Though his service in the military preceded the formation of the Navy SEALs by nearly twenty years, Navy Lt. j.g. Jack Taylor is thought to be the first U.S. commando to operate in the sea, air, and land. His exploits in World War II included boat operations off the coast of Greece, land operations in Central Albania, and a parachute drop into Austria. He also experienced life in the Mauthausen, Austria extermination camp and was a victim of war crimes there.
Taylor was an orthodontist in Hollywood, Calif. when the U.S. joined World War II. He joined the Navy, originally expecting to teach boat handling skills to U.S. and Allied service members. But he certified on the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit — a SCUBA device adopted by the Office of Strategic Services in 1942 — and was ordered to serve in the OSS.
He was then assigned to the first Underwater Swimmer Group, but was redirected to become the Chief of the Office of Strategic Services Maritime Unit.
Service in the Middle East
In the Maritime Unit, Taylor personally commanded fourteen missions into the enemy-occupied Greek and Balkan coasts. He and his team delivered spies, weapons, explosives, and other supplies to friendly forces from Sep. 1943 to March, 1944.
For three months during this period, he commanded a team on land in Central Albania, reporting important information like enemy troop movements and the locations of enemy fortifications, supply dumps, and artillery positions. The team was nearly caught by enemy search parties at least three times, but Taylor and his men slipped the net each time. He was nominated for an Army Distinguished Service Cross by Maj. Gen. William J. Donovan for this service, but received the Navy Cross instead.
Parachuting into Austria
As Allied forces made their way through Europe in 1944, they were assisted by partisan groups in countries occupied by German forces. Allied planners realized they had no contact with partisan groups in Austria, and Taylor was chosen to lead a four-man team into Austria to find allies and collect intelligence ahead of the advance north from Italy.
Taylor parachuted into Austria with three Austrian corporals liberated from a POW camp. It was on this troubled jump that Taylor satisfied the “air” requirement of a sea, air, land commando and became the first U.S. service member to conduct commando missions in all three domains.
Unfortunately, the “Dupont Mission” ran into trouble early when the pilots were unable to drop the team’s radios and other equipment. Taylor was injured while the team retrieved what equipment did make it to the ground and one of the Austrians became very ill in the first days.
Despite the setbacks, the team began collecting intelligence and seeking out Austrians friendly to the Allied cause. They photographed German defensive measures, ascertained the loyalties of individual cities and groups, and formed a network of supporters that could be counted on to aid the Allies. Since they had no radio with which to send the intelligence out, the team had to organize a plan to escape past German lines to American forces in Italy.
Capture and internment at an execution camp
The night before their attempt to escape to Italy, Taylor and the rest of the team were captured and sent to a Vienna prison on Dec. 1, 1944. There, the jailers attempted to make Taylor confess to being a civilian though he was captured while wearing his officer’s insignia. After four months of austere conditions and mistreatment, Taylor was transferred with other prisoners to Mauthausen.
Taylor was warned by another prisoner with experience at Mauthausen and other camps that Mauthausen was one of the worst. The prisoners arrived at the camp by ferry on April 1, 1945. Though it was a violation of the Geneva Convention and his rights as a prisoner of war, Taylor was dressed and treated as a political prisoner. He was also beaten and witnessed the executions of fellow prisoners.
Scheduled execution and eventual liberation
Taylor was twice scheduled for execution. The first time, he was rescued when a friendly worker in the camp’s political office saw his papers in a stack of prisoners to be executed. The worker removed Taylor’s papers and burned them.
The Nazi guards eventually realized Taylor was supposed to have been executed and again ordered his death. Only a few days before the sentence was to be carried out, the 11th Armored Division liberated the camp. A few hours after the camp was liberated, an American film crew documenting the camps arrived at Mauthausen and recorded Taylor’s description of life in the camp.
Taylor would go on to testify at the Nuremberg Trials and other court proceedings against Nazi perpetrators of war crimes. His testimony is credited as being the most damning for the camp personnel at Mauthausen, leading to the convictions of all 61 defendants.
Taylor’s full report on the Dupont Mission, his capture, and his time in captivity can be found in an archive maintained by Pica Community College.