Attrition Section, Miscellaneous Division, G-3, Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA) on 15 January 1951.3 The guerrilla unit went through a dizzying series of name changes and command relationships; from the Attrition Section, EUSA G-3, to the Miscellaneous Group, 8086th Army Unit (AU), EUSA on 5 May 1951; then to the Guerrilla Section under the FEC/Liaison Group (FEC/LG) (in Tokyo) and the FEC/Liaison Detachment, Korea (FEC/LD[K]) (in Taegu). On 10 December 1951 the section was renamed the 8240th Army Unit, FEC G-2. Ultimately it came under the operational control of the Combined Command for Reconnaissance Activities, Korea (CCRAK), 8242nd AU on 27 September 1952.4 Throughout these many permutations, the focus remained on the guerrillas.
3 HQ, United States Army Forces, Far East, Technical Memorandum ORO-T-64, UN Partisan Warfare in Korea, 1951-1954, dated 19 September 1956, U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center, Carlisle Barracks, PA 30-36. Hereafter referred to as the ORO Study.
4 Michael Krivdo, “Creating an Army Guerrilla Command: Part One, The First Six Months,” Veritas: The Journal of Army Special Operations History, Vol 8 No. 2, 2012, 12-26. (For the purpose of clarity, the various permutations of the guerrilla unit name will be referred to collectively as guerrilla command unless otherwise noted).
On 15 January 1953, another unit was formed, the Recovery Command, 8007th AU. The 8007th also used guerrillas to collect information related to UN prisoners of war and gather general combat intelligence. Like the guerrilla command, the Recovery Command fell under the staff supervision of the FEC G-2. In September, 1953 it became the 8112th Army Unit.5 Most of these changes reflected attempts to create a theater-level command to direct UW operations, but had little effect on the basic mission of the guerrillas and the American advisors who trained, supplied and employed them. As the war progressed, the requirements for support grew.
5 Gordan L. Rottman, Korean War Order of Battle: United States, United Nations, and Communist Ground, Naval, and Air Forces, 1950-1953 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2002), 15, 57.
The mission of the guerrilla command, as defined in the Table of Distribution was twofold. The first was: “to develop and direct partisan warfare by training in sabotage indigenous groups and individuals both within Allied lines and behind enemy lines,” and second; “to supply partisan groups and agents operating behind enemy lines by means of water and air transportation.”6 To accomplish these missions, in early 1952 the guerrilla command divided into two elements for operations and support.
6 Headquarters, Eighth U.S. Army Korea, Table of Distribution No 80-8086, Miscellaneous Group, 8086th Army Unit, undated, Record Group 319, National Archives, Washington DC.
Ultimately, three sub-commands controlled guerrilla operations; initially LEOPARD BASE and later WOLFPACK on the West Coast, and Task Force (TF) KIRKLAND on the East Coast. The support element, BAKER Section, was initially located at the EUSA Ranger Training School at Kijang near Pusan, and used C-46s and C-47s to support airborne training and to conduct aerial resupply and agent insertions. BAKER Section later moved to K-16 Airfield outside Seoul, after the capital was retaken a second time7.
7 ORO Study, 35.
On the west coast, LEOPARD BASE, originally called WILLIAM ABLE BASE, was located on Paengnyŏng-do.8 Formed in February 1951, it supported roughly twelve thousand men organized into fifteen units referred to as numbered Donkeys. The LEOPARD area of operations was generally above the 38th Parallel to the west of the Ongjin Peninsula, reaching as far north as Taehwa-do near the mouth of the Yalu River that formed the Chinese-North Korean border.9 Eight Donkeys were located on Cho-do and the remaining seven on other islands. An advisor to Donkey 1, Sergeant (SGT) Alex R. Lizardo’s experience was typical.
8 Do means island in Hangul (Korean). Thus Cho-do is Cho Island.
9 ORO Study, 35. Figures are based on the disposition of partisan units in June 1952.