Seventy years ago, Jack Taylor, arguably America’s first Navy SEAL, spent Christmas being tortured and beaten in a small, dank cell in a Gestapo prison. “I broke down. It was the only time during all of my captivity,” he says.
Taylor was a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Maritime Unit, the group that pioneered the technology and tactics that were the origins of today’s U.S. Navy SEALs. It was an extraordinary and eclectic group of men that also included an archeologist who could have been the model for Indiana Jones and Sterling Hayden, one of Hollywood’s leading stars.
As one of the OSS’s most experienced operatives, this first SEAL planned and executed a parachute mission deep into the Third Reich in the fall of 1944. After Taylor and his team were captured far behind German lines in Austria, he found himself with other high-level prisoners in Gestapo headquarters in Vienna.
The stories of Taylor and the other OSS frogmen are captured for the first time in my new book, First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit.
Despite the pain, Taylor and his fellow prisoners brought a ray of humanity and Christmas spirit into their spartan cells. They obtained a small wreath and candles from a guard who was a former police officer and secretly opposed the Nazis.
The political prisoners living in Taylor’s cell block came and went, many executed by the Third Reich.
“I finally became resigned to my death,” Taylor said. “With the aid of [another prisoner] who was very religious, I prayed twice a day for myself and my comrades.”
But his ordeal was just beginning.
After being taken from the Gestapo prison, he was crammed into a rail car with dozens of other inmates. It steamed deeper into Austria, finally stopping at the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp, a death factory where inmates were worked literally to death on an industrial scale.
Upon their arrival, Taylor and his fellow inmates were shown what to expect from life in Mauthausen when, right in front of them, a maniacal SS officer pulled out a pistol and blew the brains out of a prisoner.
After being stripped and issued prison garb, Taylor was mercilessly beaten, called “an American swine” and made to stand in the cold and snow barefoot, with a gun pointed to his head, for hours.
Later, the Germans forced him to build the camp’s crematorium. Taylor recalled the acrid smell of the horrific machinery: “Black oily smoke and flames shot out the top of the stacks as healthy flesh and fat was burned, as compared to the normal pale yellow smoke from old emaciated prisoners. This yellow smoke and heavy sickening smell of flesh and hair was blown over our barrack 24 hours a day, and as hungry as we were, we could not always eat.”
Four times, the camp officers placed Taylor on the camp’s death list, but inmates who’d been forced to work for the SS took him off each time. They looked at this American as the man who would memorize the brutal crimes of the SS, and they were right.
Taylor secretly recorded what he saw: “gassing, shooting, hanging, etc.; clubbing to death with wooden or iron sticks, shovels, pick-axes, hammer, etc.; tearing to pieces by dogs trained especially for this purpose; injection into the heart or veins of magnesium-chlorate, benzene, etc.; exposure naked in sub-zero weather after a hot shower; scalding-water shower followed by cowtail whipping to break blisters and tear flesh away; mashing in a concrete mixer; drowning; beating men over a 150 foot cliff to the rocks below; beating and driving men into the electric fence or guarded limits where they are shot; forcing to drink a great quantity of water then jumping on the stomach while the prisoner is lying on his back,” and many other horrible crimes.
Some of the Christmas hope Taylor felt back in December 1944 returned when elements of the U.S. Army broke through Mauthausen’s gates and liberated the camp on May 5, 1945.
A skeletal, 120-pound Jack Taylor was there to greet them, saying, “God Bless America.”
As his fellow inmates had wished, Taylor told the arriving liberators about the crimes committed at the camp and provided evidence that led to their convictions at Nuremberg.
It was a story arc even Hollywood would have trouble imagining, Taylor went from being a California dentist to the swim commando who tested the first scuba gear to torture victim, inmate, ultimate survivor, and star witness at the Nuremberg trials.
In the end, he avenged those had died at the hands of the SS and brought them to justice — as his successor SEALs continue to do with Americas’ enemies today.
— Patrick K. O’Donnell is the best-selling author of nine books, including First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit, Dog Company, and We Were One, which was selected for the Commandant’s Professional Reading List. He has provided historical consultation for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers; he served as a combat historian with a Marine rifle platoon during the battle of Fallujah; and he is an expert on special operations, Iraq, and counterinsurgency on the modern battlefield. More information is available at PatrickKODonnell.com and FirstSealsBook.com and on Twitter at @combathistorian