SAN DIEGO – 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.
Spence died Tuesday at a care facility in Bend, Ore. He was 95.
Because much of what Spence and others did during the war was under the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency, stories of their bravery and resourcefulness were long classified as top secret.
Only in the late 1980s was the secrecy classification lifted, allowing 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 that 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,” 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, whose home port was San Pedro, 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, 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.
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.