Origins of Navy SEALs began with civilians

Art Reinhardt speaks before a crowd at the visitors center in Prince William Forest Park where he trained to be an OSS agent. (WTOP/Kathy Stewart)

Kathy Stewart,

TRIANGLE, Va. – After the Navy SEALs succesfully conducted last year’s raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the highly secretive special operations force was brought back into everyday conversation.

But not all of the little-known information about the organization is under lock and key.

The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) formed during World War II and was the country’s first intelligence agency. Most don’t know the OSS was originally a civilian organization that was overseen by an Army general.

Art Reinhardt is an OSS veteran.

“It was founded in June 1942. It was a civilian organization and a lot of people don’t know that,” says Reinhardt.

Reinhardt trained as an OSS radio operator in Prince William Forest Park in April 1944 for about two months before deployment to China.

He says some of the earliest World War II predecessors of the SEALs were OSS swimmers or frogmen.

It wasn’t until Adm. Chester Nimitz, the U.S. Navy Pacific commander, lost many of his men in the Marines’ bloody November 1943 landing on Tarawa Atoll (Pacific Theater) that Nimitz told OSS, “I can use your swimmers.”

“The landing in Tarawa — there were about 2,000 Marines killed,” Reinhardt says.

He said landmines and the Japanese were responsible for the Marines’ deaths.

“By the time the landing on Okinawa came along, the Navy and the OSS had jointly formed what they called Underwater Demolition Team 10,” Reinhardt says.

The team, which was under the military at that point, would clear out the coral reefs so the landing craft wouldn’t get stuck. This way Marines could make a quick landing.

Thus, Reinhardt says, the Navy SEALs were born.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)

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