World War II OSS veteran, 100, earns Special Forces tab

His covert operations in France and China with the OSS were classified for 50 years.
Nicholas Slayton Avatar
Ellsworth "Al" Johnson, 100, received the Special Forces tab and green beret on Sept. 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Special Operations Command)

On Friday, OSS veteran Ellsworth “Al” Johnson officially received the U.S. Army Special Forces tab and beret. He is 100 years old. 

Johnson is a World War II veteran who served in the Office of Strategic Services’ Operational Group in France and China. The Army had determined that the centenarian met all of the requirements to join the Special Forces Regiment, which shares lineage with the OSS. 

“This is an extremely rare event and, quite frankly, the last of its kind that will ever occur. We are all excited to welcome Mr. Ellsworth as a member of the Special Forces Regiment,” Major Russell M. Gordon, 1st Special Forces Command’s director of public affairs, said.

Johnson was presented with a Special Forces tab and a green beret on Friday, Sept. 1 by 1st Special Forces Command’s Brig. Gen. Gil Ferguson and U.S. Army Special Operations Command’s deputy commander, Maj. Gen. Patrick Roberson. Johnson was joined by his family at the Riley Grove Assisted Living Center in Michigan where he lives. 

The OSS Operational Groups were one of the precursors to the military’s modern special operation groups. The U.S. Army’s Special Forces, better known for their distinctive head gear, the green beret, were not formed until 1952. The original 34-person teams conducted direct action and unconventional warfare. 

Subscribe to Task & Purpose Today. Get the latest military news and culture in your inbox daily.

Johnson grew up in a military family, moving often in his youth with his father who was in the Army. When World War II broke out, he was not paying much attention.

“I had more important things to think about at the time, like baseball and girls,” he said in a 2007 interview with the Veterans History Project. After Pearl Harbor, however, that changed. He was drafted — his older brother joined the Army before him — and trained as a medic. While stateside he signed up for the OSS. 

After training in England, he jumped into France. The OSS soldiers worked with the French resistance. In August 1944, after the D-Day invasion, they assaulted a German-held dam in central France. The attack worked and the Nazis gave up the facility, which provided power to much of the region. 

After serving in France, Johnson deployed to the Pacific theater. His team volunteered — it was that or be split up and absorbed into the regular Army, he recalled. In July he jumped into China, along with Chinese commandos that the OSS had trained. The Allied forces attacked a Japanese garrison in the country, failing to take the site but heavily weakening the enemy forces. Johnson’s medical training proved useful as he was able to help treat wounded comrades before they reached a doctor. 

During his time in the Army, Johnson received two Bronze Stars. His work with the OSS would remain classified until 1995, a half-century after he fought in the war. 

“I loved it. I loved the service,” Johnson said in 2007. 

The latest on Task & Purpose