COLUMBIA — Green Berets – Army Special Forces troops – were made famous in the 1960s when President John F. Kennedy ordered them to wear their distinctive head gear and John Wayne made a movie about them.
Formed during World War II, the Green Berets have served in every conflict since, rallying and training native people – often behind enemy lines – to fight with Americans and their allies.
In June, the National Special Forces Association will hold its 50th annual conference in Columbia, attracting more than 1,000 Green Berets from around the world, including veterans from every conflict since World War II.
“We’re going to have a very unique group of guys, said John Rollinson of the S.C. Special Forces Association, based in Camden.
It will be the first time the conference has been held in South Carolina.
“It’s something we wanted to do for Columbia and South Carolina,” said Rollinson, a Palm Beach, Fla., native who served in Vietnam in 1965-1966 and again in 1969. “We’re a very military-friendly state, and we hope this will open up Columbia as a destination for other military conferences.”
The seven-day conference will be held beginning June 9 at the Marriott Hotel along Main Street.
Matt Kennell, chief executive of Columbia’s City Center Partnership, which encourages and guides development in the central business district, said the conference will be another boost for a rebounding Main Street.
“That’s a terrific crowd and a group of people we want to honor,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to expose all those people to what’s going on on Main Street.”
Free the oppressed
The origin of the modern-day Special Forces occurred in World War II with the Office of Strategic Services, called the OSS. It was formed to go behind enemy lines in Europe and other fronts to gather much-needed intelligence and organize armed resistance groups.
But its roots stretch back much farther than that – to the Revolutionary War and guerilla fighters including Daniel Morgan, Ethan Allen and South Carolina’s own Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox.”
Marion “was one of the first unconventional warfare soldiers in the Continental Army and the South Carolina State guard,” said conference chairman Mike Mika of Cayce, who served three tours of duty in Vietnam.
In 1952, the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) was formed in conjunction with the Psychological Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. It and the 77th Special Forces Group (now the 7th) specialized in reconnaissance, counter-terrorism and organizing and working with foreign troops.
Training includes foreign languages and immersing the troops in the culture of the country in which they will operate. The bearded soldiers seen on the news working in Afghan villages are often Green Berets.
“We live with them,” Rollinson said. “We eat what they eat. We are with them all the time.”
The Green Berets now have soldiers in 90 countries around the world. But it was in Vietnam that Special Forces earned their reputation and their headgear, which separated them from the rest of the U.S. military.
Although there were only 3,000 Green Berets in Vietnam at any given time, they earned 17 Medals of Honor, 85 Distinguished Service Crosses, 815 Silver Stars, 8,369 Bronze Stars and 2,560 Purple Hearts. More importantly, Rollinson said, the Green Berets in Vietnam conducted 49,902 foreign aide projects, like building hospitals and schools.
Their motto is “De Oppresso Liber,” which means free the oppressed.
“That’s what we do,” Rollinson said.
At the conference in Columbia, organizers are expecting participants from as far away as Europe and Australia, including two or three Medal of Honor recipients and Keith Payne, an Australian who received the Victoria Cross for actions in Vietnam. Members of the Montagnard tribe, who fought beside Americans in Vietnam, and Gordon Sims, a World War II Green Beret from Columbia, also will attend.
The S.C. Green Beret Association made a bid for the conference last year in Orlando. It is usually held in cities larger than Columbia, most recently San Antonio , and Las Vegas, Nevada.
The S.C. delegation won, in large part, because the Palmetto State chapter has been very active in the organization in recent years and the conference had never been held in South Carolina.
Also, Mika said the delegation promised to expand the conference from its usual three days to seven days, and include day trips to Charleston and Camden, capitalizing on the state’s military history.
The conference also will include a golf tournament, which is open to the public, and target shooting at Fort Jackson, training sessions and speakers.
“We want it to be educational,” Rollinson said. “This is a way to bring information from the past and share the lessons learned.”
The cost of the conference for attendees is $80, rather than the $130 usually charged. While BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina, the S.C. Electric Cooperatives and AT&T and others have chipped in to help pay the conference’s costs, corporate sponsors still are needed, said organizer Tom McLemore of Irmo.
“We kept the price down because we want (participants) to have money to spend here,” said McLemore, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, beginning in 1958. “That’s why we need corporate help.”