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
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
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
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
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."