On Saturday, March 10, 2012, the ashes of the late Dr. Christian J. Lambertsen were spread on the waters off Key West, Fla., near the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School on Fleming Key. Lambertsen, who achieved the rank of major in the U.S. Army and is considered the father of U.S. combat swimming, passed away Feb. 11, 2011.
Special operations forces personnel, friends, family, and colleagues of Lambertsen were present at the ceremony recognizing his contributions to the U.S. military in general and special operations in particular.
Lambertsen, born May 17, 1917, in Westfield, N.J., decided early on that he wanted a career in medicine. After receiving his B.S. from Rutgers University, Lambertsen entered the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia in 1939, specializing in respiratory physiology. Lambertsen’s medical background is important because although he is famous for his creation of the Lambertsen Amphibious Respirator Unit, or LARU, he contributed his expertise to every aspect of diving. Lambertsen researched virtually every disorder associated with diving, from oxygen toxicity and carbon dioxide poisoning to the science of hyperbaric chambers.
The LARU, however, was his foremost contribution to special operations combat swimming and the forerunner of the rebreathing units used today. Crucial to its use by SOF was that because the exhalations of the diver went through a closed loop system with a carbon dioxide scrubber unit, there were no telltale bubbles to reveal a diver to someone watching on the surface.
Lambertsen demonstrated an early version of his device for the Navy, but they passed on it. A later demonstration in 1942, however, attracted the attentions of the Office of Strategic Services, and British Special Operations Executive. The OSS was impressed enough that he was recruited to the organization, commissioned a first lieutenant, and assigned to perfect his device as well as train combat swimmers in its use for the OSS Maritime Unit (OSSMU), which he later commanded. Though the OSS is not formally included in the Army’s Special Forces lineage and honors, its legacy endures, and its influence has shaped the U.S. military’s special operations community of today.
“He is at the very top,” said Charles Pinck, OSS Society president. “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.”
Lambertsen is survived by his sons Christian Jr., David, Richard, and Bradley. His wife of more than 40 years, Naomi, died in 1985.
The U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations School is part of the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School, based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. The Key West-based school offers three combat-diving courses to special operations personnel: the Combat Diver Qualification Course, the Special Forces Combat Diving Supervisor Course, and the Special Forces Diving Medical Technician Course.