Despite their status as some of the most elite fighters in the world, U.S. Army Special Forces didn’t exist in the way we know them until 1952.
“Special Forces traces its lineage to the First Special Service Force (FSSF), constituted on July 5, 1942,” according to Army records. “A combined U.S. and Canadian unit, the FSSF was originally formed to conduct unconventional warfare in Nazi-occupied Norway.”
Alas, the group was disbanded in 1945, but their style of warfighting was just taking hold. Seven years later, Col. Aaron Bank helped create the 10th Special Forces Group, comprised heavily of soldiers formerly associated with the intelligence wing known as the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS.
Their tell-tale chapeaus — green berets — trace their origins to World War II, when American personnel stationed abroad often adopted headgear to match their European counterparts. Big among the French and Belgian troops were berets. Meanwhile, the distinctive green coloring is owed to British Commandos, who adopted the color for their own variants.
Despite not receiving approval to wear the colorful headgear, Special Forces soldiers did so anyway. Eventually, however, it became standard.
“The Green Beret was originally designated in 1953 by Special Forces Major Herbert Brucker, a veteran of the OSS,” records note. “Later that year, 1st Lt. Roger Pezelle adopted it as the unofficial headgear for his A-team, Operational Detachment FA32. They wore it whenever they went to the field for prolonged exercises. Soon it spread throughout all of Special Forces, although the Army refused to authorize its official use.”
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy legitimized the beret — seemingly inadvertently — as Army standard issue while visiting troops at Fort Bragg.
“He sent word to the Special Warfare Center commander, Brigadier General William P. Yarborough, for all Special Forces soldiers to wear their berets for the event,” according to SOF records. “President Kennedy felt that since they had a special mission, Special Forces should have something to set them apart from the rest.”
In 1962, Kennedy wrote an official White House Memorandum stating, “The Green Beret is again becoming a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, a mark of distinction in the fight for freedom,” according to Army records.
In doing so, Kennedy, a Navy veteran, became viewed as a champion of special forces.
“I know that you and members of your command will carry on for us and the free world in a manner which is both worthy and inspiring,” Kennedy said. “I am sure that the Green Beret will be a mark of distinction in the trying times ahead.”
After his assassination, Kennedy’s wife Jackie requested the Green Berets serve as the Honor Guard during his funeral procession.
To this day, the beret is worn along with the coveted Special Forces tab.
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.