The shots fired by members of SEAL Team Six which killed Osama Bin Laden were the combination of tactics and technology pioneered seventy years ago by men like Frank Monteleone, who is now one of the last of the first World War II SEALs.
Decades before heavily armed SEALs conducted the helicopter raids on Osama Bin Laden, the men of the Maritime Unit carried out some of the most audacious and daring missions of World War II, often armed only with K-bar knives and wearing just swim trunks and flippers.
For years after the war, the men of the Maritime Unit maintained their vows of silence and never spoke about what they had done. My new book, First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America’s Most Elite Unit, breaks that silence and tells their story in their own words.
The men of the Maritime Unit were part of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), led by “Wild Bill” Donovan. They were an eclectic group of renaissance men drawn from all walks of American life. Their ranks included a dentist, an archaeologist, a Hollywood scriptwriter and an actor. Many were great athletes. The unit was an elite group within an elite unit. One operative perfectly summed up the caliber of men Donovan was looking for: “A Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.”
Quiet and unassuming, eighty-nine-year-old Frank Monteleone is one of the last members of the group. In World War II, Frank did it all, parachuting behind the lines, infiltrating by sea on silent motorized floating mattresses, and stealthily collecting and radioing back enemy intelligence.
One of his first missions involved OSS super-spy Moe Berg. A professional baseball player prior to the war, Berg was highly intelligent and spoke seven different languages. Berg’s most famous mission involved the potential assassination of German physicist Werner Heisenberg, the man in charge of the Reich’s quest for a nuclear bomb.
“Moe Berg needed a radio operator,” explained Monteleone, “and I was chosen. We infiltrated through the lines into Rome. They sent Berg to eavesdrop on Italian scientists on what they knew about Germany’s effort to develop the atomic bomb.”
Monteleone hid in an attic, where he had set up his clandestine radio equipment. He transmitted Berg’s intelligence in cypher code to the Allies. He summed up the personality of the notorious intelligence operator saying, “Berg was the most mysterious man that I ever met. He moved in and out. I never saw him again after that mission.”
Another MU operative who could win a bar fight–and kick field goals–was pro-Bowl San Francisco 49er kicker Gordon Soltau. He was a true swim commando in the MU. Using a Lambertsen rebreather, a specialized precursor to SCUBA developed by the OSS, Soltau was tasked with a breath-taking mission prior to D-Day.
Approaching the U-Boat pens of Lorient, France, (which were impervious to Allied bombers) on motorized floating mattresses Saltau’s MU swim commando team planned to dive underwater to disable the German pens and subs so they couldn’t be used against the Allied navies on D -Day.
“My mission was to swim underwater using the Lambertsen Units and plant explosives on these big iron gates that swing out when the subs would enter or leave the pens,” he explained. “Another swimmer would plant a limpet mine on the waiting sub. About 15 minutes later both the limpet mines and charges on the gates would be blown. The sub would sink into the cradle in the pen and the gates would be destroyed. If we were alive, we’d swim back to the safe house and make our escape on foot and link up with the advancing Allied armies coming ashore at Normandy.”
Although they trained extensively for the operation, the mission was cancelled right before D-Day.
Soltau also conducted operations in the Pacific, including a rescue mission to find secret intelligence agents captured by the Japanese. On a mission codenamed Caprice V, Soltau infiltrated a Japanese-occupied island off the coast Sumatra. He got into several intense firefights and even swam up a river infested with Japanese soldiers conduct recon mission in search of the lost agents, but the men were never found.
Soltau died as this book was being published. The last of the WWII First SEALs are slipping away along with a great generation.
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