OSS Plank Holder and Special Operations Legend Laid to Rest at Arlington

By: Rick Green, USSOCOM History Office - 7/26/2018

  • Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) render a three-volley salute during the graveside service for a special op
    Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) render a three-volley salute during the graveside service for a special operations icon, Caesar Civitella, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., July 19, 2018.
  • Goia Palmerio receives the American flag during the funeral for her father, Caesar Civitella, a special operations icon, at Arli
    Goia Palmerio receives the American flag during the funeral for her father, Caesar Civitella at Arlington National Cemetery, July 19, 2018. Photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Barry Loo, USSOCOM Office of Communication.
  • Sgt. Caesar Civitella receiving an award from Maj. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan after World War II.  Courtesy photo.
    Sgt. Caesar Civitella receiving an award from Maj. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan after World War II.  Courtesy photo.

Editor’s note: Caesar Civitella, along with his wife Ramona, were laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery July 19, 2018. He died Oct. 25, 2017 at the age of 94. Civitella received USSOCOM’s Bull Simons Award, the command’s highest honor for lifetime achievement in special operations in 2008. The following is a summary of his extraordinary special operations career.

Civitella was born Aug. 21, 1923, in Philadelphia, Pa. The son of Italian immigrants, Civitella never knew his father, who died two months before he was born. His mother raised both him and his sister until he was afforded the opportunity to attend Girard College at age 6. Civitella graduated from Girard College in 1941 at age 17. Girard provided him with "the best of everything," and its academics, athletics and structure set Civitella on his path to success. He attributed his health and longevity to the life lessons imparted to him at Girard College.

In June 1941, Civitella enrolled in the Pennsylvania Maritime Academy, living full-time on a Coast Guard cutter. However, the sinking of so many merchant ships after America's entry into World War II convinced him to pursue another vocation. Following employment with the Ford Motor Company in Chester, Pa., Civitella answered his nation's call and joined the Army in February 1943. After completing basic training, and, ironically, because of Maritime Academy experience, he was assigned to the Amphibious Engineers at Cape Cod, Mass. While serving as a crew member on the commanding officer's yacht, the crew decided to take the yacht "out for a little spin" one Sunday morning without permission. Facing court-martial or transfer, Civitella chose the latter, thus beginning his relationship with airborne and special operations forces.

After completing airborne training at Fort Benning, Ga., Civitella reported for duty at Camp Mackall, N.C. Just a week later, he was ordered to appear before screeners who tested his Italian fluency, and they also posed challenging questions. This began his career with the Office of Strategic Services, the first joint special operations organization.

Civitella traveled to the OSS training facility known as "Area F" at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. There, Civitella, 12 other enlisted men and two officers were assigned to a 15-man OSS operational group. Success behind the lines necessitated trust, respect and leadership within each OG. His OG trainers continually provided challenging opportunities, and shortly after, in early 1944, Civitella shipped out to North Africa for continued training and preparation.

Civitella's operational group initially supported Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France Aug. 15, 1944. As part of Team Lafayette, he made his first operational jump behind enemy lines to support the Maquis, or French resistance fighters. Lafayette's mission included conducting raids and ambushes against German forces. Team Lafayette, along with two other OGs, captured nearly 4,000 Axis soldiers in an astounding employment of psychological warfare against the finance section of a Nazi division in France.

Following his mission in southern France, Civitella and his OG were sent to Italy. There he participated in 21 air operations as a "bundle-kicker" to resupply other OGs in Italy, for which he received the Air Medal. His second operational jump occurred in April 1945, as a member of Team Sewanee. Sewanee was intended to assist OG Team Spokane, who was working with the Italian resistance. He parachuted into the Italian Alps along the Swiss border, tasked to report on German activity, assist downed airmen, and prevent German scorched-earth activities. On top of these missions, Civitella's OG also attempted to capture the Italian Il Duce, Benito Mussolini. Civitella and his team traveled by horse and sled through the mountains, carrying gold to pay the people who held Mussolini. However, Team Sewanee arrived too late; Italian partisans had already killed Mussolini. For Civitella's missions in Italy he was awarded the Bronze Star.

After the end of the war in Europe, he returned to OSS headquarters in Washington, D.C., where he compiled OG after-action reports under Cmdr. John Ford, the famous movie director. Civitella left the Army in early 1946 and attended the University of Pennsylvania before re-enlisting again in 1947. After some counterintelligence training, he went to the 82nd Airborne Division, where he served as an intelligence NCO. Challenged by Col. (later Lt. Gen.) Thomas Trapnell, Civitella applied for and received a direct commission in 1951.

The following year, 2nd Lt. Civitella was among the first men recruited into the new Special Forces program. He was initially assigned to the Special Forces Department within the Psychological Warfare Center. When creating Army Special Forces, Col. Aaron Bank, Civitella, and the other Special Forces pioneers relied heavily on their OSS experience.

He later left the school to help establish the 77th Special Forces Group — later the 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) — and in 1955 he was assigned to the 10th SFG (A) in Bad Tölz, Germany.

In 1958, Civitella returned from Europe and was eventually assigned to the combat development office of the Special Warfare Center and School, where he was involved in the development of Special Forces doctrine, equipment and techniques.

In January 1961, Civitella began the first of his three tours in Vietnam. He also worked on different insertion and extraction methods, including SCUBA, HALO and the famous Fulton "Skyhook" extraction system. Eighteen days before his retirement, Civitella was successfully "snatched-up" by a Caribou airplane using the Fulton Skyhook. On Aug. 31, 1964, Maj. Civitella retired from the Army.

After a brief retirement of less than 24 hours, Civitella joined the CIA the next day and was assigned to the agency's Air Branch to support clandestine service air requirements. From 1967 to 1969 he served in Vietnam as the Senior Province Officer in Charge for Kien Phong Province, supervising SOF and Vietnamese personnel. 

Throughout his career, Civitella worked on many innovative projects. As an explosives expert, he developed a delayed explosive device, which sounded like a platoon or company-size force engaged in a firefight. Civitella used the device as a diversion technique, and it was also used in 1970 by Col. "Bull" Simons during the Son Tay POW rescue attempt in North Vietnam.

In 1976, Civitella was assigned to the CIA's Plans Branch as the liaison officer to the Pentagon for Special Operations. There, he became heavily involved in the development, validation and certification of the nation's first emergency response force. During this period, he worked closely with the unit's first commander, Col. Charlie Beckwith, a past Bull Simons recipient.

The unit passed its last validation exercise on Nov. 4, 1979, the very same day the Iranian Hostage Crisis began in Tehran. Civitella provided key intelligence and support to Operation Eagle Claw, America's military response to the hostage crisis. He identified an operative for insertion into Iran who was responsible for gathering intelligence as well as providing logistic support for a rescue attempt. Civitella also coordinated the insertion of Maj. Dick Meadows, another Bull Simons Award recipient, who supported Beckwith's task force in Iran.

Civitella began his last assignment with the CIA on Feb. 1, 1981, as the interagency representative to U.S. Readiness Command and the newly established Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, both based at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. There, Civitella coordinated the interagency operational, intelligence and training support for those two commands. On Jan. 1, 1983, the RDJTF became U.S. Central Command, and in 1987, USREDCOM was deactivated and replaced by U.S. Special Operations Command. Many of Civitella's exploits with the Agency remain classified, but when he retired on Aug. 31, 1983, he was awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his work as "an extremely talented and gifted operations officer."

In retirement, Civitella continued to stay involved in the special operations community through the OSS veterans' group and the Special Forces Association.

Civitella had been married to his wife, Ramona, for 63 years. She passed away Oct. 16, 2015.  They had a son, Mark, a daughter Goia and several grandchildren.

Soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) render a 3-volley salute during the graveside service for Caesar Civitella, a special operations icon, at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., July 19, 2018.

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