U.S. Special Ops: A History of Excellence

Special Ops Teams are three things above all: dead accurate, lethal and all-but-silent. They are the military's elite—highly trained badasses armed with bullets and brains in equal measure. TECH. SGT. DENORIS MICKLE/U.S. AIR FORCE

Newsweek honors American veterans everywhere by exploring the history of the U.S. Special Operations Command. This article, a timeline of major events in SOCOM's history, is excerpted from a Newsweek Special Edition, Special Ops.

Special Ops teams are three things above all: dead accurate, lethal and all-but-silent. They are the military's elite—highly trained badasses armed wtih bullets and brains in equal measure. The U.S. Special Operations Command, or SOCOM, maximizes the counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, stealth assault and sabotage skills of units under its purview, which include the NAVY Seals and Green Berets. And even more, Special Ops quietly get the military's toughest jobs done outside the SOCOM umbrella—including Force Recon and the Coast Guard's maritime security patrol—adding more covert reconnaissance, guerrilla tactics and targeted strikes to America's military arsenal. Special Operatives work almost entirely in the shadows, and the training they endure and battles they fight often remain there.

JUNE 8, 1942

William Orlando Darby is charged with leading the 1st Ranger Battalion. Darby's Rangers, as well as Frank Merrill's Marauders—a jungle operations unit officially named the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)—Russell Volkmann's troops and the Devil's Brigade, an elite American-Canadian commando unit, all hammer Axis powers with guerrilla tactics during World War II.

JUNE 6, 1944

Pointe du Hoc in Normandy is target No. 1 for Americans to neutralize on D-Day. Army Rangers arrive late and short on men, food and ammunition due to a navigation error. Despite the odds against them, the Rangers accomplish their mission in two hours.

JANUARY 30, 1945

When the U.S. 6th Army Special Reconnaissance Unit, called the Alamo Scouts, execute a raid on Cabanatuan POW Camp in Luzon, Philippines, they rescue the POWs in less than 15 minutes.

JULY 1, 1947

The Air Force authorizes the first official Pararescue teams.


Army Ranger training begins at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Related: Army Rangers—Of Their Own Accord

JUNE 20, 1952

The 10th Special Forces Group is activated at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. On October 12, 1961, John F. Kennedy approves their signature headgear: a green beret.

JUNE 19, 1957

The Marine Corps officially activates Force Recon.

APRIL 14, 1961

The Air Force Tactical Air Command establishes the 4400th Combat Crew Training Squadron to fly operations against guerrillas. Known by the nickname "Jungle Jim," the unit marks the beginning of modern U.S. Air Force Special Operations.

JANUARY 1, 1962

Navy SEALs are officially established.

JANUARY 30, 1968

The TET Offensive begins. Navy SEALs are used for espionage and to destroy specific enemy targets.

Related: Navy SEALs: The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday

APRIL 19, 1968

In one of the most daring long- range penetration operations of the Vietnam War, the Army Rangers seize "Signal Hill."

NOVEMBER 21, 1970

During Operation Ivory Coast, the Son Tay POW camp is captured by Green Berets. The estimated 70 to 100 American POWs who had been held there had been moved, but the raid is considered a huge tactical success and sends a message to the North Vietnamese that the U.S. is capable of inserting a combat force undetected only miles from their capital.

APRIL 2, 1972

Lt. Col. Iceal "Gene" Hambleton is shot down while flying an EB-66C reconnaissance airplane. The search-and-rescue mission, conducted by SEALs and named BAT 21 Down, is the largest and longest of the Vietnam War.


The Army's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment Delta, aka Delta Force, is formed under Col. Charles Beckwith.

Related: Delta Force: Speed, Surprise and Violence of Action

APRIL 24, 1980

Operation Eagle Claw—an Iranian hostage rescue attempt—is unsuccessful because of overly ambitious planning but spurs military reforms. Joint Special Operations Command is established later that year to ensure operatives are working together and standardizing training and equipment.

OCTOBER 16, 1981

The Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, called Night Stalkers, is officially recognized.


The United States invades Grenada and overthrows the leaders Cuba has installed there. Called Operation Urgent Fury, it combines the efforts of Navy SEALs and Delta Force.

APRIL 16, 1987

Congress tasks the Pentagon with creating a Special Operations Command (SOCOM) to control inter- service coordination.

August 1987- June 1989

During Operation Prime Chance, Night Stalkers man MH-6 helicopters to search for Iranian forces who are laying mines and attacking ships with gunboats in the Persian Gulf.

DECEMBER 20, 1989

Operation Just Cause and Operation Nifty Package combine the efforts of Navy SEALs, SEAL Team 6, Delta Force and Army Rangers to invade Panama with the goal of bringing its president, Manuel Noriega, to justice for drug trafficking. Noriega surrenders on January 3, 1990, and is convicted.

MAY 22, 1990

Gen. Larry D. Welch, Air Force Chief of Staff, redesignates the 23rd Air Force as Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

Related: Air Force Special Operations Command: Anytime, Anywhere

JANUARY 17, 1991

Operation Desert Storm begins. During the Gulf War, Delta Force operatives slip hundreds of miles into Iraq, acquiring Iraqi Scud missiles as targets for American fighter jets.

OCTOBER 3, 1993

During Operation Gothic Serpent, a Special Ops team is sent into Mogadishu, Somalia, to arrest two top lieutenants of the warlord Mohammed Aidid. Two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down.

OCTOBER 19, 2001

Led by the 75th Ranger Regiment and the 101st Airborne Division, Operation Rhino's objectives are to seize an Afghan landing strip, dismantle Taliban forces, gather intel and destroy weapons and utilities.

NOVEMBER 25, 2002

The Department of Homeland Security is established. The Coast Guard is folded in and forms specialized port and maritime security teams.

MARCH 28–30, 2003

During Operation Viking Hammer, groups of Green Berets and Kurds siege the mountaintop positions of Ansar Al-Islam and eradicate them and then join other Berets to attack Iraqi forces. They push the enemy back to the Iranian border, liberating several towns.

APRIL 1, 2003

Jessica Lynch, a U.S. Army clerk taken prisoner for nine days in Iraq, is rescued by Special Operations forces during a night raid in the hospital where she is being held.

DECEMBER 13, 2003

In Operation Red Dawn, Delta Force operatives capture deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein who was hiding in a spider hole.

JUNE 8, 2004

When a group of foreign workers, including Jessica Buchanan, are kidnapped in Baghdad by Iraqi criminals, Delta Force is deployed to rescue them. Catching the kidnappers by surprise, the rescuers meet with no resistance.

JUNE 28, 2005

In Afghanistan, a four-man SEAL patrol—on a mission called Operation Redwing to kill or capture a high ranking Taliban leader—is attacked by a large Taliban force after a group of goatherds compromises their position. Only one of the four survives.

FEBRUARY 24, 2006

The Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, or MARSOC, is activated at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.

OCTOBER 27, 2008

A fleet of Night Stalker choppers carry SEAL Team 6 on a snatch-and-grab mission targeting Abu Ghadiya, an al Qaeda commander who had been smuggling guns and money—as well as dozens of terrorists—into Iraq.

APRIL 12, 2009

SEAL Team 6 rescue captain Richard Phillips unharmed from the Maersk Alabama after a five-day standoff between the U.S. Navy and Somalian pirates in the Indian Ocean.

MARCH 19–31, 2011

Operation Unified Protector implements a no-fly zone during the Libyan civil war to prevent government forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi from carrying out air attacks.

MAY 2, 2011

Operating under the code name Neptune Spear, SEAL Team 6 successfully kills Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

This article is appears in Newsweek's Special Edition, Special Ops, by Issue Editor Johnna Rizzo.

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