The secretary of the Interior was one of more than 100 members of the intelligence and special operations community and the OSS Society, who gathered Wednesday at Washington’s Omni Shoreham hotel in the ballroom that 75 years ago was the swimming pool, where officers of the Office of Strategic Services tested and developed the breathing apparatus necessary for America to field its own team of underwater warriors in the Second World War.
“It is great to see friendly faces and for those frogs that I put through training, if I harassed you–I am not going to apologize,” said retired Navy Cmdr. Ryan Zinke, the first Navy SEAL elected to Congress and the first Navy SEAL to become a cabinet secretary. In addition to his tours in Iraq and missions outside the scope of conventional warfare, Zinke once commanded SEAL Team 6 and also was in-charge of SEAL training after a frogman completes Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training.
Zinke said he was proud of the SEALs being a legacy of the OSS.
“The OSS? For those who look at, we even got our fins from the OSS,” Zinke said. “It is my understanding that the first time the Navy first used fins was at the Battle of Okinawa–borrowed from the OSS.”
The OSS was created by an executive order by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the start of the Second World War and its founding director was Brig. Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, a Medal of Honor recipient from the First World War and a successful Wall Street attorney. Under Donovan’s leadership, OSS officers performed vital tasks, often behind enemy lines, that provided the U.S. military with critical intelligence and undermined the ability of the Axis powers to continue fighting the war.
“Seventy-five years ago, in this room, it all started,” said O’Donnell, who is a member of the OSS Society board.
“In 1941, six Italian frogmen destroyed two British battleships in the eastern Mediterranean, and that changed the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean and set off an underwater arms race–the United States was the furtherest behind any of the countries, there was no SCUBA, there was no rebreather, and the War Department turned to Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS to come up with a solution,” he said.
The OSS gathered together an eclectic group of men and women to meet this challenge, including Hollywood, California dentist Jack Taylor, who over the course of his missions developed into the prototype SEAL, the first warrior to combine the elements of underwater combat, airborne insertion and land fighting, he said.
Taylor tested the breathing gear at the pool at the Omni Shoreham, jumped deep behind enemy lines in Austria leading a team of OSS fighters, he said. A testament to his inner strength, after his capture, Taylor survived a German concentration camp.
The lessons learned and the technology and tactics developed were not lost when the OSS was disbanded after the war, rather they were passed onto the Navy and became part of the ethos of the Navy SEALs, he said.
Navy SEAL veteran Rep. Scott Taylor (R.-Va.) told Big League Politics he was thrilled to participate in the gala.
“It is an honor be here with an organization that was the predecessor to an organization to the U.S. Navy SEALs,” the congressman said. “There is no question that the warriors, who are out there today, have stood on the shoulders of these folks–I am just honored.”
Dr. Christian Lambertsen had developed an underwater breathing device, while he was a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. The Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit was an apparatus that allowed the warrior swimmer to breathe underwater without giving off bubbles that would give him away to enemy defenders. The doctor worked full-time with the OSS Maritime Unit, to train swimmers and further perfect the LARU at the pool of the Omni Shoreham and in secluded areas of the Potomac River. It was Lambertsen who coined the term SCUBA, for self-contained-underwater-breathing apparatus.
SEAL veteran retired Vice Admiral Joseph D. Kernan told the audience that the OSS was the anchor for the Naval Special Warfare community.
“Fundamentally, what I would say today about navy special warfare–despite what we have been doing over the last 13, 14, 15 years–combat swimming is the core of us,” said the admiral, who in addition to led the Navy Special Warfare Command and serving as an aide to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, has been nominated by President Donald J. Trump to serve as the assistant secretary of defense for intelligence.
“It is the core of all of us,” he said. “It is the reason most of us came into the community–because we like the water and being amphibious.”
The admiral said,” My sense is that those skill sets involved with combat swimming translate into success on the battlefield–no matter what you do.”
Functioning underwater is so tough and dangerous, breathing gear or even the underwater canoes, improves the warrior.
“The things that you learn and the things that you do underwater, are incredibly difficult and incredibly challenging,” he said. “If you have that fortitude and that attention to detail and you can live and breathe in an unforgiving environment like the water, you can thrive in any environment.”
Lambertson’s original model was designed for 50 feet for 90 minutes, he said
“Well, 50 feet for 90 minutes? That’s a warm-up these days,” he said.
“The key to the design was bubbles,” he said. “They demonstrated that down in Cuba, in what I would call a full-mission profile, when they actually penetrated the harbor, and no one could detect them at all, so that is when the light came on: Gee, if we can approach from–probably I would consider it our nation’s most clandestine environment is still the sea–if we can approach from the water without bubbles, you could do a lot of things.”
Unlike the original OSS maritime officers, Kernan said today’s SEALs do not train in the Bahamas or Cuba or California’s Catalina Island.
“If it doesn’t suck, we don’t do it,” the admiral said.
Charles Pinck, the president of the OSS Society said the OSS Veterans Association was started by Donovan in 1947 and that it was transitioned into the current organization in order to keep the legacy going with the membership opened up to members of the intelligence and special operations communities.
Pinck said the OSS Society is proud to carry on the legacy of the OSS, which also lives on through the various agencies and units that carry on special and clandestine operations for the United States.
The society, which will soon accept a Congressional Gold Medal, advocates for the national recognition for the role of strategic intelligence and is working to preserve both this legacy for future generations at the National Museum of Intelligence and Special Operations. The museum has secured land by Dulles International Airport and already is working with its academic partner at Georgetown University. The museum was designed by Curt Fentress, a design that includes the OSS spearhead symbol that is still part of the Special Forces patch and used by other similiar units, and includes a replica of the bar of the Paris Ritz hotel, liberated from the Germans by novelist Ernest Hemingway leading French Resistance fighters and members of the OSS.
After the speaker program, guests at the event enjoyed cocktails, Champagne and dancing to 1940s standards performed by the Silver Tones swing band.
The Omni Shoreham, opened in 1930, is the iconic Grand Dame of northwest Washington. The hotel has played host to The Beatles, Frank Sinatra and inaugural balls for every president from FDR through William J. Clinton. For a number of years, it was also the site of the Conservative Political Action Convention.
One year ago, the OSS Society presented a plaque to the hotel to commemorate the development of underwater breathing apparatus for the OSS Maritime Unit and its connection to the Navy SEALs.
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