The U.S. special operations community is packed with legendary commandos who have turned the tide of battles and even campaigns with their heroic actions. From World War Two, when the U.S. special operations community came into being in the form of the Rangers, Marine Raiders, and the men of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), to today’s battlefields in the Middle East and elsewhere, there have been numerous individuals who have distinguished themselves and impacted the evolution of the U.S. special operations community. But even within this elite group of war fighters, some rise to the top.
Major General John Singlaub is one of them. A legend in the U.S. special operations community, Major Gen. Singlaub’s career in special operations and covert action spanned three official conflicts and several other low-intensity (in terms of policy, not danger) ones.
One of the First American Commandos
Born in 1921, Singlaub joined the Army as a second lieutenant after his graduation from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1943. Energetic and tough, he picked the infantry. Soon after he was chosen for service with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a special operations and intelligence organization that is the direct precursor of both the Army Green Berets and the CIA.
The OSS conducted special operations, intelligence gathering, and covert action against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan around the world. OSS officers often operated undercover behind enemy lines, either preparing the operational environment for the Allies or subverting and sabotaging the Axis forces.
Singlaub, in specific, was assigned to a Jedburgh team. These teams parachuted behind enemy lines in Europe and Asia and worked with local resistance groups to prepare the way for incoming Allied troops. Jedburgh teams played a crucial role before and during the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944.
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But if discovered and caught, their fate was sealed, as the Germans would execute any Allied commando in their custody. Of course, that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for any military if they caught enemy soldiers without uniforms, but the Germans were notoriously cruel. The 2nd SS Panzer Division “Das Reich” razed two villages to the ground and killed hundreds of civilians because French resistance fighters had been delaying its movement from Southern France to Normandy following the D-Day invasion. That was the environment Singlaub and his comrades were operating in.
Singlaub’s team, codenamed “JAMES,” parachuted into France in August 1944. The Germans were still holding at that point, trying to contain the Allies in Northern France. Singlaub and his team worked with French Maquis and the French resistance, but danger was everywhere and ever present, as they were living and working behind enemy lines.
“Every day the Luftwaffe would come and bomb us. So I sent a message complaining about this and got an answer back a day later saying ‘according to you, you are receiving more air-attacks than the forces that landed in Normandy,’ Singlaub said in an awards presentation some years back.
“Which of course was true, because the forces that landed in Normandy, didn’t land until the Luftwaffe had been driven in to [sic] where we were.”
The men were successful and made the Allied breakout from Normandy and subsequent recapture of France easier.
Following the end of the war in Europe, Singlaub was sent to the Pacific theater to work against the Japanese. A few days before the war ended, Singlaub and a small team of OSS operatives parachuted in China to coordinate the rescue of Allied prisoners of war who had been languishing in Japanese captivity.
Soon after the war ended, the Office of Strategic Services disbanded, but Singlaub continued to serve in the newly established Strategic Services Unit. The fact that Singlaub was chosen for the new outfit speaks volumes about his capabilities and reputation in the community, as only a few OSS operatives were picked to continue serving.
With his experience in Asia and China, Singlaub remained in the country to monitor the trajectory of the Chinese Civil War between the nationalists and communists. In 1950 he returned to the U.S. and used his special operations experience to help establish the Ranger Training Center.
But soon he would once more be returning to Asia, a reoccurring theme in his career.
Special Operations In Korea
The Korean War brought many opportunities for special operations and covert action. The involvement of China in support of the North Korean communists meant that special operations and intelligence gathering units and organizations would be needed to counter the threat posed by Beijing, since the U.S. and the United Nations weren’t at war with China.
By that point, Singlaub was working with the newly established Central Intelligence Agency, which had inherited the Office of Strategic Service’s spirit and mission. In particular, he worked with the Joint Advisory Commission, Korea (JACK), in which he served as chief of staff and deputy commander.
After some initial poor results against the North Koreans and Chinese, Singlaub remarked that they had to keep trying despite their failures.
“The very presence of guerrilla units behind the lines, regardless of how long they lasted, disrupted their lines of communication and harassed the North Korean military,” he said. “Agents had to be inserted if tactical intelligence was to be collected. And, we [CIA] still had the covert E&E mission.”
In addition to his covert action missions with the intelligence community, Singlaub also commanded an infantry battalion. He completed two tours of duty in Korea.
His service in Korea against communism adumbrated what will be coming in his next war.
Vietnam: At the Pinnacle of Special Operations
For the U.S., the fight against the North Vietnamese and Vietcong had begun much earlier than the large-scale deployment of conventional troops in the southeastern Asian country in the mid-1960s. Army Special Forces advisors had already been working with the South Vietnamese forces and other locals since the start of the decade.
But in 1964 everything changed when the Pentagon decided to create a covert special operations organization. The innocuous-sounding Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observations Group (MACV-SOG) was anything but boring. Created to conduct covert cross-border operations in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and North Vietnam, MACV-SOG was composed of Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines, and Air Commandos who worked with indigenous forces. MACV-SOG also worked closely with the Intelligence Community, often running missions at the request of the CIA.
By the time the Vietnam War came around, Singlaub had advanced through the ranks and was now a colonel. He was chosen to command this covert organization from 1966 to 1968 as Chief SOG.
MACV-SOG’s primary focus was the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex stretching for hundreds of miles above ground and underground, from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong used the trail to fuel their fight in the south with men and materiel.
Small U.S. special operations recon and direct action teams targeted the trail complex and fought bitterly with the enemy. What was remarkable about MACV-SOG’s struggle was the fact that, officially speaking, no U.S. troops were present outside South Vietnam, with successive U.S. administrations denying the presence of American commandos in the nearby countries.
Meanwhile as Chief SOG, Singlaub was responsible for directing MACV-SOG’s covert operations in those very countries.
“Singlaub was very respected by the rank and file but also by the brass. General Westmoreland [commander of US troops in Vietnam between 1964 to 1968 and then Army Chief of Staff] respected him very much too. It wasn’t often that recon men would see him but he was nevertheless an outstanding leader of men,” John Stryker Meyer, a legendary Green Beret and SOG operator, told Sandboxx News.
An acclaimed writer, Meyer has written extensively about the men and battles of MACV-SOG throughout Southeast Asia.
Following his two-year tour as Chief SOG, Singlaub continued to serve and advance in the ranks, finally reaching major general and becoming the chief of staff of U.S. forces in Korea. He finally retired in 1978, after publicly criticizing President Jimmy Carter. His mark on U.S. special operations community never left, though, and he continued to advise and support special operations and covert action programs, notably the Contras in Nicaragua.
“[Major General Singlaub is one of] America’s great warriors who served in special operations in World War II, the Korean War, was a leader of MACV-SOG for more than two years in the Vietnam war and continued to serve our country in many other battles against communism,” Meyer said on Singlaub’s 100 birthday.
Singlaub’s awards include the Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Air Medal, and the Bronze Star. The United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) established the MG John K. Singlaub/Jedburgh Award to recognize exceptional members of the Army special operations community. In 2011, Singlaub received the prestigious SOCOM Bull Simons Award for his exceptional service in special operations.
In July, Singlaub turned 100-years-old but is still present and strong as a horse, people around him told Sandboxx News.