As a young man, Bank worked as chief life guard at an upscale resort in Biarritz. His widowed mother taught language (French and German) lessons to earn a living; this explains his unusual fluency in French and German, a skill which had much to do with his later activities as a special operations commander.
He enlisted in the Army on August 19, 1942, then volunteered for special operations work. He was in his late thirties, and thought "too old" for combat, but he was an unusually athletic man and so was accepted into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.
The OSS conducted both espionage operations (SI Branch) and special operations (SO Branch), for sabotage and guerrilla warfare. Bank was assigned to SO Branch, and on July 31, 1944, led the Jedburgh Team PACKARD, parachuting into Lozère Department of France and linking up with French Resistance.
At the time of "Operation Anvil", also known as "Operation Dragoon" (the Allied invasion of Southern France approximately six weeks after the D-Day invasion at Normandy), Bank and his French partisans drove the German forces away from the beachhead ahead of the Allied troops, liberating a number of French towns before the regular forces arrived.
In late 1944 and early 1945, Bank led "Operation Iron Cross," which evolved into a plan to capture or kill Adolf Hitler. The OSS actively recruited German POWs who were opposed to Hitler to form a special forces unit, outfitted with SS uniforms and highly trained in "raid and snatch" techniques. (The OSS found many willing volunteers amongst former German soldiers, primarily former German Communists, who vigorously opposed Hitler, and German Jews who had taken refuge in the Wehrmacht, posing as Gentiles.) This unit was trained as parachute infantry and was intended for insertion into the expected "Alpine Redoubt" on the Austrian/German border, where senior Nazi officials were planning to make their last stand against the advancing Allied armies.
Hitler was expected to flee from Berlin and retire to the Alpine Redoubt before the Soviets could enter the capital city, so General William Joseph Donovan, head of the OSS, issued this order: "Tell Bank to get Hitler."
"Iron Cross" was canceled almost on the eve of execution because intelligence showed that Hitler had remained in Berlin. (He committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.) Additionally, the 101st Airborne and 7th Army divisions were advancing so rapidly they were expected to capture the non-existent Alpine Redoubt before "Iron Cross" could be executed. (Bank's enemy-uniformed volunteers would also be prime targets for allied forces.)
With the capitulation of Germany in May, 1945, Bank was reassigned to the Pacific theater, where he was inserted into Indochina and linked up with Ho Chi Minh, then leading the resistance to the Japanese. Bank spent considerable time traveling through Vietnam with Ho and was impressed with Ho's manifest popularity among the Vietnamese population. Bank advised the OSS of Ho's great popularity, recommended that Ho be allowed to form a coalition government, and predicted that Ho would win a popular election overwhelmingly if one was conducted.
It is not known whether Bank's recommendations reached President Harry S. Truman, but American policy was contrary: Ho was a long-time Communist, having joined the party in the 1920s in Paris, and therefore was considered unacceptable as leader of a coalition government. Some French "Vichy" military forces remained in Indochina, and the United States now consented to the use of these residual forces to block Ho and reinstate Indochina as a French colony. President Truman and later President Dwight D. Eisenhower provided financial support to the French, thus leading to the Indochina War and ultimately the Vietnam War.
After the war Bank remained in the Army and became a leading advocate for the formation of a professional special forces (unconventional warfare (UW)) division, equivalent to the SO branch of OSS. Colonel Russell W. Volckmann (who had been a guerrilla in the Philippines) and Bank were instrumental in convincing the Army it needed such a force. The primary place such elements would be deployed, they thought, was behind the "Iron Curtain," in the Eastern European nations dominated by the Soviet Union, where there was a real possibility of a local resistance movement arising.
In 1952, Bank became the first commander of the Army's first Special Forces unit, called the 10th Special Forces Group. (This number was selected to confound the Russians with suspicions of nine more such units.) In establishing the 10th, he was as flexible as he had been with "Iron Cross", drawing upon former members of the "1st Special Service Force" known as the Devil's Brigade, as well as veterans of the OSS, the Parachute Infantry units, and guerrilla elements in the Pacific.
Using the training and strategies and the lessons learned during World War II, Bank created an elite unit of men skilled in foreign languages (to interface with foreign insurgents), the arts of sabotage and stealth tactics, the use of explosives for demolition, amphibious warfare, rock climbing, jungle warfare, mountain fighting and as ski troops.
Special Forces today are still all volunteer and organized into "A teams," as Bank organized his men in the 10th Special Forces group in 1952, with two experts in every specialty. They still undergo an arduous training process in which large numbers of men fail or quit, as Bank required of the men of "Operation Iron Cross".
Bank was commended by President George W. Bush in 2002, the year he celebrated his hundredth birthday, for developing the unconventional warfare programs and techniques that were used in toppling the Taliban.
Bank retired from the Army in 1958, and remained a vigorous man well into his eighties, swimming several miles a day in the Pacific Ocean near his home in San Clemente, California.
In the early 1970s, Bank began a personal investigation of the lack of security at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which is a few miles south of San Clemente. Bank determined that the San Onofre plant was protected by one private security guard with a sidearm, as if the only concern was civilian theft. Bank concluded that a single special forces soldier could overcome this guard, seize the plant and destroy it with a small quantity of explosives. The consequence could be a Chernobyl-type accident, whereby the damaged plant would spew radioactivity into the atmosphere and contaminate thousands of square miles, including the nearby Los Angeles basin.
Bank became alarmed at the recklessness of the civilian operators of San Onofre, and actively lobbied, then testified before a closed session of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, warning of the dangers of terrorist sabotage at San Onofre. As one of the world's leading experts on the sabotage of electric generating facilities, Bank spoke with great authority—but the AEC ignored him and did nothing.
Bank then shared his concerns with an investigative journalist, who wrote an exposé of poor security at San Onofre for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1974. This led to a Congressional investigation and further secret testimony by Bank before a Congressional committee. This time, Bank's testimony was heeded, and Congressional pressure forced the AEC and its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to act. The U.S. nuclear power industry was ordered to spend billions of dollars implementing anti-terrorist security measures at commercial nuclear reactors nationwide, including on-site security squads with automatic weapons, remote scram capabilities (to take control of the plant from a distance and shut it down in the event of an attack) and the use of "red teams" to probe defenses and thereby eliminate vulnerabilities.
He served in the late 1970s as the chief of Security on Beach Road, a private community of homes along Capistrano Beach, California.
Bank married his wife Catherine in 1948, and they raised two daughters, Linda and Alexandra. He wrote two books, first, From OSS to Green Berets: the Birth of Special Forces, which describes his exploits in France and Indochina and his role in founding the Special Forces and then Knight's Cross, a fictionalized account of a completed Operation Iron Cross which was co-written with E. M. Nathanson. He died on April 1, 2004, in Dana Point, California, at the age of 101. He is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, California.
Colonel Bank's awards include:Army Distinguished Service Medal
Bronze Star Medal
American Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with bronze campaign star
European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with bronze campaign star
World War II Victory Medal
Army of Occupation Medal
National Defense Service Medal
Korean Service Medal
Medal in Commemoration of Victory in the Resistance Against Aggression and ribbon (RoC)
Combat Infantryman Badge
Senior Parachutist Badge with combat star
Special Forces Tab