In waters 30 miles off Key West in late 1941 and early 1942, Walter Mess sat in his custom-built 85-foot boat made of plywood and powered by two 1,500-horsepower engines lifted from a P-51 Mustang fighter airplane. He built her himself and named her Jeannie.
She could cruise faster than 60 mph, the 99-year-old veteran told The Citizen this week. He was hunting Nazi U-boats. The silence of the night broke when an enemy U-boat surfaced.
"They came up maybe a quarter to half a mile away from shore and they fired at me," Mess said of the enemy U-boat. "Punctured my gas tank. I had a thousand gallons of fuel on board. We got lucky that night."
Mess was an operative with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA during World War II. He ran so-called P-boats, ultrafast and maneuverable boats for the nascent spy agency, which evolved into the CIA after the war.
Mess went on to secretly lead a team of boatmen into the Indian Ocean, where they dropped off groups of spies and clandestine military men on the beaches of Burma and Thailand to pick up downed Allied fighter pilots.
Such boat units later evolved into Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, the boat crews that deliver and pick up SEAL Teams in hostile territory.
Mess is in Key West today to help spread the ashes and honor his former OSS colleague, Christian Lambertsen, a man who helped train the underwater demolition dive units that years later became the SEAL Teams. Lambertsen's invention of a re-breather scuba system made such missions possible, and he is considered the father of Special Operations Forces' combat swimming.
Mess and Lambertsen worked together in Burma during the war. There weren't many OSS men in the field in those days and it required a lot of quick thinking on your feet, Mess said.
"It was high-octane stuff," he recalled.
Mess will join Lambertsen's family at the Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key, where he is looking forward to honoring his colleague and seeing Key West for the first time since the early days of WWII, he said.
"Back in those days it was a minefield offshore," Mess said. "I spent a lot of time training seamen down there on how to handle boats. I'm sure it has changed a lot since then. It was a pretty raw little town in those days."