“John Spence fought for our country with nothing more than a Ka-Bar knife, a pack of explosives and a diving rig.” —Rick Kaiser, Executive Director, U.S. Navy SEALs Museum
WWII Veteran’s Life Intertwined With Numerous Historic Figures During His Largely Top-Secret Career With the US Navy and OSS
It’s not everyday that we get to the use the well-worn GIjOE appellations, “Action Sailor” and “Real American Hero” when describing someone who had existed in real life. But we believe both terms can confidently be applied to Master Chief Gunner’s Mate John Spence, a pioneering U.S. Navy Frogman, WWII Battleship Gunner and UDT (underwater demolitions team) Scuba Diver and Instructor. Spence died Tuesday (November 5th, 2013) in a care facility in Bend, Oregon, at the age of 95, and was a man of many military “firsts.” According to Tony Perry at The Los Angeles Times:
“John Spence was a diver often credited as the first U.S. combat ‘frogman’ in World War II and was an important figure in the rigorous training that led to the establishment of the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Because much of what Spence and others did during the war was under the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency), stories of their bravery and resourcefulness were long classified as top-secret. Only in the late 1980s was the secrecy classification lifted, allowing Spence to finally tell friends and family members of his wartime experiences.
John Pitts Spence was born June 14, 1918, in Centerville Tennessee, where his father was the sheriff. He joined the Navy in 1936 and was trained as a gunner and ‘hard-hat’ diver. He served on the battleship USS Idaho, whose home port was San Pedro, CA, left the Navy in 1940 and worked for Lockheed in Los Angeles County. He moved to rejoin the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although he wanted to deploy as a gunner protecting merchant ships, Spence had the kind of diving experience that made him a natural for a clandestine group being organized by the OSS under the legendary Major Gen. William “Wild Bill” Donovan. Spence became the first enlisted man selected for the group, which was trained in stealth, demolition and close-in combat tactics, with the goal of sinking enemy ships and also blowing up underwater emplacements meant to thwart beach landings by U.S. assault troops.”
Top-Secret Lives—Finally Revealed
Mr. Spence’s obituary, while adequate and factual, provides only secondhand bits of already known public information. As usual, your friends here at The Joe Report wanted to know much more, so we ordered our crack research team to “dig deeper” and not come back until they had discovered additional autobiographical or first-hand accounts of Spence’s life. Fortunately, our dogged researchers learned that before his death, Master Chief Spence had indeed written a short autobiography of his life, providing previously top-secret insights into his storied military career (read excerpts below):
“I first joined the Navy in 1936. After boot camp, I was sent to Diver School where I was taught as a ‘Hard Hat’ Deep Sea Diver (DSD). I was then assigned to the Battleship USS Idaho. All of the large ships in those days had a DSD group. Along with my duties as a gunner, whenever the need arose, I would be called upon to make a deep-sea dive (it made my monthly paycheck $10 fatter). After 4 years, I mustered out of the Navy and went to work for Lockheed Aircraft until the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. Then I went to the Navy Dept. in Washington and volunteered…and was 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 that was a direct forerunner to the modern-day CIA.”
“Few realize that the OSS was its own branch of the armed forces, having a commander serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Ours was Major General William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, a WWI Medal of Honor recipient and national hero. The thing that separated us from the other branches was also the thing that seemed to cause the most conflict. We (those in the OSS) were the guys that were… ‘Out of the Box.’
I trained in ‘Area D’ for special skills and 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 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.”
“Next, 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 laid out 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, sending NO bubbles up to the surface. It was called the ‘Lambertsen Amphibious Respiratory Unit’ or LARU, and was like nothing before or since. The LARU was cobbled together in Lambertsen’s garage. The face mask was a converted WWI gas mask. It’s performance and the ingenious design of its upgrades changed and brought about a whole new dynamic to secret warfare.”
“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-in combat, and much more. Then 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 President Bush wrote a book naming him ‘America’s First Frogman.’ Maybe it should have read, the ‘First Frogman to dislike swimming.’ I have always gotten a kick out of that!”
“We were sent to England for further training, where I was set as the leader of L-group 1. 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…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. 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 back into the fight with the Germans or the Japs, so 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.”
“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 on the port side. 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.”
“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 that young Army Sergeant, none of this would ever 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.”
Bottom Line: If you’ve stuck with us this long, you’re undoubtedly feeling somewhat humbled by this amazing man’s story. We are as well, and would like to offer our sincerest thanks and gratitude to John Spence and everyone else who’s ever served in the U.S. military for their service to our country. Also, we’d like to thank Lyle Hicks, J.W. Terry and California filmmaker-historian Erick Simmel for working with Spence before his death to record a biography of his service. As the last of “The Greatest Generation” continue to leave us, it’s more important than ever to reach out to those who still remain and preserve their memories for posterity—before it’s too late. Finally, thanks to Tony Perry of The Los Angeles Times for his Spence obituary article. It proved an inspirational stepping stone, indeed. The next time you look at one of your GIjOE Action Sailors, Frogmen, or Deep Sea Divers, we hope you’ll take a moment to remember John Spence, and ALL of the other real American heroes who have given so much for our country and the freedoms we enjoy today. Go, NAVY!