Tom Henry
US Army Special Forces

Tom Henry

Webmaster: Where were you born?

Timpson, Texas.

Webmaster: When did your military career begin?

I began military service in 1945. Following basic training, l was assigned to an assault regiment of an infantry division in the South Pacific Theater that was scheduled to effect a landing on the beach near Kobe Japan. The war ended while the regiment was in Luzon training for the invasion. I then took part in the occupation of Japan, attaining the rank of first sergeant in a rifle company. Upon my return to the US, I reenter college and remained in the reserves.

Webmaster: After college you went back on active duty?

In 1948 I was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in the reserves, and in 1950 recalled to active duty for the Korean conflict I deployed to Germany as a part of the Soviet threat build-up and later re-deployed from Germany back to the US and then to Korea. I subsequently commanded an infantry company in the US Army 1st Cavalry Division on the Korean DMZ.

Webmaster: You were one of the first advisers in Vietnam?

Following assignments with the US Army Ranger Department, I was sent there in 1962 to organize and train Vietnamese Army Ranger units. I spent a year conducting Ranger combat patrols in various remote regions and ended my tour as the senior advisor to the Vietnamese Ranger Command.

I returned to Vietnam in 1964 with the US Army 5th Special Forces Group (Green Berets). I took part in such battles as Dong Xoi and Plei Me where I worked closely with the USAF 15th Air Commando Group in providing close air ground support fire and aerial re-supply missions. During this tour, l help forge a close trusting relationship between our Special Forces ground teams and the Air Commando Forward Air Controllers (FACS), fighter pilots (A-1 E's, etc.), and troop carrier pilots (C-123, C-130's). This relationship has grown closer over the years and is now very much in evidence at the Special Operations Command, McDill AFB, Florida where Army Special Forces and Rangers; Navy SEALS; and Air Force Air Commandos all train and fight together under a unified, joint service command. These forces have their own budget and are under the command of a four star general who answers directly to the Secretary of Defense. Being a part of the effort to establish this command, was the high point of my 33 years of service.

Webmaster: After Vietnam, then what?

During the years 1965-69 I served as a joint task for commander and staff officer in a Unified Command responsible for training and combat operations in Africa and the Middle East. In 1967 I was the ground force commander and joint task force XO of Operation Congo. This task force, consisting of 3 USAF C-130's with air crews and support units and a reinforced platoon of US Army paratroopers, was sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (now Zaire) by President Johnson to help quell a white mercenary rebellion against the shaky government of President Mobutu (same problem exists today). The operation included seizing and defending C-130 airstrips, rescuing Belgium Catholic priests, nuns and local civilians being held hostage by undisciplined rebel forces, and providing airlift support to Congolese army paratroopers who incidentally refused to fight (same problem exists today). I subsequently assisted in the reorganization and training of the Ethiopian Army and helped obtain approval for establishing an USAF KC-135 tanker base on Diego Garcia Island, in the Indian Ocean, which later played an important logistical role in Desert Storm operations.

While serving as a battalion and brigade commander in the USA 82nd Airborne Division, I had the opportunity to plan and help command the longest airborne military operation in history. The exercise consisted of employing a USAF C-141 wing and elements of two C-130 wings to airlift an airborne brigade from Ft Bragg, N.C. and then airdrop the brigade on a drop zone in South Korea with only one refueling stop (C-141's) in Alaska. Many valuable lessons learned were gleaned from this operation, including proving the strategic rapid troop deployment capabilities of the of C-141 aircraft. It also emphasized the work horse versatility of the C-130 in its tactical airlift role. (Note: of interest is the programmed phase out of the C-141, but the long range planned retention of the C-130 - the "Gooney Bird" of the future ?.) The most important lesson learned was the need to place all USAF airlift forces under one command - the situation as it exists today with the USAF Air Mobility Command.

Following three plus years on the Pentagon staff, I was sent to Laos to try and effect the recovery of the remains of USAF and civilian contract air crews shot down during the Vietnam war era. Most of my efforts were stymied by local communist leaders, but I did learn first hand the fate of some MIA personnel, which was relayed to their families. From Laos, I was posted directly to Iran to served as the senior US Army advisor to the old Shah of Iran's army. While in Iran, I married my wife Ruth (a former State Department nurse I met in Laos). Shortly after our wedding, two of my USAF colleagues were assassinated by Iranian communist terrorists. A year later, my wife and I were targeted by the same group. Fortunately, my wife discovered the brief case bomb, which had been placed in our hotel room and it was removed and destroyed. This incident increased my interest in international terrorism.

My last major job prior to retirement was to gain approval for the establishment of a US Army force dedicated to fighting terrorism. The product of this effort is called Delta Force and was the unit that my close friend led into Iran in the aborted effort to free our embassy hostages in 1979. Even though the effort failed, its failure succeed in gaining the congressional attention needed to establish the Special Operations Command (mentioned previously). As a result, Army Special Forces and Air Force Air Commandos now have the state of the art equipment and the joint training capabilities that had been denied to them for so many years by their parent services.

My service decorations include Legion Of Merit(2), Bronze Star(2), Air Medal, Military Service Medal(2), Vietnamese Medal Of Honor and have earned the Combat Infantry Badge, Senior Parachutist Badge Ranger Tab, and Special Forces Badge.

Webmaster: From your time in the Pentagon, what is your insight into the reason we ended up in Vietnam ?

I was assigned to the Ranger Department at Ft. Benning, GA. President Kennedy took office in Jan. 1961 and if you remember his inaugural speech he laid the groundwork that we were going to protect all the nations of the world from communism. Whether the liberal Democrats today like it or not, he [Kennedy] got us involved in Vietnam because Eisenhower was very leery about that Vietnam thing. He damn sure didn't want ground troops in there.

I would like to give you a brief background on this issue. If you go back to the defense structure of the United States in the fifties, we had the Korean War. Truman got us into Korea and then Eisenhower got us out. He was so upset about the Korean experience he said we are not going to fight these kinds of wars anymore. He called in Curt LeMay and said we are going to go for the big bomb option. Anybody screws with us, we are going to drop the bomb. Curt LeMay then developed SAC [Strategic Air Command] and was king of the hill. We had the B-36 then soon to be followed by the B-47 and finally the B-52.

The only reason we had ground forces was to clean up after the bomb was dropped. So when the French pulled out of Vietnam in 1955, we stepped in, under Eisenhower, to fill the vacuum. We sent "Iron Mike" O'Daniel over there to take over from the French. He took a one grade reduction to Major General so he would not outrank the local Frenchman. The French pulled out south of the 17th Parallel and we set headquarters in Saigon at that time. First in command was O'Daniel then "Hanging Sam" Williams, Lionel B. McGarr then General Timmes then Harkins and finally Westmoreland.

If you understand the military mindset, military senior leaders like to fight the war that they fought last. Being a young infantry officer going through schools in the early 50's. Some of our instructors fought WWII in the European theater and some fought WWII in the Asiatic-Pacific theater. The European was the kind that most of the army guys liked because you had tanks and you could make massive attacks on the ground like Patton did. The Pacific war was different. It was piecemeal in the jungle--small unit operations, disease and the like--a war the Marines like to fight. But when you go to class in tactics, your instructor likes to teach the war the way he experienced it. So what happened when Eisenhower came along, he said with the threat of the big bomb, we can use that. No one is going to threaten us.

Then Russia got the bomb and eventually a delivery system. At the end of Eisenhower's Administration, our world dominant hold card as the only one with the bomb was beginning to wither around the edges. When President Kennedy came on board, he did a 180 degree about face. He wanted a flexible response. He wanted more than the one option of dropping the bomb. If it is a little war here I want to be able to do this, if it is a big war there, I want more options. Under Eisenhower, our military, that is the army, part of the air force and the navy went down the tube except for just enough of us to police up the battlefield after they dropped the bomb. We fared great under Kennedy. He wanted a strong army so when he came on board, his aid-de-camp was Brigadier General Pete Clifton and he sent Clifton on a fact-finding tour around the US to determine what our capabilities were. I spent two days with Clifton down at the Ranger Department at Ft. Benning. What Kennedy was looking for was light infantry. He wanted people he could deploy in a hurry in small groups to do these kinds of things where you didn't have to send tanks and the heavy stuff. Those of us who had been suffering in the army had three kinds of units that had been screwed over by Eisenhower--that was Rangers, Parachutists and Special Forces because he didn't see any need for them.

Tom Henry

Kennedy asked what units did we have that could respond to little wars. Well, we happened to be the ones who had been teaching, training and equipping for that doctrine. So where we had been at the bottom of the totem pole, all of a sudden out budgets were approved. I put in a 5 million dollar construction program for the Mountain Ranger Camp which I commanded. We were all in canvas tents. I wanted to get permanent latrines, barracks, a water tower and all this kinda stuff. Under Eisenhower I couldn't get a nickel out of them but four months after Kennedy came, that was approved. These were the kind of things that happened under Kennedy including the Green Berets.

Kennedy believed in the domino theory and was anxious to get us involved in SE Asia. He was convinced that if Vietnam fell, Cambodia would fall followed by Thailand then Indonesia. The anti-war people of the United States disagreed but you go to Australia and you find they believed in the domino theory and that is why they helped us out along with New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea. The Brits, French and Germans gave us nothing because they didn't believe in it. Those close to the conflict had a vested interest.

The first time we drew the line against communism started back with Truman during WWII. Three countries occupied Iran--Russia, Great Britain and the US. We didn't want Rommel's forces coming in from the west and the Japanese from the east meeting in Iran sealing off the Persian Gulf from the Soviet Union. We were running supplies up through the Persian Gulf and through the Caspian Sea. Other than that, the only other way to get supplies to Russia was Murmansk and it was frozen six months out of the year so we needed to keep the Persian Gulf open. The Brits occupied the southern part of Iran, the Russians occupied the north-western part and we occupied Tehran. Under the Potsdam agreement, within 35 days after the succession of hostilities, all parties were to pull out of Iran. The Brits pulled out and we pulled out but the Russians stayed. Ever since Catherine the Great they wanted an access to the Persian Gulf. They already had troops there so they hoped they could gain a corridor to the Gulf.

Truman sent a message to our Ambassador in Moscow for hand delivery to Stalin. It said in effect, "Be advised that members of the Potsdam Agreement agreed that within 35 days of the cessation of hostilities in the European Theater of Operations that the three powers would withdraw their forces from the country of Iran. It has now been 60 days and we see no evidence of Soviet withdrawal. In the meantime, the Americans and the British have honored their agreement and pulled all their troops out. I view with grave concern the lack of activity on the Soviet Union's part. Be advised that within 72 hours of delivery of this message to you by my ambassador, the United States will consider it a very grave matter of concern and will take necessary steps to help expedite the withdrawal of the Russian forces." Within 42 hours, the Russians were gone.

That was the first time the Russians tweaked our tail. The second time was in Greece. We helped stop the communist incursion in Greece and put down their civil war. So that didn't work. Then in 1950 the Soviets encouraged the North Koreans to cross the 38th Parallel so we had the Korean War. Who won? At least it was a stalemate and they didn't win. We ended up back at the 38 Parallel which is still holding. So you don't win these wars but you make it costly for the enemy and we did show the Soviet Union that we were willing to die 40,000 people's worth so they got the message.

That brings us to Vietnam in the latter days of the Eisenhower Administration. The advisors we sent over there after the French pulled out were all products of WWII. So we equipped and trained the South Vietnamese Army with American equipment and organized them in traditional units to repel an invasion across the 17th Parallel. We wanted them to fight the kind of war that we liked to fight. That is to stop a massive invasion of troops from the North. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese with their Chinese and Russian advisers decided not to do that. They decided to do an end run around the system by coming in and getting a civil war started via guerrilla operations in the south. We didn't acknowledge this tactic in the fifties.

In the meantime, in South Vietnam, village chiefs were being murdered, high schools teachers were being killed, villages were being intimidated, young men were being kidnapped and ladies were being raped. The Vietnamese Government under President Diem realized that the American's didn't understand the problem. Each province had a province chief with a small militia (paramilitary) guard to help him police his province. Diem said we need some regular army people to back these guys up. So we are going to take one company out of each Vietnamese regiment and train them as rangers like the American Army does. That is how I got involved. I was brought over to set up the Ranger program and give those province chiefs some support so they could patrol their little provinces and control the Vietcong activity. Kennedy liked that idea and felt that was the way we should go. That is the reason the Special Forces tripled and the Rangers came back.

When Johnson took over after Kennedy's assassination, he was pretty well stuck with the same philosophies because he had the same Secretary of Defense, as bad as he was. And the same Secretary of State and Director of the CIA so things continued on. They made a decision to bring the Special Forces in to set up the Vietnamese Special Forces. The idea being is to take the war to the guerrilla. Special Forces was formed in the United States in 1950.

Webmaster: How were the Special Forces set up?

Under the National Security Act of 1947 we split up the Air Force and the Army. OSS [Office of Strategic Services] was disbanded and the CIA was established. The OSS had two primary missions which consisted of intelligence gathering and supporting guerrilla activities against the Nazis. When they created the CIA, it was given the mission of intelligence only. The conduct of guerrilla warfare was taken out of the mix and given to the military to fulfill that mission. This was the beginning of the Special Forces. The headquarters of the Special Forces was set up at Fort Bragg and we created five or six groups oriented on different parts of the world. Now, if you train guerrillas, they should then be able then to train armies to fight guerrillas and that is what our Special Forces and Rangers did in Vietnam. We recruited indigenous personnel and taught them to respond to the Vietcong insurgency. This is what we were doing until 1966. Then the North Vietnamese starting coming down in regular military units and the nature of the war changed into a more traditional kind of conflict. This prompted the US to bring over large military forces to counter that effort. During this time, there still was guerrilla warfare going on in the south.

In 1971 we decided to get out of there so we turned the war back over to the Vietnamese. Some of the old Vietnamese I talk to said that we knew the Americans were going to pull out and leave us behind "when you started giving us the M-16 Rifle." Prior to that, we had not given them any good equipment. During the late 60's we did all the fighting using Vietnamese troops to guard the bridges and other secondary responsibilities. When Nixon started phasing down, they figured out real quick that we were going to leave.

At the end of the Vietnam war, my last job was to police up the battlefield and get what remains of downed pilots we could. I worked directly with the Pathet Lao.

Webmaster: When the Special Forces first formed, they did not wear the green beret. I understand it took presidential authorization to allow that?

Shortly after Kennedy's inauguration, he sent his senior military aide, General Pete Clifton, to discover the US military capability to respond to counter-insurgency warfare. Kennedy also told Clifton, "as the President and Commander-in-Chief, when I deploy an army division of troops, I want to be able to envision, more than just in my mind, how big a division is--just what 15,000 people look like." So in 1961 down at Fort Bragg we set up at Pope Air Force Base every member of the 82nd. Airborne squared off in a block--a mass of humanity like Hitler used to do during his speeches. We were under strength then in the 82nd by about 10% so we had to rob troops from Fort Campbell and put 82nd Division patches on them. One young soldier wrote a letter to the President that said, "Dear Mr. President, I want to tell you that someone is pulling the wool over your eyes when you stood down there at Fort Bragg and thought you were looking at the 82nd. I'm in the 101st. Airborne and they made me come down there and put on an 82nd Division patch and stand in line and I want you to know that wasn't honest." General Clifton showed me the letter and told me Kennedy thought that was the funniest thing in the world. He responded to the kid and thanked him for the letter. He said he had some indication that they had to round out the division.

Tom Henry

After Kennedy reviewed the "Division" he wanted to see missiles, artillery, tanks and the other hardware utilized by the army. He had been in the navy in WWII and wanted to better understand the Army. At the end of the day, General Clifton suggested that he may want to see an exercise in hand-to-hand combat with bayonet and knife. After all the sophisticated stuff has been used, it still gets down the eyeball to eyeball contact between soldiers. So we set up the hand-to-hand combat thing in a sawdust pit with bleachers next to the lake at Bragg. I brought my hand combat team from the Ranger Department at Fort Benning, Georgia because they are the most experienced people. We had to play like we were Special Forces even though we were Rangers. We had a general at Fort Bragg who was ahead of the Special Forces and he had been petitioning the army for permission to wear the green beret. During WWII, these types of units wore berets. The Brits and French wore them. The Chief of Staff and Army staff in Washington said absolutely not, we are not British or French. We are not going to have that kind of "crap" for American soldiers.

After we had this hand-to-hand combat demonstration the General from Fort Bragg could tell the timing was right. He had a green beret stuck in his hip pocket but wore a regular military cap. We all lined up along the sawdust pit and Kennedy was obviously very pleased. He said, "I've seen all the sophisticated stuff, tanks, artillery and now I've seen where the rubber meets the road and this is what I wanted to see. Is there anything I can do for you?"

The Army General standing there said, "Well, Sir I would like your approval for us to give them a distinguishing uniform to set them apart from their colleagues and I would like you to authorize them to wear the green beret."

Kennedy responded, "I think that is a great idea." He turned to the Chief of Staff and asked, "what do you think about that?"

The Chief of Staff answered, "Oh yes sir, I think it is a great idea."

From then on, we got to wear the green beret. Before that we were wearing them under the table. Subsequent to this, everyone got into the beret business. Now the Rangers wears a black beret, the Airborne wears a red beret so it is no longer distinctive and now everyone has them including the Air Force.

Webmaster: Near the end of your career, you got an assignment to design a force for counter-revolutionary activity. Tell me about it?

That was my last job. I was charged, along with General Kingston and Charlie Beckwith, with the responsibility of putting together a concept briefing to establish a special force called "Delta Force." This was under General dePuy who was the Army Commander of the Training and Doctrine Command. They wanted an Army unit that could fight terrorism on its own grounds--people who take down terrorists on an airplane or ship or an embassy or wherever. We took over the old stockade at Fort Bragg in the late 70's. I came out here to Los Angeles because they had a SWAT team there under Chief Davis of the LAPD. I was looking for state of the art body armor. I met this psychiatrist who screened individuals for SWAT. They [LAPD] didn't want any Rambos on the team. He gave me the name of a psychiatrist in Charleston who we ultimately used in our recruitment screening program. We had no trouble getting recruits but we turned down nine out of ten. We didn't want kooks. Charlie Beckwith took that concept that I got approval for and recruited the first batch of personnel and started their training. During this time, I retired.

Shortly thereafter our hostages were taken in Tehran. In response, Charlie took Delta Force over to Desert One and the thing went to Hell in a handbasket because President Carter ran the operation. Carter said, "I want you to go over and do this but I am going to run the operation. I want the Marines to have a piece of the action, I want the Navy to have a piece of the action, I want the Air Force to have a piece of the action and I want the Army to have a piece of the action." That is not the way you do it.

The conversation should go like this: "Mr. President, what do you want me to do?" He responds, "I want you to get those men out of there." You say, "OK, I'll call you when its over with."

Carter wanted to micromanage everything. That started the problem. We had Marine helicopters which were the wrong type for this mission. We had Marine pilots who were not trained to fly this kind of mission. The Air Force had the guys to do it with the "Jolly Green Giants" CH-53s but we didn't have them there because Carter wanted the Marines. The Marine helicopter was the "Stallion" which was the same basic airplane as the CH-53 but it didn't have the appropriate radar or re-fueling capability. Well the whole operation was a very ticklish operation in the first place. Charlie was going to land at Desert One, refuel his helicopters then move to Desert Two. Dick Meadows was going to rent a bunch a Hertz trucks and meet him there [Desert Two] and truck the 45 raiders into Tehran and the embassy on Roosevelt Street. The plan was to break in the gate, neutralize all the guards, seize the hostages, and then the helicopters were to land in the soccer field across the street. This was the field where I used to watch soccer games when I was US Army advisor to the Shah. From there, the helicopters were to take the hostages to another field where the C130 were to pick them up and take them to Cairo. It fell apart at the first point. See the problem is in a mission like this you have to determine just what equipment you need. You had to have nine helicopters so that you would not leave anyone behind. Helicopters are very temperamental so you need backups.

Those of us who plan these kind of missions understand the necessity of backups. Whatever the equipment, if you calculate that you need one, you go for two. If you need two, you go for four and so on. It is just like if we want to blow up a bridge and I calculate, using my formulas, that it will take four pounds of C3 to blow that beam, I use eight pounds. What Charlie and the planners told President Carter is that we have to have nine helicopters so lets go in with eighteen. Carter said, "No, that would look like we're invading if we bring in nineteen airframes rather than nine [including the C130].

Tom Henry

First of all, they aren't supposed to see us coming in to begin with. So after we lost three helicopters, we had to abort the mission. And we lost eight people when the plane blew up. What happened, the C130's had brought in these bladders of JP4 fuel for the choppers. The fuel is stored in bladders so you had to move the helicopters over to the bladder in order to pump fuel into the chopper tank. The Marines, instead of rolling over, moved in a low hover as they would on a carrier. They were airborne when this 50 knot wind hit them broadside and blew them into the bladder and everything caught fire.

This was such a fiasco that Congress held a hearing afterward and Senator Cohen who is now Secretary of Defense along with two other Congressmen called Charlie Beckwith in and Charlie gave them the story. Senator Cohen said this cannot happen again. What they did was to go to all the services and get them to agree and support a joint-coordinated operation among the services. As a result, we now have an organization called the Special Operations Command at McDill AFB which is made up of the Army Special Forces and Rangers, the Navy Seals and the Air Force Air Commandos. This group has its own budget and operates independently from the other services.

Webmaster: Thank you for your time and the service to our country.