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.
Gen. Mark Clark selected him in July 1942 as his adviser in England to help plan the airborne phase of the invasion of North Africa. He also helped lead paratroop task forces in North Africa.
The invasion of Sicily in 1943 provided Gen. Yarborough, then a battalion commander, with one of his grimmest memories: the downing of 23 troop transport planes and 410 men by Allied antiaircraft fire. The poor coordination among air, ground and naval forces led the Allies to mistake the U.S. transport planes for German bombers that had shortly before flown over the area.
After seeing wounded paratroopers leaping from crippled aircraft, Gen. Yarborough said: "They all jumped. Every man in my plane jumped although some could hardly stand up. I haven't found them all yet, but every man jumped."
He later liberated a series of villages in Sicily and while commanding the 509th Parachute Battalion became part of the force that landed at Anzio-Nettuno and participated in the invasion of Southern France.
As provost marshal for U.S. Forces in Austria after the war, he helped shuttle the Russian-born dance legend Vaslav Nijinsky and his wife from Vienna to England, where the dancer, in the throes of advanced mental illness, spent his final years.
In 1965, Gen. Yarborough proved an unbendable negotiator with the North Koreans over matters related to the Korean War armistice. Meeting in Panmunjom, a village on the border between North and South Korea, the talks erupted into volleys of sarcasm, with a North Korean major general telling Gen. Yarborough to quit "playing the role of an announcer of the Voice of America."
Gen. Yarborough replied with a reference to a play then being staged in Beijing called "A Bucket of Manure."
His final active-duty assignment, in 1971, was chief of staff and deputy commander in chief of the U.S. Army in the Pacific. He later wrote military and political books and was a State Department consultant in Africa.
His decorations included two awards of the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star and four awards of the Legion of Merit.
Soldiers who graduate from the Special Forces Qualification Course receive a combat knife named in his honor.
Gen. Yarborough married Norma Tuttle, the daughter of an Army colonel. She was crowned Miss Topeka of 1936, and her bridal portrait was used in a Camay soap advertisement. She died in 1999.
A daughter, Norma Kay Yarborough, died in 1961.
Survivors include two children, retired Army Lt. Col. William Lee Yarborough, a Special Forces and Army Ranger veteran, of Falls Church, and Patricia Reed of Atlanta; four grandchildren; and a great-grandson.