Physically, he was the smallest man in the American Legion hall, stooped under the weight of bronze medals and rows of pinned ribbons.
But he was a hero to every man in the room. Retired Col. Aaron Bank, founder of the Green Berets, turned 100 on Saturday, and nearly 200 Army Special Forces soldiers and their families turned out Sunday at American Legion Post 291 in Newport Beach to celebrate.
"He's the one you look up to. He's the icon," said Mike Johnston, a retired Army captain from Newport Beach who helped organize the event. "Any warrior would be proud to do just one of the things he did. To start at 38, that alone is amazing."
Bank, who grew up speaking three languages in New York City, enlisted in the military in 1940. Considered too old for the regular Army, he volunteered for the Office of Special Services.
In 1944, he went AWOL from a hospital in Algiers and parachuted behind German lines to aid the French Resistance. He led a mission to capture Adolf Hitler that was aborted after reports that the Nazi leader had killed himself. Later, Bank rescued prisoners of war in Indochina and conversed with Ho Chi Minh.
In 1951, he helped the Army form the elite Green Beret unit and was its first commander. "He was the father of the Green Berets, which grew from a military afterthought to a separate unit," read a plaque presented by Congress.
Proclamations, letters from governors and generals, and other accolades were read Sunday. There were two giant cakes decorated with green berets.
Bank returned the adulation of the audience, saying, "Special Forces, because of their mission, attracts the finest type of young American.... I adored the men below me. I always tried to be fair to them."