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

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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 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. The pioneering men of the Maritime Unit conducted some of the most daring operations behind enemy lines and even survived one of the Third Reich’s infamous concentration camps. But 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.


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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 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. The pioneering men of the Maritime Unit conducted some of the most daring operations behind enemy lines and even survived one of the Third Reich’s infamous concentration camps. But 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.

30 review for First SEALs: The Untold Story of the Forging of America's Most Elite Unit

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tom Gulley

    Patrick K. O'Donnell just keeps topping himself. First SEALs is a great example of what's becoming the O'Donnell standard. Beginning with a never-before-told story of the Maritime Unit, precursor to today's SEALs. It's a story almost too amazing to believe. Yet, O'Donnell manages to bring a master historian's understanding and research to the pages--plowing new ground never before unturned in the search for details that richly bring the story to life. But O'Donnell doesn't there. He has a gift for Patrick K. O'Donnell just keeps topping himself. First SEALs is a great example of what's becoming the O'Donnell standard. Beginning with a never-before-told story of the Maritime Unit, precursor to today's SEALs. It's a story almost too amazing to believe. Yet, O'Donnell manages to bring a master historian's understanding and research to the pages--plowing new ground never before unturned in the search for details that richly bring the story to life. But O'Donnell doesn't there. He has a gift for storytelling one might expect to find in a fiction novel. His skill in placing the reader in the mind, time period, and setting of the principle players is an extra gear not found in most accounts of military history. Italians riding torpedoes. A famous matinee idol. Inflatable surfboards. An NFL kicker of note. Developing the first SCUBA gear. All spearheaded by an adventure-addicted dentist. And that's just scratching the surface. If you're a fan of military history, non-fiction in general, or just an untold story being unveiled in a masterful fashion, get First SEALs. It'll require a special operations team to pry it from your hands.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David Mitchell

    Patrick K. O'Donnell always gives his readers great research, wonderful story-telling and engaging writing. His credibility as a historian is unblemished and his contributions to 20th century military history is significant. With First SEALs, however, O'Donnell has surpassed his prior works and delivered his finest work of scholarship to date. Mining largely untapped, and certainly unexhausted resources, O'Donnell gives his readers a brilliant exploration of the birth and evolution of the SEALs Patrick K. O'Donnell always gives his readers great research, wonderful story-telling and engaging writing. His credibility as a historian is unblemished and his contributions to 20th century military history is significant. With First SEALs, however, O'Donnell has surpassed his prior works and delivered his finest work of scholarship to date. Mining largely untapped, and certainly unexhausted resources, O'Donnell gives his readers a brilliant exploration of the birth and evolution of the SEALs during WWII. First SEALS is exciting and eye-opening, and a must-read for anyone who studies military history and for anyone who just wants an exciting reading experience!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Alex Kershaw

    Great research, fascinating book, great read.

  4. 4 out of 5

    EsquiredToRead

    And with that, I have finished my challenge for 2017! I loved this book. This was not what I expected but wow did it deliver. Especially after reading "The Nightinggale" it was really interesting to get the outlook of WWII from Eastern Europe instead of France and I'm really glad I read it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    The title of the book could be somewhat misleading. One might think this is a book on the early history of the US Navy SEALs which began its origin with the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) during World War Two. Typically most books on the history of the SEALs trace their lineage to the UDTs. Instead this book focuses the Office of Strategic Services’ Maritime Unit (MU). After getting over the initial expectation that this was going to be about the SEALs or the UDT the book turned out to b The title of the book could be somewhat misleading. One might think this is a book on the early history of the US Navy SEALs which began its origin with the Navy Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) during World War Two. Typically most books on the history of the SEALs trace their lineage to the UDTs. Instead this book focuses the Office of Strategic Services’ Maritime Unit (MU). After getting over the initial expectation that this was going to be about the SEALs or the UDT the book turned out to be an amazing account of the men and the operations of Maritime Unit that was much ahead in their days of Naval commando operations even compated to their contemporary UDTs with the MU’s advance technological breathing masks, sea-to-land direct actions, parachuting capabilities, support for partisan fighters behind enemy lines, sabotage and advanced reconnaissance. Like the modern SEALs of today the role of those in the MU were at times blurred from land and sea operations. This book tells the incredible stories of these men that read like a novel. The most harrowing account in the book is the story of Navy Lt. Jack Taylor who was captured by the Nazis deep within enemy lines and was sent to a concentration camp. Taylor was marked for death many times by the Nazis but camp clerks who were made up of prisoners themselves kept on erasing his name and/or going in line ahead of him whenever the Nazis gathered people to be killed. Many of these European prisoners wanted Taylor to be alive so that America and Western Europe would have an American witness of the Camp’s atrocities and therefore convinced the West that the Holocaust was real. It made me tear up seeing how those in the Concentration Camp can act almost like animals in survival mode but somehow in the midst of the all the salvage brutality the all too human concern for truth and justice manage to come out. This is an incredibly good book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Stacy Karpel

    An expertly told story about a piece of American history that could have easily been lost. The story is wonderfully written and I found myself engulfed in the tale. Jack Taylor is the ultimate survivor! The book is yet another stellar piece of work by Patrick K. O'Donnell. The detail and intimacy allowed by the personal interviews was far beyond what most historians could achieve. Although many interviewed were O'Donnells personal friends he managed to deliver an unbiased book that provides a ba An expertly told story about a piece of American history that could have easily been lost. The story is wonderfully written and I found myself engulfed in the tale. Jack Taylor is the ultimate survivor! The book is yet another stellar piece of work by Patrick K. O'Donnell. The detail and intimacy allowed by the personal interviews was far beyond what most historians could achieve. Although many interviewed were O'Donnells personal friends he managed to deliver an unbiased book that provides a balanced view of the units strengths and weaknesses . Once I cracked the spine I could not put it down.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sarah Bodaly

    I really enjoyed this book. The title kind of threw me a little, for it tells the story, not of World War 2's Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, but with the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, which focused more on reconnaissance/spying as well as underwater subversion. The storyline was masterful, and was almost completely free of any language. There was a little bit of overlap from a book I had read last year, about the extraction of several U.S. nurses that had crash landed in Albania during Wo I really enjoyed this book. The title kind of threw me a little, for it tells the story, not of World War 2's Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, but with the OSS, Office of Strategic Services, which focused more on reconnaissance/spying as well as underwater subversion. The storyline was masterful, and was almost completely free of any language. There was a little bit of overlap from a book I had read last year, about the extraction of several U.S. nurses that had crash landed in Albania during World War 2. (The Secret Rescue by Cate Lineberry) A decent portion of the book describes Navy Lt. Jack Taylor's capture by the Germans and ultimate detention in Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The things he saw and endured were gut-wrenching. Several times, he was slated for execution, but other prisoners, mostly Russians, took his place, so that he could hopefully survive and tell the world what happened; they knew people would trust an American's account more than a Communist's. His testimony at the Nuremberg Trials led to multiple convictions. The Navy runs deep in my family, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. There's several characters from it that I hope to explore further.

  8. 5 out of 5

    San Diego Book Review

    Reviewed by Eric Heimbuch for San Diego Book Review It is hard to imagine a world without special forces such as the US Navy SEALs or the US Army Green Berets in this day and age of small scale warfare, surgical strikes, and a war on terrorism, but that was where the United States was in the beginning of WWII. The US recognized the value of small teams of operators that could quickly and quietly infiltrate behind the enemy's lines and carry out missions that could have devastating effects on the Reviewed by Eric Heimbuch for San Diego Book Review It is hard to imagine a world without special forces such as the US Navy SEALs or the US Army Green Berets in this day and age of small scale warfare, surgical strikes, and a war on terrorism, but that was where the United States was in the beginning of WWII. The US recognized the value of small teams of operators that could quickly and quietly infiltrate behind the enemy's lines and carry out missions that could have devastating effects on the enemy. You can read this entire review and others like it at San Diego Book Review.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Wesley Hansen

    An excellent history of the pre-Navy SEAL period covering WWII in the European theater. I met Patrick O'Donnell at a Civil War show in Mansfield, OH, and he was clearly an expert in a number of fields, specifically the OSS during the war. He has literally interviewed thousands of WWII veterans and studied thousands of documents in the National Archives. The sad thing is that so many of the men and women he has interviewed are passing away each year. His books really reflect history. Great read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

    I originally thought this book was about the current SEAL teams, but it is more of a WW2 history than anything else. It was still very interesting to read. The author does a good job of holding the reader's attention through a lively narrative. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in WW2 history, especially amphibious operations during the war.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Nordo

    Title is misleading.... it’s a book about the OSS operatives in WWII. Still interesting and entertaining though. I thought I was going to read a book about the actual first team of SEALS, not what led to their development 20 years earlier.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Carl

    Slow paced initially, which made the book almost uninteresting. The book tells the story of pre-Seals operations - before Team Six and other modern day teams. The men in this story were "ordinary" Americans with extraordinary courage and ability - similar to the Seals of today.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Neil McGee

    History shared. Thank you for this good read & the extraordinary service contained within. History shared. Thank you for this good read & the extraordinary service contained within.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Bell

    Best book I read about the history of Special Operations, SEALs, and diving.

  15. 4 out of 5

    MisterLiberry Head

    An interesting, painstakingly recovered history of the Maritime Unit, the elite teams of OSS swimmer-commandos in World War Two that evolved into the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Teams in 1962. A similar, much larger combat team during the War was exceeded by the MU, whose training was “far superior in many ways to that of the Underwater Dem0olition Teams” (p135). I read this expert narrative with more than casual interest because my dad served in a UDT unit in the Pacific Theater, 1944-45. An interesting, painstakingly recovered history of the Maritime Unit, the elite teams of OSS swimmer-commandos in World War Two that evolved into the Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) Teams in 1962. A similar, much larger combat team during the War was exceeded by the MU, whose training was “far superior in many ways to that of the Underwater Dem0olition Teams” (p135). I read this expert narrative with more than casual interest because my dad served in a UDT unit in the Pacific Theater, 1944-45. Many times I heard him complain that UDT had almost no equipment--"only face masks and snorkels" (p136), as O’Donnell notes. The readability of FIRST SEALS is enhanced by stories about the madly eccentric group of MU pioneers and their almost-impossible missions. It was fun to encounter the renegade Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden (“Dr. Strangelove,” “The Godfather”) as an expert seaman and daring OSS agent. Worth mentioning, too, are O’Donnell’s inclusion of good maps, a comprehensive index, remarkable B&W photos and a satisfying “After the War” chapter on the principal characters.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Erik

    This book was kind of disappointing in a couple of ways. First, referring to these OSS agents as 'The First SEALS' seems to be something of a stretch. Granted, I was not expecting them to have been officially referred to as SEALS in their time, but they were more precursors to the precursors of The First SEALS. Basically, I could see the connection but it was more tenuous than I was expecting. Second, the descriptions of the various missions and challenges they faced were surprisingly short and This book was kind of disappointing in a couple of ways. First, referring to these OSS agents as 'The First SEALS' seems to be something of a stretch. Granted, I was not expecting them to have been officially referred to as SEALS in their time, but they were more precursors to the precursors of The First SEALS. Basically, I could see the connection but it was more tenuous than I was expecting. Second, the descriptions of the various missions and challenges they faced were surprisingly short and dry. They seem to largely be based on official records of the missions, and the descriptions read like it, i.e. More like a dry inter office memo than a book telling a story. in addition the recitations are typically quite short. Like 6-7 pages (and not exactly long pages) long. I don't think it's a coincidence that the most compelling chapter is also the longest. Folks who will love anything remotely having to do with the SEALS will like this book, but if you're looking for more keep looking.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Gina Johnson

    Maybe a 3.5. It really was pretty interesting. The first half or 3/4 of the book is mostly history of how underwater missions came to be and talk about the development and testing of underwater equipment and the gathering and training of the first ocean swimmers groups by the OSS. (Sounds dull but it really wasn't.). The last part of the book tells most specific stories about events during WWII and follows an American officer that was captured and held in a death camp. I give it only a 3.5 becau Maybe a 3.5. It really was pretty interesting. The first half or 3/4 of the book is mostly history of how underwater missions came to be and talk about the development and testing of underwater equipment and the gathering and training of the first ocean swimmers groups by the OSS. (Sounds dull but it really wasn't.). The last part of the book tells most specific stories about events during WWII and follows an American officer that was captured and held in a death camp. I give it only a 3.5 because I couldn't tell you the names or really very many specifics about most of the book. While it was interesting I don't feel that I was engaged enough to retain most of it (some of that may be due to listening to it rather than reading it.). On a side note, a character from The Zookeeper's Wife also makes a brief appearance in this which was a fun connection.

  18. 5 out of 5

    John

    A well-researched book, full of interesting stories of the WW2 US OSS Maritime Unit, precursors to the later SEALs. The book suffers from lax editing throughout, organization, repetition, and some glitches such as having Mauthausen concentration camp running to October, 1945 (page 211). My other beef is the misleading title, First SEALs. There is a nearly 20-year gap between the wind-down of the OSS MUs and the start of SEAL organization in the early 1960s. Still, it is a good read, full of inte A well-researched book, full of interesting stories of the WW2 US OSS Maritime Unit, precursors to the later SEALs. The book suffers from lax editing throughout, organization, repetition, and some glitches such as having Mauthausen concentration camp running to October, 1945 (page 211). My other beef is the misleading title, First SEALs. There is a nearly 20-year gap between the wind-down of the OSS MUs and the start of SEAL organization in the early 1960s. Still, it is a good read, full of interesting real-life characters.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Pete

    Interesting and entertaining account of how underwater combat operation tactics were developed by OSS during World War II and later adopted by the US Navy. Some great maverick characters in the story.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Tony

    First SEALs chronicles the formation and exploits of the OCC's Marine Unit (MU). Unfortunately, O'Donnell's prose tends to sink rather than swim. Most of the book consists of stories that are so short and bereft of detail that they do not engage the reader and generally blend together. There is one significantly longer episode that is quite interesting. However, this is an account of a POW situation; while the captured solider was a MU operative, the story of his confinement seems only tangentia First SEALs chronicles the formation and exploits of the OCC's Marine Unit (MU). Unfortunately, O'Donnell's prose tends to sink rather than swim. Most of the book consists of stories that are so short and bereft of detail that they do not engage the reader and generally blend together. There is one significantly longer episode that is quite interesting. However, this is an account of a POW situation; while the captured solider was a MU operative, the story of his confinement seems only tangentially related to the unit.

  21. 5 out of 5

    James

    If you are a fan of military fiction, this non-fiction book is for you. Written by an expert in the field of special operations and based on countless interviews and documents, it traces the founding of the maritime unit of the OSS of World War II. It read likes a documentary, but the stories about these heroes' exploits will leave you wanting to read more. Not a long book but very entertaining and informative.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Artemis

    A well-documented historical account that shows how SpecOps began. The firsthand accounts of the early days that led to what we know today as the SEALs provide a solid base to understand the why, how, and when our country's underwater combat force was created. The graphic recount of life in a Nazi prison camp by the "First SEAL" Jack Taylor adds a dimension not often described in other invincible hero stories about our special forces. Well worth the read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Aaron W. Matthews

    Patrick K. O'Donnell has done an outstanding job of Maritime Unit, OSS, UDT, and eventually Navy SEAL history. Of particular note was the story of Lieutenant Jack Taylor and Sterling Hayden. The development of the Brown Lung and Lambertson's early re-breather were interesting to learn about as well. This was a fine book, well-researched, and well-written.

  24. 4 out of 5

    John

    Enjoyed the book but disappointed in one respect. My father was a WWII member of a group called the Navy Scouts and Raiders. This group was created about 9 months after Pearl Harbor. Very little has been written about the Scouts & Raiders and I had hopes this book would mention them. The book primarily discusses the early days of the OSS. Enjoyed the book but disappointed in one respect. My father was a WWII member of a group called the Navy Scouts and Raiders. This group was created about 9 months after Pearl Harbor. Very little has been written about the Scouts & Raiders and I had hopes this book would mention them. The book primarily discusses the early days of the OSS.

  25. 5 out of 5

    James Tittle

    It was good. The title is a little misleading. The story was mainly about the OSS of WWII and how they were the forerunners to the Navy Seals. I was expecting more about the actual SEAL organization. Anyway, it was a good read.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Warren

    Superb read This well written history of the OSS Maritime Units, precursor to the USN SEALs, is gripping and thoroughly fascinating. The author's research is evident and he was able to present the story in a fashion that was an enjoyable read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Boiko

    Title misleading. Book is about OSS Maritime Unit. Otherwise a wonderful bit of History.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Darren Sapp

    Patrick O’Donnell is a military archeologist. He’s dug up another fascinating story and found great men that birthed one of our special operational units.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Carlee

    This book provided an interesting look into the origins of the SEALs, back in World War 2. (There's a typo near the end of the book, where it states that the war ended in May 1944).

  30. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    There are times you'll swear you must be reading fiction, but no. No one could make this shit up. The men featured in this book were amazing. The book itself was amazing.

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