Beginning in the summer of 1942, an extraordinary group of men — among them a dentist, a Hollywood movie star, an archaeologist, California surfers, and even former enemies of the Allies — united to form an exceptional unit that would forge the capabilities of the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams.

Known as the Maritime Unit, it comprised America’s first swimmer-commandos, an elite breed of warrior-spies who were decades ahead of their time when they created the tactics, technology and philosophy that inspire today’s Navy SEALs.

After the war, their astonishing record of activity and achievement was classified, lost, and largely forgotten...until now. In “First SEALs,” Patrick K. O’Donnell unearths their incredible history — one of the greatest untold stories of World War II.

“I have interviewed 5,000 World War II veterans,” said O’Donnell. “I have spent an entire lifetime studying WWII, and the story that I [share] is an untold story, and probably the most interesting story that I have come across in the 44 years that I have been here on this earth.

“The story begins in Washington D.C. at the Shoreham Hotel. It’s Nov. 17, 1942 ... that night in 1942, the doors of the pool were barred by armed guards and they tested something that was unique: They tested the first rebreather, a precursor to scuba — and the start of the Navy SEALs begins in that pool. That day, it was an eclectic group, a motley group of individuals that form the first SEALs. They are part of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, a wartime intelligence agency). That evening, a dentist from Hollywoodnames Jack Taylor, straps on a rebreather and ... starts to go into the pool. And, joining him is a young medical student named Christian Lambertsen, who has to sneak away from the University of Pennsylvania, and can’t even tell his dean what he’s doing and that he’s developing the first scuba gear, the rebreather. They test it in the pool, and it’s a success. Joining them is a somewhat unusual person — the British liaison in Washington D.C. named H.G. Wooley, a commander who was a World War I veteran. Wooley is extraordinary: He’s able to take an idea and turn it into reality. And that’s exactly what they do — it’s a race against time.”

Rebreathers for the U.S. Navy were developed by Lambertsen for underwater warfare. He would hold the first closed-circuit oxygen rebreather course in the United States for the Office of Strategic Services maritime unit at the Naval Academy on May, 17 1943. Eventually, the term “SCUBA” (an acronym for “self-contained underwater breathing apparatus”) which originally referred to United States combat frogmen’s oxygen rebreathers, would become commonplace.

The pioneering men of the Maritime Unit conducted some of the most daring operations behind enemy lines. “First SEALs” highlights the bravery of the Maritime Unit as it persevered through brutal conditions — infiltrating Nazi-occupied territory, leading rescue operations, conducting much-needed reconnaissance, and even survived one of the Third Reich’s infamous concentration camps.

Contact staff writer Bobbi Booker at (215) 893-5749 or

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