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

Fellow 'Band of Brothers' vets share John Spence's WWII story

By KTVZ.COM news sources

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.

First Frogman

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.

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