Recently declassified documents,
photographs and rare film footage reveal the island’s top-secret wartime
history and its contributions to modern SCUBA diving in the
First Line of Defense: Catalina Island and
World War II exhibition currently on display at the Catalina Island Museum.
Starting in the summer of 1942,
the United States Coast Guard and United States Maritime Service called
Catalina Island home. The military installed a top-secret radar station,
anti-aircraft gun platforms and lookout towers on the windward side of the
‘magic isle’ while servicemen endured intense training in Avalon and at the
As the nation’s involvement in
the war grew, President Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services.
Naming William “Wild Bill” Donovan as director of this top-secret organization,
the United States entered into the world of spies, espionage and guerilla
warfare. A tactic never-before used by the United States government.
Locations on Catalina Island such
as Toyon Bay, Howland’s Landing and Fourth of July Cove offered the OSS
extremely isolated facilities as well as coastal regions that were thought to
resemble South Pacific Islands. Between 1943 and 1945 the island was used by
the OSS for covert training and top-secret operations.
In response to the ever-changing
face of war in the Pacific, the Special Operations branch of the OSS created
the Maritime Unit. Director Donovan chose Catalina Island, known for its
crystal clear waters, as a strategic location for the training of his elite
group of amphibious soldiers.
The Maritime Unit recruited Dr.
Christian Lambertsen to perfect his revolutionary re-breathing device – the
“Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit” or “Lambertsen Lung” – and train combat
swimmers in its use. The MU trained in small craft handling, underwater
explosive devices and specialized boats such as collapsible kayaks and
inflatable surfboards that could be launched from submarines. The “Lambertsen
Lung” allowed them to conduct long-range operations underwater without creating
bubbles on the surface. The MU also developed flexible swim fins used by the
combat swimmers or “Frogmen.” The origins of modern SCUBA diving and the way
that mankind would come to experience the underwater world started with the OSS
on Catalina Island.
The OSS Maritime Unit became
America’s first group of combat swimmers and the origins of many of the tactics
of the later Underwater Demolition Teams and Navy SEALS can be directly traced
back to this group.
First Line of Defense: Catalina Island and World War II is on
exhibit through April 28, 2013 at the Catalina Island Museum.
The Catalina Island Museum is
Avalon’s sole institution devoted to art, culture and history. The museum, its digital theater and
store are located on the ground floor of Avalon’s historic Casino and are open
7 days a week, from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information, the museum
may be reached by phone at 310-510-2414 or at its website: CatalinaMuseum.org.