First SEALs

The Untold Story of the Forging of America's Most Elite Unit


By Patrick K. O’Donnell

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From bestselling author Patrick K. O’Donnell, the untold story of World War II’s first unit of special operations combat swimmers—precursors of today’s US Navy SEALs



BEGINNING IN THE SUMMER OF 1942, an extraordinary group of men embarked on an experiment that would alter the course of modern warfare. A dentist, a Hollywood star, a British World War I veteran, an archaeologist, California surfers, a medical student, and even former enemies of America united to pioneer U.S. Sea, Air, and Land operations. They combined intelligence gathering with special operations, much like today’s Navy SEALs. Known as the Maritime Unit, these were America’s first swimmer commandos, an elite breed of warrior-spies decades ahead of their time. Technically, there were no SEALs in World War II, as the unit officially formed in 1962. But the Maritime Unit bent the norm to create tactics, technology, and a philosophy that live on in the modern U.S. Navy SEALs and shape the battlefield of today. No other American World War II unit was quite like it.

The men of the Maritime Unit maintained their vows of silence. Their story was classified, lost, and buried in miles of warehoused government records. Now, the World War II generation is in its twilight, and the last of these extraordinary men are slowly fading away.

This is their story.




Resting silently in the dark, cold waters of the Mediterranean at a depth of forty-five feet below the surface, the Scirè released three lethal maiali (pigs) that would change the balance of power in the region. Frogman Luigi Durand de la Penne and his five other confederates riding the maiali were part of a special undersea Italian commando group known as Decima Flottiglia Mezzi d’Assalto, or, simply, Decima MAS. Created more than a year earlier, the unit consisted of Gamma men (frogmen specially trained in affixing underwater explosives), a parachute battalion, and the San Marco Battalion, a group of highly trained operatives and boat handlers.

Early in the war, the Italian Navy had modified the 709-ton Auda-class Italian submarine to deliver the twenty-four-foot, 1.6-ton torpedoes as well as the specialized SEAL-like teams trained to maneuver the warheads and affix them to their intended targets. An electric motor powered the submersibles, which were guided by two frogmen who rode atop them. This daring mission called for the men and their pigs to travel over a mile underwater and stealthily enter the lion’s den: Alexandria Harbor, one of the most heavily defended Allied harbors in the world and where many of the prized ships of the Royal Navy were berthed. To reach their objectives, the divers would have to carefully and covertly navigate the maze of torpedo nets and other defenses that ringed the harbor.

The Gamma men wolfed down a quick meal and took stimulants before being discharged from the submarine. On their way to the deck from which they would be launched, the commanding officer of the submarine, Prince Junio Valerio Scipione Borghese, also the leader of Decima MAS and known as the “Black Prince,” gave each of them a ceremonial kick in the ass for good luck. The Black Prince was largely responsible for pioneering and directing Italy’s underwater combat operations.

Surreptitiously, the commandos rode through the water, quickly advancing on their intended targets. Patiently, de la Penne and the others riding the pigs waited for the Allies to open up their defenses to let three British destroyers exit the harbor. The massive hulls of the Royal Navy ships loomed in front of them when a small British motorboat appeared suddenly from the night’s gloom and randomly dropped a series of depth charges in the harbor. The crude tactic was meant to repel Axis underwater operatives, who the British had encountered several months earlier.

Booming underwater concussions began wreaking havoc on the men’s bodies, “painfully constricting [their] legs.” Undaunted, de la Penne and his partner were closing in on the HMS Valiant when everything began to go wrong. As he was maneuvering around the many underwater obstacles that littered the harbor, de la Penne ripped his wetsuit and icy seawater hit his skin. Despite months of training to condition his body to withstand the elements, hypothermia began to take its toll. Increasing the likelihood of detection, his partner’s underwater breathing device failed, and he had to surface. De la Penne was now swimming solo atop the gigantic torpedo when suddenly the propeller stopped after snagging a cable. Unable to disentangle it, he was forced to transport the huge underwater explosive manually. As de la Penne recalled, “[I had] to drag the torpedo along in the mud by [my] strength until directly beneath the ship. The mud was extremely gooey and cut out all visibility, but I guided my pig by the noise of one of the pumps on board the enemy ship. . . . Seawater seeped into my mask, and I had to drink it to avoid drowning.”

Despite all the adversity, he somehow managed to attach a 230-kilogram explosive charge of TNT under the centerline of the hull of the Valiant and set the time-activated detonator. The pigs were the pinnacle of high technology for the time, one of Italy’s most classified secrets. Naturally, they didn’t want the crafts to fall into enemy hands. They were equipped with self-destruct mechanisms, but de la Penne knew he didn’t need it on this occasion because the explosion would destroy the submersible. Though his teammates failed to locate their primary target, a British aircraft carrier, they were able to attach their mines to the battleship HMS Queen Elizabeth and to a large Norwegian tanker known as the Sagona. The Gamma men also carried with them incendiary devices to ignite oil from the destroyed tanker with the goal of wreaking further havoc in the harbor following the explosions.

Out of air and exhausted, de la Penne surfaced. When a crewman aboard the Valiant spotted him, the ship sent a hail of machine-gun fire his way, forcing him and his partner to surrender. Ironically, both men were taken aboard the Valiant and placed in a compartment near the location of the explosive charge they had just planted. Fifteen minutes before the explosives were scheduled to detonate, de la Penne made an urgent request to speak to the ship’s commanding officer (CO), Captain Charles Morgan. After approving the request, the CO listened intently as the Gamma man informed him of the imminent explosion on his ship. However, the cagey Italian frogmen refused to reveal the location of the mine. Morgan, in no mood for games, ordered the Italians to be placed in the hold. Before they reached their destination, a tremendous blast ripped apart the Valiant’s hull.

Simultaneous explosions echoed across the harbor as the limpets affixed to the other ships detonated. The Sagona lost her entire stern. A destroyer, the HMS Jarvis, berthed alongside the Norwegian tanker, was also badly damaged, as were many other craft in the area. The two battleships, Valiant and Queen Elizabeth, sank in a few feet of water, effectively putting them out of action for nearly a year. One historian has noted, “Overnight, [the eastern Mediterranean] had become an Axis lake, and the Italian Navy held the dominating power.” Although the Italians succeeded in their mission, they failed to escape capture. Ultimately, the British arrested all of the Gamma men involved in the attack, though two nearly escaped by disguising themselves as French sailors. En route to rendezvous with the Scirè, the “French sailors” attempted to exchange British currency outside Alexandria and blew their cover, leading to their rapid arrest.

The Scirè’s crew observed the devastation the explosions caused as they waited at the rendezvous point. Time passed. Eventually it became clear to everyone on the ship that the Gamma men would not be returning. Borghese ordered his vessel to depart the area. He had reasons to be pleased, as he had seen his prophecy become a reality. In a coded message to headquarters prior to the attack he predicted, “Foresee cavities developing in Lion’s mouth.”

This innovative, highly trained group of Italian Gamma men had changed the course of underwater combat forever.

FOLLOWING THE ITALIANS successful underwater attack on the British Navy, an intense race ensued among the powers of the world to replicate Decima MAS. At the time the United States was the furthest behind. The federal agency in charge of developing special operations units and gathering foreign intelligence was the newly formed office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), later known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Prior to World War II, no national intelligence agency existed, and America lagged far behind the world’s major powers. Several departments within the U.S. federal government each collected intelligence separately and sent reports on to the White House as they saw fit. Rather than sharing, agencies hoarded what they knew, and the president received a hodgepodge of reports that may or may not have been important enough to warrant his attention. As one intelligence officer lamented, “Our intelligence organization in 1940 was primitive and inadequate . . . operating strictly in the tradition of the Spanish-American War.”

To help integrate the stove-piped organizations, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the COI to aggregate the intelligence reports, making them available to various departments and the White House as necessary. According to the organization’s official history, “through COI and its successor, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the United States was beginning its first organized venture into the fields of espionage, propaganda, subversion and related activities under the aegis of a centralized intelligence agency.” Although the concepts of spies, sabotage, and propaganda were as old as warfare itself, “the significance of the COI/OSS was in the concept of the relationship between these varied activities and their combined effect as one of the most potent weapons in modern warfare.”

To head the new intelligence agency, FDR chose a dynamic Wall Street lawyer, William J. Donovan. In his past, Donovan had been an assistant attorney general of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, a personal political adviser to Herbert Hoover, and commander of a battalion of the 165th Infantry Regiment, better known as the “Fighting 69th.” A true war hero, Donovan had received the Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, and two Purple Hearts. Nicknamed “Wild Bill,” which referred to his prowess on the college gridiron, he “knew everybody” and had important connections at all levels of American society.

Prior to his assignment as COI chief, Roosevelt had tapped Donovan to make two overseas fact-finding trips. The first took place in 1940. Donovan went to the UK to determine whether England, at the time under threat of invasion from Germany, would survive the war. During this trip the Brits showed Donovan the workings of their intelligence services. Nearly a year later Roosevelt asked Donovan to return and analyze the Mediterranean. Donovan “accepted [the mission] with alacrity, for one of the concrete ideas which had developed in his mind was the importance of the Mediterranean in World War II.” Whereas many military thinkers viewed the Mediterranean merely as a shipping channel, Donovan saw it as a crucial battle line—one that the Axis controlled. He believed the Allies needed to reclaim this front in order to prevail in the war. His firm belief would guide OSS action during the war.

Donovan’s activities for the president helped him to recognize another major problem with the country’s intelligence system. FDR and his cabinet were being deluged with a stream of fragmentary information. They had no time to analyze the pieces of data and make the necessary decisions. In a memo sent to Roosevelt, Donovan wrote, “It is essential that we set up a central enemy intelligence organization which would itself collect either directly or through existing departments of the government, at home and abroad, pertinent information.” He went on to call for the analysis of the data by “specialized trained research officials in the relative scientific fields, including technological, economic, financial and psychological scholars.” His argument convinced Roosevelt of this need, and FDR appointed Donovan to the top job at the newly formed organization. Donovan would prove to be the ideal COI chief.

Before accepting the position, Donovan made three requests: “that he should report directly to the President; that the President’s secret funds would be made available for some of the work of COI; and that all departments of the Government be instructed to give him such materials as he might need.” Roosevelt agreed to all three and further directed Donovan to “carry out, when requested by the President, such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information.”

As America’s top spymaster, Donovan spearheaded a new approach to combat: a combined arms shadow warfare. He saw espionage, propaganda, sabotage, and other covert operations as the “modern counterparts of sapping and mining in the siege warfare of former days.” Donovan’s office would not only gather intelligence; it would also serve to soften up the enemy before ground forces invaded. He combined intelligence analysis, special operations, psychological operations, and counter-intelligence all under one roof. All the other major powers of World War II had these functions largely siloed, which hindered needed collaboration and integration. To do this, Donovan needed an extraordinary team of covert agents and analysts to be able to compete with the Germans, whom he considered “big league professionals in shadow warfare, while America lagged behind as the bush league club.” He had studied the German psychological warfare in detail and noted that “they were making the fullest use of threats and promises, of subversion and sabotage, and of special intelligence. They sowed dissension, confusion, and despair among their victims and aggravated any lack of faith and hope.” The Americans, by contrast, were doing almost nothing in this arena and, as a result, were unable to compete in this new form of shadow warfare. Donovan would opine that the only way to catch up would be to “kill the umpire and steal the ball.” Practically overnight he would have to create a national intelligence agency, and in so doing, he would birth America’s modern special operations and the first SEALs. Donovan became the father of America’s special operations.

Making good use of his connections at every level, Donovan recruited people from all walks of life. Safecrackers recently paroled from prison joined Ivy League graduates from the country’s leading law firms and corporations. Tough, battle-hardened Marines worked alongside the most elegant of debutantes. Donovan considered an ideal candidate someone with a “Ph.D. who could win a bar fight.” According to one expert, “The OSS undertook and carried out more different types of enterprises, calling for more varied skills than any other single organization of its size in the history of our country.”

Donovan possessed an uncanny ability to pick the right person for the right job, a skill that enabled him to build the new agency in record time. One operative captured the vibe within the new agency: “All the services were represented, and everyone was working up a scheme. Everything shimmered in secrecy, and it was a rare man who knew what his fellows were doing. Brooks Brothers was the unofficial costume-maker, while Abercrombie and Fitch functioned as an uptown Quartermaster Corps, supplying air mattresses and sleeping bags and paraphernalia so dear to the heart of small boys and civilians turned semi-guerrillas.”

Donovan organized the new agency into several departments: Research and Analysis (R&A), Research and Development (R&D), Counterintelligence (X-2), Secret Intelligence (SI), Special Operations (SO), Psychological Operations or Morale Operations (MO), and, eventually, the Maritime Unit (MU). But developing a combat swimming group was a complex project that would have to wait while the COI concentrated on more pressing needs. In its infancy, the COI was primarily concerned with getting its agents into enemy territory, a key task for any intelligence organization. In Europe, organizations typically inserted agents by parachute, but they also occasionally needed to bring agents in by sea. According to OSS history, “To get from ship to shore in secrecy and in stealth is a special operation with a technique akin to no other. It belongs, strictly speaking, to neither Army nor Navy, yet is needed by both. It is the vital link in any combined operation. Approaching enemy shores, either for the purpose of depositing personnel or equipment or merely for reconnaissance, can ably be accomplished by submarines, fast surface craft, or disguised fishing vessels.” In World War II, the difficulty lay in getting from a submarine or a large boat to shore, which often meant utilizing smaller craft such as rubber boats, folbots (foldable boats), and kayaks. The handling of these small craft required highly specialized training and fell under the COI’s Special Operations branch. Initially the maritime group functioned as a servicing unit to support the other branches within the OSS with their naval needs as they related to espionage and sabotage. Originally known as the Maritime Authority, the pioneering group gave rise to a branch within the OSS known as the Maritime Unit (MU).

With the ability to see a tree where there was an acorn and select the ideal person for the right job, Donovan turned to a British officer, Commander Herbert George Arthur “H. G. A.” Woolley. Dashing and brave, Woolley was a veteran of World War I, where he earned the Distinguished Service Cross at Gallipoli and was recognized for tending to wounded sailors at sea. Later he had participated as an adviser on numerous combined amphibious operations. Donovan met Woolley in Washington, D.C., where he was a member of the British Joint Staff Commission.

Woolley fit Donovan’s ideal for a partner—an out-of-the-box thinker and risk taker. Woolley’s additional gifts included consensus building, leadership, and, most importantly, the ability to take an innovative idea and turn it into reality. A veteran of war and the politics of service, he had the presence of a grandfatherly figure who wisely delegated authority to his subordinates. Woolley’s concept of underwater combat swimming broke from the Italian methods of underwater attacks. Instead of riding most of the way to the target on the surface of the water, as the Italians did on their missions, Woolley suggested using combat swimmers who would swim under the water most of the way to conduct an operation. The OSS needed the technology to enable these kinds of missions, so they developed it from scratch.

On April 9, 1942, Donovan requested that the Special Operations branch establish the Maritime School to train its agents and operatives in covert insertion into enemy territory. On that day the COI officially requested an allotment of personnel from the U.S. Navy. COI needed experienced seamen to train its agents and to set up a school. Nearly a month would pass before the Navy would approve three officers and twenty enlisted men. The Navy also sent three officers and fourteen enlisted men from the Marines.

The men, including Lieutenant J. H. “Jack” Taylor, slowly began to trickle in. Tall, with striking good looks, slate blue eyes, and brown hair with natural highlights from the perpetual southern California sunshine, thirty-four-year-old Taylor was a master of the sea who brought with him a lifetime of experience and adventure. Some would argue Taylor was hooked on the rush of adrenalin, continuously craving more—a man of action who preferred doing over talking. One operative remembered him as “a daredevil, bent on having his own show.” Taylor exuded confidence, earned from countless brushes with death, and he had a habit of engaging in extreme sports, which was so far removed from his professional life of fixing teeth.

Taylor also tended to be laconic, a bit of a loner, and his tough outer shell masked a tempestuous inner side. A fellow officer recalled, “[He was] perpetually tense, with a remoteness in his eyes, forever flicking his tongue over dry lips.”

As the half-dozen or so officers joined Woolley’s staff, they began the hard task of building an organization and its training facility. To keep pace with the Italians, it would have to be built practically overnight.




As the Maribel slowly rocked back and forth in its mooring at the Washington Yacht Club, Jack Taylor closely inspected the white and wood-stained planking of the aging sixty-seven-foot cabin cruiser. The search for a boat for training missions had gone on for months. Under the auspices of the OSS’s Special Operations branch, the Maritime Authority, later known as the Maritime Unit, had little in the way of funds with which to acquire boats for training. With the Americans gearing up for war, the Coast Guard and the Navy had already pressed most of the private craft into service. Commander Woolley had joined the prestigious Washington Yacht Club in the hope of helping them find vessels, but there weren’t many options. Taylor, Woolley, and the small group of men who made up OSS’s Maritime Authority got what was left—the worst of the worst.

The official report on the Maribel noted, “She is, of course, a rather old boat, and her general condition reflects this.” Before the craft would be fit for duty, she needed replacements for much of her decking as well as a complete overhaul of the engines. Unfortunately the company that had built the engines had gone out of business, making it all but impossible to find replacement parts.

The other boat the Maritime Authority acquired for training purposes was in even worse shape than the Maribel. By all accounts the Marsyl was a rotting tub. According to the inspection report, “General appearance and condition of boat is poor with the following conditions existing: A. Hull structure would not stand survey as to soundness. B. Evidence of dry rot in bilges amidships and in frames in the stern. C. Deck will not hold fastenings for stanchions, davits, etc. D. Bad leak or leaks mainly from region of large butt-block on port side amidships.” And the Marsyl’s engine was in greater disrepair than her hull. In fact, they couldn’t even get it started during the inspection.

Despite their deplorable condition, the two decrepit boats were towed from their berths at the yacht club and, after an extensive overhaul, were put to work on the Potomac, often operating at night, “blacked out” in a secret training area. Through constant maintenance, major repairs, and countless quick fixes, the boats served the OSS as transports and makeshift “submarines” for training purposes.

WOOLLEY AND TAYLOR had their work cut out for them. They had a mission, but they lacked the necessary supplies and equipment to accomplish it. Finding an area suitable for training was just as difficult as finding boats. Practically overnight they had to build facilities for OSS operatives being trained in maritime operations and sabotage. “It was necessary for Commander Woolley to beg, borrow, and almost steal” in order to be ready in time for the first class of OSS covert operations trainees.

Somehow Woolley found the funds, and the OSS took out a lease on April 1, 1942, for frontage of approximately ten thousand feet on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, several miles south of Quantico, known as Smith Point. Because the land had no buildings to house the men or future supplies, they shipped in structures from an old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at St. Stephens Church, Virginia. But the buildings were far from complete. Taylor and a small group of OSS men had to lend a hand erecting the structures. With hard work and dogged determination, they transformed 1,230 acres of mosquito-infested, waterlogged territory into a top-secret training facility codenamed “Area D.”

“D” was in the middle of nowhere. There was no place for those constructing the facility to sit comfortably at night. According to one OSS officer, “The barracks were too hot and the mosquitoes and ticks will eat [people] alive if they sit outdoors.” Initially OSS tightly controlled the use of the small fleet of Jeeps the men were issued, so no one could readily escape Area D. Compounding the misery, the nearest store was miles away, so they couldn’t easily buy cigarettes to feed the nicotine habit that was pervasive among the American military at the time. One OSS officer opined, “There is an argument that the men on Guadalcanal [the battle in the Solomon Islands that was raging at this time] and other places have a tougher life than my men but they are in the U.S.A., and are human enough to want a life for which they are fighting for.” Gradually, as the buildings were constructed and the government restriction on travel eased, life improved.

As the buildings went up, someone needed to guard the secret facility, but the OSS faced a severe shortage of military security personnel due to the war efforts. The Army unit assigned for security around Area D did not arrive in time for the first class of operatives, so the OSS improvised. In its habit of doing much with whatever resources it had, “[f]our elderly and reliable local men were hired to act as watchmen and four [African Americans] were engaged to carry out mess duties.” Area D was finally ready to receive its first class of recruits to engage in covert OSS maritime training.

In addition to building the Area D facilities, the men also went to work repairing the rotting hulks that would serve as their training boats. Taylor not only helped with repairs but also acted as a scrappy supply sergeant, borrowing from Peter to pay Paul and doing everything from ordering sparkplugs to consulting with marine architects on ways to improve the vessels. Taylor rolled up his sleeves and got out his hand tools to make the continuous repairs the boats sorely needed. According to a note handwritten by Taylor, “I can’t recall but presume that it [the part for one of the boats] was paid. It was for Marsyl, just before we took her down the river for good. We have the putty knife for the Maribel,” which he knew how to put to ample good use.


  • "One of our finest military historians, Patrick O'Donnell has crafted a terrific, unforgettable narrative of the forerunners of today's amazing Navy SEALs—that puts the reader right in the watery battlefield with them."—Flint Whitlock, Editor, WWII Quarterly magazine

    Library Journal, 11/1/14

    “[A] well-written chronicle of the SEAL's World War I precursor, the Maritime Unit…Through a combination of detective work in the National Archives and interviews with surviving members, O'Donnell successfully details the group's past, which provided the foundation upon which the modern SEALs were founded…This engrossing account of previously unknown World War II history will be of interest to military aficionados of all levels.”

    Tampa Bay Times, 11/5/14

    “Delves into the little-known World War II origins of the extraordinary military unit that is much in the news today.”

    Sacramento Bee, 11/11/14

    “The Navy's Sea, Air and Land teams (SEAL) are rightfully legendary, but until now their origin has been obscured by time. In this behind-the-scenes history, readers learn how a World War II group known as the Maritime Unit became the template for today's elite special force.”

  • Praise for Patrick K. O'Donnell and First SEALs

    "A great American writer"—Clive Cussler, New York Times bestselling author

    “Well researched and very well told, First SEALs is a rousing tale of wartime derring-do that puts the Navy's current special warfare units in firm historical perspective—an absolute must-read.”—Stephen Harding, bestselling author of The Last Battle

    “Patrick O'Donnell is already one of America's foremost combat historians. This fascinating book now places him in the front rank of special operations historians. Based on many years of painstaking archival research and hundreds of interviews, First SEALs takes us deep into World War II naval special warfare, both European and Pacific. Beautifully written, original, and compelling from first page to last. I highly recommend this book.”—John C. McManus, author of The Dead and Those About to Die

    “A fantastic story of the first SEALs—brilliantly told! A must read.”—Alex Kershaw, bestselling author of The Liberator

On Sale
Oct 28, 2014
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Patrick K. O’Donnell

About the Author

Bestselling author Patrick K. O’Donnell is a combat historian who has written nine books, including the William E. Colby Award winner Beyond Valor, Dog Company, and We Were One (selected for the Marine Commandant’s Professional Reading List). The author is the recipient of numerous awards include the prestigious OSS Society’s John Waller Award. Visit him at and

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