Making it into the paratroops was a challenge. Training was as tough as
anything any other units conducted. Men worked from pre-dawn till
late into the evening. Exhaustion, inability to meet physical
fitness standards, lack of motivation, and a plethora of injuries
washed most of the volunteers from the program. In those early days,
safety was considered secondary to proficiency, experimentation was
the watchword of the day, and training fatalities were much higher
than they are today. Cynical, fatalistic paratroop songs such as the
famous Blood on the Risers, with its refrain of “gory, gory,
what a helluva way to die!” became the anthem of the Airborne. Those
few who graduated won the right to tuck their uniform trousers into
their paratrooper boots and pin on the coveted jump wings. Both
items, by the way, were designed by Bill Yarborough.
While most Americans are familiar with the massive paratroop
drops associated with the Normandy invasion few are aware of the
many jumps made in the Pacific and the early use of the Airborne in
the North Africa campaign. In one of the first jumps in Europe,
Yarborough was attached to the 507th Parachute Infantry
(“Geronimo”) commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edson Raff. Based in
England, Yarborough helped conceive a drop into Tunisia that would
be the first major American paratroop deployment of the war. John
Duvall, director of the Airborne and Special Warfare Museum in
Fayetteville, NC, credits Yarborough with operational conception.
“That jump had Yarborough’s fingerprints all over it,” Duvall
says. Unlike most headquarters-bound staff officers, Yarborough
formulated the operational plan and then volunteered to accompany
the attack as an “observer.” It would have been tough to keep
Yarborough out of that operation without tying him up.
Yarborough was a gutsy combat leader, an indefatigable planner,
and a rare military visionary. One of the more famous stories
involving Yarborough came in the early 1960s, when he was a
three-star general in change of the newly forming Special Forces at
Ft. Bragg. In those days the whole concept of Special Forces was
still a tough sell, particularly to the more conservative,
traditional Army leadership who viewed elite units with suspicion.
Some, like chief of staff of the Army General Johnson, commented
that it was “inefficient to have that much talent aggregated into
one unit,” and that the Army would be better served by “distributing
the men among the regular Army.”
From almost the earliest days of Special Forces there was a
desire to enhance what some saw as a declining sense of esprit de
corps in the post-Korean War army. Colonel Raff, now commanding the
77th Special Forces group pushed for a new headgear --
the Green Beret -- as a tribute to the unique nature of Special
Forces. Simultaneously the 82nd Airborne Division was
attempting to have a red beret authorized for the paratroop units.
Department of Army turned down both requests. For several years the
Beret was exiled to Special Forces groups in Germany and Okinawa who
wore it without authorization.
When Bill Yarborough took command of the expanding Special
Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in early 1960 he had his soldiers wear
the Beret. Following the presidential election of 1960 an advisor to
the new President John F. Kennedy, General Maxwell Taylor, a
decorated combat Airborne commander, urged the new president to
visit Ft. Bragg to learn what the paratroops were capable of doing.
Prior to the visit, word came to Yarborough from the White House:
have your troops dressed in the Green Beret for the president’s
However, Yarborough had been ordered by the XVIIIth Airborne
Corps commander, a 3 star, and Chief of Staff of the Army, a 4 star
(both of whom were his superiors) not to have the troops in beret.
In defiance of policy directives, Yarborough had the troops standing
proudly, wearing their Berets. After an impressive series of
demonstrations JFK asked Yarborough, “How do your men like those
“They like them just fine, Sir,” Yarborough replied.
“Wear them with pride,” said the President. That took care of
objections to the Beret from anyone lower in the chain of command
than the Commander in Chief. Not long after that famous October
1961meeting, Kennedy issued a statement that spoke of the Green
Beret as “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, and a mark of
distinction, in the fight for freedom.” Since his assassination and
internment at Arlington National Cemetery, a Green Beret has rested
on JFK’s gravesite. Years later, Yarborough participated in
ceremonies presenting a Green Beret at the Kennedy Presidential
General Bill Yarborough was a quintessential American soldier:
smart, courageous, innovative, and daring. He had a significant part
in American military history that deserves to be remembered and
Gordon Cucullu is a former Green Beret lieutenant colonel and
Separated at Birth: How North Korea became the Evil Twin.