Lou Spence

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Lou Spence
Informal half-portrait of blond man in light-coloured military uniform
Wing Commander Spence as commanding officer of No. 77 Squadron in the Korean War, August 1950
Born4 April 1917
Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia
Died9 September 1950(1950-09-09) (aged 33)
An'gang-ni, South Korea
Service/branchRoyal Australian Air Force
Years of service1940–50
RankWing Commander
UnitNo. 3 Squadron (1941–42)
Commands heldNo. 452 Squadron (1944)
No. 77 Squadron (1950)
Battles/warsWorld War II Korean War
AwardsDistinguished Flying Cross & Bar
Mentioned in Despatches
Legion of Merit (US)
Air Medal (US)

Louis Thomas Spence, DFC & Bar (4 April 1917 – 9 September 1950) was a fighter pilot and squadron commander in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). During World War II he flew with No. 3 Squadron, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), and commanded No. 452 Squadron, receiving a Mention in Despatches. He led No. 77 Squadron in the opening months of the Korean War, and was awarded a bar to his DFC, as well as the US Legion of Merit and the US Air Medal, for his leadership.

Born in Bundaberg, Queensland, Spence worked in a bank before joining the RAAF in March 1940. In August the following year he was posted to North Africa with No. 3 Squadron, which operated P-40 Tomahawks and Kittyhawks against German and Italian forces; he was credited with shooting down two German aircraft. Spence commanded No. 452 Squadron in 1944, flying Supermarine Spitfires in defence of Australia's North-Western Area against the Japanese. After a brief return to civilian life following World War II, he rejoined the RAAF in October 1946. He took command of No. 77 Squadron, operating P-51 Mustangs as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan, in February 1950. The squadron went into action within a week of the outbreak of the Korean War in June. Spence was killed during a low-level mission over South Korea in September 1950.

Early life

Born on 4 April 1917 in Bundaberg, Queensland, Louis Thomas Spence was the fifth child of Robert John Spence, farmer, and Louise Margaretta Marie, née Koob. His ancestry was Irish on his father's side and German on his mother's. Spence attended Longreach State School from 1924 to 1931 and Thornburgh College in Charters Towers from 1932 to 1934. Successful academically, he also excelled at sports including cricket, rugby league, and tennis.[1] His light-blond hair earned him the nickname "Silver".[1][2] He was employed as a clerk at the Queensland headquarters of the Bank of New South Wales in Brisbane, and studied at the Bankers' Institute of Australasia.[1]

World War II

Man in flying suit and goggles with dog
Flying Officer Spence with a dog that attached itself to No. 3 Squadron in Libya, January 1942

Spence joined the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) on 6 March 1940. After flying training at Point Cook, Victoria, and Archerfield, Queensland, he was commissioned as a pilot officer on 26 August. On 28 October, he was allotted to No. 25 Squadron in Perth, Western Australia.[1][3] The squadron operated CAC Wirraways.[4] Spence was promoted to flying officer on 26 February 1941.[3] He married Vernon Swain, a nurse, in St George's Cathedral, Perth, on 24 May; the couple had two children.[1] Swain's father had been a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in World War I.[5][6] In August, Spence was posted to the Middle East.[1] He underwent operational flying training in Khartoum, Sudan, before joining No. 3 Squadron in September.[1][3] Based in Egypt, No. 3 Squadron operated P-40 Tomahawk fighters against German and Italian forces.[7][8]

On 1 January 1942, having converted to P-40 Kittyhawks, No. 3 Squadron attacked sixteen Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers and their escort of six Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters near Agedabia in Cyrenaica; Spence was credited with shooting down a Ju 87.[9] He landed his single-seat fighter in the desert on 26 January to pick up another No. 3 Squadron pilot, Sergeant Walter Mailey, whose Kittyhawk had been forced down.[1][10] On 14 February, No. 3 Squadron and No. 112 Squadron RAF intercepted over thirty Italian and German aircraft attempting to raid Tobruk. The Allied pilots claimed twenty enemy aircraft destroyed, one of which, a Bf 109, was credited to Spence.[11] He claimed a probable Bf 109 on 15 March,[12] and was promoted to flight lieutenant on 1 April.[3] In the first of his five sorties in the Bir Hacheim area on 16 June, Spence, along with Nicky Barr, bombed and strafed a column of German tanks and support vehicles, igniting fires that sent the smell of burning flesh into the cockpits of the low-flying aircraft—a "ghastly horror", according to Spence, that made him physically ill.[13] His many ground-attack missions and two aerial victories earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.[1][14] Barr recalled Spence as being the "hottest dive bomber in the Desert" and "one of the rocks of the squadron".[15]

Group of men in flying suits talking in front of a single-engined aircraft
Squadron Leader Spence (right, kneeling) briefing pilots of No. 452 Squadron near Darwin, late-1944

Returning to Australia in September 1942, Spence was posted as an instructor to No. 2 Operational Training Unit in Mildura, Victoria.[1] The unit operated several types of aircraft including Kittyhawks, CAC Boomerangs and Supermarine Spitfires.[16] Spence was promoted to acting squadron leader on 1 February 1944 and assumed command of No. 452 Squadron two days later.[1][17] Based near Darwin, Northern Territory, No. 452 Squadron was one of three Spitfire squadrons comprising No. 1 (Fighter) Wing, whose role was to defend North-Western Area from Japanese air attack.[18][19] On 8 March, No. 452 Squadron was urgently dispatched to the vicinity of Perth, Western Australia, in response to concerns that a Japanese naval force would raid the area, but it proved abortive; no attack ensued, and the squadrons were directed to return to Darwin on 20 March.[20] The journey to Perth had taken No. 452 Squadron through bad weather, and Spence was mentioned in despatches for his efforts shepherding his Spitfires to their destination.[1][21] From 9 to 21 May, Spence held command of No. 1 Wing in the absence of the officer commanding, Group Captain Peter Jeffrey.[22] The next month, No. 452 Squadron transferred from No. 1 Wing to the recently formed No. 80 (Fighter) Wing, commanded by Group Captain Clive Caldwell.[23] Spence was promoted to temporary squadron leader on 1 July.[24] No. 452 Squadron completed conversion from Mk V Spitfires to Mk VIIIs the same month.[17][25]

Spence was posted out of No. 452 Squadron at the end of November 1944.[26] Early the following year he joined No. 8 Operational Training Unit, which was based at Parkes, New South Wales, and operated Wirraways, Boomerangs and Spitfires, among other types.[1][27] He was discharged from the Air Force on 19 November 1945.[1]

Between wars

Three single-seat military monoplanes, two with engines exposed, parked on tarmac with huts and mountains in the background
No. 77 Squadron P-51 Mustang fighters undergoing maintenance at Iwakuni, Japan, c. 1950

Rather than resume his banking career after the war, Spence joined the Department of Information in Canberra, initially in administration and later in aviation journalism.[1][28] He rejoined the RAAF in 1946, receiving a commission as a flying officer (temporary squadron leader) effective from 17 October.[29] His first appointment was as senior administrative officer at RAAF Station Canberra.[1][3] On 13 September 1947, he flew to Surabaya, Java, as one of Australia's military observers with the United Nations commission monitoring the ceasefire between Dutch forces and Indonesian nationalists.[30] That November, he was assigned to the recently formed RAAF College, Point Cook, where he was appointed adjutant and subsequently led the school's Cadet Squadron.[3][31] In the latter role he inaugurated the college's adventure training, including canoe trips on the Murray River in boats constructed by the students.[32]

Promoted to wing commander, Spence was posted to Japan to take command of No. 77 Squadron on 28 February 1950.[1][33] Based at Iwakuni, the squadron operated P-51 Mustangs as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF). Originally one of three RAAF fighter units under BCOF, No. 77 Squadron had since late-1948 been Australia's sole air component in Japan, becoming the largest flying squadron in the Air Force, with around 300 officers and men, forty Mustangs, and several transport aircraft.[34] Occupation duties had been uneventful, the main operational task being surveillance patrols, but the RAAF maintained an intensive training regime and undertook combined exercises with other Allied forces.[35] On 23 June, No. 77 Squadron made what was expected to be its last flight before rotating back to Australia.[36]

Korean War

Spence and his family were about to go on holiday before returning to Australia when, on 25 June 1950, No. 77 Squadron was placed on standby for action in the Korean War, which had just broken out.[36][37] The unit was specifically requested by General Douglas MacArthur, commander of United Nations (UN) forces.[38] No. 77 Squadron flew its initial escort and patrol sorties from Iwakuni on 2 July, becoming the first non-American UN unit to go into action.[39][40] That day, Spence took eight Mustangs on an escort mission for United States Air Force (USAF) B-26 Invaders attacking a bridge south of Seoul.[41] Families still living at Iwakuni, pending their repatriation from what had become an operational theatre, could watch the Mustangs depart for missions over Korea.[42]

Man in flying suit in the cockpit of a single-seat fighter
Wing Commander Spence in his Mustang fighter prior to a mission over Korea, August 1950

A friendly fire incident occurred on 3 July 1950, when No. 77 Squadron attacked a train full of US and South Korean troops on the main highway between Suwon and Pyongtaek, inflicting many casualties, twenty-nine of them fatal.[43][44] Prior to the mission, Spence had raised concerns that the North Koreans could not have penetrated so far south, but was assured by USAF controllers that the target was correct. The incident was widely reported in American newspapers but a public statement by Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer, commander of the US Far East Air Force, cleared the RAAF of blame.[45][46] Spence was recommended for the US Air Medal for "meritorious service" in operations from 25 June to 15 July.[47] His increasingly heavy taskload included diplomatic duties and public relations, as well as squadron administration and many combat sorties.[1][48]

No. 77 Squadron did not encounter enemy aircraft in the opening phase of the war, but often faced intense ground fire.[49] During July and August 1950, equipped with bombs, rockets and napalm, the Mustangs supported UN troops retreating before the North Korean advance.[45][50] According to the official history of the Air Force in 1946–1971, the squadron's part in the Battle of Pusan Perimeter earned recognition "not only for the RAAF but also Australia at the highest political levels in the United States".[45] On 15 August, Prime Minister Robert Menzies presented the Gloucester Cup to No. 77 Squadron as the RAAF's most proficient unit of the past year.[50][51] General Stratemeyer arrived at Iwakuni a week later to surprise Spence with the award of the US Legion of Merit for "outstanding leadership in the preparation of his unit for combat".[52][53]

On 9 September, in cloudy conditions, Spence led three other Mustangs in a low-level napalm attack on An'gang-ni. He attempted to pull out of a very steep dive but crashed in the middle of the town and was killed.[49][54] Whether he was hit by ground fire or had misjudged his attack is uncertain.[55] Spence's wife and children were still living at Iwakuni, and his death hastened the departure for Australia of all families on the base.[56] He was succeeded by Squadron Leader Dick Cresswell, who had twice commanded No. 77 Squadron during World War II.[49][57] Cresswell commented that "thanks to Lou Spence", the squadron "was led perfectly in all the jobs it did".[58]


According to his brother, quoted in the Brisbane Courier-Mail, Spence wrote in his last letter home:[59]

The world rapidly seems to be heading towards another war. We are now in that state, where, if we don't rearm, we won't have any chance. Yet by rearming war becomes almost certain. Let's hope fervently that by rearming we will prevent war—although our little war up here is genuine enough. Anyway, I feel that fighting this little war here has so much meaning that I am giving it all the effort I have.

Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice-Marshal) Fred Barnes described Spence's death as having "a tremendous impact ... He was very popular and respected as a professional. It was accepted that he was on the way to high rank."[60] The official history of the post-war Air Force contended that Spence "appeared destined for the highest levels of the RAAF".[49] Stratemeyer rated him "one of the most capable field commanders I have been associated with",[49] and "one of the noblest and finest officers of any service".[1]

Spence was recommended for the Distinguished Service Order for his "outstanding fearless leadership and distinction" in Korea, but the award was changed to a bar to his DFC.[61] The decoration was promulgated in The London Gazette on 17 April 1951 and presented to his wife on 22 February 1952.[61][62] His awards of the US Legion of Merit and Air Medal were gazetted on 22 June 1951; the latter was presented privately to Vernon Spence.[47][63]

Advancing UN troops located Spence's body near his crashed Mustang in October 1950.[64] He is buried at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea. His name appears on Panel 2 of the Commemorative Area of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.[65]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s Scully, P.J. Spence, Louis Thomas (1917–1950). Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: Australian National University. Retrieved 12 August 2018.
  2. ^ "Fate stepped in for Spence". The Sunday Mail. Brisbane. 17 September 1950. p. 4. Retrieved 22 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Wing Commander Louis Thomas Spence: Timeline". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 16 August 2018.
  4. ^ "No. 25 Squadron". RAAF Museum. Archived from the original on 27 September 2018. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  5. ^ "Pilot killed in Korea; widow a Perth girl". The West Australian. Perth. 11 September 1950. p. 1. Retrieved 24 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  6. ^ "John Edgar Hill Swain". The AIF Project. University of New South Wales. Retrieved 24 September 2018.
  7. ^ RAAF Historical Section, Fighter Units, p. 4
  8. ^ "No. 3 Squadron". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 28 August 2018.
  9. ^ Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy, pp. 211–212
  10. ^ Garrisson, Australian Fighter Aces, p. 146
  11. ^ Herington, Air War Against Germany and Italy, pp. 216–217
  12. ^ Shores; Massimello, A History of the Mediterranean Air War, p. 61
  13. ^ Dornan, Nicky Barr, p. 119
  14. ^ "No. 35709". The London Gazette (Supplement). 18 September 1942. p. 4061.
  15. ^ "High praise for ace". The Telegraph. Brisbane. 11 September 1950. p. 7. Retrieved 24 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  16. ^ RAAF Historical Section, Training Units, p. 62
  17. ^ a b RAAF Historical Section, Fighter Units, p. 122
  18. ^ Odgers, Air War Against Japan, pp. 104–106
  19. ^ Helson, The Forgotten Air Force, pp. 169–170, 176–177
  20. ^ Odgers, Air War Against Japan, pp. 136–139
  21. ^ "No. 37064". The London Gazette (Supplement). 4 May 1945. pp. 2352–2353.
  22. ^ RAAF, Unit History of No. 452 Squadron, pp. 254–255
  23. ^ Helson, The Forgotten Air Force, p. 178
  24. ^ "Royal Australian Air Force". Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. Canberra. 19 October 1944. p. 2361. Retrieved 22 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  25. ^ RAAF, Unit History of No. 452 Squadron, p. 238
  26. ^ RAAF, Unit History of No. 452 Squadron, p. 295
  27. ^ RAAF Historical Section, Training Units, p. 77
  28. ^ "Wing Commander Spence, RAAF leader, killed in Korea". The Canberra Times. 11 September 1950. p. 1. Retrieved 4 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  29. ^ "Royal Australian Air Force". Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. Canberra. 3 January 1947. p. 27. Retrieved 16 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  30. ^ RAAF, The Australian Experience of Air Power, pp. 142–143
  31. ^ Campbell-Wright, An Interesting Point, p. 161
  32. ^ Campbell-Wright, An Interesting Point, pp. 164–165
  33. ^ RAAF Historical Section, Fighter Units, pp. 60–61
  34. ^ Stephens, Going Solo, p. 222
  35. ^ Stephens, Going Solo, pp. 216–218
  36. ^ a b Stephens, Going Solo, pp. 222–224
  37. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, pp. 11–12
  38. ^ O'Neill, Australia in the Korean War: Strategy & Diplomacy, pp. 52–53
  39. ^ Eather, Flying Squadrons of the Australian Defence Force, pp. 89–91
  40. ^ Stephens, Going Solo, p. 225
  41. ^ Wilson, The Brotherhood of Airmen, p. 158
  42. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, pp. 32–33
  43. ^ O'Neill, Australia in the Korean War: Combat Operations, p. 305
  44. ^ Eather, Odd Jobs, p. 86
  45. ^ a b c Stephens, Going Solo, p. 226
  46. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, p. 35
  47. ^ a b "Recommendation: United States Air Medal". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  48. ^ Odgers, Mr Double Seven, p. 78
  49. ^ a b c d e Stephens, Going Solo, p. 227
  50. ^ a b Eather, Odd Jobs, pp. 92–94
  51. ^ "Persistency on Korea failed". Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate. 16 August 1950. p. 3. Retrieved 5 September 2014.
  52. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, p. 55
  53. ^ Eather, Odd Jobs, p. 95
  54. ^ Wilson, The Brotherhood of Airmen, p. 160
  55. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, p. 61
  56. ^ Eather, Odd Jobs, p. 97
  57. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, pp. 62–64
  58. ^ Hurst, The Forgotten Few, p. 64
  59. ^ "Spence gave "his all"". The Courier-Mail. Brisbane. 11 September 1950. p. 1. Retrieved 16 August 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  60. ^ Eather, Odd Jobs, p. 97
  61. ^ a b "Recommendation: Bar to Distinguished Flying Cross". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 September 2018.
  62. ^ "No. 39205". The London Gazette. 17 April 1951. p. 2186.
  63. ^ "No. 39265". The London Gazette (Supplement). 26 June 1951. p. 3411.
  64. ^ "Mustang leader's body found". Daily News. Perth. 28 October 1950. p. 26. Retrieved 24 September 2018 – via National Library of Australia.
  65. ^ "Roll of Honour: Louis Thomas Spence". Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 22 September 2018.


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