Today, the Navy SEALs are the stuff of Hollywood legend: The last two years alone have seen them featured in both Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper. But few people know the history of America’s first swim commando teams.
It all began with a kick in the ass. On the night of December 19, 1941, a 709-ton Auda-class Italian submarine surfaced in Alexandria Harbor, and six Italian frogmen mounted three miniature submersibles that contained massive warheads. Clad in wetsuits and wearing breathing devices, they each received a ceremonial kick in the backside from their commanding officer, Prince Junio Valerio Scipione Borghese, as they exited the submarine. Later called “The Black Prince,” Borghese was the leader of Decima MAS, an Italian special-operations unit that included these underwater swim commandos.
Invisible from the surface, these men entered the home of the British fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean and detonated their warheads, sinking two British battleships and a tanker. As a result of their daring attack, the balance of maritime power in that part of the world shifted, setting off an underwater arms race. Other nations rushed to develop their own capabilities and the means to support them.
The United States was perhaps the farthest behind when the need for this capability became apparent. In 1942, America didn’t have special-operations units. To solve that problem, the U.S. government turned to its Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. At the time, no technology for underwater combat swimming existed in a military-operational form in the American arsenal. The OSS Maritime Unit (MU) would have to develop it and the teams needed to use it, overnight — with a whopping budget of $500.
The Maritime Unit’s ranks were filled out by a cast of characters fit for a movie. Their ranks included Jack Taylor, an adventurer and former dentist from Hollywood, Calif., and Sterling Hayden, who was an actual movie star and a big box-office draw during his day. They were joined by an archeologist, California surfers, Olympic-caliber swimmers, and a grizzled British veteran of World War I.
Their extraordinary stories are retold in my new book, First SEALS: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit.
To develop their technology, the Maritime Unit’s leaders turned at first to the Navy, which didn’t possess the proper type of device. They then looked to the civilian world and found two individuals: Jack Browne, a pioneering diver who had founded his own diving-equipment company at the tender age of 20, and a young medical student named Christian Lambertsen. Browne had been working on a device he called a “lung,” but it did not perform as well as the rebreather developed by Lambertsen. Using an old World War I gas mask, a bicycle pump, and other scavenged parts, Lambertsen had developed his first rebreather in his parents’ garage and had been testing it in the coves of the Jersey Shore since the 1930s. When the OSS came calling in 1942, Lambertsen was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and had to skip classes in order to conduct secret tests on his device with the OSS.
The early trials of the rebreather didn’t always go well. On one occasion, Lambertsen, a dog, and a canary entered an air-tight chamber, which was then filled with poisonous gas. First the canary and then the dog fell over, as expected (they were not wearing rebreathers), but when Lambertsen leaned over to check the animals, he fell over too. Fortunately, Lambertsen survived, and development of the device continued.
The first successful trial within the auspices of the OSS took place at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., on November 17, 1942. At the time, the Shoreham possessed one of the largest indoor pools in the D.C. area. Working with Cleveland’s Ohio Chemical and Manufacturing Company, the OSS and Lambertsen fabricated the first American rebreather for military use. Lambertsen would go on to coin the term “SCUBA” and had a large hand in developing the various dive tables that divers continue to use today. He would later be known as the “Father of American Combat Swimming.”
The Ohio Chemical and Manufacturing Company fabricated the device and everything that went along with it, such as wetsuits, swim fins, and face masks. The OSS also pioneered motorized surfboards and floating mattresses, as well as one-man submarines. They were also constantly monitoring the Italian program and trying to catch up.
They also needed operatives to utilize this breakthrough technology. For this, they turned to the beaches of California, where some of the greatest swimmers in the United States resided before the war. They included lifeguards, surfers, and national and Olympic-caliber swimmers. The OSS wanted super-athletes with brains, the ideal candidate being a Ph.D. who could win a bar fight. Their ranks included Gordon Soltau, who became an all-pro wide receiver and kicker for the San Francisco 49ers after the war.
With the nascent technology being developed, the OSS also needed a place to train men and enhance the equipment. The first “SEAL base” was located outside Washington, D.C., at Smith Point, Md., across the Potomac River from Quantico, Va. It was known as “Area D.” The OSS converted the mosquito-infested remote area into a secret base, importing most of the buildings from an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp. When professional guards could not be found, they hired five elderly locals with shotguns.
An immediate need was a submarine for training exercises. None could be had, so the OSS went down to the Washington Yacht Club and pressed into service an aging cabin cruiser known as the Maribel, for which they paid $50 a month. Starting at Area D, the MU pioneered many of the core capabilities found in today’s SEAL teams.
Beginning with just a handful of extraordinary men, the Maritime Unit formed teams of combat swimmers and operatives who conducted some of the most daring operations in the European theatre: They carried out rescue missions, captured high-value targets, infiltrated enemy coastlines using floating mattresses, and even parachuted into the very heart of the Third Reich. On the other side of a raging world war, MU operatives gathered intelligence on remote Japanese outposts in Burma and Sumatra while OSS frogmen from UDT-10 spearheaded many of the most dangerous amphibious landings of the Pacific.
The OSS Maritime Unit is a case study in innovation and American exceptionalism. A small group of men with hardly any funding but a lot of courage took an idea and forged a reality that lives on 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, Give Me Tomorrow, 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. Patrick is on Twitter at @combathistorian.