Catastrophic optical mirror damage (COMD) is analyzed for 808 nm emitting diode lasers in single-pulse operation in order to separate facet degradation from subsequent degradation processes. During each pulse, nearfield and thermal images are monitored. A temporal resolution better than 7 µs is achieved. The thermal runaway process is unambiguously related to the occurrence of a “thermal flash.” A one-by-one correlation between nearfield, thermal flash, thermal runaway, and structural damage is observed. The single-pulse excitation technique allows for controlling the propagation of the structural damage into the cavity. We propose this technique for the analysis of early stages of COMD.