“America’s first frogman,” John Spence, died Tuesday in Bend. He was 95.
Lyle Hicks, owner of Jake’s Diner and an active member of the veterans group Oregon Band of Brothers, said he went to visit Spence Tuesday morning and learned he had died during the night. J.W. Terry, president of the Band of Brothers, said Spence had been at an assisted living facility for about a year.
In the years before Spence’s death, Hicks, Terry, and California filmmaker and historian Erick Simmel collaborated with Spence to develop a detailed biography of his service in the U.S. Navy. Portions of that biography are excerpted here, including all quotations from Spence.
Born in 1918, Spence was the son of the sheriff in Centerville, Tenn. Spence was 9 when his father was killed, ambushed by a group of moonshiners.
Spence joined the Navy in 1936 and was sent to diving school. Assigned to the USS Idaho, he was primarily a gunner, but on occasion he’d be called on to dive, doing ship maintenance wearing a diving helmet tethered to an air source on deck.
He was discharged from the Navy in 1940, but after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Spence volunteered to serve as a gunner protecting merchant ships. But Navy officials instead took note of his diving experience. He was told the Navy had a role for him as a diver, and he spent the next three weeks camped at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., waiting to get the call.
A letter from Spence’s mother alerted him that his assignment could be something different. Federal agents had been through his hometown, tracking down his former teachers and classmates and asking questions.
The Navy brought Spence to a secret base on the Potomac River south of Quantico, Va., where Spence learned he’d been recruited to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. Italian swimmers had been sinking British ships, Spence learned from his commanders, and so the Navy had decided to form its own group of underwater warfare swimmers.
The term “frogman” was coined during the group’s initial training, when Spence tried out a new waterproof suit made from green rubber.
“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,” Spence told his biographers.
‘Like Buck Rogers’
Spence’s claim to being the first American frogman began the day a team of armed Marines escorted him to the pool at a Washington, D.C., hotel, where he was introduced to a young medical student, Chris Lambertsen.
Working in his garage, Lambertsen had built a diving apparatus out of a converted gas mask that allowed much greater freedom for the swimmer than anything Spence had used before. Spence was selected to be the first test subject, and soon he was swimming back and forth in the hotel pool, underwater, with no bubbles rising to the surface.
“It was silent. The only sound was my own breathing,” he said. “It made me feel kind of like Buck Rogers.”
Other hand-picked swimmers joined the team, and the five-man unit began training in explosives, espionage and close-quarters combat.
Spence was sent to Florida to teach newly formed Army and Navy amphibious units how to use Lambertsen’s apparatus, a rebreather. One of Spence’s students was Draper Kaufman, recently selected to lead the new Navy Underwater Demolition Team, and often credited as the “father of the Navy SEALs.”
During a demonstration of the fins and face mask that members of the demolition team would be using, Kaufman, Spence recalled, told him he didn’t really care for swimming.
In early 1944, Spence’s unit prepared for its first combat mission. The divers would use small submersible craft to approach the German submarine base near Lorient, where repeated bombing raids had failed to penetrate the concrete bunkers protecting the subs. At the base, they planned to swim inside the bunkers and plant mines, sinking the subs and disabling the locks.
Planned to take place days before the Normandy invasion, the attack on Lorient was scuttled hours before it was set to begin. Simmel said Gen. Dwight Eisenhower “got cold feet,” and scrapped the attack, fearing it could alert the Germans that the larger invasion was imminent.
The incident rankled Spence, who had returned to the Navy hoping to see action.
“He had trained so hard for that, and to have them scrub it, I think that angered him,” Hicks said.
Spence asked to be relieved from his work with the OSS, and in June 1944, he returned to naval service on the USS Wadsworth as the chief gunner’s mate.
Spence served aboard the ship through the end of the war, fighting in the battles for Palau, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima, Spence got his opportunity to see combat swimmers in action from the deck of the Wadsworth, firing the ship’s forward turret to provide cover as a group of UDT swimmers — including Kaufman, the reluctant swimmer — made their way to the beach.
Spence often recalled the story of his meetings with Kaufman, Terry and Hicks said.
“He always thought that was so funny, and then, he laid down fire for that guy at Iwo Jima,” Hicks said.
Spence stayed with the Navy until 1961, retiring as a master chief gunner’s mate. He went to work for Lockheed, where he’d worked briefly between his initial stint in the Navy and his reenlistment. Simmel said Spence spent several years in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, working at a variety of military subcontractors as a systems testing engineer.
Simmel said Spence and his wife moved to Oroville, Calif., after he retired. When she died in the early 1990s, he moved to the Los Angeles area to live with one of his daughters, Simmel said.
Hicks and Terry said Spence moved to Bend, where one of his daughters lives, five or six years ago. They said they’ve had a difficult time learning much about his life, and are uncertain how many children he may have.
Hicks said beyond Spence’s involvement with the Band of Brothers, he remained active until fairly recently.
“I know that John loved to dance, he would go down to the senior center to dance,” Hicks said.
The details of the OSS combat swimming program were classified top secret until the late 1980s. In 1998, Spence and others in his unit were inducted as lifetime members of the Army Special Forces and given Green Berets. The Navy soon recognized the OSS program as the forerunners of the SEALs, and awarded the SEAL Trident to its members, according to Simmel.
Terry said there’s a case to be made that Spence, not Kaufman, ought to be recognized as the first SEAL. He said Spence was aware of the controversy, but was largely content to let others argue who deserved credit for what.
“There is some dispute, there’s an officer who claims he was the first SEAL,” Terry said. “John always was just disgusted by the whole mess, so he just didn’t talk about it.”
Simmel said there’s no dispute Spence was the country’s first frogman, and that every combat swimmer since can be traced back to the experiments in the pool at that hotel in Washington.
“Every Navy SEAL owes themselves to John Spence and Chris Lambertsen,” he said.
Hicks said one of Spence’s daughters told him there are no plans for a memorial service, but the Band of Brothers may hold an event in his honor, and will seek to recognize him in the Veterans Day parade next month.
“The guys will probably do some kind of memorial, some sort of service, because he’s so close to us,” Hicks said. “He’s a tremendous man.”