At first glance, no one would have taken Galen Kittleson for a hero, the only soldier in U.S. history to make four raids to free prisoners of war. Those who knew him, however, always thought of him as a big man, even though he stood barely five-four in his stocking feet. It had to do with the way he carried himself, with dignity and quiet pride in America and its people. He maintained that bearing after he retired as Command Sergeant Major of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group and returned to his farm in Iowa.
The last time I saw my old friend before he died in 2006, we walked out onto his pasture to look over his Herefords. He and I were both retired from Army Special Forces, where he was a legend. Soldiers could agree on one thing when it came to Sergeant Major Kittleson: the man did the Green Beret proud. And now he did farmers proud.
Galen came up hard in the Iowa cornbelt during the Great Depression, the eldest of eight surviving children. Two siblings ahead of him died during childbirth.
His father Floyd was of old-school Norwegian stock. A man of clipped, accented words—and few of them. Action, he always said, spoke much louder than words.
“Kind of scrawny,” he said of newborn Galen.
“He’ll grow,” said his mother Caroline.
“Hardly as big as a little catfish.”
“Floyd, you have yourself a son,” Caroline scolded. “Thank God this one lived. You’ll be proud of him, you will.”
Like his father, Galen grew up to become a man of action—and few words. Enlisting in the U.S. Army as a private, its lowest rank, he rose to its highest enlisted rank as a command sergeant major. He not only participated in history between private and CSM, he made history. Especially in the Army’s Special Operations Forces.
The formation of 6th Army’s Alamo Scouts during WWII propelled American armed forces into unconventional warfare and eventually evolved into elite special forces units such as the U.S. Navy SEALs and the U.S. Army Green Berets. The Alamo Scouts demanded elite, adventurous men for difficult and dangerous missions, often behind enemy lines. Much of the Alamo Scouts’ subsequent reputation was built upon two missions—both of them efforts to free prisoners of war from the Japanese.
Galen was among the initial volunteers. His first POW mission in late 1944 went behind enemy lines in New Guinea where a small contingent of Alamo Scouts freed 66 Dutch and French civilians being held by the Japanese at Cape Oransbari.
Four months later, in January 1945, Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts liberated 513 American and Filipino survivors of the Bataan Death March being held at the Cabanatuan POW camp in the Philippines, a feat celebrated in a number of books and in the recent movie, The Great Raid. Galen’s mission was to help blast open the front gates of the prison.
What if they had been betrayed? What if the Japs were lying in ambush tonight to unleash all hell upon them as they came sneaking across the open fields toward the compound? (From Raider, by Charles W. Sasser, St. Martin’s, 2002)
After WWII ended, Galen returned to Iowa to farm. He missed being part of something bigger than himself, of participating in grand events and being at least a cog in the moving wheels of history. He married his wartime pen pal Darlene Bruggeman and, a few years later, reenlisted in the army with the 101st Airborne Division. He soon volunteered for a new super-secret outfit that was taking the concept of guerrilla warfare to a new level—U.S. Army Special Forces.
In 1968, there were 1,463 U.S. POWs and MIAs listed in Southeast Asia. In spite of all U.S. efforts, not a single American had actually been rescued from a POW camp. Notices appeared on bulletin boards throughout the U.S. Army Special Forces section at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Colonel Arthur Simons seeks volunteers for moderately-hazardous mission. Volunteers report to Brigade Theater. . .
Galen stepped forward; he was 46-years-old and being referred to as “Pappy” by younger soldiers.
The Son Tay Raid was one of the most elaborate ever devised to recover American POWs. In November 1970, six helicopters with 50 specially-selected and specially-trained Green Berets landed at the camp in North Vietnam in the middle of the night, presaging the SEAL raid in 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The raid left a large enemy body count behind, with only one American wounded—but Pappy Kittleson and his teams faced disappointment again. The prisoners had been moved north to the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” within the past several days.
He bowed his head inside the helicopter (as the raiders withdrew), this reverent, unassuming little man from the cornfields of Iowa who would have blushed at the suggestion of his being called a hero, and he thanked God for the safe deliverance of these brave men around him who had at least tried.
“God,” he said, whispering, but the words thundered inside his head. “God, please let me be on it if there’s ever another try at freeing these poor men from captivity.” (From Raider)
On May 16, 2011, CSM Galen “Pappy” Kittleson was posthumously inducted into the Commando Hall of Honor at MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida. He had been previously inducted into the Green Beret Hall of Honor for his “lifetime of service to the United States of America and Special Operations Forces.”
For Pappy Kittleson, however, it was never about medals or awards. It was about honor and integrity. It was his heart and courage, not his physical stature, that made him a big man.
That early spring in Iowa before he died, as Pappy and I walked among his cattle, I saw in his eyes the simple pleasure and pride he took in being an American willing to risk everything, including his life, for country and other Americans. He had come full circle from the cornfields of Iowa back to the cornfields of Iowa. The quintessential American who had done his duty, then come home.