Col. Edson D. Raff, who led the first combat jump by U.S. paratroopers in World War II and served a decade later as an early commander of the Army's Special Forces, died March 11 in Garnett, Kan. Col. Raff, who lived in Garnett and Bora-Bora, French Polynesia, was 95.
The U.S. paratroopers of World War II were an elite and glamorous bunch. Col. Raff, a graduate of West Point, was one of their first commanders, having trained at Fort Benning, Ga, in spring 1941, when the Army was inaugurating its jump school.
On the evening of Nov. 7, 1942, aircraft carrying the 556 paratroopers of Col. Raff's 2nd Battalion, 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment, took off from Cornwall in western England for the U.S. airborne's first mission. Flying aboard 39 C-47 transports, the troops were in the vanguard of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa.
German paratroopers had achieved stunning success in the 1940 invasion of the Low Countries, but Col. Raff ' s men were undertaking the longest journey for an airborne invasion that had ever been tried. They were flying 1,600 miles toward two airstrips near Oran, Algeria, that they had been ordered to seize.
Many of the planes became lost and missed their objectives, and when Col. Raff bailed out, he smashed into a large rock, breaking two ribs, and found himself 35 miles from his destination, the Tafaraoui airstrip. By time he arrived there by jeep, it had been taken by troops who landed from the sea.
Soon, however, Col. Raff's paratroopers teamed up with British engineers, a small U.S. anti-tank unit and lightly armed French troops to harass German forces in Tunisia, though they were greatly outnumbered.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been the Allied commander for the North African invasion, called Col. Raff's exploits in Tunisia "a minor epic."
"The deceptions he practiced, the speed with which he struck, his boldness and his aggressiveness kept the enemy completely confused during a period of weeks," the general wrote in "Crusade in Europe" (Doubleday, 1948).
Col. Raff told of his early airborne experiences in "We Jumped to Fight" (Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1944). He trained paratroopers for the invasion of Normandy, then commanded an armored task force that landed at Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The next winter, Col. Raff commanded the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the Battle of the Bulge.
On March 24, 1945, Col. Raff became the first U.S. paratrooper to jump into Germany east of the Rhine, leading his regiment in Operation Varsity, the last large-scale U.S. airborne drop of the war in Europe. His paratroopers landed near Wesel, then took part in the capture of Essen and Duisburg.
Edson Duncan Raff was born Nov. 15, 1907, in New York City. He graduated from West Point in 1933 with a concentration in mathematics.
After World War II, Col. Raff turned to another aspect of unconventional warfare. In the 1950s, he commanded the 77th Special Forces Group, Airborne, and the Psychological Warfare Center, both at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was an early proponent of having Special Forces troops wear green berets, despite the Army's opposition on the ground that the berets carried a foreign flavor and seemed elitist. In 1961 the Special Forces obtained formal Army approval for their green berets, thereby gaining their informal name.
Col. Raff retired from the military in 1958. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Silver and Bronze Stars, and was a member of the French Legion of Honor.
He is survived by his wife, Alomah Make of Bora-Bora; a son, James of Greenville, SC; a daughter, Leila Boyer of Harrisonburg, Va; a brother, Herbert of New York City; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His first marriage, to Virginia Chaney, ended in divorce.
Published in The San Diego Union Tribune on Mar. 29, 2003.
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