50 years later, Tusk and Cochino sailors together again
14 August 1999
By ROBERT A. HAMILTON - Day Staff Writer
Sent via Bob Hamilton-The New London Day's premier military reporter

New London - With the Soviet Union rapidly gaining strength in the wake of World War II, the USS Cochino and the USS Tusk snuck into the Barents Sea in the summer of 1949 for a surveillance mission to see whether the United States had anything to worry about. Only one of the boats would return.
As battery explosions and fires destroyed the Cochino from the inside, mountainous seas and gale force winds threatened the men from the outside, and it slipped beneath the frigid waves in the first submarine casualty of the Cold War. Only the heroics of the two crews prevented a far worse disaster.
Lester Robertson, who was a radio- and sonarman on the Cochino, says he never got a message off. He found out later that a quartermaster on the Tusk spotted the boat on the surface for an instant, and convinced the captain to turn the boat around and investigate. "It was a matter of a minute or two, and we would have been completely out of range of them," said Robertson. "It was close. It was awful close. And you know, there would have been no survivors. In that water up there, if they hadn't got back to us, we'd have been goners." Robertson, who lives in Colorado Springs today, has organized a dozen reunions for members of the two crews since 1982, but expects that one of the biggest will be this year, Aug. 25 at the Radisson Hotel, the 50th anniversary of the boat's loss.
So far, more than 100 have signed up for the reunion, which will begin Tuesday evening, Aug. 24, before with registration, include a tour of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton Wednesday morning, then a luncheon at the Submarine Force Library and Museum.
Rear Adm. John B. Padgett III, commander of submarine Group Two, will be the keynote speaker at a banquet that evening. Sherry Sontag, co-author of the book "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage," which devotes its first 24 pages to the Cochino catastrophe, will also speak.
Although half a century has passed, many of the memories are still vivid, said retired Navy Capt. Charles Cushman of Mystic, who was on his first submarine deployment aboard the Cochino. "We were extremely lucky. We had people on deck, and the seas were running very high, they say 35 to 50 feet," said Cushman. "I know the waves were crashing over the boat, and our decks were awash most of the time, and most of this time we didn't have any power, we were at the mercy of the sea."
The Cochino lost only one man, although it was close - the submarine slipped under the waves less than two minutes after the captain, Rafael C. Benitez, made his way across a gangplank. Benitez, who went on to become a rear admiral, died last March.
The rescue turned out to be far deadlier for the men of the Tusk, which lost six men. At one point, Tusk probably had 10 or 12 people in the water, Cushman said.
"But I don't think, at the time, that the Tusk ever gave a thought to giving up on trying to get us off of there. I think the Tusk did just what any other boat would have tried to do," Cushman said. If the roles had been reversed, "The Cochino would have taken the same risk. The submarine family is a close-knit group. You don't give up on family. In a situation like that, you never give a thought to your own life."
The Cochino was a Balao-class boat, displacing almost 2,400 tons, with a normal crew of six officers and 60 enlisted men. It was built at Electric Boat, and commissioned Aug. 25, 1945, a typical fleet diesel-electric submarine. But in April 1949 it became one of the first to receive the so-called Guppy conversion - for "greater underwater propulsion program" - which included a snorkel that allowed it to recharge its batteries without surfacing. After a cruise down to Key West to test the boat, the Cochino crossed the Atlantic and, in early August, pulled out of a northern Ireland port on for a cruise to the Barents. Though the Navy has never confirmed it was on a spy mission, that part is common knowledge in the submarine community.
The normal complement of 66 had expanded by 11, and many of them were new. Only three of the seven officers were qualified in submarines when it left Groton. The scuttlebutt was that the officers and men had received special training in surveillance, and they could earn their "dolphins" during the cruise.
Late in the morning of Aug. 25, the first of the explosions was felt throughout the boat. "We heard a muffled roar, and Captain Benitez hollered down the hatch to the control room, 'what was that?' In very short order, we got the word that we had something going on," Robertson recalled.
The old lead-acid batteries used in submarines generate hydrogen gas during charging, and if it is not completely vented, can create a highly explosive condition. The polar storm on the surface had apparently started a chain of events that allowed that to happen. Cushman had just come off watch and was in his bunk when the explosions began, and he made his way to the control room. Later he checked the torpedo room to make sure it had been secured. Everyone had left.
"It gives you a real eerie feeling to be the only person in the forward part of the ship," an area normally bustling with activity. Later, he went up on deck, and made his way to the back of the boat, where 17 men were trapped in the aft torpedo room. With water washing over the deck the hatch had to be closed to prevent flooding, but he straddled the hatch and would pull it open when the water subsided, long enough for someone to get out, before slamming it shut as the water surged back up.
Later, he would receive the Navy-Marine Corps Medal for Valor. So would retired Navy Capt. Richard M. Wright, then a lieutenant commander and the executive officer of the Cochino, who risked his life and suffered devastating burns when he went to sever a connection between two banks of batteries.
"If we didn't disconnect the forward battery from the after battery, we would continue to generate hydrogen, and we would continue to have explosions," Wright recounts. "It was obvious what had to be done, and I made the effort to go do it,"
But the worst explosion occurred just as he made his way into the compartment, and blew him out of the room. "From that point on it was impossible to get in there, and that's what led to the loss of the ship," said Wright.
He spent a year in a hospital, and another three months under outpatient care, to recuperate to the point where he could return to active duty. His first assignment after resuming his career? - commanding officer of the diesel-electric submarine Scabbardfish.
"There wasn't anything I wanted to do as much," Wright said. "I was impatient to get back to it right from the beginning. Things like that happen, and you just have to live with what comes,"
The explosions, and the wave of toxic smoke that rapidly filled the submarine, was the worst for men who were off duty, sleeping or otherwise unprepared to deal with the evacuation. "Nobody topside on Cochino that day had survival gear. We were just in our khakis," Cushman said. Some of the men, awakened from their bunks and fleeing the explosions and toxic smoke, were topside in near-freezing weather dressed only in their underwear.
For more than 12 hours the crew fought the fires, and struggled to regain control of the ship. For several hours it appeared they would succeed, until a massive explosion near midnight rocked the ship.
Benitez gave the order to abandon ship, and the crew began the risky maneuver of transferring to the Tusk. The two ships were tied together at the bow and stern, but heavy seas broke one of the lines, and the crossing could only be made when the ships were forced together, as the men held their breath and prayed that torpedoes would not be set off by the clashing of the steel hulls. If someone had crossed as the ships pulled apart, they would have been crushed when the ships moved back together.
Benitez was the last man off, about two minutes before Cochino slipped beneath the waves and sank. Tusk made its way to Hammerfest, Norway, where the most seriously injured were taken off the submarine to receive medical treatment.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Jim Herring of Ledyard, who had been the second executive officer on the Cochino and was relieved right before its final voyage, was driving to his next duty station in Norfolk when he heard the news.
"I was in my car, listening to the radio, when I learned that my ship had sunk," Herring said. "It was quite a shock."