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Hastings man was part of first special forces unit

Conrad "Connie" Vineyard stands with a collection of documents and memorabilia he keeps in memory of his service with the Alamo Scouts. Star Gazette photo by Katrina Styx

For the first 10 months after Conrad "Connie" Vineyard joined the military in 1943, he played basketball.

He had been an engineering student when he decided to join the army. One day he looked around the campus, he said, and all the other men were gone to the war, so he decided to sign up himself.

But after spending all his time on the basketball court, without getting any obvious military training, he realized that he wanted to go back to school. The military had a program that allowed soldiers six years to finish college and Vineyard took advantage of it. He passed his exams and had everything lined up. Then he took a 10-day furlough, and when he got back, he found out the program had been cancelled.

He was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, but there were no formal plans. Vineyard still hadn't gone through even basic training. There he found a lake that was a couple miles long, and as he had been a swimmer in high school, started swimming every day, until he was able to swim the whole length.

Vineyard was transferred to St. Louis, Mo., where he was trained to handle serious medical conditions, and again to infantry school in Fort Benning, Ga., where he got his first real look at the army.

"They kept me in the United States for almost two years," Vineyard said.

"A couple officers showed up one day and they knew who I was," Vineyard said. "And for the first time I heard the name Alamo Scouts."

Although his early military career may have seemed trivial, he had been singled out to be a part of the army's first special forces unit.

"It was like they had preset plans, but they never told me," he said.

The Alamo Scouts were a small division, with only 138 operational men. They were an intelligence reconnaissance unit, trained to get inside enemy territories, gather information to bring back to the regular army, and get out - all completely undetected.

Operations were done in small teams made up of just a handful of men.

"The six or seven men on your team, they had to be like your brothers," Vineyard said.

There are two reasons Vineyard believes he was selected as an Alamo Scout. The first was all the months he spent playing basketball, working together with other soldiers as a team. The second was his ability to swim long distances.

For the Alamo Scouts, getting in and out of the South Pacific Islands often meant having to swim. They would get close using submarines, PT boats, rubber rafts, and such, and the crafts weren't always able to get right up on shore.

"Sometimes there were storms and you got dumped," Vineyard added.

Vineyard himself came late to the Scouts. In his last week he was getting ready to go into Japan to gather information in advance of a U.S. invasion planned in December of 1945, but the war ended before his mission began.

If you've never heard of the Alamo Scouts before, there's good reason. The Scouts were only operational for about two years. The day World War II ended, the Scouts were disbanded permanently.

"It was like we didn't exist," Vineyard said.

The men were told to go home, and not to tell anyone about what they did.

"And we didn't," Vineyard said.

For about 60 years he kept silent, even to his extended family. The only people who knew were his first wife and oldest daughter.

"I wanted them to know what went on in World War II and I couldn't tell them," he said.

For years, he and his oldest daughter would go to public libraries searching for books or information on the Alamo Scouts, but there was nothing.

Parts of the mission was declassified in the 1980s and the whole became public in the early 1990s, but not many knew until author Lance Zedric published "Silent Warriors of World War II: The Alamo Scouts Behind Japanese Lines."

Vineyard himself didn't find out until he heard of a History Channel documentary on the Alamo Scouts in 2001.

"He was just overcome," said his wife, Priscilla.

After all the years of secrecy, being able to share his story gave him a sense of validation, he said.

Vineyard attended his first Alamo Scout reunion in 2001 in Pensacola, Fla., and since then he's been in regular contact with the half dozen remaining Scouts. He's also been active in talking about the Alamo Scouts.

"We've tried desperately to get the message out," he said.

He speaks in school history classes, attends symposiums and helps raise money to help support reunions and spread awareness.

"Now we can tell, so we tell," he said.

Formal recognition

In July of 2005, Vineyard and the Alamo Scouts were recognized in the Congressional Record. The following tribute was given by Ike Skelton of Missouri in the House of Representatives.

Mr. Speaker, let me take this means to recognize the fine accomplishments and storied history of the Alamo Scouts. The Alamo Scouts were the forerunners of the Army Special Forces "Green Berets." Without their determined efforts, the United States Army's path to victory in the Pacific would have been much harder.

I mention the Alamo Scouts today not only because they were the soldiers who had the skill and tenacity to accomplish the most top secret missions of World War II, but because as the years go their numbers are dwindling. I feel that it is important that all here today recognize the accomplishments of the Alamo Scouts and that we all pay tribute to them before they are lost to us forever.

The Alamo Scouts' role in history has remained obscure for many years, though their role in defeating the Japanese was crucial. Their training was rigorous and their missions were top secret. Of the thousands of soldiers who the military selected, only 138 men completed their training and became Alamo Scouts. Men like Robert L. Shirkey, Zeke McConnell, and Conrad Vinyard completed their training and went on to participate in missions that saved the war. It was an Alamo Scout, Galen C. Kittleston, who discovered the Cabanatuan prison camp that led to the release of hundreds of prisoners of war who would have surely died otherwise. It was an Alamo Scout, Robert Shirkey, who discovered that General Tomoyuki Yamashita, The Tiger of Malaya, had returned to Northern Luzon. This gave General MacArthur the information he needed to recapture the Philippines.

Most remarkable, Mr. Speaker, is the fact that despite the Alamo Scouts' daring and dangerous missions and despite the weeks and months spent behind enemy lines, not one Alamo Scout was ever killed in action. Even though they had the ability to defy death on the field of combat, many Alamo Scouts are no longer with us. Of the 138 original Alamo Scouts, only about 20 are still with us today.

Mr. Speaker, I know that you, along with the other members of Congress, will join me in honoring the Alamo Scouts and recognizing their invaluable contribution to America's success in World War II.