Thursday, October 30, 2014
October 30, 2013
For the ones from out of town who cannot get the local paper, here is today's main article:
John Spence, right, talks with Jonathan West in 2012 shortly after West — a Marine — received the Congressional Gold Medal for his service during World War II. Spence, who died Tuesday in Bend, served in WWII and was the first to try out a new diving apparatus that allowed for much greater freedom underwater. Erick Simmel, a filmmaker and historian, says every combat swimmer since can be traced back to that swim by Spence.
World War II vet was a first
John Spence, dead at 95 in Bend, pioneered U.S. underwater warfare
By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin
Published: October 30. 2013 4:00AM PST
"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."
Thursday, October 23, 2014
Time is a precious thing. A minute or so either way can make a huge difference. I was reminded of that on Saturday as I prepared to venture over to Eugene to join an old friend at the Duck game. I lingered a bit in the office talking with my son, Casey before I left. I was going to drive to the game and then afterwards drive up to Vancouver to join up with Judy at our daughter, Trinity's place and then back home the next morning.
That small time made me leave around a half hour later than I had anticipated. I began up and over the Santiam only to be stopped just shy of the HooDoo turn off. I sat in the massive back up of traffic wondering what had happened up ahead. I watched as many people began to turn back and I wondered what they knew. Then, I realized that I had a smart phone and wondered if I could get service where I was. I pulled out my small hand held computer marveling at how much communication and information has changed in the last few years. I looked up the ODOT page and found that their was a large accident ahead. They recommended a different route. Now, I knew why others had turned back.
I too turned around and headed back down but now I began to fret at being stuck inside this huge traffic flow going over that small pass. I fought as to whether it was all worth it or if I should just turn north towards the girls and call it a day. But, I had not seen my friend in a while and the game was a big one so I figured that I would just play it by ear when I got back to Sisters. As I drove past Black Butte Ranch, I wondered if many would take the Cold Creek Campground cutoff road. It is a small but straight gravel road that cuts over to the McKenzie.
As I approached the road, I watched the mass of traffic in front of me and no one was taking the short cut so....I decided to give it a go. I turned and headed down the road and marveled that I was the only one on it. So, I took it a little faster than I normally would (40 or so) and shortly found myself on the other pass well ahead of the crowd with hardly anyone there. I reveled in my small victory and smiled at the fact that I was now ahead of all of them.
But, when I got to the top, a small light came on the dash. The tire monitor told me that their was a problem. I was driving Judy's new car that tells you all sorts of info including tire pressure and switched the monitor to see the problem. The back right tire only had 16 pounds in it. I pulled over and looked at it and you could not tell there was a problem so I kept on going thinking maybe the problem was the sensor. But, when I got to Proxy falls, the indicator now said 9 pounds. I pulled over again, still far ahead of the others and it looked low but not that bad. I figured that I could easily get to McKenzie bridge and find some air for it. I drove past a rather large flat area by the church camp with that vision in my mind. The tire would hold....but....it did not. Shortly before the bottom of the past, it gave up the ghost and I struggled to find a place to pull over.
The only place was rocky and a bit of a incline but now...I had no choice. Sweating and nervous, I was angry at myself for not just pulling over at that large flat area. I got the jack out and placed it in the only place available and began to raise the car. The rocks did not allow the jack good footing and the incline was not friendly and now I worried that it would slip off the jack. I quickly swapped the tires and tightened the studs on the small donut reserve. With the flat tire in the back, I started the rig back up. The huge line of traffic was now upon me and the traffic the other way was now in play also. It was like rush hour and I was left looking for the small gap to slip into the flow.
I saw my break and punched the gas trying to bring it up to the speed of the traffic so as to not anger the car that was allowing the break. The small substitute tire cried out as I asked it to keep up with the other three. At first, I thought that maybe I had not secured it tightly but then once up to speed, I smoothed out and all seemed good. I wondered just what speed it was meant for so I kept it down to 45 or so.....all the way to Springfield. I took every turn out and kept to the side as much as I could so as to not hinder anyone.
I was glad that I had my GPS with me and set it for the Les Schwab Center. It took me a bit as the first two on my list wanted me to go back the other way. I am still not sure where they were trying to take me but I found the Springfield store and took note that it was on the main drag. I arrived in Springfield at the store now 4 hours after leaving Bend. It was 1:30 and I was supposed to meet my friend, Ron, at 3. They assured me that they would get me out in an hour so I walked back up the road to a small burger joint not far away.
The sign said that Food Network had been there. I wondered if I actually had time thinking that they must be very busy but I walked into a small cafe with only two tables full. With hardly no one there, I walked up to the counter and asked how I ordered. They told me to take a seat and they would come to me. I ordered a burger and drink and waited....and watched. I am one to always check out the other places and the two things that I saw that stood out were a line of beer taps right out where anyone could get to them and a small room towards the back for playing lottery. Instead of a TV for entertainment, they had one with the numbers for lotto. The owner seemed to certainly be trying to maximize his profits. The draw for Food Network was obviously Man vs Food as they had signs for a 5 pound burger challenge. I wondered how one even cooks a 5 pound burger insuring that it is cooked through.
My lunch soon came and I wolfed it down wanting to get back to my car. As I paid at the counter the cashier told me that I was lucky that I had beaten the rush. As I left, I could not help wondering what rush? It was 2 in the afternoon. Was it a pregame rush?
I got back to the shop and noticed my car was up on the jacks. I watched a bit of the Alabama game noticing that they were certainly taking care of Texas A&M. I ended up walking outside and was there when the young man remounted my tire. He showed me the large plug that he had to put where the sharp rock on the cut off road had punctured. He told me that I was lucky...it was their largest plug. I asked if it would hold and he assured me that it would.
I arrived 15 minutes short of my friend at the mall where we were to meet not sure if I was ready to take on the crowd in my heightened state of mind. I wondered if it was just best for me to head north to Judy and Trin. I shared with him a bit of the struggle that I go through and told him that I did not want to ruin his game. He assured me that if I had a problem, we could come back out so...off we went.
We met up with our old coach from high school at his tailgate spot and chatted with him for a bit. His buddy was cooking up some fresh clam fritters. We ate some of the delicious fritters and as we talked, I began to relax. We left and walked into the stadium a half hour or so before kickoff and found our seats. We sat there sharing our lives and our families and soon the kickoff started and the game began. As I watched I relaxed even more and I enjoyed the atmosphere...of course winning does help.
Afterwards, as we left the stadium we found ourselves where the Huskies were leaving. A few idiots were harassing them but most clapped and wished them well. A rather tall player came over and engaged the crowd a bit, even signing autographs. I noticed his name on his jersey...Thompson. I later realized that it was Shaq Thompson, their best defensive player and certainly a future NFL star.
Arriving back at the car, I now began the next challenge...the drive up I-5. I turned up the music and let it help me deal with this different mass of people. I soon found myself at he place and pulled myself into a comfortable bed. Two hours later, I was up as usual and downstairs reading as my daughter left for work.
I noticed online that three people had lost their lives on that accident on the pass. They had left behind a 6 year old who had stayed back with friends. My heart went out to this small boy and what he was about to got through. His parents and younger sister were gone....and he would have to deal with that the rest of his life.
I found myself wondering where I would have been had I not sat in the office and talked with Casey. Would I have been there just before the mishap, or during it? One never knows. It makes me pause and remind myself to always tell the ones that I love that I do just that.