The First SEALs

In the dramatic raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, the lines between intelligence and special operations were blurred. CIA operatives and U.S. Navy SEALs worked together to kill bin Laden and gather valuable intelligence on al-Qaida. This is far from the first time that special operatives and intelligence personnel have worked together. In fact, both the CIA and the SEALs can trace their history back to the same organization — the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the World War II predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations forces.

The OSS was born shortly after America’s entry into World War II. Headed by charismatic and heroic Major Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the OSS was tasked with building the country’s first national intelligence service. What’s not widely known is that the OSS was also the birth of U.S. Special Operations forces, including the SEALs.

It was a race against the clock. The Allies lagged far behind the special operations forces developed by the Axis powers. Donovan considered the Germans the “big league professionals” of special operations warfare and Americans “the bush league club.” Donovan would fight fire with fire. He explained to Roosevelt that the only way to get America up to speed quickly against the Germans was “to play a bush league game, stealing the ball and killing the umpire.”

While America’s allies, including the British, kept intelligence and special operations in separate divisions, Donovan pioneered the integration of shadow warfare techniques and melded the lines between soldier and spy.

The OSS recruited across a broad spectrum of American society for its special operators. The recruits, all volunteers, were informed that most would not survive hazardous duty behind the lines. But many answered the call to duty. They were superior athletes with high intelligence and foreign language skills. An ideal OSS candidate was described as a “Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.”

Those who made it through a difficult assessment and training process were formed into 15- to 30-man teams, much like the present-day Green Berets A-teams. Known as Operational Groups (OGs), these commandos would soon wreak havoc across Europe.

As Donovan stood up his OG commandos, OSS played a major role in the development of America’s operational swimmers, including the Navy’s UTD (Underwater Demolition Teams), from which today’s SEALs trace their lineage.

But predating all of these groups, the OSS and all modern combat-diver programs derive their inspiration from the Italian Navy and the spectacular successes of a small unit known as “Decima Flottiglia MAS” (Light Flotilla 10). The Italian frogmen — called “Gamma Men” — sank or damaged nearly 30 Allied ships during the course of the war. Later, in a relatively untold chapter of WWII, elements of the Italian frogmen and the OSS would ultimately work together to defeat Hitler, which would help forge the legacy of the elite SEAL Teams.

But in late 1941, the Gamma Men were fully focused on defeating the Allies and pulled off one of the most dramatic underwater demolitions of WWII. They sank two battleships, the HMS Valiant and the Queen Elizabeth, in a daring raid on Egypt’s Alexandria harbor.

Decima MAS struck again in July 1942 in a James Bond-like operation in which they utilized a partially sunken ship known as the Olterra as their headquarters. Known as the “Trojan Horse of the Gibraltar,” the Olterra had a retractable trapdoor underwater, where the Gamma men would enter riding underwater submersibles known as “chariots,” essentially converted torpedoes. Riding the chariots underwater, the unit attached explosives to the hulls of several ships in the Gibraltar harbor. Several ships, including an American Liberty ship, were sunk right under the Allies’ noses. The men successfully returned to their base on the Olterra undetected.

Spurred on by the success of the Italians, the British and Americans both developed operational swimmer programs. Approved in February 1943 by General Donovan, the OSS recruited some of America’s best swimmers to become frogmen. Olympic-caliber swimmers, members of the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy, and even lifeguards started training for underwater demolitions. One lifeguard turned OSS swimmer put it rather candidly: “We were Baywatch minus the babes.”

In addition, the OSS developed its own equipment, including limpet mines, luminous watches and a re-breather device designed by Dr. Christian Lambertsen that prevented air bubbles from rising to the surface, where they could be detected. A version of the device remained in service with SEALs and Special Forces combat divers for more than 30 years. The OSS groups also developed their own one-man submarine known as the “Sleeping Beauty,” which ran on a silent electric motor that could stealthily approach ships at anchor.

After extensive training, the OSS’s combat swimmers were broken into three groups that fought around the globe during WWII. Operational Swimmer Group II brought Underwater Demolitions Team 10 (UDT-10) up to full strength. UDT-10 fought in the Pacific and prepared the beaches for several major amphibious landings. On a recon mission from the submarine Burrfish aimed at determining the Japanese defenses on Yap, several OSS swimmers were captured and killed.

Group I operated in Europe and even planned to destroy massive steel doors on several U-Boat pens in order to keep German subs bottled up before D-Day. Group III operated in Burma and in the Far East, conducting reconnaissance and demolitions missions, often using one-man kayaks and navigating tidal rivers laced with Japanese troops.

Perhaps the least known aspect of OSS’s maritime history involved Company D’s Maritime Unit, which utilized more than 50 Italians from the San Marco battalion, who were linked to the Italian Gamma Men from Decima MAS. When Italy changed sides in 1943, many of the Italian marines changed sides and volunteered their services to the OSS. Commanded by Lt. Richard Kelly, a charismatic naval officer with a pre-war background in public relations, the former fascist marines wreaked havoc up and down the Adriatic.

Using high-speed Italian motorboats known as MAS boats and inflatable one-man motorized floating mattresses, the commandos inserted themselves behind the lines. One of their greatest coups involved infiltrating deep behind German lines and securing the plans — and an architect — for Germany’s famed Gothic Line. The actionable intelligence gained from this operation facilitated the Eighth Army’s breakthrough.

The Italians distinguished themselves in their service to the OSS throughout the rest of the Italian Campaign. Interestingly, the other half of Decima MAS continued to fight for the Germans. Led by Italy’s “Dark Prince,” Junio Valerio Burghese, the group conducted several commando operations and ruthlessly fought on the ground in anti-partisan operations.

As the war drew to a close, the sources and methods learned from Decima MAS were catalogued under the OSS Taranto Project, and recognizing his value in a post-war world, Burghese’s life was saved after he was rescued from an angry mob of Italian Partisans by OSS’s counterintelligence chief, the legendary James Jesus Angleton.

As U.S. Special Operations Command, under the leadership of Admiral Eric Olson and Admiral William McRaven (who wrote about the Italian frogmen in his book, “Spec Ops”) looks forward, it also looks back to the men and women of the OSS who pioneered it all.

Patrick K. O’Donnell, an expert on Special Operations, has written The Brenner Assignment: The Most Daring Special Operations Mission of WWII and two other books on the OSS and interviewed more than 500 OSS veterans. His latest work is Give Me Tomorrow


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