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My Life in Special Operations
Read by Admiral William H. McRaven
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Tales of epic adventures recounted by sailors returning home from a long voyage; usually told over a bottle of rum with good friends and good intentions.
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Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.
The events in this book are as I remember them. Any inaccuracies in the stories are a result of the passage of time or my advancing age. While I have taken some literary license with the dialogue, I believe the conversations depicted accurately capture the spirit of the moment. Additionally, I have changed some of the names out of concern over privacy, at the request of the individual, or because I was unable to contact the person in question.
THE GREATEST GENERATION
I pushed the swinging door open just a crack and peeked out into the large, smoke-filled room. Jean Claude, the tall young French bartender, was shuttling from table to table taking drink orders from the American officers who filled the club on a Friday night.
Moving through the door, I crawled on my hands and knees to a place just behind the bar. From there I was hidden from view but could still see the entire room.
The American Officers’ Club, located in the heart of Fontainebleau, France, was a three-story structure built in the French Provincial style with ornate molding, winding staircases, a small caged elevator, and large oil paintings of Napoleon, Louis XVI, and countless battle scenes.
As a child of five, to me the club was a special place. There were banisters to slide down, closets to hide in, and hallways to run through. I roamed freely, imaginary sword in hand, fighting pirates and Prussians, Nazis and Russians.
Using the hidden passages inside the building, I could move from the kitchen to the bar completely undetected. The dumbwaiter, which connected the kitchen to the second and third floors, served as a means to slip past the waitstaff, my two sisters (who were charged with keeping me out of trouble—rarely successfully, I might add), my parents, and the scores of other officers who knew I prowled the halls unattended.
While it was an American club, officers from every allied nation were welcome. Impressive in their uniforms, straight in their bearing, they had a swagger and a confidence that was unmistakable to the victors of World War II.
It had been almost fifteen years since the end of the war, but France was still rebuilding and the Europeans looked to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to protect it from the Soviets. The military arm of NATO was the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)—to which my father was assigned and the reason we were living in France.
As I moved to the other side of the bar, Jean Claude spied me and gave me that look, a look I had seen a hundred times before. I see you, it said. But there was always a twinkle in Jean Claude’s eye. Like all men grown older, he appreciated the mischief in a young boy’s heart, and I sensed there was a longing to be that lad again. In my mind, Jean Claude was my protector, the keeper of my secrets, the Watson to my Holmes.
Across the room, my father was sitting at an oval table with three other men. They all wore the uniform of an Air Force officer: a collared light blue shirt, a dark tie, slightly loosened at the neck, and a deep blue coat with silver wings on the chest.
With Dad were “Easy Ed” Taylor, “Wild Bill” Wildman, and “Gentleman” Rod Gunther, all colonels, all fighter pilots.
Ed Taylor, his hands in the air, one in pursuit of the other, was fending off an attack from a German Messerschmitt. A cigarette hung loosely from his lips and he only paused from the story to take a sip from the scotch snifter at his elbow. Ed was one of the pioneers of jet aircraft, at one point the fastest man in the world in aerial flight. He was Hemingwayish, with a flair for the dramatic, a love of good whiskey, and a need to fill every minute of life with something exciting. A fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, he would go on to serve in Vietnam and end his career as a three-war veteran. He drank hard, smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, loved to be in combat, and seemed to enjoy every person he ever met.
On his wall at home were personalized pictures with Presidents FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, ballplayers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, kings and princes, tyrants and despots, and every average Joe he ever served with. Every picture came with a story.
Ed was married to Cordelia, or Cordie, as everyone called her. A southern girl from Texas who served as the Wives’ Club president and was always in charge of the children’s plays and adult social functions, Cordie liked to party as much as Ed, and their marriage, which lasted for over fifty years, was a constant struggle between his love of combat and a domestic need for normality. Combat always won out.
Bill Wildman also served in the European theater during the war, but like the rest of the men, he was now flying a desk at SHAPE. Bill was married to everyone’s favorite wife, Ann. Ann was the best-looking woman in France: petite, shapely, smart, and always the life of the party.
Rod Gunther was a southern gentleman, prematurely gray, with a slow friendly drawl and a knack for making everyone around him feel special. His wife, Sadie, and their three girls were like part of our family. I had a crush on their youngest daughter, Judy, thinking she liked me too until I mistakenly put a firecracker in her hat that was meant for my sister Nan. Somehow, after that the romance went out of our relationship.
As Ed Taylor finished his story, with one hand diving sharply into the tabletop, all the men roared with laughter, though I knew they’d heard the story before. My father took a drag on his cigarette, rubbed it out in the ashtray, and waited for the next tale.
Among the men at the table, my father was the most reserved, although that wasn’t saying much. Dad loved to tell stories as much as the rest of them. He was blessed with “movie star” good looks, as the women would frequently tell my mom (although I never could tell how she took the compliment).
He had jet black hair, made darker with the touch of Brylcreem he added every morning, along with a prominent nose, a slight cleft in his chin, and steel blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled—and he smiled often.
At five foot eleven, Dad stood tall, but not overbearing. In his younger days he was a remarkable athlete, receiving honors in football, baseball, basketball, and track at Murray State Teachers College in Kentucky. He worked his way through college by gambling on Mississippi riverboats, teaching tennis to “old ladies,” and racing against Kentucky thoroughbreds—man against beast. Exceptionally fast for his day, he ran the hundred-yard dash in 9.8 seconds. At that speed he could beat most horses in a short sprint (sixty yards), and he often gambled a few bucks against local trainers to make his point.
After college, he played two years of professional football with the Cleveland Rams, and in one promotional shot, highlighting their new Murray State running back, the Rams had a picture of Dad bolting from the starting line with a horse and rider in hot pursuit. He later confided in me that he lost that race, “but only by a nose.”
Football was “lucrative” employment. Dad made $120 a game and with Wheaties radio commercials cleared almost $130 a week. But as the possibility of war in Europe loomed larger, he left football and drove to California to sign up for the Army Air Corps.
When I asked him years later why he joined the military, he said that as a boy he watched soldiers march through the streets of his home town of Marston, Missouri, and board a train bound for the trenches of France. His father, an Army surgeon, was one of those men. He knew then that he wanted to be a soldier.
After graduating from aviation officers’ school at Brooke Field in San Antonio, Texas, he received orders to the 309th Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force. The 309th was part of the first American contingent to be posted in the United Kingdom. At the time, the Americans were still working to build a fighter aircraft that could compete in aerial combat against the German Messerschmitt. So when Dad arrived in England he and the other pilots of the 309th were given British Spitfires.
The “Spits,” equipped with the powerful Rolls-Royce engines, new guns, and sleek aerodynamics, were good enough to go toe to toe with the Germans. Dad flew the Spitfire throughout the war, going on to fight in the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, and eventually at the Normandy invasion.
He registered two confirmed kills during the war, but would himself be shot down over France in 1943. The saga of his escape and evasion from France back to England was told many times during our posting in France, not by Dad, who rarely talked about his wartime service, but by the French resistance fighter who helped him back to freedom and now lived near us on the outskirts of Paris.
Jean Claude suddenly appeared behind the bar. He reached for a glass, poured it halfway to the top with Coca-Cola, and then added a heavy dose of cherry juice. A Roy Rogers, he announced, handing me the drink. He knew not to call it a Shirley Temple. I sat cross-legged behind the bar as he fixed other drinks and then moved out to serve the patrons. Soon my mother and the other wives arrived.
As with all wives of that era, you didn’t come to the club unless you were “dressed to the nines.” Their hair was large and starched to perfection, with not a strand out of place. Each cocktail dress showed just enough neckline and just enough leg to be sophisticated but not showy. With a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, they took their place by their men. But while they were “the wives,” there were no demure shrinking violets in this group. These were women who married men of adventure—fighter pilots. They knew what they were getting into when they said, “I do,” and in spite of all the hard times that were to come (and there would be a lot of them), every marriage survived until death parted them.
As the ladies sat down, Jean Claude headed to the table for more drink requests. As he bent over to take an order I saw him nod his head in my direction.
My mother turned around, smiled, and waved me over to the table.
I put down the Roy Rogers, ran to the table, and hopped on my mother’s lap. She hugged me tightly and kissed me on the cheek. With Mom there was always the subtle scent of perfume and cold cream. I can still smell it to this day.
Rod Gunther rubbed my crew cut (“one like the astronauts had…”) and in his soft voice said, “Billy, my boy, what have you been up to tonight?”
It was an invitation to tell a story, to be part of the adult conversation, to try to match my adventures with bomber missions over France, dogfights over North Africa, traveling with Chiang Kai-shek or dancing with Vice President Nixon (my mother’s favorite). Stories filled the rest of the evening, with my mother occasionally covering my ears when the men said something “too adult.”
After last call, when the drinks were finished and the packs of cigarettes lay crumpled on the table, the men stood up abruptly, as if completing a mission brief, shook hands, and laughed about something in an earlier story. The wives hugged and kissed each other on the cheek, promising to meet again on Monday for some social function.
Friday nights at the Officers’ Club were a ritual during our three years in France. The stories of air-to-air combat, life on the front lines, and daring escapes all fueled my longing for adventure. The stories never focused on pain and sorrow. Even when they recounted lives lost, there was generally a glass raised, a toast made to a good man who fought hard and died gloriously.
In late 1963, Dad had a mild stroke (something to do with cigarettes and Jim Beam whiskey, the doctor would say). He recovered, but our family was reassigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, to be near Wilford Hall Air Force hospital. Ed, Cordie, and the four Taylor boys were right up the road in Austin, and we kept in touch with the Gunthers and the Wildmans for many years to come.
In Texas, my parents made new friends, and with them came new and better stories. There was Colonel David “Tex” Hill, one of the original Flying Tigers who served with General Claire Chennault in China. Tex was military royalty in San Antonio. Tall, gentle, with an easy way about him, he was a legendary pilot in both Air Force and Navy history, with over twenty-eight confirmed kills. Along with his wife, Maize, he became part of our large family of friends and the vibrant social scene that revolved around the military in the 1960s.
There were also Jim and Aileen Gunn. Promoted to full colonel when he was twenty-five years old, and then shot down a week later in a combat mission over Romania, Jim managed to escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Bucharest in the belly of a Messerschmitt—flown by a member of the Romanian royal family.
Jim almost died from exposure as the unpressurized fighter made its way over the Alps to Italy, but upon landing, he thawed out, contacted the American military, and gave them the precise location of the POW camp. Had he been a day later, German aircraft would have bombed the camp, hoping to destroy the evidence of POW abuse. Seventy years later Jim Gunn was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism.
Along with Tex Hill and Jim Gunn, there was Major Joe McCarty, who worked for U.S. intelligence during the war, Colonel Bill Strother, a decorated bomber pilot, and Bill Lindley, the only general in the group. All were part of the families that raised me. Their wives, Betty, Ann, and Martha, respectively, were like surrogate mothers, and often, as in the case of Ann Strother, told me bawdy jokes and adult stories at an age well before my mother would have approved.
The years at Lackland Air Force Base were filled with dove hunting in the fall, deer hunting through the winter, bridge for the women, poker for the men, golf on the odd weekends, and frequent trips to the Gulf Coast for fishing and more storytelling. I’m not really sure when the men got any work done, but as a kid, I thought it all seemed part of the rhythms of life—and I loved it.
Like all the men and women of their generation, they were children of World War I, lived through the Depression, and the men all fought in World War II and Korea. They were survivors. They didn’t complain. They didn’t blame others for their misfortune. They worked hard and expected the same from their children. They treasured their friendships. They fought for their marriages. They wore their patriotism on their sleeve, and while they weren’t naïve about America’s faults, they knew that no other country in the world valued their service and sacrifice as much as the United States did. They flew their flags proudly and without apology.
But I’m convinced that what made this generation so great was their ability to take the hardships that confronted them and turn them into laughter-filled, self-deprecating, unforgettable, sometimes unbelievable stories of life. My father used to tell me, “Bill, it’s all how you remember it.” The stories in this book are how I remember my life. I think I could sit at that table in Fontainebleau now… and tell a story or two.
SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS
I pushed the spring-loaded knife back into the bottom of the black attaché case. It clicked firmly into place. Rotating the dials to the coded numbers, I turned the two buttons horizontally and the lid to the case popped open, exposing my Luger pistol and a twenty-round magazine. A spotting scope was lashed to the inside along with my passport and several thousand dollars in unmarked bills.
Confident that everything I needed was there, I closed the case, checked the safe house one final time, and then stepped outside into the fading sunlight.
Traffic on the street was light. I looked over my shoulder to ensure no one was following me. A lot was riding on this mission and there was only one thing that could stand in my way.
“Bill, time for dinner!”
“In a minute,” I yelled back.
“Five minutes, no more. Your food is getting cold.”
Pulling the spotting scope from the James Bond Attaché Case, I looked for my sidekick, Dan Lazono. Dan was supposed to be concealed in the bushes across the street, ready to provide backup if the mission went awry, but apparently his mom had called him back inside as well.
The sun began to set over the small military housing complex on the outskirts of Lackland Air Force Base. Home to about a hundred officers and their families, Medina Annex sprawled across the rolling hills that overlooked the Officer Training School.
Every morning at sunrise the sound of reveille blared through the loudspeakers, echoing throughout the housing area, and every night at sunset the sweet, haunting sound of “Taps” told me it was time to stop playing and go home.
Throughout the year, hundreds of young Air Force cadets arrived at the school, heads shaved, backs straight, purposeful in their gaze, Vietnam in their future.
The mid-1960s was the height of the Cold War and ushered in the era of movie and TV spies: those men from U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin; Derek Flint of In Like Flint; Matt Helm; and of course, everyone’s favorite, James Bond. Being in Texas, you couldn’t escape Cowboys and Indians, but being a spy was so much “neater.”
In addition to training new cadets, Medina Annex also housed a large ammunition storage facility—dozens of hardened, aboveground structures hidden in the backwoods far from prying eyes. These “Gravel Gerties” looked like small volcanoes, a hundred feet in diameter and rising twenty-five feet from the ground. Named after a character in the Dick Tracy cartoon, the bunkers stored every high explosive in the U.S. Air Force inventory, including nuclear weapons—if you believed Dan Lazono.
Security around the ammunition site was extensive. Air Police with their K-9 dogs patrolled the area on a regular basis, checking in with the command post when anything irregular was spotted. Around the perimeter of the facility were three concentric eight-foot-high chain-link fences, each topped with barbed wire. The layered defenses would be quite a challenge, even for 007.
“Have you been climbing in the trees again?” Mom asked.
“No ma’am,” I said sheepishly.
Lifting my shirt, she inspected the large bandage that covered my stomach. “The doctor said no strenuous activity for one month. Not until the wound heals. If you keep running around like this you will have a scar for the rest of your life.”
Three months earlier, while scouting out the Gravel Gerties for a possible spy mission, I climbed high into a nearby tree to get a good look at the security. Below me, Billy McClelland and Jon Hopper stood watch. Somehow, they always stood watch.
As I slowly stepped out onto an old branch, it gave way, sending me plummeting twenty feet to the ground, but not before I ripped my stomach open on a broken limb that jutted out halfway down the tree. It was two miles through the woods back to my house and Billy took off running to get my mother. Jon, the youngest of the three of us, kept pressure on my gut while we walked as far back as we could to shorten the distance home.
Mom arrived in the car just as Jon and I broke out of the tree line. A frantic look on her face, she piled me into the back of the old station wagon and raced to Wilford Hall Air Force hospital.
Wilford Hall and I were old friends. It seemed like every week I was in the emergency room for something: a broken arm from falling off a large fence, a slit wrist from running through a sliding glass window (“You better stop running in the house or you’re going to crash through that window!” How did Dad know that?), a busted knee from Pop Warner football, a broken ankle from basketball, a broken nose from, well… we were well acquainted. But this accident seemed to top the rest.
The branch ripped a ten-inch gash in my stomach, but fortunately, it didn’t puncture any internal organs. The doctors stitched me up and put a large bandage over my stomach. All of this would have been fine, except a month later while riding the Air Force shuttle bus home from the new James Bond film, I fell out of the bus (it’s a long story) onto the street and ripped open the sutures.
Back to Wilford Hall.
“Give me that rock,” Billy said, pointing to a shot-put-sized stone in the nearby creek. He brushed a small lock of blond hair out of his eyes and with a determined look tossed the heavy stone into a bucket suspended from a tall oak. The bucket slowly began to sink, bringing with it the rope that lowered the “drawbridge” onto our island fort.
“Nice toss,” Jon yelled. Jon yelled enthusiastically about everything. To him, everything we older boys did was exciting.
I grabbed the rope and pulled down on the counterweight. The wooden plank settled easily between the mainland and the island—which was only separated by four feet, with a water depth of two feet. Any one-legged man could have forded our moat, but after building an elaborate tree fort, we had to find a way to protect it.
We were ingenious. The tree fort was a miracle of wooden engineering. Every usable piece of plywood and two-by-four we could find went into its construction. Four walls, two windows, a solid floor, and a door that said KEEP OUT!!!
We ran out of nails before the fort was complete, so the pieces of two-by-fours forming the ladder on the side of the tree were just the sort of thing my mother would not have liked. Billy climbed up the wobbly rungs and announced his arrival in the fort.
“I’m in. Come on up!”
I quickly scaled the tree and joined Billy. Jon stood at the bottom peering through his glasses, trying to gather his courage to make the climb.
“Come on, come on. We don’t have all day,” I said.
Jon grabbed the first step and began to climb. His knees were shaking and he squinted through the glaze of his fogged-up lens. Jon was a follower, and our club of three needed at least one good follower. Always working to overcome his fear of the woods, the rules we broke, and the trouble we might get into, Jon still followed us, and as young boys trying to be men, having a friend like Jon made us stronger.
As Jon reached the final rung, Billy grabbed one side of his belt and I the other and with a noticeable grunt we hauled him into the fort.
We had come to the fort to make final preparations for our upcoming mission—a mission to infiltrate the ammunition storage facility.
It seemed like a good idea—at the time.
We were certain that there was something nefarious going on at the Gravel Gerties, something that was a threat to U.S. national security. It was up to us to save the world.
I pulled out the makeshift map and began the briefing.
“We’ll call this—Operation Volcano,” I announced.
Billy and Jon smiled broadly. It was a cool name. “M” and Moneypenny would have approved.
“Billy, we’ll need to move the planks into place tomorrow. Can you get your dad to bring them to the fort?”
“Sure,” Billy said. “I told him we needed some extra wood to reinforce the treehouse. He said he could bring it by on Saturday, but we’ll have to move it from the fort to the outer fence.”
“Are you sure the planks are long enough?” I asked.
“I think so,” Billy said, not filling me with confidence.
“They have to be long enough to stretch from the top of one fence to the top of the other,” I said. “It’s the only way we can get past the electric fence in the middle.”
“Electric fence?” Jon said.
“Of course it’s electric,” I said. “They always have an electric fence.”
Billy nodded. Of course they did.
“Jon, what about your dad’s binoculars?”
Jon squirmed uncomfortably.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’ll get my father’s deer hunting binoculars. He won’t miss them for a day.”
Jon sighed and glanced downward.
“It’s all right,” Billy said. “You have a real important part of the mission. You are going to be our security.”
Jon liked that.
“You have to keep alert, alert at all times,” Billy said. “If the APs catch us we’ll be in real trouble.”
Jon wiped the sweat from his forehead and adjusted his glasses. “Do you think we’ll get caught?”
Billy and I looked at each other. Frankly, the thought had never occurred to us. I mean, how much trouble can you get into breaking into a high-security compound?
“Nah, we won’t get caught,” I said with conviction.
“Who’s bringing the hot dogs?” Billy asked.
“I have two whole packages,” I answered.
The hot dogs were essential. Once we scaled the outer fence and used the planks to bridge across the two other fences, we would need something to protect us from the K-9s. Jon thought we needed steaks. Every movie hero used steaks, he argued, not hot dogs. Big steaks, T-bones, I think. Jon’s point was a good one. No self-respecting spy used Oscar Mayer hot dogs—ever. But my mother just didn’t understand why we needed steaks at the “clubhouse,” and I couldn’t tell her about the mission, so the hot dogs would have to do.
And it was a fort, not a clubhouse.
“It’s agreed, then,” I said. “We will meet tomorrow afternoon at my house and begin the mission.” Everyone nodded. “This is going to be great! Just like the movies.”
“Who’s going to be James Bond?” Jon asked.
It was something else we had never thought about. But it had to be decided. Billy was actually way cooler than I was. All the girls at elementary school liked him, he had a pet raccoon, and his dad drove a Corvette Stingray.
“We can both be James Bond,” Billy offered.
“You can’t both be 007,” Jon countered.
- "Fascinating...McRaven's war stories deliver remarkable insight into the life of a wartime leader."—Publishers Weekly
- "Engaging...Sea Stories is more than an autobiography, more than a narrative of recent military history, and more than the sum of one remarkable man's experiences. In his excellently flowing prose...McRaven not only allows readers the opportunity to vicariously experience daring adventures and the command of elite warriors heading into harm's way, he also shares practical everyday wisdom."—Booklist (Starred Review)
- "Sea Stories, a well-written book that reads like a thriller, covers some of the most important historical actions taken by Navy SEALs and other special operators."—The Washington Times
- "Readers interested in the essential work of military special forces will be inspired by McRaven's adventures."—Kirkus
PRAISE FOR MAKE YOUR BED: "Should be read by every leader in America... [MAKE YOUR BED] is a book to inspire your children and grandchildren to become everything that they can. It is a book to discuss with your executive leadership team as a spur to meeting shared goals. Most of all, it is a book that will leave you with tears in your eyes."
—Wall Street Journal
- "Full of captivating personal anecdotes from inside the national security vault...McRaven's lessons, like his commencement speech, extend far beyond his bed-making. He devotes the 10-chapter book to lessons about moving beyond failure, standing up to bullies and giving others hope."—Washington Post
- "McRaven...has taken the genesis of what he learned during SEAL training and his nearly four decades in Navy Special Operations into a thin, powerful book."—USA Today
- "Exquisitely simple...superb, smart, and succinct."—Forbes
- "Spellbinding."—Texas Monthly
- On Sale
- May 21, 2019
- Hachette Audio