Skip to comments.Diving Iconís Ashes Spread Off Key West ~ Christian J. Lambertsen 'the father of combat swimming'
Posted on 03/10/2012 4:16:28 AM PST by Elle Bee
The ashes of the man responsible for developing what evolved into the most advanced scuba systems used by today's Special Operations Forces, as well as leading marine researchers and explorers, will be spread this morning in the waters off Key West.
Christian J. Lambertsen was a medical student in 1939 when he invented his Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit (LARU), a forerunner of modern dive re-breathers used today by the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs and deep-sea explorers. Lambertsen died on Feb. 11 at his home in Newtown Square, Pa., at the age of 93.
His family, colleges and Special Operations Forces members will gather this morning at the Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key to say goodbye to the medical doctor, veteran of the CIA forerunner Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and commander of that clandestine organizations's Marinetime Unit.
The inventor helped coin the phrase "Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus," or scuba, and is considered the father of modern combat swimming, as he trained the Navy's underwater demolition teams, the precursor of the modern SEAL Teams and other Special Operations Forces.
Before Lambertsen, divers wore uncomfortable, heavy metal helmets that pumped air from a boat on the water's surface. His device used pure oxygen and carbon dioxide filters that allowed divers to re-breathe their exhaled air, which created a stealth, bubble-less system.
He continued to improve his system, and in the late 1950s and 1960s helped develop a re-breather system that remained in use by Navy SEALs until the 1980s, according to the OSS Society, a Virginia-based organization made up of former OSS operatives.
"He is at the very top," said Charles Pinck, president of the OSS Society. "There's a reason they call him 'the father of combat swimming.' He invented it. His device allowed divers to perform covert operations. There's not many former OSS men that were as influential as Dr. Lambertsen."
When Lambertsen developed his closed-scuba system, the Navy initially was not interested, but the fledgeling OSS spy agency saw potential in the device, and in Lambertsen, who tested his equipment himself. When he graduated from medical school in 1943, the OSS recruited the newly minted doctor into their ranks.
World War II was in full swing. Lambertsen went on to command the OSS Marinetime Unit. His trainees went on to perform feats never before achieved, including one trainee who swam more than a mile underwater undetected.
Lambertsen's breakthroughs are well-known within technical diving circles, in and outside the military, but combat swimmers owe their jobs to him, said Steve Luoma, Key West Fish Check charter captain and former Navy SEAL commander and SEAL Team Six operator.
"His insights into scuba diving during the early parts of WWII were instrumental in the successes of the Allied Forces," Luoma said. "He developed the re-breather, which is still used today when clandestine water infiltration is required. He was a very ingenious man whose legacy will continue on."
Lambertsen's contribution to Special Operations Forces was such that he was awarded the Army Special Forces tag and badge for wartime service and received the OSS Distinguished Service Award, which was presented to him by Adm. Eric Olson, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, according to Maj. Trevor Hill, commander of the Fleming Key dive school.
"Because much of this remained classified for years, it was only in the last 10 years that our people discovered his contributions," Hill said. "And it's not just this device. It's crucial to understand that he was a doctor and every disorder associated with diving and re-breathers, such as oxygen toxicity and carbon dioxide poisoning, he researched. The science of hyperbaric chambers, all these things, he gave us. He made it a science. Everything we do here at the school, he touched all of it."
For all of Lambertsen's contributions to the military and world of espionage, his contribution was as equally important to civilians, said Mike Ange, president and general manager of Seaduction Key West Dive Center, an expert instructor with re-breather technology.
"The biggest thing is that re-breathers made exploration possible," Ange said. "It allows us to explore at depths and in cave systems much farther than with traditional open-circuit (scuba) systems. And it also allows us to approach marine life without scaring them, so the bubbleless system helps marine photographers and researchers. There's all kinds of cave explorers and biologists who use this technology. The list goes on and on." Even so, Lambersten's daring work as an underwater spy -- he was the first man to exit and re-enter a submarine under water and his other escapades in Burma helped him earn the OSS Legion of Merit -- left a lasting impression on the Special Forces and CIA operatives who followed in his footsteps, or wake, as it were.
"As someone recently put it to me, Lambertsen was the perfect OSS candidate -- a man with a Ph.D. who could win a bar fight," Pinck said.
In general, frogmen level out and swim at about 30’ to the target. If a ship was coming overhead in a harbor, you might dive down to 60’ until the ship passed by. But in general, 20-30 feet was the cruising depth on oxygen.
Mixed-gas rebreathers can be used very deep. Pure oxygen rebreathers are for shallow combat dives. Instead of going down 400’ and working in one area for hours on mixed gas, combat swimmers may swim for 3 hours toward a target at 25’ depth, leaving no bubbles at all. Nary a one. All using that little oxygen bottle at the bottom of the Draeger rig.
Oxygen becomes toxic at certain pressures. On 100% oxygen your safe depth is only about 40 ft to avoid oxygen toxicity. As you said it depends on the person.
And it even varies for the same diver at different times and under differnt conditions. 30 and less was considered “safe,” but sometimes folks got in trouble or even passed out at that “safe” depth. Others routinely took oxygen to 60’ without problems.
Usually, we were restricted by a harbor depth to about 25-30 feet, so we were literally skimming along the bottom, hoping not to run into old piles of nets or junk on the bottom.
In daytime, skimming just above the sand or mud, you would be able to see how much you were “crabbing” due to current in relation to the bottom.
We trained in daylight and at night, and of course, we had no lights, just the glowing dials of the watch, depth meter, and compass attached to our plexiglass “attack boards.” One buddy with the attack board “navigating” by time and course, the other just touching his shoulder like a “wing man.”
My limit is a 102ft on a 36% mix. Everything was fine and then boom it hit ya.
Of course I’m a recreational diver so I did it the PADI & NAUI way.
I've known a few women who would have been more proficient on that gear than I could ever be
It was just going out when I was coming in, so I learned it a dove it a few times, but we then switched 100% to the Draeger.
You can get very casually proficient, then boom, an error or an anomoly, and you can be dead very quick....on any rig.
In waters 30 miles off Key West in late 1941 and early 1942, Walter Mess sat in his custom-built 85-foot boat made of plywood and powered by two 1,500-horsepower engines lifted from a P-51 Mustang fighter airplane. He built her himself and named her Jeannie.
She could cruise faster than 60 mph, the 99-year-old veteran told The Citizen this week. He was hunting Nazi U-boats. The silence of the night broke when an enemy U-boat surfaced.
"They came up maybe a quarter to half a mile away from shore and they fired at me," Mess said of the enemy U-boat. "Punctured my gas tank. I had a thousand gallons of fuel on board. We got lucky that night."
Mess was an operative with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA during World War II. He ran so-called P-boats, ultrafast and maneuverable boats for the nascent spy agency, which evolved into the CIA after the war.
Mess went on to secretly lead a team of boatmen into the Indian Ocean, where they dropped off groups of spies and clandestine military men on the beaches of Burma and Thailand to pick up downed Allied fighter pilots.
Such boat units later evolved into Navy Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, the boat crews that deliver and pick up SEAL Teams in hostile territory.
Mess is in Key West today to help spread the ashes and honor his former OSS colleague, Christian Lambertsen, a man who helped train the underwater demolition dive units that years later became the SEAL Teams. Lambertsen's invention of a re-breather scuba system made such missions possible, and he is considered the father of Special Operations Forces' combat swimming.
Mess and Lambertsen worked together in Burma during the war. There weren't many OSS men in the field in those days and it required a lot of quick thinking on your feet, Mess said.
"It was high-octane stuff," he recalled.
Mess will join Lambertsen's family at the Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key, where he is looking forward to honoring his colleague and seeing Key West for the first time since the early days of WWII, he said.
"Back in those days it was a minefield offshore," Mess said. "I spent a lot of time training seamen down there on how to handle boats. I'm sure it has changed a lot since then. It was a pretty raw little town in those days."
The ashes of, Christian Lambertsen, the man who developed what became the most advanced scuba systems used by todays Special Operations Forces were spread in the waters off Key West on Saturday. From left are: Erik Lambertsen, Chaplain Lt. David Martin, Maj. Trevor Hill, retired Lt. Walter Mess, Bradley Lambertsen (with ashes), retired Lt. Col. Gary Lambertsen, David Lambertsen and Richard Lambertsen.
Thanks for that history! My godfather, Albert Evans, later of Baltimore, was involved in building and testing high speed boats for the OSS during WW2. I knew he was down on Biscayne Bay and the Keys, but until your post, it was very murky and ill-defined. I had only heard that he was putting monster engines into speedboats for the OSS, and testing them etc. Now I know more about it. Thanks!
We used chemicals such as “Sodasorb” and “Baralyme” for the CO2 scrubber. If any water got into the dry cannister full of chemical powder, you could be slurping a “caustic coctail” into your lungs.
The system had to be 100% leak-tight, including the seal of your lips on the mouthpiece. This became tricky at times, such as during a long (multiple hours) cold water attack swim, when your lips might start twitching from cold. Or in the summer, when stinging sea nettles draped across your face.
Frogmen are not sissies, that is for sure.
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