Aaron Bank, 101, a retired Army colonel who led daring missions during World War II and was best known for his postwar role in organizing the Army's elite Special Forces and serving as its first commander, died April 1 at his home in an assisted-living facility in Dana Point, Calif. No cause of death was not reported.
For his work with Special Forces, Col. Bank was known as "the father of the Green Berets."
During World War II, he was a special operations officer for the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.
When the Office of Strategic Services was disbanded soon after the war, Col. Bank and others were convinced that the Army should have a permanent unit whose mission would be to conduct unconventional operations. In 1951, the chief of the Army's psychological warfare staff, who had been impressed by the Office of Strategic Services' Special Operations branch during the war, instructed Col. Bank to staff and obtain approval for the creation of an OSS-style operational group.
In 1952, after Col. Bank and other key staff members made their case, the Army approved 2,300 spaces for men in a Special Forces unit -- the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) -- at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Col. Bank later wrote a memorandum suggesting that Special Forces soldiers be allowed to wear berets as a mark of distinction. He listed three possible colors for the berets: purple, wine red or green. But the Army didn't allow distinctive headgear at the time, and the idea was rejected.
It wasn't until 1962, four years after Col. Bank retired from the military, that President John F. Kennedy authorized Army Special Forces to wear berets. Kennedy, Col. Bank later said, "picked the green because he was an Irishman."
Today, about 7,700 soldiers are in five active-duty and two National Guard Special Forces groups.
As a teenager, Col. Bank, a New York native, began working summers as a lifeguard and swimming teacher. He liked the work so much that by the late 1920s, it had become something of a career, he later said.
"I'd go to Nassau in the Bahamas to work during the winter and then to Biarritz in southern France during the summer," he said in the 1968 interview. "It was a plush life."
He was in and out of Europe over the next decade and learned to speak French and German fluently. But in the late 1930s, sensing the inevitability of war, he returned home and joined the Army.
In 1943, Col. Bank was serving as a tactical training officer to a railroad battalion stationed at Camp Polk, La., when he saw a bulletin announcing that volunteers with foreign-language capabilities would be interviewed for "special assignments."
Once in the Office of Strategic Services, he said, he began a long training course that taught him "to do all the things that regular branches of the service frowned on" -- guerrilla warfare, sabotage, espionage, escape and evasion tactics.
He also learned parachuting. As commander of one of the three-man teams that dropped into southern France before the Allied Mediterranean invasion in August 1944, he and his men posed as civilians and helped French Resistance leaders organize a guerrilla force that blew up bridges, power lines and railroad tracks, and ambushed German columns.
In December 1944, Col. Bank received what he considered the most extraordinary assignment of his career: to recruit and train 170 anti-Nazi German POWs and defectors who would parachute with him into the Austrian Alps, where they would pose as a German mountain infantry company.
The primary goal of the mission, dubbed Iron Cross, was to capture high-ranking Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler, who were expected to seek refuge in the area as the war in Europe neared an end.
Had the operation gone through and had they been successful in capturing Hitler, Col. Bank told the Times, "the war would have been over overnight." But in April 1945 -- after three months of training in France -- the mission was scrubbed.
"I never cried in my life, but I damn near cried when they told me it was aborted," Col. Bank said in a Times interview.
Col. Bank said he heard two versions of why the mission was canceled. "One was that the American 7th Army was ready to crack into the Inn Valley. And it was a short time later that they did." And because many of the Germans on the mission were pro-communist, he said, he heard that "the State Department didn't want to drop a big team of party communists into Austria toward the latter part of the war."
Hitler, it turned out, was in Berlin at the time; he committed suicide April 30, 1945.
After the aborted Iron Cross mission, Col. Bank was parachuted into the jungles of Indochina to search for Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. His team located 165 French internees at three locations in the Vientiane area of Laos.
Col. Bank, who also served in the Korean War, retired from the Army in 1958 and moved to San Clemente, Calif.
He wrote two books: "From OSS to Green Berets: The Birth of Special Forces" (1987) and "Knights Cross" (1993), a novel co-written with E.M. Nathanson, author of "The Dirty Dozen."
Survivors include his wife; two daughters; and a granddaughter.