Before they were sneaking onto foreign beaches with only a bathing suit and a knife during World War II, many frogmen were avid skin-divers and volunteer lifeguards in Santa Monica.
A recent report from one of City Hall’s historical consultants shows that Santa Monica may be the birthplace of the Maritime Unit — a group of covert operatives who used “underwater techniques” for the Office of Strategic Services (predecessor to the CIA).
William Donovan, the first chief of OSS, met Jack Taylor, a dentist and waterman, in Santa Monica, according to oral history dug up by journalists Erick Simmel and Cody Shearer and re-conveyedby the city consultant PCR.
Taylor spent hours skin-diving in Santa Monica in the 1940s, the report said, and later developed a friendship with Donovan, the consultants found, though it’s unclear how the two were introduced.
“They discussed how this equipment and the underwater techniques could be used for covert operations,” PCR said in its report. “In 1942, after being named Chief of the OSS, Donovan established a special operations component known as the Maritime Unit (MU). Taylor, one of the first officers assigned to the MU, played a key role in the development of policies and training programs for the new waterborne units and is largely recognized as one of the first ‘Frogmen.'”
According to Simmel, the meeting took place at the then-brand new Shangri-La Hotel. It’s further alleged that Donovan was staying at the Shangri-La when he met Taylor, whose dentist office was near the hotel.
As a result of these findings, Simmel and Shearer (who are acquaintances of the hotel’s owner, according to the report) are hoping to add to the hotel’s Historic Landmark record. The hotel is already landmarked, but the information would supplement the record. It would also allow the hotel to apply for the construction of a plaque, which would include a city seal, commemorating Taylor and Donovan’s meeting.
The Landmarks Commission heard the request earlier this month but asked that the historical consultant return with more information.
Most commissioners did not question the oral history, which is the source for most of the information, but they did have concerns about the connection to the Shangri-La.
“Even the conclusion of the report, the criterion, it begins with, ‘Unfortunately, there’s no documentation of Donovan’s visit,'” said Chair Margaret Bach.
She said she had an “uneasy feeling” about nature of the report.
Commissioner Dolores Sloan noted that there’s limited proof that Patricia Donovan, William’s daughter who was supposed to have introduced Taylor and William Donovan, was in Santa Monica.
“It mentioned that there’s even questions about whether the daughter stayed in Santa Monica because she was supposed to be in college,” Sloan said. “We have no evidence that she was actually there, which would have been the link that brought her father there. This disturbed me as a researcher.”
Simmel told the commission that the individuals who he interviewed about the Maritime Unit over the years were “rock-solid.”
Shearer said that they hope the plaque will be the first step in a process that ends with a museum and an exhibit honoring the frogmen.
“The fact that you don’t have a registration that Bill Donovan stayed at this hotel — no hotel has records that go back 75 years,” he testified.
Commissioner Laura Elizabeth O’Neill summed up the concerns of the commission, noting that the oral research seems intensive but that the connection to the hotel needs more research.
“I don’t think that people are suspicious of the fact that these are important persons or that a lot of these activities occurred in Santa Monica,” she said. “I think the issue is that our job is to tie it to a place and in this case we’re being asked to tie it to the Shangri-La. So we’re looking for more information, if it’s out there, on that piece of this. Not necessarily were these important people in our history – I think that the evidence bares that they were. Not necessarily that we doubt that it occurred on Santa Monica beaches. It’s the tying to the Shangri-La.”
The commission voted unanimously to continue the discussion, after more information has been gathered, at a later date.