Obituary: John Spence / Navy diver and pioneering WWII 'frogman'

June 14, 1918 - Oct. 29, 2013

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John Spence, a diver often credited as the first U.S. combat "frogman" in World War II and an important figure in the rigorous training that led to the establishment of the Navy SEALs, has died.

Mr. Spence died Oct. 29 at a care facility in Bend, Ore. He was 95.

Because much of what Mr. Spence and others did during the war was under the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA, stories of their bravery and resourcefulness were long classified as top secret. Only in the late 1980s was the secrecy classification lifted, allowing Mr. Spence to finally tell friends and family members of his wartime experiences.

Rick Kaiser, executive director of the Navy SEAL Museum at Fort Pierce, Fla., said Mr. Spence "fought for our country with nothing more than a Ka-Bar knife, a pack of explosives and a diving rig."

"In today's age of drone strikes and worldwide instant communications," Mr. Kaiser said, "it's hard to imagine going to war depending on nothing but your training, your cause and your teammates."

John Pitts Spence was born June 14, 1918, in Centerville, Tenn., 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 Idaho, 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, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

During the training phrase, a new word was coined based on the green waterproof suit that Mr. Spence was wearing.

"Someone saw me surfacing one day and yelled out, 'Hey, frogman!' The name stuck for all of us," Mr. Spence told maritime historian and filmmaker Erick Simmel.

In the initial training, Mr. Spence met a medical school student named Chris Lambertsen, who had developed a breathing apparatus that Mr. Spence was ordered to test. The device sent no bubbles to the surface, which would help swimmers approach their target without notice.

Lambertsen's breathing device, which he built in his garage, became the prototype for the apparatus still used by SEALs and other Special Forces troops. Lambersten died in 2011.

Mr. Spence made several forays into occupied France with British commandos, linking up with the French underground and rescuing downed airmen. Later, he was assigned to a training command in the Bahamas as a scuba instructor preparing combat swimmers to support the war against Japan.


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