Unredacted: Special Forces Detachment A—Cold War espionage and counter-terrorism from Berlin to Iran

by Jack Murphy May 19, 2019

An earlier edition of this article previously appeared on SOFREP in its redacted form. A more in-depth explanation about the DOD review process and appeal can be found at the end of this article for those who would like to read it, but without a doubt the following unredacted history of Special Forces Detachment A found here is far more interesting.

It was the early 1970s, at Andrews Barracks in Berlin. A stern-looking Special Forces sergeant major paced down the hallway for roll call. Daily Army accountability formations are normally held outside, but due to the extremely classified nature of the mission carried out by the Special Forces soldiers  standing in the hall that day, roll call had to be done indoors where they would not be spied on or photographed by enemy agents.

“It is the anniversary of the D-Day landing,” the sergeant major told the Green Berets. “Who here participated in D-Day and would like to go to the reunion in France?”

A large number of men in the hallway had served in Special Forces units in Vietnam, such as MACV-SOG and Project Sigma, but only a handful of men there that day had participated in D-Day. There were some Johns, Dicks, or Harrys who raised their hand. The sergeant major doing roll call then got to the last soldier raising his hand and began to write down the name Gerhard Kunert. His pencil suddenly stopped scrawling across the clipboard.

“Wait a minute. Kunert? You were not even in the American Army in 1944!”

Kunert, a member of team six, clicked his heels and replied, “I was in the 7th Panzer. I was in Normandy, and I want to go to the reunion!” Kunert was not alone: Also on his team was a German who served on U-boats during the war.

The unit was commanded by Sid Shachnow at one point, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who immigrated to America and eventually became a Green Beret, but in the unit’s ranks were a number of former Nazis. The Lodge Act, named after Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, allowed displaced persons from World War II—hailing from countries like Ukraine, Hungary, Germany, and Czechoslovakia—to join the United States Army. Many of them joined Special Forces and brought with them much-sought-after foreign language skills needed as the Cold War escalated. Some had served in the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis. Others had fought in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and some had even been a part of the Finnish underground during the war.

John Lee Det A Team Leader 1969-1970

“It was a fast track to [American] citizenship,” Colonel Warner “Rocky” Farr said. Bob Charest added, “You felt like you were in a foreign army.” The Lodge Act Green Berets could be identified by looking at their U.S. Army serial numbers, which all carried the same prefix at the beginning: 10812. “I bet at that time [1971] there were no more than 15 Americans in the unit,” Farr said, referring to native-born Americans as opposed to Lodge Act soldiers and naturalized citizens. Gradually, the unit did become more Americanized as the Cold War progressed and World War Two veterans began to age.

The unit was called Detachment A, with the classified name of 39th Special Forces Operational Detachment (SFOD). It was a clandestine Special Forces unit. Technically illegal under the Four Powers Agreement, Det A was on 24-hour standby in Berlin in the event that the USSR pushed over the wall from East Germany and invaded Western Europe. Secreting themselves in safe houses, the Det A members would activate once the forward line of Soviet troops passed over their positions, then carry out acts of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.

Formed in 1956, Detachment A originally consisted of four A-teams that were each assigned an area of responsibility in Berlin—on the north, south, east, and west sides of the city. Later, two more teams were added. “The big mission was the stay-behind mission for World War Three,” Colonel Farr said. Teams consisted of 11 men, with a B-team above them making the entire unit no larger than 80 or 90 people at any given time.

Bob Charest showing off some relaxed grooming standards, which were typical in the Detachment. Picture courtesy of Bob Charest.

Although most are familiar with the three main methods of infiltrating behind enemy lines—crossing overland, by parachute, or by sea (including sub-surface with dive gear)—fewer are familiar with the concept of stay-behind teams. Forward-deployed to Berlin, the Green Berets assigned to Det A were already in their area of operations, having infiltrated before the outbreak of projected future hostilities.

During the Cold War, Berlin was a place of uncertainty, intrigue, and subterfuge. “East Germany looked like the war had just stopped about a month ago. There was rubble everywhere,” Sergeant John Blevins said. “Deserted buildings, stuff falling down, empty lots where the rubble had been cleared off. Back in Western Germany you could hardly tell that a war had been fought except for quite a few buildings that had a lot of holes in them from machine gun bullets.”

At the conclusion of Word War Two, Berlin was occupied by the countries that had liberated Germany from the Nazis, including the British, French, Americans, and Russians. Most already envisioned a future conflict between the Red Menace and the West. The Russians controlled East Germany while West Germany was split up amongst the other three nations. This arrangement was formally codified by the Four Powers Agreement years later.

The Russians erected the Berlin Wall in 1961, after having already imposed draconian travel restrictions on the citizens of East Germany since the mid-1950s. The public reason for the wall was to prevent the infiltration of Western agents, but the reality is that it was a way for the Soviets to control citizens of Berlin, many of whom were desperate to escape communist-occupied East Germany. “When the wall went up we were going home at night with our radio and our weapon,” James Wild said. This was due to the escalating tensions with the Soviets at that time.

Det A was known as a hidden gem, the best assignment in Special Forces; however, those who knew about the unit were few and far between. More often than not, Special Forces soldiers volunteered for Det A because an assignment in Germany sounded appealing or because their senior sergeants highly recommended they take the job. Many had no idea what Det A’s mission was until they arrived in their team room in Berlin and began receiving classified briefings on the stay-behind operations.

Assigned to 10th Special Forces Group in 1958, radio repairman Private James Wild was selected to go to Berlin despite his objections, as he wanted to stay with an A-Team. Trucked over to Munich, and then taking a train to Berlin, he was picked up by several Det A members. He was only read on to the mission several years later when he became Special Forces qualified and was promoted to sergeant. “It just scared the crap out of me,” Wild said, as he’d gotten the impression that their job was a one-way trip.

When 2nd Lieutenant John Lee arrived at the airport in Berlin in 1968 wearing his class A uniform, two Det A soldiers in civilian clothes met him and asked why in the world he was in a uniform. “Because I am an American soldier!” Lee replied. “Not today you’re not,” they said before bundling him up in an overcoat and rushing him off to their base where he was to take charge of team two. Until receiving his in-brief, Lee knew absolutely nothing about Det A.

Farr took a Defense Language Institute (DLI) assignment to learn German with a follow-on rotation to Berlin. There, he wound up assigned to team three within Det A in 1971. “Herman Adler was my team leader. He was a great guy,” Farr recalled. “He had been in the SS during World War Two. He was an SS officer…he fought his way out of Russia through the snow. We used the call him the Schwarzer Adler: the Black Eagle.” Adler later went on to run some selection courses for special mission units and was retained by the U.S. Army as a captain due to his expertise.

Detachment “A” Members 1962

Arriving at Andrews Barracks, the men of Det A found fairly typical team rooms, but the building out of which they worked was actually a former base belonging to the Waffen SS. The facilities included an Olympic-size swimming pool, which was great for morning physical training and scuba training. There was also an old firing range in the basement, where the SS had reputedly executed a few people during the war. Next door was a building belonging to the Army Security Agency, who widely believed Det A to be an assassination unit, which simply was not true.

Det A members received formal school training but also on-the-job training in Berlin from their peers. Members of the clandestine unit had to know how to arrange secret meetings with sources; conduct live drops, dead drops, and brush passes; conduct surveillance detection routes; and master all of the other tradecraft normally associated with the CIA rather than a bunch of Snake Eaters. “We had a safecracking and locking-picking course,” Blevins recalled. They also learned to use invisible ink and how to encode messages. “We used a one-time pad. You would write your messages in plain text across the top of it and then use something called a trigraph to encode it,” Blevins, who served as a radio operator, said. This method is known to be impossible to crack in the event that the message is intercepted by the enemy.

Formal school training was achieved by completing the Special Forces Operations and Intelligence (O&I) course, and some Det A members were also allowed to attend the CIA’s demolitions course at Harvey Point, North Carolina, where they learned all sorts of sneaky stuff. There were also numerous opportunities for Det A members to attend foreign special operations courses ranging from the Danish scout-swimmer course to the GSG-9 German counterterrorism course. The first two American graduates of the latter were pinned by Colonel Wegener, who led the Mogadishu aircraft takedown in 1977. Other members attended German Ranger School. Being airborne qualified, the Det A soldiers would also travel to 10th Special Forces Group at Bad Tölz to complete their monthly jump in order to stay current, as well as conduct yearly ski training in the Alps. The men of 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group stationed at Bad Tölz (separate from Det A) were prepared to carry out Operation “Falling Rain,” which would have seen them inserted by parachute into Eastern Europe to conduct unconventional warfare.

Det A members also became combat-diver qualified by attending a course in Crete run by SEAL Team Two. Since their dive gear also had to be indigenous, they acquired Dräger LAR III rebreathers that were so state of the art that not even the SEALs had them yet. “The Kampfschwimmer Kompanie gave us the rebreather training as well as passing on their refined expertise in harbor and inland waterway operations,” Lieutenant Grayal Farr said. Before that they had Dräger dual stage oxygen tanks, which some Det A members used when they swam up into canals in Berlin, looking for ways to penetrate the border in 1973.

Det A members conducting combat diver training

Sergeant First Class Ron Braughton initially served as a medic on Team Five, and as a practitioner of several martial arts, led hand-to-hand combat training for his fellow unit members. “It was mission oriented, not a bunch of fluff,” Braughton said. “I am a senior black belt, so I took the real combative aspects of that. Stick, knife, improvised weaponry, hands, knees…there were days set aside where I would train the whole unit for PT.” Of course, Det A members also conducted close-quarter battle training, including concealed carry, drawing, and shooting their Walther P38 pistols.

Detachment A members worked in a decentralized manner, choosing and developing their targets in both West and East Berlin for sabotage. They were also responsible for developing their own extraction plans and the cover under which they would operate. “Det A never had any robust support from the Special Forces community during that time,” Mike Mulieri said. “You had to build your own cover legend. Because I spoke Greek and German, it played into that. I came up with my own persona and documentation.” Attending a few classes at a German university, Mulieri collected student identification cards and other pocket litter to support his cover story.

Some Det A soldiers posed as Turkish or Greek guest workers, called gastarbeiter. Others were able to document themselves as plumbers with union or guild cards. One guy even came up with a cover as a magician. The cover had to hold up well enough for the Special Forces soldiers0 to move around Berlin during a Soviet occupation; reach their targets; sabotage the bridges, radio towers, rail stations, power plants, or other objectives; then carry out their escape and evasion plan. But as German-speaking Americans, their covers were only so strong. “Only a handful of men [in the unit] could have stood up to an interrogation by an East German officer,” Mulieri said.

Det A members conducting some ski “training.”

“I started playing basketball with German basketball teams and played with them for a couple years,” Wild said. “I figured out they were much younger than me and I had a hard time staying with them, but I realized that they lacked leadership so I volunteered with them to be their coach. We went on to win the Berlin championship.” By mingling with the locals, he was able to develop his own support network. “All the Germans I was acquainted with knew me as a coach and I had good rapport with them, so if I had to go undercover or hide I had people I could go to who would help me, but they didn’t know who I was.”

In order to complete the appearance of their cover, Det A members were also on relaxed grooming standards and wore local clothes, down to the underwear. The dress code also evolved over the course of the unit’s history, starting with a suit and tie but later becoming slacks and an open shirt, adjusting to contemporary styles. Just as important was understanding the cultural nuances.

Simple things, like holding up your pointer and middle finger to order two beers instead of your pointer finger and thumb could give you away as American. In which hands you held your fork and knife could betray you as a foreigner. Looking the wrong way to check for cars at an intersection could tip off a surveillance agent that the person was British. No matter how good their German language capabilities were, if the Det A soldiers were not fully immersed in the local culture, they could risk compromise.

Due to how easy it was to have your cover blown, and the extremely politically sensitive situation in Berlin during the Cold War, there was no room for error by the men of Detachment A. Those who screwed up had to be sent packing. One incident occurred when two Det A members were caught smuggling East Germans into West Germany for profit. They made a pretty penny at it too—at least until U.S. Army intelligence caught on to their act.

Another precarious situation unfolded when three Det A members were rolled up in the British sector of Berlin. In 1974, a training mission was devised between Det A and the Berlin Police Counter-Terrorism Unit, which would test Det A’s capability to conduct sabotage operations and the German police’s ability to respond. The Special Forces men were to attack a local waterworks, but the scenario was canned as the Germans knew they were coming and snuck police officers into the facility. A battle with blank fire ensued and Det A was repelled from the water plant. Another Det A element in a nearby ambush position decided to withdraw as the mission was compromised.

Early counter terrorism training.

“But just as we pulled our little red Fiat out of its hiding place in the woods, two VW buses full of the Berlin Polizei came upon us and began to chase us,” Staff Sergeant Bob Mitchell said. The three Det A soldiers got trapped in a cul-de-sac next to the British officers’ housing complex and engaged in a mock firefight with blanks against the Germans, but the Americans were overwhelmed and captured. The British provost marshal witnessed the entire episode and believed that the Americans were British officers and that the black-clad German policemen were members of the IRA. Heavily armed British military police showed up, but by some miracle did not kill anyone—soon realizing that it was just a training mission.

“The provost marshal was so pissed that he had us all arrested and taken to the Olympic stadium to be put in jail,” Mitchell said. “Eventually, the commanding officer of Berlin, who was a three-star general, had to officially apologize to the Brits so that we could be released.” The incident also hit the local media, describing the sabotage training and subsequent simulated firefight. One newspaper joked, “For the first time in war history, the British have ended a battle between Germans and Americans.”

At times Det A was also tasked by the CIA to dig up old caches in Germany left over from World War II. They discovered weapons, food, and ammunition, as well as medical supplies that needed to be replaced since they were well past their expiration date. Some caches could not be accessed because the Germans had built gas stations or other buildings over them, where they remain to this day. In other instances, Det A would bury caches at the direction of other parties. “It was a ruse,” Wild said, describing one technique used. “We would erect tents, usually a GP medium, put up barbed wire and telephone lines, making it look like it was a company headquarters. We would stay there for a few days, making it look like it was an exercise, but we were digging a hole under the tent to bury the cache. After we were done it would look just the same as when we got there.”

Tradecraft was also a challenge in a city packed full of foreign espionage agents and a citizenry that lived in a constant state of tension. “I have never seen a city so contaminated with load signals,” Warner Farr remarked. A load signal is a sign left in a public place that an intelligence handler leaves for his asset to see when walking past it later in the day, signaling that they should meet at a pre-arranged location. “When we would go to set up a drop, it was hard to find a place to mark because every damn pole in the city had marks all over it.” To avoid the confusion, Farr would use circular paper reinforcements that he would stick on a wall or other surface, since they were distinctive next to the dozens of chalk marks left by other spies in Berlin.

Clandestine communications via radio were among the most difficult tasks Det A had to manage in Berlin. Antennas had to be camouflaged and disguised in an urban environment, sometimes even rigged inside buses or cars. While staying in a hotel, Gerald “Paco” Fontana of Team Six set up a 109 radio to send Morse Code, grounding the radio to two water pipes. “As I started sending Morse Code, all the lights in the hotel were flashing the code that I was sending,” Fontana said. The radio was sucking up enough power to dim the lights. The team quickly left and hotel rooms were not used as safe houses afterward.

Under the Four Powers Agreement, there were not to be any elite troops stationed in Berlin, but of course the British SAS, U.S. Special Forces, and the Soviet Spetsnaz were all present. “It was known within our circles, but officially we were not there,” Charest said. Ironically, the Spetsnaz element in East Germany probably had the same mission as Det A: to act as a stay-behind unit to conduct sabotage operations if NATO ever decided to charge across the steppes towards Moscow.

The Four Powers Agreement also stipulated that Russian and American troops could cross into each other’s territory if under supervision and in uniform. Det A members did this regularly, wearing class A uniforms with conventional Army shoulder sleeve insignias. Wild said that, during the late 1950s, “Almost every day someone from the detachment went to East Germany from Checkpoint Charlie in a staff car driven by an MP and accompanied by a staff officer.” They had a very specific route to drive from which they could not deviate.

By the 1970s, Det A members could get out in East Germany and walk around while in uniform. Since the dollar had such a great exchange rate in East Germany, the Special Forces soldiers would take the opportunity to eat a gourmet meal for just a couple bucks.

Subway pass, courtesy of Warner Farr.

When asked about the infamous East German Stasi police, Warner Farr laughed and said, “We used to have lunch with them. There was a restaurant in East Berlin, called Ganymed, next to a canal. It was renowned for being the Stasi place.” On one visit the Stasi sat at a table next to the Special Forces men, loudly complaining that the Americans would come to East Berlin and consume all of the good food and wine. One of the Det A team leaders named Wolfgang Gartner stood up, turned around, clicked his heels, and said, “Gentlemen, let me introduce myself. My name is Wolfgang Gartner, I was born three blocks from here, and I will eat here any time I damn well please.”

While in East Berlin, the Green Berets cased their targets, knowing that they were being watched by the Stasi and Russian KGB. A few Det A members even infiltrated into East Berlin wearing civilian clothes, using the public transportation system, seeing how far they could push their limitations. In East Germany they were usually followed and under surveillance, the soldiers having to act as if everything was normal and behave like they were just G.I.s making a run over to East Berlin to take advantage of the low exchange rate to buy goods that would be expensive on the other side of the wall. Back in West Germany, there were enemy agents watching them parachute onto drop zones for training, keeping watch over Andrews Barracks, and occasionally tailing them around the city.

The men of Det A were highly trained professionals, ready to carry out what would most likely be a suicide mission in the opening hours of World War Three. With targeting packets completed, covers established, and extraction plans committed to memory, they were prepared to conduct their sabotage missions. Methods of sabotage included surreptitiously introducing blocks of C3 plastic explosive, disguised as lumps of coal, into the bins on the train engines on the Ringbahn rail. Those trains circled around Berlin, which was a part of the S-Bahn. Once shoveled into the engine, the locomotive would be blown sky high. Det A members also had metal shavings that could be thrown into the turbines at power plants, which would burn them out and shut off the electricity. Other targets would be brought down with the careful placement of explosive charges. While their mission did not include assassination, it was understood that Soviet and East German armed guards surrounding the critical infrastructure they targeted would have to be eliminated.

However, Det A was not always so highly motivated. The unit also faced some dark times due to conventional Army officers who did not understand the Special Forces mission of unconventional warfare. A colonel in the Berlin Brigade ordered Det A to train his men on basic infantry skills. “One day we were undercover, the next day we were in uniform,” Fontana said. This probably compromised the entire unit as the Soviets had Andrews Barracks under surveillance. The Army even put a sign in front of Andrews Barracks letting people know that it is the home of “Detachment A (Airborne).”

Now the Det A team members were walking around the base in uniform with fresh haircuts. The reindeer games continued until the Det A’s sergeant major, Jeff Raker, went and talked to his counterpart in the conventional Army. He built rapport and explained that by having Det A train infantry privates, they were undermining their own NCOs who were the ones responsible for training their soldiers.

As the Cold War matured, the mission of Det A evolved, shifting gears to face a new threat that the Western world was unprepared for. In the early 1970s there had been a rash of aircraft hijackings, many perpetrated by the Palestinian nationalists belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP). The slowly escalating threat turned into a crucible for German authorities in 1972 when Palestinian terrorists, belonging to a group calling themselves Black September, took Israeli athletes hostage during the summer Olympics in Munich. The German police attempted to bait the terrorists into an ambush, where they could be taken out by sniper fire without hurting the hostages, but the crisis ended in a massacre, with both terrorists and hostages slain.

Two Det-A members training with GSG-9. Picture courtesy of Mike Mike Mulieri

The specter of international terrorism had reared its ugly head. The German federal police, wholly unprepared to deal with the threat, were tasked to create a counterterrorism unit called GSG-9, commanded by Colonel Ulrich Wegener. The Americans took a while longer to catch up, but a few years later Detachment A was tasked with a new mission under OPLAN 0300: counterterrorism. In addition to their stay-behind mission, the Det A members now had to be prepared to carry out counterterrorism operations. The main concern for the unit was the hijacking of American Pan Am flights into and out of Berlin, but Det A was also charged with protecting and capturing any other hijacked American aircraft in Europe. The Baader–Meinhof Gang also posed a threat in Det A’s area of operations, and one team from the unit was assigned the task of countering the communist, terrorist organization, especially after they kidnapped the mayor of Berlin.

Det A began cross-training with GSG-9 in case they had to conduct joint operations, and had a friendly relationship that allowed them to share tactics, techniques, and procedures. Six members were sent to Quantico to attend the FBI’s air crimes course. The Special Forces soldiers also received additional weapons for their new mission, such as scoped Model 70 Winchesters to use as sniper rifles and Walther MPK submachine guns. A C-147 airplane was placed on standby to ferry the Det A members within striking distance of targets they may have been called upon to assault.

Since the main concern was a Pan Am aircraft being hijacked, the airliner allowed the Det A teams to practice taking down their aircraft. At various times they also trained to assault buses, trains, and buildings. Det A “practiced techniques on entry into the airplane from any angle you can imagine,” Charest said. “We practiced on that plane day and night.” The unit’s newfound counterterrorism capability would be put to the test years later—not in Europe, but in Iran during Operation Eagle Claw.

At 10:30 a.m. on November 4th, 1979, nearly 3,000 armed “university students” stormed the American embassy in Tehran, taking more than 90 American hostages at the behest of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The students demanded that Iran’s deposed Shah be returned to Iran from the United States to face trial. Some hostages were released, leaving 66 remaining, with six Americans who had escaped to the Swedish and Canadian embassies evacuated under Canadian passports in a well-orchestrated CIA operation.

While most of the hostages were held on the embassy grounds, three were kept at the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) building located 16 blocks away from the embassy grounds, including the acting ambassador and two embassy staff who had been there on official business when the embassy was taken over.

The U.S. Army counterterrorism unit, Delta Force, had just recently been validated following a training mission at Camp Mackall. The unit’s commander, Colonel Charlie Beckwith, immediately went into mission planning in case a political solution could not be found and President Carter authorized a hostage rescue. With two Delta Squadrons, Beckwith simply did not have enough operators to cover the 27-acre embassy compound while simultaneously assaulting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Beckwith “did not want another ground force brought into play. He resisted the need for a long time, but eventually had to accept the reality of two rescue locations” (Lenahan, 34).

The commander of Det A, Lieutenant Colonel Stan Olchovic, was tasked with assembling an eight-man assault element that could infiltrate into Iran with Delta Force and rescue the hostages held in the MFA. Their portion of the mission would be dubbed “Storm Cloud.” They then developed a tactical plan and initiated mission rehearsals. A two-man element from Det A was identified who could infiltrate Iran undercover and get eyes on the MFA building, gathering critical intelligence for the assault.

The two recon men would then exfiltrate out of Iran and join up with five teammates from their unit at the Delta Force staging ground, making for an eight-man assault element. The initial recce mission was a success, one of the Det A members having himself photographed alongside an Iranian soldiers with the MFA building prominently displayed in the background. Colonel Ulrich Wegener of GSG-9 was prepared to send a German TV crew into Tehran and offered to take some Delta operators with them so they could recce the embassy grounds, but the idea died in the Pentagon (Beckwith, 223).

Delta Force prior to inserting to Desert One. DOD photo







Meanwhile, two Green Berets from 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group stationed at Bad Tölz, Germany were selected for another secret mission. Sergeant First Class Mike Mulieri, who had previously served in Det A, was asked a simple question after being called into his commander’s office: “Are you prepared to die for your country?” Colonel Seymour asked Mulieri.

Mulieri answered that he was, despite his wife due to give birth to their first son in a month. Sergeant First Class Don Ringley was called into the office and asked the same question. Ringley, who served with Special Forces in Vietnam, figured he’d already volunteered to lay down his life for his country a number of times. He said, “I’d be glad to go anywhere for you. Not a problem.”

“Good. You’re hired,” Colonel Seymour replied.

Mulieri and Ringley were immediately put on alert, not allowed to go home, and told to draw ammunition and explosives from the war stock as things began to happen very rapidly. Told to link up with the Air Force, “we were out of there so quickly that our heads were spinning,” Mulieri said. The two Green Berets received their mission brief and were flown to Wadi Kena, an old Soviet airbase in Egypt. General Vaught, the overall operation commander for Eagle Claw, had begun setting up the airbase as an initial staging ground for the hostage rescue mission, which included an elaborate ruse to trick the KGB into thinking it was just a training exercise.

What the two Green Berets didn’t know until that day was that Major Carney was about to lead a reconnaissance operation deep into Iran in order to take soil samples from what would be a forward staging area for the Delta mission, in order to test whether or not the ground could support the landing of C-130 military transport planes. Mulieri and Ringley would be standing by in case Major Carney and the CIA pilot flying a small Twin Otter aircraft got stranded in the desert and needed to be recovered.

“Our mission was to drop the Fulton recovery system onto Desert One in case the CCT controller, Major Carney, could not get out,” Mulieri described. With D-day for the Delta mission set for April 24th, 1980, Major John Carney was to fly in on the first of the month. “If Carney could not get out on that aircraft, then we were going to drop in the Fulton recovery system,” Mulieri said, “Then, on the second pass, we were going to jump in to help Carney and the pilot get into the Fulton recovery system.” It was an odd request, as the Fulton recovery system is designed for a person to self-extract, getting into a special flight suit with harness, which is then attached to an inflatable balloon. A passing aircraft then catches the cable running to the balloon, snatching up the person tethered to the end, who is then reeled into the rear ramp of the plane.

“Then what do we do afterward?” Mulieri asked. “We had to come up with our own escape and evasion plan.” Ringley looked at Mulieri and said, “We’re not coming back.” With Iran and Iraq at war, heading west was out of the question. Their best bet was to go north toward Pakistan, which was a nominal ally of the United States in their support of the Mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

They were told that an Air Force officer would meet them in Wadi Kena with a more formal escape plan, but when he showed up he simply handed them a standard escape and evasion map along with some Austrian gold coins to barter with before getting on the plane and taking off. As a Special Forces intelligence sergeant, Mulieri was expecting a list of assets on the ground in Iran who could offer them shelter and smuggle them to safety.

The Green Berets wore sterile flight suits when they flew into Masirah, Oman—the final staging ground for Delta prior to infiltrating into Iran. Perhaps due to political sensitivities with Oman allowing the United States to stage there, the Omani minister of defense, who was an aviation buff, came to take a look at the Combat Talon (tail #555) airplane. Ringley and Mulieri sat inside, saying nothing, as their mission was supposed to be discreet.

Thankfully, they were never called on to recover Major Carney as his mission was a complete success, taking place on the night of March 31st. However, Mulieri and Ringley were present on the aircraft a few days before Carney’s recce mission when the pilots flew into Iranian airspace, just 200-500 feet off the desert floor, and circled around Desert One before returning to Oman. “That was the hairiest part of the mission,” Mulieri said. “We were going into Iranian airspace to test out the air defenses in preparation for the soil sample mission. It was really a bumpy ride.” During the mission, it was discovered that most of the Iranian air defenses had been turned off. The story did have a happy ending for Mulieri, who made it back to Germany in time to be there for the birth of his son.

With the air reconnaissance and soil sample missions complete, Delta Force wrapped up their mission rehearsals in the United States was flown to Wadi Kena and then to Masirah on April 20th in conjunction with the eight man team from Detachment A that would take down the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. Before departing to Desert One, Major Lewis “Bucky” Burruss, Delta’s B-Squadron commander, led the men as they sung “God Bless America” just before boarding their aircraft.

Delta Force and Det A landed at Desert One, located in the Dasht-e-Kavir salt desert of central Iran, on the night of April 24th with the last of six aircraft setting down at midnight. Now they had to wait for their helicopters to arrive from the USS Nimitz on station in the Gulf of Oman to take them on the next leg of their journey en route to the US embassy and MFA. Rangers tasked to pull security at Desert One came from Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment and rode dirt bikes to help them get around the large staging area, where one soon shot a tanker truck driving down a nearby road with a LAW rocket launcher.

The helicopters were delayed several hours because of a sandstorm and a few of them were seriously damaged during the flight. Due to time delays and mechanical malfunctions, Colonel Beckwith made the difficult decision to scrub the mission. Around 2:40AM the men were preparing to abort and pull out of desert one when Major Schaefer’s helicopter crashed into one of the EC-130 airplanes. “A blue fireball ballooned into the night,” the ground force commander wrote (Beckwith, 279).

One of the Det A sergeants was out pulling security on the outer perimeter with Delta’s intelligence officer, Captain Wade Ishimoto, approximately a mile away from where the airplanes were parked when he witnessed the explosion off in the distance. Jumping on the back of a dirt bike with a Ranger driving, the Det A member linked up with one of his teammates from Berlin back at the crash site. He then told the Ranger to take the dirt bike back to get Ishimoto, but for some reason that didn’t happen. Using IV bags that the Det A men took with them on the mission for medical emergencies, they began treating members of the air crew who had been critically injured.

Looking up, the Green Beret suddenly realized that one of the C-130s was turning around and about to take off without any passengers onboard. He jumped out in front of the nose of the aircraft, holding his Walther MPK submachine gun, and waving to get the pilot’s attention. “I was ready to shoot those motherfuckers,” he said, not relishing the idea of being left behind. The plane ended up having 70 or 80 soldiers on board when it finally took off.

After the failure of Operation Eagle Claw and Storm Cloud, the task force went right into planning a follow up mission to rescue the hostages. It was widely believed that President Ronald Reagan would authorize the mission as soon as he was inaugurated and President Carter stepped down. The second attempt would be called Operation Snow Bird.

Jeff Raker, DOD photo

Detachment A soldiers were still tasked with taking down the MFA building in Tehran. This time mission rehearsals were carried out by Det A at Camp Rudder where the Florida Phase of Ranger School takes place. With new helicopters assigned to the mission, there could only be one pilot. The co-pilot would be too heavy a load for the helicopter to bear along with the assaulters due to fuel consumption issues. Just in case the pilot ended up getting shot, the Det A members were trained to fly the helicopter safely to the ground. “We all got some stick time,” Sergeant Major Jeff Raker recalled with a smile.

Just hours after Reagan was inaugurated, Iran released the remaining American hostages held in Iran, ending the standoff. Back in Berlin, Detachment A continued to conduct their unconventional warfare and counterterrorism missions, however the later was beginning to have a detrimental effect on the unit’s operational security. The disaster at Desert One had put a spotlight on America’s counter-terrorism units and an article appearing in Newsweek exposed Detachment A’s existence. For this reason, Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) made the decision to disband the unit and start fresh with a new one.

In subsequent years, Det A was also developing a relationship with Germany’s Spezialeinsatzkommandos (SEK). Detachment A’s team six, “had its own unique mission. Most of ours dealt with close comradeship with the local SEK so we spent a lot of time with those guys,” Braughton said, which entailed working in the city and running surveillance operations.

In between their busy professional lives, the Det A members would find time for recreation as well, some of them becoming amateur treasure hunters. Combing the countryside with metal detectors, a couple of the guys located and dug up a small box. Taking it back to the unit’s lounge, a crowd gathered around expecting to find some Nazi loot inside worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. When the men opened it up all they found was a dead bird inside, someone’s pet that had been buried.

During this time there were also other alerts for Det A to standby for counterterrorism operations. In 1981, General Dozier was kidnapped in Verona, Italy by the communist Red Brigades. Det A split into sniper and assaulter elements, packed up their weapons and gear, and were ready and waiting for a C-130 to pick them up. After six weeks of captivity, Italian police stormed the apartment where Dozier was held, rescuing him and arresting a half dozen terrorists without firing a shot.

In December of 1984, Det A was in the process of being deactivated with only 13 men remaining in the unit when they were called upon to perform one final mission. The German customs department and Berlin SEK were conducting a joint operation and needed a Russian linguist. Pranas Rimeikis from Det A was dispatched to assist in the investigation since he spoke Russian. Dubbed Operation Odessa, it was originally envisioned as a uncover operation, in which German authorities were targeting a criminal gang of Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Russians who were smuggling guns, drugs, and passports. Discovering one of the gang’s caches, they pulled back and put constant surveillance on it, waiting until the gang returned. Once the criminals arrived at the cache they were arrested and key members were convicted by the German courts.

Despite Det A’s successes, the end of an era was near. One day in 1984, Kevin Monahan who was assigned to team one left the empty team rooms in Andrews barracks, all of the equipment and gear having been packed up and shipped out. Downstairs was the lounge and unit bar where the men used to meet for “chicken Friday” once a week. They would clean the team rooms, latrines, and vehicles together and after the Sergeant Major inspected, would commence to have a party and drink all night. Multiple members of Det A fondly recalled that, “we worked hard and we played hard.”

Monahan was the last man out of the Detachment that day, and forever, locking the doors behind him. As they were shutting down the unit, the Green Berets joked that they felt like retreating Germans in World War Two, burning bag after bag of classified material. After decades of working in the shadows, Detachment A was inactivated.

Det A’s legacy was handed off to a new Special Forces unit in Berlin called Physical Security Support Element (PSSE), with several Det A members making up the core cadre of the new unit. Disguised as military policemen and working under a more effective official cover as 287th Military Police Company, the new unit developed security protocols and did site surveys, but also continued the clandestine mission to counter Soviet activities and conduct counter-terrorism operations. Additionally, PSSE also worked abroad in Africa and the Middle East. PSSE existed right up to the end of the Cold War, shutting down in 1990 after the Berlin wall came down.

Afterwards, American military officers in Berlin had the opportunity to meet with their Russian counter-parts. As it turned out, the Russians believed that there were 800-900 US Special Forces soldiers in Berlin ready to carry out sabotage operations. In reality, the number was never more than 90. In a unique way, Special Forces had been successful in one of their core tasks as acting as a force multiplier, not just on the ground, but in the minds of Soviet military planners as well. With PSSE shut down, the US counter-terrorism mission in Europe was next handed off to the newly created Commander’s In-Extremis Force (CIF) in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group which is still stationed in Germany.

Most of the men who served in Detachment A remember it as their favorite assignment, including those who went on to serve more than 20 years in Special Forces, or moved on to Special Mission Units, or pursued a career in CIA. Det A was where they caught the bug, loving the camaraderie of the organization and the allure of the mission, serving in America’s only urban unconventional warfare unit.

Today, after fifteen years focused on direct action missions in the Middle East, Special Forces is seeking to reinvest in their core mission of unconventional warfare. Part of this includes re-learning lessons from the past, lessons that can be handed down from veterans such as those who served in Det A when it comes to blending in and completing low visibility missions in foreign countries.

Para-scuba training.

When it comes to the legacy of the unit, “Paco” Fontana stated that, “there is a lot of people who didn’t know anything about Det A. They had a real wartime mission that no one knew about and we were doing it for so long, so the legacy is that silence is golden.” Charest remembers Det A as a unit that was “able to do the impossible. You were given a mission, we had many, and we did them all. We were so dedicated, it was like being in another world.”

Farr explained that Det A was the only unit that did urban unconventional warfare stating, “The idea of how you operate a guerrilla movement in a urban area, you know, it is probably not that hard to set up your guerrilla force in farmland…but the whole idea of doing this under the noses of so many cops and soldiers that would be running around Berlin in the next war is unique.” For the Det A members, their time in the unit will never be forgotten, “the relationships, the mentorships, the experiences that we had there as young Special Forces guys, we were really pushed out to grow into that legend and do the things we were supposed to do and accomplish the mission we were given,” Braughton said. “It’s the job, it’s the lifestyle, it’s addictive.”

In recent years, the men of Det A have begun coming forward to tell their story lifting the cloak of secrecy which was so strong that even within the unit none of the six teams ever knew each other’s missions due to compartmentalization. In 2014, a ceremony was held as Special Operations Command on Fort Bragg to place a memorial stone for Detachment A. The unit’s colors were also permanently cased and retired, a moment that was symbolic for veterans of the unit who had never received any public recognition for their service up until that time.

Walking across the tarmac on a airbase in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom, a feeling of euphoria swept over Mike Mulieri. With the setting desert sun as a backdrop, he spotted an old Combat Talon aircraft sitting on the flight line. The tail number was 555, triple nickle, the exact same plane he had flown into Iranian airspace on with Don Ringley. A wave of memories washed over Mulieri from his time in Berlin, the birth of his son, and how he learned something about himself on that mission. He always felt that his faith in God had carried him through difficult and challenging assignments, like his time on Detachment A.

For Mulieri and so many other Green Berets in Detachment A, it was the best job in Special Forces, and an experience that they would never forget.

*Note: All ranks mentioned in this article refer to the soldier’s rank during the timeframe being referenced, as many went on to retire as senior NCOs, officers, and warrant officers.

Featured image courtesy of Mike Mulieri

Source citations

Beckwith, Charles. “Delta Force.”

Lenahan, Rod. “Crippled Eagle.”

2019 update

In 2016, I began conducting interviews with former members of Special Forces Detachment A after having come across a website about this very special unit run by a former member named Bob Charest.  Soon I was having phone calls with multiple veterans of the detachment and was invited to a unit reunion. I attended and interviewed more than a dozen Green Berets who served with the unit. As a courtesy, the resulting article was submitted to DOD review in September of 2016.

After many delays, I threatened to publish the article. DOD finally got back to me with their redactions in February 2017. I was quite shocked to see that nearly half of the article was redacted. These redactions included information published by other sources that the same DOD review office had cleared for publication. Amazingly, many of these redactions were stories previously declassified, told by the exact same sources. Names of sergeant majors and commanding officers who served in the Det were redacted despite them being publicly identified in other sources. Readily available open source information was also redacted. This was an odd turn of events.

Frustrated, I contacted a lawyer and we began putting together paperwork to file an appeal. Despite constant contact, DOD’s prepublication and security review board sat on this appeal until April of 2019 when they informed my lawyer that they were simply dropping my appeal as the article had already been published on SOFREP in redacted form. In their eyes, it no longer required further review, as it would “serve no useful purpose.” The rationale behind why it took more than two years for DOD to reach this conclusion can only be speculated upon, but as the information they previously redacted had already been declassified during the review process for another work, it can be said clearly that the stalling had nothing to do with preventing the disclosure of classified information.

While this has been a frustrating experience for all concerned parties, we are very proud to be able to present the Detachment’s unredacted story for the first time.