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A Combat First:

Army SF Soldiers in Korea, 1953-1955

Part 1

By Kenneth Finlayson
From the ARSOF publication, Veritas, Vol. 9, No. 1, 2013

The Korean War is noteworthy in Army history for the first use of Army Special Forces (SF) soldiers in a combat theater. In 1953, ninety-nine graduates from the first two Special Forces Qualification Course classes deployed to Korea as individual replacements. Working alongside their conventional Army counterparts, they performed a variety of missions associated with the training and employment of guerrilla forces. Two, Second Lieutenant (2LT) Ivan M. Castro and Captain (CPT) Douglas W. Payne, paid the ultimate price for their service and were the first SF soldiers to die in combat. Some of the SF men remained in Korea until 1955, nearly two years after the signing of the Armistice. This article documents the experience of the SF soldiers who trained, advised, and ultimately demobilized the guerrillas.1

The Korean War (1950-1953) ended in a negotiated ceasefire with the armies of North Korea and Communist China opposing the forces of South Korea, the United States and the United Nations coalition along the 38th Parallel. The first year of fast-paced, fluid, ground combat up and down the Korean peninsula was followed by a gradual stalemate as the armies of both sides hardened their defensive positions and jockeyed for control of key terrain along the Main Line of Resistance (MLR).2 While the conventional war ground to a halt, unconventional warfare (UW) operations continued on both coasts.

Far East Command (FEC) began to develop an UW capability in early 1951 by taking advantage of the large numbers of anti-Communist North Korean guerrillas on the northwest islands of Korea. This led to the formation of the Attrition Section, Miscellaneous Division, G-3, Eighth U.S. Army (EUSA) on 15 January 1951.3 The guerrilla unit went through a dizzying series of name changes and command relationships; from the Attrition Section, EUSA G-3, to the Miscellaneous Group, 8086th Army Unit (AU), EUSA on 5 May 1951; then to the Guerrilla Section under the FEC/Liaison Group (FEC/LG) (in Tokyo) and the FEC/Liaison Detachment, Korea (FEC/LD[K]) (in Taegu). On 10 December 1951 the section was renamed the 8240th Army Unit, FEC G-2. Ultimately it came under the operational control of the Combined Command for Reconnaissance Activities, Korea (CCRAK), 8242nd AU on 27 September 1952.4 Throughout these many permutations, the focus remained on the guerrillas.

In 1953 the LEOPARD and WOLFPACK units were reorganized into Partisan Infantry Regiments. American advisors worked with the guerrilla chain-of-command at the regiment down to the guerrilla companies. (U.S. Army)

A guerrilla formation. Both LEOPARD BASE and WOLFPACK organizations were supplied and equipped by the U.S. The level of support depended on the unit strength, a number that often varied widely from one day to the next. (U.S. Army)

On 15 January 1953, another unit was formed, the Recovery Command, 8007th AU. The 8007th also used guerrillas to collect information related to UN prisoners of war and gather general combat intelligence. Like the guerrilla command, the Recovery Command fell under the staff supervision of the FEC G-2. In September, 1953 it became the 8112th Army Unit.5 Most of these changes reflected attempts to create a theater-level command to direct UW operations, but had little effect on the basic mission of the guerrillas and the American advisors who trained, supplied and employed them. As the war progressed, the requirements for support grew.

The mission of the guerrilla command, as defined in the Table of Distribution was twofold. The first was: “to develop and direct partisan warfare by training in sabotage indigenous groups and individuals both within Allied lines and behind enemy lines,” and second; “to supply partisan groups and agents operating behind enemy lines by means of water and air transportation.”6 To accomplish these missions, in early 1952 the guerrilla command divided into two elements for operations and support.

Ultimately, three sub-commands controlled guerrilla operations; initially LEOPARD BASE and later WOLFPACK on the West Coast, and Task Force (TF) KIRKLAND on the East Coast. The support element, BAKER Section, was initially located at the EUSA Ranger Training School at Kijang near Pusan, and used C-46s and C-47s to support airborne training and to conduct aerial resupply and agent insertions. BAKER Section later moved to K-16 Airfield outside Seoul, after the capital was retaken a second time.7

On the west coast, LEOPARD BASE, originally called WILLIAM ABLE BASE, was located on Paengny?ng-do.8 Formed in February 1951, it supported roughly twelve thousand men organized into fifteen units referred to as numbered Donkeys. The LEOPARD area of operations was generally above the 38th Parallel to the west of the Ongjin Peninsula, reaching as far north as Taehwa-do near the mouth of the Yalu River that formed the Chinese- North Korean border.9 Eight Donkeys were located on Cho-do and the remaining seven on other islands. An advisor to Donkey 1, Sergeant (SGT) Alex R. Lizardo’s experience was typical.

Enlisting in July 1951, Alex Lizardo attended Infantry Basic Training at Fort Ord, California and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Promoted to Sergeant (SGT) within eleven months of enlisting, he was sent to the FEC/LD (K). Arriving in June 1952, SGT Lizardo remained there for the next six months. After returning to Camp Drake, Japan for additional training, he was assigned to LEOPARD in November 1952 to be an advisor to Donkey 1.10

“Donkey 1 was out on Kirin-do. We Americans did not usually accompany the raiding parties on-shore,” recounted SGT Lizardo. “I was not a school-trained Special Forces guy, but I was later awarded the SF Tab [and Combat Infantryman’s Badge] for my time in 8240.”11 His assignment to LEOPARD coincided with the height of guerrilla activity. LEOPARD had been operational a year when the third guerrilla element, WOLFPACK, was organized (January 1952).

Origins of the term ‘Donkeys’

The origins of the term ‘Donkey’ for identifying West Coast guerrilla units are unclear, but its use began early at WILLIAM ABLE Base. One probable origination is related to COL McGee’s first speech to the guerrilla leaders on Paengnyong-do. In that meeting he advised them to not be rash, but instead “behave like the mule which [when entangled in wire] stubbornly, patiently awaits the arrival of outside help.” His interpreter substituted the more familiar ‘donkey’ for mule, and the name apparently stuck. Another possible origin was put forward by an early Donkey leader who stated “the generator of the [AN/GRC-9] radio looked like a Korean donkey or ass. When you crank the generator…you have to ride on the generator which looks like a rider on the back of a donkey.” Regardless of how the term originated, individual guerrilla units began referring to themselves after McGee’s visit as ‘Donkeys.’ Units became identified as a numbered ‘Donkey’ (example: ‘Donkey 6’).

“Darragh Letter,” 13; “UN Partisan Forces,” 93-94; see also Kenneth Finlayson, “Wolfpacks and Donkeys: Special Forces Soldiers in the Korean War,” Veritas 3, No. 3 (2007), 32-40.