Special Forces Sergeant Major Joe Murray passed away on December 23 and will be laid to rest today at the Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, NC.
SGM Murray spent 30 years in the service of the US Army, with the vast majority of it being as a Green Beret in the Special Forces. Murray served from 1962 – 1992 and at the time of his retirement was the School Sergeant Major for the USA JFK SWC (US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School).
Murray went to Korea in 1962-63 and then to West Germany where he was in the 3rd Armored Division as a 106mm Recoilless Rifle Gunner and an 81mm mortar section leader from 1964-66.
He joined Special Forces in 1966 and after graduation was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group (5th SFG) in Vietnam. There as the Intelligence Sergeant, he assigned to the 4th Corps Mike Force as an Airboat Section Leader, Reconnaissance Team Leader, Indigenous Company Commander, and Battalion Commander.
After returning to the US in 1968, Murray joined the 6th SFG as the team sergeant of a HALO Team (High Altitude Low Opening, military free-fall parachutists) and went on several missions to the Middle East, the Far East and in Europe. It was in 1970 that Murray along with about 100 other men volunteered for a dangerous mission that they didn’t know the destination or the actual mission.
Murray was one of the 56 Special Forces soldiers that were selected, and who flew from Thailand thru one of the most heavily defended air corridors in the world at that time outside of Hanoi, North Vietnam. There they assaulted the POW camp at Son Tay. The Raiders, however, found a dry hole. An intelligence failure doomed the mission to failure.
The prisoners were moved to another camp a few miles away due to a flood in their prison compound. Murray was wounded in the action and was awarded the Silver Star. All of the Americans were able to assault the compound, neutralize about 200 Vietnamese and Chinese troops, and successfully exfil without losing a man.
In an interview with Fayetteville Observer-Times in 1990, Murray said, “We scared the hell out of the Vietnamese and taught them we could get into the highest air-defended piece of real estate the world’s ever known and get out.”
“I still remember the feelings I had as the aircraft started the final approach,” he said. “I glanced out the window and the lights of Hanoi looked like any major city at night. My stomach felt like I’d swallowed a basketball.”
“That’s what we trained for,” he added. “You have one time in your career you get a chance to do something that’s really important.”
His part of the raid was to secure the outside of the prison compound so that the assault element could safely exfil the prison compound. Two North Vietnamese soldiers had slipped behind his position and fired on him, wounding him in the back of his leg, where the blood was rushing down into his boot. He took out both soldiers and kept at it until the mission was complete.
He later served with the 1st Special Forces Group (1st SFG) and deployed to nine different countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Korea. He returned to Ft. Bragg in 1974 and worked at the 18th Airborne Corps. Murray rejoined Special Forces in 1978 and served in the 7th Special Forces Group as the Company Sergeant Major in A/1/7. He trained El Salvadoran troops and took his company in 1983 to Trujillo, Honduras to set up the CREM (Regional Military Training Center).
After serving in Pennsylvania with the 28th Infantry Division, Murray returned to Ft. Bragg in 1988 where he was the School Sergeant Major at JFKSWC. Murray would assign all incoming SF cadre men to one of the myriad of schoolhouse assignments where our paths crossed again. He had spoken to my O&I (Operations and Intelligence Course) class.
I’d been told by many of my friends in SF that the new course (SFOT which later became SFAS) was where everyone coming in was being assigned. They told me “he’ll show you the big board, and talk about all the needs, but you’ll end up at Selection.” And they were so right. SGM Murray showed me the big board and was lamenting the lack of NCOs to go to the O&I Committee. I told him I was O&I qualified. His eyebrows went up and he smiled, “You are?, that is good to know for down the road, but for now we really need you out at Selection,” he said with a wink.
We saw him occasionally because the Selection course was new and everyone wanted to check it out, but unfortunately, I didn’t know him as well as some of the other older guys did, and that was lamentable as he’s one of the pioneers of what became the Joint Special Operations Command.
In his interview with the Fayetteville paper at the reunion of the Son Tay Raiders in 2016, he summed up what it’s like to be in Special Forces. “When you join Special Forces, you join a family,” he said. “There’s not an organization like it. You got a family of your own, but you adopt the soldiers under you.”
RIP Sergeant Major.