World War II Expert Was There for Birth of Navy's Combat Demolition Unit

American soldiers land near Algiers. (National Archives photo)
American soldiers land near Algiers. (National Archives photo)

Navy Lt. Mark Starkweather, a demolitions expert, had been working around Pearl Harbor, salvaging unexploded Japanese bombs. But in November 1942, he was on the other side of the world, practicing a new brand of warfare.

The U.S. entered World War II without much experience in amphibious landings, as Edwin P. Hoyt notes in his book, "SEALs at War: The Story of U.S. Navy Special Warfare." By the time Gen. George Patton's task force reached the North African coast in November 1942, Guadalcanal had provided more than enough of that experience.

But at Port Lyautey near the Wadi Sebou River in French Morocco, Patton's task force realized that any landing faced an obstacle much tougher than water: The Vichy French had constructed underwater defenses overlooked by a manned stone fortress.

The Navy called in Starkweather, giving him a team of 16 men, with rush courses for all in underwater demolition, cable cutting and commando tactics. Thus the Combat Demolition Unit was born.

On Nov. 8, the team landed in a rough sea and met with enemy fire. After a searchlight caught their Higgins boat, they were forced to retreat. On Nov. 11, they went in again. This time, the sea was even rougher, but the storm may have kept the enemy at bay; no flares, fire or searchlights found the team. They reached the underwater boom, installed the charges and cut the cables that held underwater nets and other obstructions in place. The charges blew, broke the cables and left the way clear for invasion of the airfield near Casablanca.

But the Higgins boat still had to get clear of the river's mouth, and the explosion had alerted the enemy to the team's presence. Once Starkweather ordered his team to cease firing, it became harder to track the boat. He then ordered all leftover explosives, the rubber boats, an incendiary bomb and one of the two machine guns thrown overboard to lighten the craft in the stormy seas.

When at last the men reached transport, they were all alive, and none were seriously wounded. Starkweather and his unit had proven that U.S. amphibious operations could be successful.

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