Ashes of combat dive pioneer, OSS veteran committed to the sea
March 12, 2012
Dr. Christian Lambertsen, a World War II combat diver from the Office of Strategic Services and life-long medical scholar, conducted his "final combat dive mission" during a ceremony March 10 when his ashes were committed to the Atlantic Ocean.
His sons and grandsons, along with U.S. Army and Navy divers considered to be a part of Lambertsen's extensive legacy, honored his memory in a small ceremony in Key West, Fla. over the waters used to train modern special-operations combat divers.
Lambersten passed away Feb. 11, 2011 at the age of 93.
"My father is known as the father of military combat diving," said David Lambertsen, one of Christian's four sons, following the ceremony. "We knew we wanted this ceremony to include more than our immediate Family, and we've always considered the military to be an important part of our father's life.
Under clear skies, on slightly choppy waters in 80-degree weather, four boats were gathered in a circle about one mile off the coast. Lambertsen's four sons spread their father's remains into the sea as past and present service members stood at attention, paying their last respects to the inventor, doctor, scholar, and OSS operator.
Lambertsen's 70-year career is layered with scientific achievement, beginning in 1941 with the invention of the Lambertsen Amphibious Respiritory Unit -- which he later renamed the Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, or SCUBA. At the age of 24, while attending medical school, Lambertsen's invention drew the interest of the OSS, the United States organization considered to be the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Special Operations Command.
"When World War II broke out, everyone realized they needed people to be able to sneak in and blow up ships," said Maj. Trevor Hill, an Army Special Forces officer and the commander of the Special Forces Underwater Operations School in Key West. "Lambertsen brought [the LARU] to a meeting with the Office of Strategic Services … he got in a pool and demonstrated that he could breath underwater, without creating bubbles, which was mind-blowing at the time."
Lambertsen trained the operational swimmers for a newly created OSS maritime unit, and joined them as a direct-commission U.S. Army major following his medical school graduation -- where he was first in his class.
"Someone once described the ideal OSS candidate as a Ph. D. who could win a bar fight," said Charles Pinck, the director of the non-profit OSS Society. "I think Dr. Lambertsen fits that profile perfectly, because he was out there on missions, which was harrowing business."
Lambertsen spent most of World War II as a member of the Pacific Fleet Underwater Demolition Team, leading numerous underwater missions in Burma to attach explosives to Japanese ships. He also served as his unit's medical officer.
David Lambertsen said his father, who was a tough, physically fit young man, wanted to do his part to serve his country during World War II, and also wanted to see his own invention in action.
"For him, serving in the OSS was a way of testing his own equipment," David said. "There was no better way for him to know how he could improve it."
Following World War II, Lambertsen joined the faculty for the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, researching atmospheric, undersea, aerospace and industrial environmental physiology, as well has human environmental toxicology. He founded the university's Institute of Environmental Medicine, and contributed to projects Mercury and Gemini and the International Space Station for NASA.
"You can't limit his contributions to only what he did with the OSS, but he started with the OSS, so we proudly claim him as our own," Pinck said.