Lt. Gen. William Yarborough Dies

Army Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough with President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. Yarborough was an early leader of the Special Forces.
Army Lt. Gen. William P. Yarborough with President John F. Kennedy in the early 1960s. Yarborough was an early leader of the Special Forces. (U.s. Army)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 8, 2005

William P. Yarborough, 93, a retired Army lieutenant general who was an early Special Forces commander and also helped oversee a surveillance operation on thousands of Americans during the late 1960s, died Dec. 6 at a hospital near his home in Southern Pines, N.C. He had complications from a broken hip.

Gen. Yarborough, the son of an Army colonel and intelligence officer, had a major role in forming Army airborne operations at the start of World War II. He also was involved in some of the most daring and brutal operations of the war, including the invasion of Sicily, in which he saw his men mistakenly raked by Allied gunnery.

In 1961, after commanding a military intelligence group in Stuttgart, Germany, he began a four-year tenure as leader of both the Army Special Warfare Center and Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was credited with persuading President John F. Kennedy, during a visit to the center, to introduce the green beret as a visible way to distinguish the Special Forces.

The Green Berets were specialists in unconventional and anti-guerrilla warfare, trained to promote resistance behind Cold War lines. Gen. Yarborough, known as the "Big Y," also helped add counterinsurgency training because of the increasing likelihood that special forces could help in the heightened conflict in Vietnam.

During the 1967 race riots in Detroit and Newark, local law enforcement agencies were found to be ill equipped to handle the disorder. A report in the New York Times said that "troops called in to help restore order had little more than Esso road maps to guide them in both cities."

A federal operation named Continental United States Intelligence, or Conus Intel, was set up to aid local authorities. Gen. Yarborough figured prominently in the operation during his 18 months as the Army's top intelligence planner.

As assistant chief of staff for intelligence, he helped the effort to monitor members of groups deemed subversive -- radicals, antiwar protesters and black militants. A subsequent investigation by federal officials revealed that the Army had inserted thousands of civilian names into a computer system, including those it had monitored at antiwar rallies, and categorized them by their potential for causing trouble.

The list came to include members of the John Birch Society, the NAACP, the Ku Klux Klan and the Daughters of the American Revolution.

"We had some reason to feel outside influences were aiding and abetting those who had a legitimate right [to protest] inside the U.S., and this became the reason to try and invoke more sophisticated means to find out who was doing what," Gen. Yarborough told a reporter in 1993.

He later wrote, "The overwhelming bulk of information the U.S. Army gathered in connection with the civil disorders during the 1960s came from the American press and direct observation, not 'spying.' "

William Pelham Yarborough was born in Seattle on May 12, 1912. He was a 1936 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, where classmates included two future commanders of U.S. forces in Vietnam, Army Gens. William C. Westmoreland and Creighton W. Abrams Jr.

In one of his earliest assignments, at Fort Benning, Ga., he was a test officer for a provisional parachute group and had a lead role in designing the paratrooper's boot, uniform and qualification badge.

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