Obit of the Day: The First “Frogman”
When John Spence served his first tour of duty in the U.S. Navy he would occasional work as a deep-sea diver because it made his “monthly paycheck $10 fatter.” It also gave him the experience that General William “Wild Bill” Donovan wanted in a new group of men to complete underwater espionage for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to today’s CIA.
Mr. Spence was the first enlisted man brought on board the OSS team, in early 1942. Sent originally to a camp known only as “Area D” Mr. Spence received further training in diving, as well as combat and munitions. Originally Mr. Spence and others in the small clandestine group trained in “dry suits” - green waterproof (although Mr. Spence would beg to differ) rubber diving outfits. Early in the training Mr. Spence appeared rising from the water in his breathing apparatus and dry suit and someone called out, “Hey, frogman!” Mr. Spence claimed he was the first to be given the moniker which described combat divers for years to come.
Note: Mr. Spence was one of the first men to ever wear the Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit (LARU) invented by medical doctor Christian Lambertsen. The LARU was unique in that it was smaller than traditional diving equipment and most importantly, for secret missions, emitted no bubbles. Dr. Lambertsen was featured on Obit of the Day in 2011.
For the remainder of World War II, Mr. Spence and his unit would partner with British commandos and the French Underground on various missions. They were then sent to the Pacific where Mr. Spence saw more action on deck than beneath the waves manning a machine gun during the Battle of Okinawa.
The work Mr. Spence did for the United States, though, was considered top secret and he was not able to speak about it with friends and family until the program was declassified in the 1980s. In recognition for his pioneering efforts, Mr. Spence was honored for his service by the SEALs*, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the U.S. Army Special Forces.
John Spence, who retired from the Navy in 1961 as a master chief gunner’s mate, died on October 29, 2013 at the age of 95.
(Image of the OSS clandestine underwater team at their training grounds, “Area D,” outside of Quantico, VA, 1943. John Spence is standing fifth from the left, in the darkest outfit in the photo. The image is courtesy of guardianspies.com)
* Mr. Spence met Rear Admiral Draper Kauffman, the “father of the SEALs”, during WWII. Heading the Naval Underwater Demolition Team, not yet-Admiral Kauffman, told Mr. Spence “Swimming is not one of my favorite things!” When Admiral Kauffman’s biography was later titled ”America’s First Frogman,” Mr. Spence joked, “Maybe it should have read ‘First Frogman to dislike swimming’.”