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Lucien Conein, Legendary OSS, Special Forces and CIA Officer - Forgotten by the USASOC History Office?

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Lucien Conein, Legendary OSS, Special Forces and CIA Officer - Forgotten by the USASOC History Office?

Jelle Hooiveld

The USASOC History Office caused quite a stir in the US Special Forces and Intelligence community with its eyebrow-raising article about OSS influence on Special Forces, published in Veritas in 2018[i]. Troy Sacquety, author of this article, concluded that “a grossly disproportionate share of the pioneering influence” was incorrectly attributed to the OSS veterans who joined early Special Forces[ii]. Sacquety also noted - in no uncertain terms - that this erroneous conferment was the result of “disinformation and exaggeration by the active force and veteran associations”[iii].

Sacquety’s research methodology was simple: by-name comparisons between the list of OSS personnel, against the rosters of personnel assigned between 1952 and 1954 to the SF Department at the Psychological Warfare Center and School (PWCS), the 10th Special Forces Group (SFG); officers assigned to the 77th SFG; and 99 SF-trained personnel sent to serve in Korea. The data revealed that only fourteen former OSS members were part of the early Special Forces (SF). Sacquety subsequently remarks that “the total number of former OSS veterans in SF was less than one percent of the total of 1,169 SF soldiers”[iv].

David S. Maxwell, a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel, responded in Small Wars Journal by noting that rather than only assess the numbers of OSS members in early SF, USASOC History Office would “do a great service by reminding readers that today’s SF assessment and selection, organization (especially the ODA), training, doctrine, and most important the foundational mission of SF, unconventional warfare, are directly related to and descended from the OSS”[v]. Maxwell was also right in remarking that USASOC History Office undermined its own argument by emphasizing that the five former OSS instructors (identified in the Veritas’ article), were the ones “who provided the most influence from their OSS experiences on the developing force”[vi]. Finally, Maxwell adds that there were at least fifteen - not fourteen - former OSS who served in SF from 1952 to 1954: USASOC History Office's list failed to include Robert McDowell, who served with the OSS in Yugoslavia.

One could argue about Sacquety’s conclusion whether OSS influence on SF is exaggerated or not, his quantitative analysis of the number of OSS veterans in early SF is interesting. However, what exactly constitutes “early SF”? Why did Sacquety’s limit the time period to 1952-1954? What if he had included 1955, 1956, or the late fifties - when SF was still in its “pioneering” phase? Would this have led to different research findings? The answer is “yes”.

One example of an OSS veteran who joined SF in 1956 - and is thus not included in the Veritas’ article - is the legendary CIA officer Lucien Conein. When Conein passed in 1998, major newspapers, worldwide, devoted obituaries. The Washington Post even included a photo of Conein - wearing a beret with an SF flash[vii]. Who was this Conein and what was his contribution to early SF?

Lucien Emile Conein was born on 29 November 1919 in Paris. He grew up in Kansas city, having been sent there at age five by his widowed mother to be raised by his World War I-bride aunt [viii]. He joined the U.S. army in 1939 but transferred to the French army - Conein had retained his French citizenship - at the outbreak of WW2. After the fall of France, he returned to the US and became part of the 143rd Field Artillery Regiment[ix]. In the spring and summer of 1943, Conein went through Officer Candidate School at Ft. Benning. In October that year, he volunteered for service with the OSS. Conein became a Jedburgh officer and was parachuted in occupied France in the late summer of 1944[x]. After VE-Day, Conein was sent to French Indochina by the OSS and fought with guerrillas against Japanese forces[xi].

In 1946 and 1947, Conein served in several (counter-)intelligence units but was eventually transferred to the CIA in 1948. Conein retained his military rank and position as a cover[xii]. In the early fifties, Conein was assigned to the Saigon Military Mission, which was headed by the renowned CIA officer Edward Lansdale - another former OSS officer[xiii]. Among other things, Conein formed stay-behind groups that were to become operational when the Viet Minh would take over[xiv]. In 1955, Conein returned stateside and served briefly in Washington. On 6 November 1956, the CIA officer was suddenly transferred to the 77th Special Forces, where he would stay until May 1959[xv].

How did Conein, as a fulltime CIA officer, suddenly wind up with the 77th Special Forces Group? Conein himself clarified [xvi]:

“I had been on detail to the OSS and the SSU, CIG, and CIA since 1943, and there it was 1956. I had not had troop duty in the proper sense, so the Army informed me that if I wanted to get promoted from a major that I had to go back to school and I had to go and take troop duty. So in typical Army fashion they wanted me to get away from everything that has to do with the CIA or anything like a special operations or anything like that. I’ll be darned. My orders came up, I had to go to down and take the advanced course at Fort Benning, which I had not taken. Then I was assigned to the 77th Special Forces Group. I said “What?”. They got me out of what I’m doing so that I wouldn’t do this anymore and do strictly military and here I’m going to play hide the weinie [sic] with troops with green beanies on their heads”.

According to the Veritas’ article ‘Training the Trainers’ (2009) Conein was one of four senior officers who was recruited by SF in the second half of the fifties “to get the 77th SFG up to the standard”[xvii]. Experienced officers were needed because the Special Forces “could not perform their primary wartime mission”[xviii]. Conein, together with his new colleagues, was to “add impetus to a soon to be established accelerated training program”[xix].

Major Conein soon acted as project officer of the Basic Free Fall Parachuting Course and became the first officer in charge of Military Free Fall training within the Special Warfare Center[xx]. In 1958, Conein became Commanding Officer of Detachment FC-2[xxi]. Later that year, he commanded Detachment FC-1. Conein’s last duty in Fort Bragg was Assistant Group Executive Officer for HQ Company 77th Special Forces Group[xxii]. Later, Conein returned to Vietnam for the CIA - now in the rank of lieutenant colonel - and was appointed by Henry Cabot Lodge (President Kennedy's ambassador to Vietnam) as liaison with the generals that plotted the coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem[xxiii]. Conein retired from the CIA in 1968 and ended his career with the Drug Enforcement Agency[xxiv].

The above has shown that Lucien Conein - former OSS officer - was a senior figure within early SF. His contribution to SF should not have been overlooked by USASOC History Office. When OSS veterans such as Conein and McDowell have been omitted by USASOC History Office, the following question arises: who else is not included? Let’s hope this article “adds impetus” to a more thorough analysis of former OSS personnel that served with the Special Forces.

End Notes


[i] Sacquety, T.J., (2018). The OSS influence on Special Forces. Veritas, Journal of Army Special Operations History, volume 14, No. 2, p. 23.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid. It must be noted that a calculation error has been made by USASOC History Office, as fourteen members actually constitute slightly more than 1% (out of a total of 1,169 SF personnel).

[v] Maxwell. D.S., (2018). Is the OSS Contribution to Special Forces a Result of Disinformation? Small Wars Journal, retrieved from https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/oss-contribution-special-forces-result-disinformation (retrieved July 2019).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] See Barnes, B. (1998), ‘Lucien E. Conein dies at 79; Fabled Agent for OSS and CIA’, Washington Post, 6 June.

[viii] Gittinger T. (1982), Oral History Interview of Lucien Conein, p. 1 (available in Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Texas); Barnes, B. (1998), ‘Lucien E. Conein dies at 79; Fabled Agent for OSS and CIA’.

[ix] Military Personnel Record of Lucien Conein (available at the National Personnel Records Center).

[x] Gittinger T. (1982), pp. 2-3; Military Personnel Record of Lucien Conein. Conein was a member of Jedburgh team Mark.

[xi] Gittinger T. (1982), pp. 4-5; Military Personnel Record of Lucien Conein. More information about Conein’s OSS mission in French Indochina can be found in Annie Jacobsen’s book Surprise, Kill, Vanish: The Definitive History of Secret CIA Assassins, Armies and Operators (2019).

[xii] Chambers, J.W. (2008), OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II, U.S. National Park Service, Washington, D.C., pp, 497, 549.

[xiii] Gittinger T. (1982), p. 6.

[xiv] Gittinger T. (1982), pp. 6-7.

[xv] Military Personnel Record of Lucien Conein.

[xvi] Gittinger T. (1982), p. 19.

[xvii] Piasecki, E.G. (2009). Training the Trainers: Donald D. Blackburn and the 77th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Retrieved from www.soc.mil/ARSOF_History/articles/v5n1_blackburn_page_1.html (retrieved July 2019).

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Andrzejewski, J.A. (2005), untitled. American Legion, Veteran's Corner Column. Retrieved from www.dropzone.com/forums/topic/261395-goodbye-joe-andrzejewski/ (July 2019). The late Major Joe Andrzejewski, US Army Special Forces, was a lifetime member in the “Brotherhood and Lineage” of the US Army Military Free Fall School.

[xxi] Military Personnel Record of Lucien Conein.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Weiner, T. (1998). ‘Lucien Conein, 79, Legendary Cold War Spy’. The New York Times (7 June).

[xxiv] Ibid.

Categories: Special Forces

About the Author(s)

Jelle Hooiveld is a PhD Candidate of Military History at Leiden University (The Netherlands), a Security & Intelligence Lecturer/Adviser, and the author of two books about Dutch Jedburgh teams.

Comments

HopDiver

Mon, 08/12/2019 - 11:14am

I have a problem with the attempt at a direct correlation between quantitative "involvement" and effect. The "effect" of one great individual may have a more lasting effect than 100 mediocre ones. During the rise of SF I would suggest we need to evaluate effect not on quantitative but qualitative efforts/results.

Mike in Hilo

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 4:05am

Less known is a fitting capstone to Conein's career: his role in designing CORDS, long considered the US signature counterinsurgency enterprise. In 1967 Saigon, two guys were assigned to come up in a hurry with an organizational chart for the imminently to be initiated MACCORDS program. To do this, they put in an uninterrupted 72 hour no-doze fueled stint behind closed office doors. One of the two was Lou Conein. The other, my source, was the late Clifford Nunn, then a retired Army LTC who had been recruited for USAID Provincial Ops by his friend, John Vann. Nunn went on to be for many years the CORDS Province Senior Adviser in Bien Hoa Province, and later, when he related this to me in 1973, my boss who ran all of the US Mission's Province Reps--of which I was one--in MR-3 (formerly Three Corps Tactical Zone), in CORDS's successor organization, the Office of the Special Assistant to the Ambassador for Field Ops (SAAFO)...Cliff finished his account with the statement that, "The smartest thing we did was put RF/PF under CORDS." Which was very true, the advisory effort to turn RF/PF into a force whose RF battalions demonstrated they were capable of standing up to NVA regiments being CORDS's stand out success---and a task which absorbed most of the day-to-day effort put in by the CORDS province teams on which I had the privilege of serving.  

Cheers,

Mike

While interesting, this still begs the question of how you measure OSS's influence on U.S. Army Special Forces. It certainly isn't numbers of former OSS members in SF ranks, but instead, influence would result in similar training, organization, doctrine, culture, etc.. In a sense a continuation of the OSS culture. It doesn't take a social scientist or anthropologist to determine that the OSS had a considerable role in shaping Special Forces.