Aaron Bank (November 23, 1902-April 1, 2004) was the founder of the US Army Special Forces, commonly called Green Berets.
Before the Depression, young Bank was a bon vivant, traveling the world and serving, ultimately, as chief life guard at an upscale resort in Biarritz. But in 1939, he joined the military. When the United States entered World War II, Bank, by then an officer, was inevitably drawn to intelligence and special operations work (in his forties, he was "too old" for combat). He spoke good French and fair German, and he was athletic.
He served in the U.S. Army as a Captain in the Office of Strategic Services (which would be disbanded by Harry Truman in 1946 but in less than a year provide much of the cadre and expertise for the new CIA). The OSS conducted both espionage operations (SI Branch) and "special operations": sabotage and guerrilla warfare (SO Branch). Bank was assigned to SO Branch, and led one of the OSS's operations, Operation Jedburgh, into France.
In that operation, Bank and two Frenchmen, an officer and a radio operator, parachuted into southern France in July 1944, and linked up with French guerillas of the Gaullist FFI. They liberated a number of towns, despite tense relations with the Communist Francs Tireurs et Partisans. In September, Bank left, mission accomplished, and reported back in to London.
In late 1944 and early 1945, Bank led "Operation Iron Cross", which evolved into a plan to capture or kill Adolf Hitler. The original plan was for a company of men disguised as German soldiers to jump in near Innsbruck in present-day Austria. There they would conduct sabotage and induce German soldiers to desert. The leaders of the unit were OSS men: Bank, a lieutenant, and two sergeants. The rank and file were prisoners of war from Nazi Germany who volunteered to fight against the Nazis. Many of them were Communists; in the end, Bank had weeded out 75 of his original 175 volunteers. They were paid sixty cents an hour, and a promise of a death benefit if they were killed.
Bank could not pass as a German, so his cover called him "Henri Marchand," a French Nazi from Martinique. The hope was that any Gestapo men asking questions wouldn't recognize a Martinique accent.
When General William Donovan, head of the OSS, was briefed on the progress of Iron Cross, he changed the mission. Hitler had been threatening that the Nazi leaders and armies would withdraw into the National Redoubt -- the mountainous area on today's German-Austrian border. This was exactly the target of Iron Cross, and Donovan ordered a new mission: "Tell Bank to get Hitler." The men of Iron Cross began training in raid and snatch techniques -- their goal was to capture Hitler alive and deliver him to a war crimes tribunal.
Iron Cross was canceled almost on the eve of execution: intelligence showed that the National Redoubt was a figment of Hitler's imagination, that Hitler was not in the target area, and that Nazi resistance was collapsing across Europe. A disappointed Bank had to thank his men for trying -- and send them back to their POW cages. Bank thought that one problem with Iron Cross was State Department aversion to setting so many armed Communists loose in an area destined for Allied occupation.
From Europe, Bank traveled to China, where he trained for an abortive mission into Indochina, and later, in September 1945, did parachute into Laos with a combined SI/SO team. During these postwar mopping-up operations, he met Ho Chi Minh, for whom he always retained great respect.
After the war Bank remained in the Army. In the period after the war, there was a debate about whether the Army needed an organization for guerilla warfare and sabotage, like the SO branch of OSS (it was understood that the duties of SI branch were covered by the CIA). Officers like Russ Volckmann, who had been a guerilla in the Philippines, and Bank were instrumental in convincing the Army it needed such a force. The primary place such elements would be deployed, they thought, was Europe -- this time, behind Soviet lines, in the event of a new war.
Then-Colonel Aaron Bank became the first commander of the Army's first Special Forces unit, called the 10th Special Forces Group (hoping to confound the Russians with suspicions of nine more), in 1952. In establishing the 10th, he was as flexible as he had been with Iron Cross, drawing upon former members of the "1st Special Service Force" known as the Devil's Brigade, as well as veterans of the OSS, the Parachute Infantry units, and guerilla elements in the Pacific.
Using the training and strategies and the lessons learned during World War II, Bank created an elite unit of men skilled in the art of hand-to-hand combat, stealth tactics, the use of explosives for demolition, amphibious warfare, rock climbing and mountain fighting, and as ski troops.
Special Forces today are still organized into teams, as Aaron Bank organized his men in the 10th Special Forces group in 1952, with two experts in every specialty. They still must volunteer and undergo a difficult training process in which large numbers of men fail or quit, as Aaron Bank required of the men of Operation Iron Cross. Special Forces today acknowledges the paternity of Col. Bank.
Aaron Bank was commended by George W. Bush in 2002, the year he celebrated his hundredth birthday, for developing the unconventional warfare programs and techniques that had been used in toppling the Taliban.
Aaron Bank retired from the Army in 1958, and suffered from declining health in his last years. He lived in later years in California, with his wife Catherine, whom he married in 1948. They raised two daughters, Linda and Alexandra. He wrote the book, From OSS to Green Berets: the Birth of Special Forces, which describes the foundation of the Special Forces. He died on April 1st, 2004 at an assisted-living facility in Dana Point, California.