In light of last week’s Navy SEAL mission that killed Osama Bin Laden, we’ve all grown a bit more interested in the elite forces responsible. Martin “Jake” Jacobson, now 89, was 22 when he joined the military and subsequently became part of the Underwater Demolition Team, a division of the Navy that was the precursor to the SEALs. Jacobson was awarded the Silver Star for his service. Go the jump to learn more about his experience.
Where did your missions take place? The first mission was the invasion of the Marianes [in the Philippines]. I also went on missions in Guam, Saipan, and Japan.
How did you become part of UDT? I volunteered for the Navy Construction Battalion in June of 1943. They were a group that was formed just prior to WWII. They knew the war was coming and the Navy did not have a construction unit so they formed the CB’s. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but then I got side tracked because I didn’t want to spend the winter in Williamsburg, Virginia so they were recruiting for the UDT teams so I volunteered into that.
What was your training like? The training was always very hard physical training. The training that we took in 1943 was much different than what it has evolved to now [in the SEALS]. It was a six-week program in Fort Pierce, Florida. We did running, swimming, and log PT, where a team of men would take a telephone pole, raise it over our heads, and pass it along in a line. We were a specialized team that would go out in rubber boats and use explosives to get rid of underwater obstacles and get the heck out of there.
What was the purpose of UDT? We could already see that the Germans were putting obstacles on the beaches in France so we knew it was something we had to be prepared to deal with. The mission changed after the invasions at Tarawa, an island in the Pacific. When the Marines went to go on shore, they didn’t know the conditions were like. The coral reef dropped off, and they got stuck out in the water with all their equipment. The guns on shore were triggered on them. They just lost so many Marines that day. The Navy decided before they did any more invasions, they wanted to know what the beach conditions were like. So they changed our mission to add reconnaissance of the beaches before the landings. They did that the first time on the invasion of the Marshall Islands and it worked so well.
What was your most memorable mission? It was all pretty memorable, but on the island of Guam we had these coral cribs they had built out on the reef blocking the shore. They were about 4-feet in diameter, and they stood up about 4-feet above the water. The boats couldn’t get in to land between them. We took out 680 of those in a three or four day operation with 20-pound packs of Tetryol, an explosive.
What was the most danger you ever felt you were in? I once spent about six hours one night in the water never knowing whether I’d find the ship or not. We were going to do a night reconnaissance on Guam and we had a limited time tio do it in because the fleet was going to bombard the beach at a certain hour and we were supposed to withdraw from there. They fired the flares and that meant we needed to get out of there. The group I was with was six men, and we were supposed to go back the rubber boat we had come in on. Well three of us missed the boat. After a while, we thought the enemy had seen us so we started swimming out to sea, to see if we could find the boat. Fortunately they had left a ship in, thinking they might spot us at daylight, and they did find the three of us. We swam from about midnight until 6 in the morning.
What was your path like when you came back to the US? I had a degree in civil engineering, so my mission then was to find a job. There wasn’t much going on in Montana at that time. One of my best friends, my commanding officer, lived in Dallas. I got in touch with him, and through his help I got a job here in general contracting. I’ve been in it ever since. I started that work in 1947, and I’m still going to the office every day.
Jacobson, pictured here with his Silver Star, is a resident at Edgemere Retirement Community and a former partner at McFadden & Miller, where he still works part-time. Ever the thrill-seeker, Jacobson began sky-dving at 70 and has been seven times.