Ranger Companies (Airborne) of The Korean War

by Dave Kaufman

1995 by author










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With the end of World War II, the call from the civilian populace to demobilize and "send the boys home" was hastily heeded by politicians. From a high of over 12,000,000 men and women in uniform in 1945, the U.S. military was reduced to 1,500,000 by 1948.  U.S. Army strength was reduced from a World War II T/O of over 6,000,000 men to little more than 675,000.  Accordingly, military budgets decreased year after year following the end of the war, and concerns with the Soviet Union insured that the focus of political and economic policies was Europe.

The post-WW II U.S. Army in Japan was a different army from that of 1945 and of other theater occupation forces. Divisions throughout the U.S. Army, whether active or assigned as occupation units, were under-strength, under-trained, and experienced equipment shortages and high rates of personnel turnover. The equipment that was available was worn or rusted.  It was worse in the Far East Zone of Occupation.  In Japan, for example, four tank battalions were actually of company strength, and because it was believed that heavy tanks would not be able to negotiate Japanese bridges, the units featured the light M-24 (Chaffee) tank.  These things were not an acute source of concern: occupation duty was easy.

Across the Sea of Japan in Korea, the situation, though different, was not better.  Korea, an independent country prior to 40 years of Japanese occupation, had been divided into North and South Korea after the end of World War II. The large number of Japanese military personnel that remained in Korea had to be demilitarized. It was decided that U.S. forces, who had moved through Korea from the south, would control Japanese forces in the south, and the Soviets, who had finally moved against Japan late in the war, would control those in the north. The 38th Parallel, which divided Korea approximately in half, was established as the border between the North and the South. Under the guidance of their patron nations, North and South Korea were soon traveling divergent paths. 

In the North, the Soviet Union refused to support UN-sanctioned elections and instead established a communist regime, a regime that enjoyed the full support of China.  The Soviets raised, indoctrinated, trained and supplied a large North Korea Army (NKA) and Air Force.  North Korea established guard posts along the 38th Parallel, along which the bulk of the NKA was deployed, and civilian travel across the border was blocked.  Few among the U.S. military appreciated how well-trained the NKA was; even fewer believed the NKA would actually stand up to U.S. forces.

In the South, the American military presence was reduced drastically, from a post-war occupation force of 18,000 to 500 U.S. Army advisors: the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG). The KMAG advisors had their work cut out for them: the ROK army had problems. The officer corps was unprofessional and self-serving; the enlisted ranks were uneducated. The language barrier alone was a significant obstacle, as the Korean language lacked certain ordinary military terms. And the ROK Army was as distrustful of the advisors as was the South Korean government of KMAG itself.  To make matters worse, KMAG units were last in the ordnance supply line. 

General Lynn Roberts, a World War II armor veteran, was the KMAG commander.  Under General Roberts, KMAG began a program to turn the ROK Army into a cohesive fighting force.  Schools were established and KMAG advisors were assigned to serve with each ROK unit and oversee its training.  One important aspect of the program to train and strengthen the ROK Army was beyond the control of KMAG: armor, which was largely lacking.  Substantially mountainous, with narrow, steep valleys and a road system that in 1950 that was rudimentary to non-existent, Korea was thought not to be "tank country." Roberts and his KMAG advisors did their best under difficult circumstances to train and motivate the ROK soldiers. 

Politics began to undermine both the training tables Roberts had established for the ROK army and the morale of the KMAG advisors. President Harry S. Truman had determined that America would not militarily challenge Communist China, a decision that reflected the fear of the South Korean government and people that doing so would push North Korea to invade. In keeping with this decision, American policy viewed the defense of Korea as lying outside our interests in the region. In time these policies would contribute to our involvement not in a war but rather in a "police action". The personnel who fought this police action would refer to it as the "die for a tie" war.

On June 25, 1950, North Korean military forces invaded South Korea. The NKA force, superior in number, tactics, and armor, quickly overwhelmed the poorly trained and equipped ROK Army troops and their American advisors, and pushed towards Seoul, the South Korean capital, steadily shrinking what effectively was South Korea.  Disguised as civilians, NKA troops joined the throngs of refugees fleeing southward, sniping and ambushing as they went.  On July 1, a token force of garrison duty troops from the 24th Infantry Division was rushed from Japan into the breech. This force managed to delay the NKA until reinforced by garrison duty personnel of the 1st Cavalry and 25th Infantry Divisions. Finally, British forces and other American units began to slow the NKA advance. 

Mid-July, 1950, Lt. Col. John H. McGee, assigned to 8th Army G-3, studies the use of guerilla troops behind NKA lines. McGee, who had been a POW in the Pacific Theater of Operations, had escaped and successfully led guerilla forces against the Japanese. After completing his study on the use of guerilla troops in Korea, McGee initiates the process to select officers for a Ranger unit using a WW II Ranger Battalion T/O.  On August 24, 1950, the 8th Army Ranger Company is activated at Camp Drake, Japan, with a TO of three officers and 73 enlisted men. [1]  Aware of the poor performance of the physically unfit garrison troops thrown against the NKA, McGee orders the physical training of those selected to begin immediately.

A week later, the first group of volunteers was transported to Kijang, Korea, where a Ranger training base was established. Tactics including reconnaissance and combat patrolling, raiding, and ambushing were taught over a seven week period. Pierre Vaporis, formerly a sergeant with the 8213th AU, joined the group from an ordnance unit in Japan. "The call for volunteers came out.  I remember that they were looking for men between the ages of 18-27 that could swim.  It sounded interesting to me.  I remember that we had a lot of weapons training with live ammo, too. Because I had learned judo while stationed in Japan, I taught it during our training." [2]  

In August 1950, in his memorandum "Organization of Marauder Companies," Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins directed that one Ranger company (originally 110 men, then changed to 107) should be assigned to each division, unlike during World War II when Rangers were formed into 516-man battalions, which were controlled at theater level.

The following month, on September 15, the amphibious landings at Inchon began. Concurrently in the United States, Col. John G. Van Houten and Col. Edwin Walker began a series of briefings on the subject of reactivating a Ranger Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Van Houten had no previous Ranger training, but Walker did. The call for airborne qualified volunteers went out.  Military records were searched for active personnel with previous service in the Rangers, 1st Special Service Force, or Merrill's Marauders (5307th Composite Unit, Provisional).  Many who answered the call for volunteers became instructors at the Ranger school.

The seven-week training cycle included the skills learned in WW II: hand-to-hand combat, demolitions, ambushes, raiding, among others. Running was the physical conditioning activity favored by the instructors.

Jack Shafer, assigned to the 3rd Ranger Company (Airborne), was in the 1st and 2nd cycle. Shafer recalls, "Forty men were taken out of the 1st cycle- half to 1st Company and half to 4th Company - to beef them up so they wouldn't have to replace casualties. The 3rd Company then beefed up it's second cycle by adding 40 new men."

In Shafer's opinion "the continuous and non-stop high level of training was the toughest aspect of Ranger training. Beginning one night, a training mission in a swamp took 17 hours to complete. We weren't allowed to sit down, which would have been an added discomfort because we were in ankle-deep or knee-deep water. We also had loads increased by extra equipment and ammunition. On another training mission, the men were so tired that they spaced their steps while walking on railroad ties so that they could sleep. The training was as realistic as possible, because several of the instructors were former WW II Rangers and Korean War veterans."  Shafer believed the weapons training at Benning best prepared him for Korea. Shafer was a special weapons NCO, and was assigned the M-2 fully automatic carbine, but preferred the M-1 Garand. [3]

The first Airborne Ranger Companies to finish the program were designated the 1st through the 4th.  The 1st Company was immediately sent to Korea; the 2nd and 4th received additional training; the 3rd remained at Fort Benning as a cadre training unit. For some unknown reason, the 4th and 2nd Companies switched designations upon graduation.

President Harry S. Truman had ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, but whether because of practical difficulties or by design, the Army was slow to implement the order. The 2nd Ranger Company (Airborne) was a segregated unit, comprising all African-Americans. Its assets were obtained from the 80th AAA Battalion (Airborne) and 3rd Battalion, 505th Infantry Regiment (Airborne). Components of the 505th were integrated, except for the 3rd Battalion, which was segregated.

Sent to Fort Benning for training, the African-American Ranger candidates soon received a rude welcoming to the Columbus, Georgia area. Several incidents reminded the paratroopers where they were. A lieutenant was arrested for bailing out an enlisted man who had been arrested. Another paratrooper was threatened with arrest while driving his new Buick convertible off post. The same policeman stopped another paratrooper who had borrowed the Buick, believing the two paratroopers were the same person. The message was that the Buick was not to be driven off post. When the 2nd Company received orders for deployment to Korea, the Buick was driven to the Ranger's home over a route chosen with great care.  As the troopers of the 2nd Company departed Fort Benning by troop train, one of the enlisted men arrived at the station with the police in hot pursuit. The Ranger effected his escape by leaping onto the moving train.  Then the trooper turned and snapped a salute to the police officers, none of whom deemed the matter worth their sprinting after the train. The troop train carrying the 2nd Company joined the one carrying the 4th Company en route, and together they made their way to the west coast.  Even though the two trains traveled together, there were periodic reminders that society did not view their occupants as equals: the train carrying the 2nd Company was forced to detour around train stations, while the one carrying the 4th Company went straight through. (4)

Gerard Germain, a member of the 1st Platoon, 2nd Company, recalled that "In Korea, our challenge was 'Buffalo' and the countersign was 'Mother F----r'. When faced with trouble anywhere, 2nd Company Rangers called out 'Buffalo' three times." (5)

The Insignia

In November 1950, the black and gold Ranger tab was awarded to those men who had completed the training program at Fort Benning. No one really knows why those particular colors were chosen for the tab (instead of black, red, and white, the colors of the WWII scrolls).  Perhaps it was because black and gold are the colors of West Point and as such are often associated with the Army. (The WW II scrolls were not authorized, in any case.)  The double Ranger Airborne tab, also in black and gold, became available at this time too. The veterans in the 8th Army Ranger Company with whom I spoke recall only the Ranger tab.

A standard Airborne Ranger Infantry Company scroll in the traditional colors became available and was widely worn by itself. Many men had their company designations sewn into the scroll. Most of the photographs from the period depict either the single authorized or double tab.  As each of the Rangers interviewed for this article stated that his company was the first to have scrolls made that were company-specific, the issue of primacy is problematic.  There are many variants of the WW II Ranger scrolls, from embroidered on cloth, embroidered on wool, to bullion on wool.  Among the insignia of the Airborne Ranger Companies, that of the 1st Company, for some unknown reason, appears to exist in the greatest number of variations.

None of the Rangers interviewed  for this article saw or heard of the WW II lozenge style with company designation (blue with yellow lettering and border). The museum at Carlisle Barracks, which once had a large collection of Korean-War-era Ranger scrolls, does not have any of the lozenge versions, nor was the staff familiar with them.  It appears that these patches were  never issued or worn. (Certainly, they were not worn in Korea.)  There exist scrolls with company numbers in the style of the Ranger scrolls of WW II for some of the other Airborne Ranger companies that were active during the Korean War.


1. Black, Robert, Rangers in Korea, New York: Ivy Books, 1989, page 14.

2. Interview with author.

3. ibid.

4. Oral History of the 2nd Ranger Company, author unknown, unpublished, no page number.

5. Interview with author.


Black, Robert, Rangers in Korea, New York: Ivy Books, 1989.

Blair, Clay, The Forgotten War, New York: Random House, 1987.

Hackworth, David, About Face, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Hastings, Max, The Korean War, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Knox, Donald, The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin, Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1985.

Toland, John, In Mortal Combat: Korea, 1950-1953: William Morrow and Company, 1991.