From 1939-41, Hotel Shangrila in Santa Monica and its beaches were OSS MU training grounds for Santa Monican recruits, whose secret wartime adventures led to today’s Navy SEAL operations.
William J. Donovan, New York lawyer and WWI MOH hero, appointed by President FD Roosevelt as the first Coordinator of Information (COI), and head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, recruited Santa Monica and LA County Beach lifeguards, the best waterman — skin divers, paddle boarders, surfers, and swimmers for the OSS Maritime Unit (MU).
Robert Silver, a former Sgt Major with the USMC and a past President of the LA Adventurers’ Club, recalled one of his memories.
“‘Wild Bill’ (General Donovan) utilized Hotel Shangrila and trained on Santa Monica beaches and formed the nucleus of OSS Maritime Unit Operational Swimmers, whose overseas, behind the lines, missions, played a major role in defeating the Axis Powers, 20 years before the Navy SEALs were set in motion,” Silver said.
Nearly 75 years later, Hotel Shangrila, The Los Angeles Adventurers’ Club, OSS Society, and British United Services Club of Los Angeles brought several surviving members of the original OSS Maritime Unit Operational Swimmers back to Hotel Shangrila for a three-night stay earlier this month, before they set sail for the once secret Toyon Cove, Catalina Island OSS training facility and USMC Camp Pendleton on the original P520 Crash Sea Rescue Boat.
Those honored at the hotel included 99-year-old Walter Mess who was once a civilian secret agent on special assignment Europe and senior flotilla commander for all MU operations in the Burma theater of war, 94-year-old John Spence considered “Americas First Frogman” the first SCUBA commando and OSS instructor, and Norman Abbott once a Burma theater OSS Operational Swimmer.