America lost a good one this month. Retired US Army Lieutenant General William Yarborough, 93, passed away. Bill Yarborough was a veteran of three wars: WW II, Korea, and Vietnam. He was a highly decorated paratrooper and is considered by many one of the most imaginative, innovative combat leaders that America has ever produced. Yarborough came of age at the defining moment of the 20th century, the onset of the Second World War.
Hitler’s army used large-scale paratroop drops for the first time in history. Washington agreed that America desperately needed a similar capability. Yarborough volunteered for the Army’s airborne test unit at Ft. Benning, GA. From the onset he began to put his mark on the new unit. Over time he designed the paratrooper uniform and an eponymous knife. Most importantly, he helped formulate the tactics and strategy that came with this remarkable new unit.
Many of the early members of the Airborne are justifiably famous in American military lore. They were a tough, capable, colorful group — the kinds of men that one would expect to be drawn into a profession where they expected to be scattered behind enemy lines and completely surrounded before combat began. Among WWII paratroopers it was commonly assumed that 80-90% casualties would be the norm and that few would survive the war. Yet soldiers volunteered by the thousands and trainers made it extraordinarily difficult for even a percentage of those volunteers to pass the tough initiation. Universally, the comments from the time were that “if I have to go into combat, I want to have the best fighting men beside me,” as primary motivation for joining. The extra $55 per month of jump pay, almost doubling a private’s meager pay, didn’t hurt either.
Making it into the paratroops was a challenge. Training was as tough as anything any other units conducted. Men worked from pre-dawn till late into the evening. Exhaustion, inability to meet physical fitness standards, lack of motivation, and a plethora of injuries washed most of the volunteers from the program. In those early days, safety was considered secondary to proficiency, experimentation was the watchword of the day, and training fatalities were much higher than they are today. Cynical, fatalistic paratroop songs such as the famous Blood on the Risers, with its refrain of “gory, gory, what a helluva way to die!” became the anthem of the Airborne. Those few who graduated won the right to tuck their uniform trousers into their paratrooper boots and pin on the coveted jump wings. Both items, by the way, were designed by Bill Yarborough.
While most Americans are familiar with the massive paratroop drops associated with the Normandy invasion few are aware of the many jumps made in the Pacific and the early use of the Airborne in the North Africa campaign. In one of the first jumps in Europe, Yarborough was attached to the 507th Parachute Infantry (“Geronimo”) commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edson Raff. Based in England, Yarborough helped conceive a drop into Tunisia that would be the first major American paratroop deployment of the war. John Duvall, director of the Airborne and Special Warfare Museum in Fayetteville, NC, credits Yarborough with operational conception.
“That jump had Yarborough’s fingerprints all over it,” Duvall says. Unlike most headquarters-bound staff officers, Yarborough formulated the operational plan and then volunteered to accompany the attack as an “observer.” It would have been tough to keep Yarborough out of that operation without tying him up.
Yarborough was a gutsy combat leader, an indefatigable planner, and a rare military visionary. One of the more famous stories involving Yarborough came in the early 1960s, when he was a three-star general in change of the newly forming Special Forces at Ft. Bragg. In those days the whole concept of Special Forces was still a tough sell, particularly to the more conservative, traditional Army leadership who viewed elite units with suspicion. Some, like chief of staff of the Army General Johnson, commented that it was “inefficient to have that much talent aggregated into one unit,” and that the Army would be better served by “distributing the men among the regular Army.”
From almost the earliest days of Special Forces there was a desire to enhance what some saw as a declining sense of esprit de corps in the post-Korean War army. Colonel Raff, now commanding the 77th Special Forces group pushed for a new headgear — the Green Beret — as a tribute to the unique nature of Special Forces. Simultaneously the 82nd Airborne Division was attempting to have a red beret authorized for the paratroop units. Department of Army turned down both requests. For several years the Beret was exiled to Special Forces groups in Germany and Okinawa who wore it without authorization.
When Bill Yarborough took command of the expanding Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in early 1960 he had his soldiers wear the Beret. Following the presidential election of 1960 an advisor to the new President John F. Kennedy, General Maxwell Taylor, a decorated combat Airborne commander, urged the new president to visit Ft. Bragg to learn what the paratroops were capable of doing. Prior to the visit, word came to Yarborough from the White House: have your troops dressed in the Green Beret for the president’s visit.
However, Yarborough had been ordered by the XVIIIth Airborne Corps commander, a 3 star, and Chief of Staff of the Army, a 4 star (both of whom were his superiors) not to have the troops in beret. In defiance of policy directives, Yarborough had the troops standing proudly, wearing their Berets. After an impressive series of demonstrations JFK asked Yarborough, “How do your men like those Berets?”
“They like them just fine, Sir,” Yarborough replied.
“Wear them with pride,” said the President. That took care of objections to the Beret from anyone lower in the chain of command than the Commander in Chief. Not long after that famous October 1961meeting, Kennedy issued a statement that spoke of the Green Beret as “a symbol of excellence, a badge of courage, and a mark of distinction, in the fight for freedom.” Since his assassination and internment at Arlington National Cemetery, a Green Beret has rested on JFK’s gravesite. Years later, Yarborough participated in ceremonies presenting a Green Beret at the Kennedy Presidential Library.
General Bill Yarborough was a quintessential American soldier: smart, courageous, innovative, and daring. He had a significant part in American military history that deserves to be remembered and cherished.