We practiced in the Thames River which was extremely cold. Our wet suits would crack and let moisture in. We tried a variety of things to help that including using dishwasher gloves with pocket warmer type chemicals in them that would heat up with moisture. We also tried using Swedish ski undergarments that were like a heavy fishing net. That would allow the water that got in to warm up by your body heat…but it just ended up moving the cold spots to other places.
I went behind enemy lines in France with the famous British Major Hasler. Hasler was the later the leader of the famous Operation Frankton. Major Hasler could speak quite a few languages and was very crafty. Armed with commando cloaks, OSS daggers, suppressed weapons, cameras, and L Pills in case of capture, we linked up with the French underground and were able to get a couple of downed pilots out. We used American money that the French farmers used to negotiate trade with the Germans.
We were being trained for a mission that was called Operation Betty. Four operatives of which I was one were to be dropped off in the Bay of Biscayne in Southern France. Our bombing raids could not dent the giant concrete reinforced pens that protected the German submarines there. We were to be dropped off by crash boats closed to shore. Using motorized surfboards of sorts called ‘Water Lilies’ and submersible motorized canoes called ‘Sleeping Beauties’. We would navigate in under the German’s radar. We would then swim in underwater using the LRU. Two swimmers would place mines on the locks while the other two would place them on the side of the German Subs. The mines would detonate blocking the gates and sinking the subs. We would swim to a safe house and link up with advancing forces at Normandy.
Armed with a water proof Boy Scout compass, magnetic explosives, dry suits, and LARU rebreathers, we practiced in water that was often colder than 50 degrees. Our training was at night and very intense. We were on the eve of the attack when our part was scuttled. Presumably because the magnets on the explosives messed with the compasses. I still think we could have saved quite a few lives with that operation.
On June 22, 1944, the L unit was disbanded and I was sent to the Bahamas to be the chief LARU instructor. But, I was still itching to get into the fight with the Germans or the Japs!.
So, somewhat distraught with being denied combat after all of the blood, sweat, and cold shivering hands and combat swimming mishaps….and my own service being so different than what was now being taught, I opted back into the fleet. I was sent to the USS Wadsworth DD 516 where I became the chief gunners mate.
The Wadsworth fought in the battle for Palau, Iwo Jima, and then on to Okinawa.
During the first day at Iwo Jima, I was in the forward turret providing cover fire for the newly formed UDT simmers who did a marvelous job under fire to clear beach heads Using those same fins and faceplates. I had a little inward chuckle wondering how that Kaufman fellow had finally been convinced of using them with his ‘demolitioneers’.
In Okinawa, we were charged with shooting down 21 kamikazes and were given the Presidential citation. I was also given a commendation for that battle. During one day of that duty, on 28 April 1945, Wadsworth repelled six determined attacks by 12 enemy aircraft. The raids—which came from all points of the compass—commenced at sunset and continued for over three hours. We successfully evaded a torpedo plane who after missing us with it’s torpedo decided to attempt to crash into our ship. It took out our front 40 millimeter gun and clipped our whale boat before crashing into the sea.
It was the second of two close calls. The first was six days prior when a kamikaze narrowly missed us to port. The crash of the plane sent a huge wave across our ship’s deck. The wave was so huge that one sailor thought he had been swept overboard and began attempting frantically to swim back to the ship. When the wave subsided, we laughed as he swam the crawl …on the deck of the ship.
After VJ day, we remained in the area until September, when we assisted two LST who were bound for Nagasaki. We helped take on Allied prisoners of war from the atomic bombed devastated port.
I remained in the Navy until 1961 when I retired as a Master Chief Gunners mate. After the war, I kept in contact with Taylor and Lambertsen as life-long friends until they passed on.
My training and service during WW2 remained Top Secret until 1987 and it was not until 1988 that a Sergeant in the Army Special forces began looking into what we had done and contacted me. If it had not been for the curiosity of this young Army Sergeant, all of this would never have come to light. He also said that he wanted the world to know. So, in March of 1998, I and the others from the OSS Maritime Operational Swimmers were inducted as lifetime members of the Army Special Forces giving us all Green Berets. Soon after, the Navy Seals realized us to be the forerunners of their organization and awarded us the Seal Trident.
Of the original five, I am the only one left.
I am Master Chief John Spence, Office of Strategic Services - United States Navy and proud to be America’s First Frogman.