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'America's first frogman' dies in Bend at 95

Published On: Dec 24 2013 01:01:02 PM CST
Updated On: Oct 30 2013 07:28:21 PM CDT
'First frogman' John Spence

KTVZ.COM/file

We talked to John Spence, America's first 'frogman,' during November 2012 gathering honoring veterans; he passed away Tuesday at age 95

BEND, Ore. -

Bend resident John Spence, known in World War II history as “America’s first frogman,” has died at the age of 95, a friend and fellow veteran confirmed Wednesday.

Jake’s Diner owner Lyle Hicks, who hosts the local Band of Brothers meetings, said he went to visit Spence at an assisted living facility on Tuesday and learned he had died during the night.

Spence passed away at Leisure Club Ridgewater Adult foster home, where he'd lived for several months, having lived previously at Stone Lodge Senior Living.

Nearly a year ago, NewsChannel 21 talked with Spence, who served his country as a combat swimmer sought out for their advanced swimming, diving and boat handling skills -- a precursor to today's Navy SEALs.

Spence was one of more than 20 veterans living at Stone Lodge, a senior living center in Bend, which held a special pre-Veterans Day gathering to honor them.

Spence was one of 70 frogmen who served in World War II and the Korean War. The current Special Forces are still using those water skills in their operations.

“We were counteracting a situation where our allies, which we were trying to help, that were taking a beating," Spence said. "So we were transferred to counteract what they were doing."

In recent years, Hicks and Band of Brothers President J.W. Terry and California filmmaker-historian Erick Simmel worked with Spence to develop a biography of his Navy service.

Hicks shared that with us Wednesday, and it’s presented in full here:

John Spence Biography:

I was born in 1918 in Centerville, Tennessee.  My dad was the local sheriff so I tell everyone that I was in jail for my first six years.  I lost my dad when I was 9.  He was ambushed by a bunch of moonshiners.

I joined the Navy in 1936.  After boot camp in Norfolk, Virginia, I was sent to Diver school where I was taught as a Hard Hat Deep sea diver.  I was assigned to the USS Idaho.  All of the large ships in those days had a deep sea diver group.  Along with my duties as a gunner when the need arose, I would be called upon to deep sea dive.  It made my monthly paycheck $10 fatter.  I mustered out of the Navy after 4 years and went to work for Lockheed Aircraft till the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor.

I then went to the Navy Department in Washington and volunteer for the Armed Guard.  They were the gunners who were protecting the merchant ships.  I was told ‘You must be crazy.  The Armed Guard are losing 85% of their gun crews.   But, I can see by your record that you have been a deep sea diver and we have a request for one.  Are you interested?’.  I told them, yes, and they sent me to the Navy Yard in Washington where I stayed for 3 weeks and could not find out anything from anyone.

I then received a letter from my mother who was worried that I was in some sort of trouble as men were in my hometown asking former teachers and classmates all sort of questions about me. 

I was then sent to a secret base known as ‘Area D’ somewhere on the Potomac River south of Quantico.  It was there that I found out that I had been recruited into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), an espionage organization who were direct frontrunners to the modern day C.I.A. .

Few realize that the OSS was it’s own branch of the armed forces having a commander serving on the joint chiefs of staff.  Ours was Major General William Donovan, WW1 Medal of Honor recipient and national hero.  The thing that separated us from the others was also the thing that seemed to cause the most conflict.  We were the guys that were ‘Out of the Box’. 

I was trained in Area D for special skills and in what is now Camp David in the fine art of sabotage.  I was placed under the command of a British Commander Woolley and a Navy Lieutenant Jack Taylor.  Lt Taylor was recruited to teach me small boat handling and navigation.  It was learned that Italian swimmers were sinking British ships so we decided to start a group of underwater warfare swimmers.  They named us Frogmen…..I was the first.

There is an interesting tale of how that name came forward.  Since I am a part of that tale, I will share it.  The Dunlop Company of England created a thin rubber waterproof suit.  They called them dry suits today but back then they were anything but.  They were green and had a full hood attached.  Mine sort of fit me.  As senior Navy diver, I was chosen to try it out.  It worked much better than the wool long johns we had used to cheat the cold.  Someone saw me surfacing one day and yelled out, “Hey, Frogman!”.  The name stuck for all of us….but once again, I was the first.

I was sent to the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC escorted by two armed Marines.  Arriving, I found the hotel secured by more Marines and was escorted to a secured swimming pool there.  Standing near the pool was a tall young man with blonde hair flanked by even more Marines.  He had a contraption of some sort on a table next to him.

The man was  a medical student by the name of Chris Lambertsen, who had invented a contained diving unit that recirculated air and sent no bubbles to the surface.   The Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit or the LARU was like nothing before or since.   I was introduced to him as John and he to me as Chris.  But, I could see he was a doctor in the making so I respectfully called him Doctor while he continued to call me, John. 

The LARU was cobbled together in Lambertsen’s garage.  The face mask was a converted WW1 gas mask.  It’s performance and ingenious design of its upgrades changed and brought about a whole new dynamic to secret warfare.  It was the foundation and predecessor to what the Seals use today.

Lambertsen was sworn to such secrecy that he was not able to tell his medical school dean why he had to take time off from school to visit Washington.  At the end of tests, he was sequestered into the OSS as a Army 2nd Lieutenant.

To the untrained eye, the Doctor and I might seem to be quite a mismatch but to anyone witnessing, you could see the excitement in both of us as my mind raced over the simple marvel of his invention.  He created it and I was his test student.  I was soon swimming underwater in that pool without the normal underwater gear and breathing with no bubbles.  It was silent.  The only sound was my own breathing.  It made me feel kind of like Buck Rogers.  It’s classification was at the highest level and on par with the Atomic program.

I was joined by 2 others and we began training at Annapolis in explosives, spy school, close combat, and much more.   We were then sent to Silver Springs, FL to make a presentation movie of what we were being trained to do. 

After the film, we were sent to Ft. Pierce, Florida where we were asked to teach Army and Navy amphibious commandos.  I was tasked with demonstrating the LRU to the man who was to lead the new Navy Underwater Demolition Team or the UDT.  His name was Draper Kaufman.  I remember showing him the fins and face plate.  This father of the Navy Seals looked me square in the eye and said, “Swimming is not one of my favorite things!”.  So, you can imagine what I thought when former President Bush wrote a book naming him America’s First Frogman.  Maybe it should have read ‘First Frogman to dislike swimming’.  I have always got a kick out of that.

We were sent to England for further training, where I was set as the leader of L-group 1.  It was Christmas time and I was led to a home of a Jewish family who brought me in to their home to share Christmas with them.  They prepared a magnificent meal which made an even greater impact when I found out later that the meal had cost them a year’s worth of saving and supply in food.  They being not Christians and yet knowing I was far from his family welcomed me as if they were mine.   Though I have long forgotten their names, I will never forget how special they made that Christmas.

We practiced in the Thames River which was extremely cold.  Our wet suits would crack and let moisture in.  We tried a variety of things to help that including using dishwasher gloves with pocket warmer type chemicals in them that would heat up with moisture.  We also tried using Swedish ski undergarments that were like a heavy fishing net.  That would allow the water that got in to warm up by your body heat…but it just ended up moving the cold spots to other places.

I went behind enemy lines in France with the famous British Major Hasler.  Hasler was the later the leader of the famous Operation Frankton.  Major Hasler could speak quite a few languages and was very crafty.  Armed with commando cloaks, OSS daggers, suppressed weapons, cameras, and L Pills in case of capture, we linked up with the French underground and were able to get a couple of downed pilots out.  We used American money that the French farmers used to negotiate trade with the Germans.

We were being trained for a mission that was called Operation Betty.   Four operatives of which I was one were to be dropped off in the Bay of Biscayne in Southern France.  Our bombing raids could not dent the giant concrete reinforced pens that protected the German submarines there.  We were to be dropped off by crash boats closed to shore.  Using motorized surfboards of sorts called ‘Water Lilies’ and submersible motorized canoes called ‘Sleeping Beauties’.   We would navigate in under the German’s radar.  We would then swim in underwater using the LRU.  Two swimmers would place mines on the locks while the other two would place them on the side of the German Subs.  The mines would detonate blocking the gates and sinking the subs.  We would swim to a safe house and link up with advancing forces at Normandy.

 Armed with a water proof Boy Scout compass, magnetic explosives, dry suits, and LARU rebreathers, we practiced in water that was often colder than 50 degrees.  Our training was at night and very intense.  We were on the eve of the attack when our part was scuttled.  Presumably because the magnets on the explosives messed with the compasses.    I still think we could have saved quite a few lives with that operation.

On June 22, 1944, the L unit was disbanded and I was sent to the Bahamas to be the chief LARU instructor.  But, I was still itching to get into the fight with the Germans or the Japs!.

So, somewhat distraught with being denied combat after all of the blood, sweat, and cold shivering hands and combat swimming mishaps….and my own service being so different than what was now being taught, I opted back into the fleet.  I was sent to the USS Wadsworth DD 516 where I became the chief gunners mate.

The Wadsworth fought in the battle for Palau, Iwo Jima, and then on to Okinawa.

During the first day at Iwo Jima, I was in the forward turret providing cover fire for the newly formed UDT simmers who did a marvelous job under fire to clear beach heads Using those same fins and faceplates.  I had a little inward chuckle wondering how that Kaufman fellow had finally been convinced of using them with his ‘demolitioneers’.

 In Okinawa, we were charged with shooting down 21 kamikazes and were given the Presidential citation.  I was also given a commendation for that battle.  During one day of that duty, on 28 April 1945, Wadsworth repelled six determined attacks by 12 enemy aircraft. The raids—which came from all points of the compass—commenced at sunset and continued for over three hours.  We successfully evaded a torpedo plane who after missing us with it’s torpedo decided to attempt to crash into our ship.  It took out our front 40 millimeter gun and clipped our whale boat before crashing into the sea. 

It was the second of two close calls.  The first was six days prior when a kamikaze narrowly missed us to port.  The crash of the plane sent a huge wave across our ship’s deck.  The wave was so huge that one sailor thought he had been swept overboard and began attempting frantically to swim back to the ship.  When the wave subsided, we laughed as he swam the crawl …on the deck of the ship. 

After VJ day, we remained in the area until September, when we assisted two LST who were bound for Nagasaki.  We helped take on Allied prisoners of war from the atomic bombed devastated port. 

 I remained in the Navy until 1961 when I retired as a Master Chief Gunners mate.  After the war, I kept in contact with Taylor and Lambertsen  as life-long friends until they passed on.

My training and service during WW2 remained Top Secret until 1987 and it was not until 1988 that a Sergeant in the Army Special forces began looking into what we had done and contacted me.  If it had not been for the curiosity of this young Army Sergeant, all of this would never have come to light.  He also said that he wanted the world to know.  So, in March of 1998, I and the others from the OSS Maritime Operational Swimmers were inducted as lifetime members of the Army Special Forces giving us all Green Berets.   Soon after, the Navy Seals realized us to be the forerunners of their organization and awarded us the Seal Trident. 

Of the original five, I am the only one left. 

I am Master Chief John Spence, Office of Strategic Services - United States Navy and proud to be America’s First Frogman.

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