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Spence, Louis Thomas (1917–1950)

by P. J. Scully

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Louis Thomas Spence (1917-1950), by G. M. Luff

Louis Thomas Spence (1917-1950), by G. M. Luff

Australian War Memorial, 148927

Louis Thomas Spence (1917-1950), air force officer, was born on 4 April 1917 at Bundaberg, Queensland, fifth child of Robert John Spence, a farmer from Ireland, and his German-born wife Louise Margaretta Marie, née Koob. Lou was educated at Longreach State School (1924-31) and Thornburgh College, Charters Towers (1932-34). A tall, athletic youth, he was nicknamed 'Silver' because of his very fair hair. He topped his class, won colours for tennis, and played cricket with the first XI and Rugby League football with the first XIII. After joining the Bank of New South Wales as a clerk at its Queensland head office in Brisbane in February 1934, he passed three subjects at the Bankers' Institute of Australasia examinations in 1937-38. He also became a surf lifesaver.

Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 6 March 1940, Spence trained as an air cadet at Archerfield, Brisbane, and at Point Cook, Victoria. He was commissioned in August. Two months later he received his wings and was posted to No.25 Squadron, at Pearce, Western Australia. On 24 May 1941 at St George's Cathedral, Perth, he married with Anglican rites Vernon Rima Howarth Swain, a nurse. In August he was sent to the Middle East. Having completed operational training in Khartoum, Sudan, he joined No.3 Squadron, R.A.A.F., with which he flew Kittyhawk fighters. One daring exploit, on 26 January 1942, involved landing his aircraft to rescue a colleague who had crash-landed in the Western Desert; the two of them crammed into his one-man cockpit and returned safely to base. A brave and vigorous pilot, Spence won the Distinguished Flying Cross for leading numerous raids and destroying two enemy aircraft.

Flight Lieutenant Spence returned to Australia in September 1942. He spent almost fifteen months as an instructor at No.2 Operational Training Unit, Mildura, Victoria. In January 1944 he was given command of No.452 Squadron, a Spitfire unit based in Darwin. He was promoted acting squadron leader in the following month. During March his unit was ordered to fly urgently to Perth: for his inspiring airmanship on this long flight through cyclonic weather, he was mentioned in dispatches. In February 1945 he was posted to No.8 O.T.U., Parkes, New South Wales, as chief instructor. He was demobilized from the R.A.A.F. on 19 November.

Refusing to return to his job with the bank, Spence worked in Canberra as aviation correspondent for the Commonwealth Department of Information. On 17 October 1946 he accepted a commission in the air force. He was appointed senior administrative officer at Fairbairn air base, Canberra. In September 1947 he was attached to the United Nations military mission in Java to help to supervise the cease-fire in Indonesia. Returning home in November, he was chosen by Air Commodore (Sir) Valston Hancock to command the Cadet Squadron at the newly formed R.A.A.F. College, Point Cook.

On 20 February 1950 Spence was promoted wing commander and placed in command of No.77 Squadron, at Iwakuni, Japan. The unit formed part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. On 25 June the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea invaded the Republic of (South) Korea. Spence immediately readied the squadron for action. Following the Menzies government's agreement for the 77th to be committed in support of U.N. forces in Korea, he personally led his pilots on many more operations than a commanding officer would normally have been expected to do.

Spence's workload rose as other allied forces were relocated at Iwakuni. He also had to receive an increasing number of important visitors. Under his leadership the morale of No.77 Squadron remained high. On 9 September 1950 he led four Mustangs in an attack on storage facilities at An'gang-ni, South Korea, which had recently been captured by the communists. While he was operating at low level because of poor visibility, his aircraft failed to pull out of a steep dive and he was killed when it crashed into the centre of the town. His wife, and their son and daughter survived him. He had been appointed to the American Legion of Merit (1950), and was posthumously awarded the American Air Medal and a Bar to his D.F.C. Lieutenant General George Stratemeyer, commander of (American) Far East Air Forces, praised him as 'one of the noblest and finest officers of any service' he had ever known.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Odgers, Across the Parallel (Melb, 1952)
  • J. Watson and L. Jones, 3 Squadron at War (Syd, 1959)
  • R. J. O'Neill, Australia in the Korean War 1950-53 (Canb, 1985)
  • Blackthorn Magazine, 1933, p 3, 1934, p 9, 1950, p 14, 1952, p 35
  • private information.

Citation details

P. J. Scully, 'Spence, Louis Thomas (1917–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spence-louis-thomas-11741/text20993, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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