Editor’s Note: Navy veteran Scott Rye is the author of two non-fiction books, Of Men and Ships: The Best Sea Tales, and Men & Ships of the Civil War.
While doing some research for another project, I came across the fascinating story of Reginald Spear, a young member of the OSS in World War II.
Forerunner of the CIA, the OSS was the brainchild of Columbia graduate Colonel William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan, a World War I veteran and Medal of Honor recipient who had chased Pancho Villa on the U.S.-Mexico border with Black Jack Pershing prior to the war. Donovan also had a well-established law practice (and was a graduate of Columbia Law School) and worked for the Department of Justice.
An international war hero, Donovan had also conducted numerous private “intelligence-gathering” missions abroad, meeting with world leaders and assessing the military preparedness of friends and foes alike. He got on especially well with Churchill, who granted Donovan unfettered access to British intelligence. In July 1941, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Donovan to head up a new centralized intelligence effort as the Coordinator of Information. The organization changed its name to the Office of Strategic Services—OSS—in 1942.
The OSS consisted of numerous specialty branches, one of which was the Maritime Unit (MU), made up of “operational swimmers” who pioneered the use of SCUBA rebreathers and swim fins. The men assigned to MU carried out a multitude of assignments, from reconnaissance to infiltration and raising guerilla forces.
One of the men assigned to the MU was an extraordinary 20-year-old named Reginald Spear. In 1942, at the age of 18, Spear enlisted as a private in the Army, but his high scores and his background—he earned his first patent at the age of 12—led to his being tapped for Officer Candidate School. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Ordnance Corps, Spear quickly found himself recruited for the OSS. Although born and raised in Pasadena, California, Spear came from a family with prominent connections in England and Canada (his family was known to Churchill), and Spear found himself summoned to several meetings with FDR, who sent him on secret missions to the Pacific and Asia to coordinate between the U.S. Navy and the British.
Along with another Army officer assigned to the OSS, Spear reported to Admiral Chester Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Nimitz said if the men were to work for him, they needed appropriate cover and should be made Navy lieutenants. Nimitz’s Fleet Intelligence Officer, Lt. Commander Edward Layton, suggested that if caught by the Japanese, the men likely would be executed unless they held higher rank. Accordingly, 20-year-old Spear was made an acting Navy captain, equivalent in rank to a full colonel. His exploits became legendary in the intelligence community.
Under the cover of darkness on the night of December 4, 1944, a U.S. submarine delivered Spear offshore of Luzon with the mission of assessing the condition of U.S. and Allied prisoners at the Santo Tomas Internment Camp, the largest POW camp in the Philippines. After paddling ashore, Spear assumed the identity of an assistant engineer of a British-run Filipino mining company. His cover story was that there was a problem at the mine, and he needed to speak to the British manager, who was being held at the camp.
Spear dressed in a seersucker suit that had had its American labels replaced with labels from Victoria, Canada. He carried false identification cards and wore a red armband that indicated that he was a friendly civilian authorized to visit the camp. Had he been discovered, there is little doubt that Spear would have been executed as a spy. Nevertheless, he confidently approached the gate. The guard, who was busy with a large group of Filipina women, took a cursory look at Spear’s papers and armband. When Spear opened his satchel for inspection, the guard saw its contents were a bag of rice and 12 packs of cigarettes, all of which he confiscated. Spear assumed the role of indignant visitor, arguing with the guard, who ultimately returned two of the packs of cigarettes.
His red armband gave him unimpeded access, and Spear spent 45 minutes with the leaders of the American POWs, getting answer to all of the questions the OSS had provided him. Spear coolly walked out of the camp and took a train to a town north of Manila, where he met two Filipino guerillas who took him up into the mountains to their camp. Spear wrote out his report and radioed it back to the OSS. The guerillas then accompanied him back to the beach for his rendezvous with the American sub, still nattily dressed in his “Canadian” seersucker.
Nervous that they would be discovered, the submarine commander had withdrawn farther offshore and now set a new rendezvous point four miles up the beach. Spear had to run the entire way to make the rendezvous.
Thanks in part to the intelligence he provided, more than 3,000 prisoners were rescued from the Santo Tomas Internment Camp by a combined force of U.S. Army soldiers and Filipino guerillas on February 16, 1945.
During his career with the OSS, Reginald Spear conducted 17 intelligence missions into occupied China, the Philippines, and the islands of Okinawa, Peleliu and Angaur. He was wounded twice in combat, and he killed several enemy combatants bare-handed (in order to maintain silence and not give away the presence of his reconnaissance team). Spear received the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit and the Purple Heart. After the war, he became an engineer, industrial designer, and entrepreneur. Among his patented inventions were the aircraft rocket launcher for the Sidewinder and HVAR rockets, the optics for the IRIS camera used on the Corona satellite, U2, and SR71 aircraft, the Tioga process for natural gas, oil and natural gas tanker loading docks, and the first amorphous solar cells. Spear died in 2011 at the age of 87.
Chamber, John Whiteclay. OSS Training in the National Parks and Service Abroad in World War II.
National Park Service. Washington, D.C. 2008.
“Reginald Spear Obituary.” Pasadena Star-News. October 18, 2011