How America trained its first super-secret frogmen

1st Marine Raider Support Battalion held an event giving U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command personnel the opportunity to learn about the involvement of World War II Raiders in the war and their legacy that lives on at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Sept. 29, 2017. World War II Marine Raiders played a large role in the success of World War II, on and off the battlefields.

Many in attendance know of the World War II Raiders’ victories on the battlefield, but their aid off the battlefield is less known. With the establishment of the Office of Strategic Services came the creation of the OSS Special Maritime Unit Operational Swimmers, also known as the country’s “first frogmen.” The Raiders’ facilities and training methods became the foundation of the operatives’ training and preparation for the war.

The assistant operations officer for 1st MRSB introduced Erick Simmel, the battalion’s guest speaker who would lecture on the history of the OSS Maritime Unit. Accompanying Simmel at the lecture was the last living OSS Special Maritime Unit operative, Henry “Hank” Weldon.

In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt reorganized the Office of the Coordinator of Information into the Office of Strategic Services, after U.S. entry into World War II. OSS founder Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan, a World War I hero and Wall Street lawyer, restructured the organization to similarly match the British Special Operations Executive and Secret Intelligence Service operations.

“The intent was to create an elite agency with units created for conducting guerrilla warfare as well as collecting and sabotaging intelligence behind enemy lines,” said Simmel, an OSS Maritime Unit descendant and historical expert of World War II special operations forces.

One of the many units created were the frogmen. These men received an extraordinary waterman-operative skillset to use during World War II operations. The men who made it into the unit were the first swimmers sent to attend the Marine Raider Training Course at Camp Pendleton in the fall and winter of 1943-1944. These men were trained in both Marine Raider skills and underwater demolition techniques.

The purpose for both training courses was to prepare the operatives for reconnaissance, underwater demolition, infiltration and exfiltration by sea and intelligence gathering. Though equipment, tactics and techniques have changed over the last 70 years, today’s Raiders and the OSS frogmen emphasize the same skillsets in training.

MARSOC-swim-raiders

MARSOC Raiders conduct swim training. Photo: US Marine Corps Sgt. Donovan Lee

After the lecture, the Raiders were introduced to weapons and equipment used during that time period at a series of static displays. Amongst those displays were images of the frogmen and Raiders collaborating with allied British forces.

British special operators also participated in the frogman training pipeline, developing their skills under the tutelage of Raider instructors. Along with attaining new training, British and U.S. forces exchanged information on warfare tactics, technology and logistical concepts to use against German forces. The training consisted mainly of techniques needed for infiltration by sea.

Instructors for this course consisted of World War II Raider officers and enlisted personnel, who trained the frogmen in mock attacks designed to test harbor defenses. In one exercise scenario, combat swimmers were tasked with successfully breaching America’s maritime harbor defenses.

“They gave us a bunch of dummy TNT at high tide, dropped us off about a half-mile offshore and told us to plant it all along the coast while our commanding officers kept watch,” said Weldon. “One of the commanding officers said he thought he saw something, but they didn’t see us. When daylight came, the tide went out and all you could see was the dummy TNT all along the shore.”

U.S. Marine Corps Raiders hit the island of Makin in World War II. (Photo: Public Domain)

U.S. Marine Corps Raiders hit the island of Makin in World War II. (Photo: Public Domain)

This ability to get in and out without detection, allowed the World War II Raiders and Navy frogmen to be two of the most effective fighting forces of World War II. The skills learned from the World War II Raiders and used by the OSS Special Maritime Unit A swimmers proved the value of their direct action operations behind enemy lines during World War II.

As World War II came to a close, President Harry S. Truman dissolved the OSS and its Special Maritime Units. The lineage and legacy of the first frogmen carries on today in elements of U.S. Army Special Operations Command, U.S. Naval Special Warfare Command’s SEAL community and the modern Raiders of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command.

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