If life were like fiction, retired Army Col. Aaron Bank of San Clemente--who's known as the father of the Green Berets--would be the leading character in one of the most dramatic stories of the 20th Century.
The time: 1945, the final months of the war in Europe. The setting: a large country estate outside Paris where the American Office of Strategic Services has assembled a company-sized unit of German defectors, mostly POWs, for training in unconventional warfare tactics.
Outfitted in German uniforms with enemy weapons, documents and explosives, the 150 men will parachute into the Inn Valley region of the Austrian Alps, where Allied intelligence indicates top Nazi leaders will take refuge with black-shirted SS storm troopers serving as their defense.
A Daring Mission
The mission--described as the most daring European operation to be attempted by the OSS--is called Iron Cross. And Bank is the Army captain assigned to command the top-secret unit.
While posing as a German mountain infantry company, the American-led unit will conduct ambushes, raids, sabotage and other guerrilla actions against the enemy. The unit's ultimate objective, however, is more ambitious: to capture high-ranking Nazi leaders and--if at all possible-- der Fuehrer himself.
But real life, alas, seldom lives up to fictional standards.
Iron Cross, to Bank's lifelong regret, was aborted at the last minute because of bad weather over the Austrian Alps. A few days later the American 7th Army moved into the Inn Valley and the mission was scratched altogether. (Adolf Hitler, as it turned out, was in Berlin anyway.)
"Iron Cross was the best mission I had and the mission that had a tremendous potential," Bank says. "Had that gone through and had it been successful, the war would have been over overnight."
The Iron Cross mission is just one of the colorful incidents in Bank's recently published nonfiction book, "From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces" (Presidio Press: $16.95).
Written as a first-person narrative, the book offers a detailed account of Bank's involvement with the OSS, the government agency organized during World War II to gather intelligence and organize resistance and guerrilla forces behind enemy lines.
During the war, Bank was involved in the OSS' large-scale Jedburgh Mission, an operation in which dozens of three-man teams parachuted into occupied France, Belgium and the Netherlands prior to D-Day and organized local civilian forces in conducting guerrilla attacks against the Germans. After the aborted Iron Cross mission, Bank was sent to the jungles of Indochina to search for Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.
The OSS was disbanded in 1946. But based on the agency's success, Bank and others were convinced the Army should have a permanent unit whose wartime mission is to conduct unconventional warfare. In the early '50s, as the book recounts, Bank and another guerrilla warfare veteran, Lt. Col. Russell Volckmann, fought--and won--what Bank wryly refers to as "the battle of the Pentagon" to get approval for the establishment of an elite special forces unit.
In 1952, Bank organized and served as the first commander of the Special Forces unit, whose members would later become known for their distinctive headgear, the green beret.
Since the Special Forces were founded nearly 35 years ago, many of the key figures involved have died, including Volckmann who, as Bank says, was "the only other one really who could tell the story."
That explains why Bank finally sat down to write the book in 1985--at the age of 83.
'Last of the Mohicans'
"People kept telling me I should write it, that it's a story that's going to die because I'm about the last of the Mohicans that had anything to do with it all the way from World War II," Bank said in an interview at his home in San Clemente.
It took Bank about a year to complete the manuscript, which he wrote in longhand evenings and on weekends. Catherine, his Luxembourg-born wife of 38 years, typed it and handled the spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Bank said he could have written the book faster if he had had the time. Indeed, although he retired from the Army in 1958, the colonel has not been goldbricking. For the past 15 years, he has worked full-time as chief of security at a private oceanfront community in Capistrano Beach. Says Bank: "It's good therapy for me--it keeps me outdoors, active and alert, and it's exciting sometimes."
Although he abandoned his daily swim around the San Clemente pier when he was 74 ("I got fed up with that icy water in the winter"), the old soldier is still fit and vigorous. Bank, who became a grandfather for the first time last year (he has two daughters in their 30s), works out regularly on a rowing machine for 30 minutes, takes brisk half-hour walks and maintains his lifelong diet regimen in which he shuns "fats of any kind and loads up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains."
'The Only Thing You Own'