On the morning of 25 August 1949, USS COCHINO (SS-345) and USS TUSK (SS-426) were engaged in a training exercise north of the Arctic Circle in the roiling waters of the Barents Sea. The following is from a publication, entitled “Submarine Casualties Booklet,” compiled by the U.S. Naval Submarine School in 1966:
“While operating in Arctic waters, COCHINO secured charging batteries and submerged at 0500, 25 August 1949. …She ran submerged on the batteries until about 1030 when she commenced snorkeling. A heavy sea (State 4) made depth control extremely difficult and she alternately broached and exceeded snorkel depth often. After snorkeling for about ten minutes, the forward engine room reported considerable water entering through the snorkel induction system. An investigation by the executive officer revealed no serious flooding.
“At 1046, the high vacuum cut out secured the two snorkeling engines in the forward engine room. Two minutes later, a series of explosions, described as a muffled thud by witnesses, occurred in the after battery compartment in the after port corner near the series-parallel switch. The ship surfaced immediately and the after battery compartment was rigged for fire. Maneuvering removed the load from the after battery.
“Shortly after 1100, the ammeters in the maneuvering room indicated that battery number four was discharging into battery number three at the rate of 3,500 amperes. The controllerman went forward immediately to inform the executive officer (in charge at the scene) of the immediate necessity to pull the battery disconnect switches. By this time, though, the compartment had been abandoned because of smoke and gas, and had been sealed. In rigging this space, the disconnect switches had not been pulled nor had the covers been placed over the battery well intakes.
“A muster was conducted by the executive officer at this time to insure no personnel remained in the after battery compartment while preparations were made to reenter it through the after door of that space. The forward engines were started to clear smoke, and as the executive officer, wearing a rescue breathing apparatus, cracked the door both engines began to accelerate. Fuel was secured to both engines, but number one continued to accelerate. An explosion took place within the after battery compartment, while, simultaneously, another occurred near the blower of number one engine, burning five persons in the engine room. The executive officer managed to shut the door, but was able to secure it with only one turn. The forward engine room was evacuated.
“A few minutes later, two chief petty officers returned to the forward engine room, extinguished several small fires and secured the compartment except for the engine sea water cooling systems and the door to the after battery compartment.
“At the same time that the attempt was made to reenter the after battery compartment prior to the second explosion, a man was washed overboard after going topside through the after torpedo room hatch. He was engaged in carrying out an order for all personnel not on watch or fighting the fire to stay topside. The Commanding Officer maneuvered the ship and rescued him.
“About 1145, the Commanding Officer ordered all excess personnel topside to go below via the conning tower. They remained below until 1208, at which time all personnel forward were evacuated because of smoke and gases.
“At 1215, another violent explosion (the third) rocked the after battery. Shortly afterward, the hospital corpsman’s reports of treatment of the injured being conducted in the after torpedo room became more alarming and his requests for medical supplies became more urgent. The Commanding Officer requested TUSK, in company, to come alongside to remove the injured and the excess personnel. This was attempted but found impossible because of the heavy seas, but at 1410 the medical supplies arrived from TUSK by rubber boat.
“At 1420 one officer and a civilian technician attempted to transit to TUSK by boat. The boat overturned throwing both men into the water. While TUSK was hauling them aboard, the technician received a severe head injury, was knocked unconscious, and was pulled aboard apparently drowned. When TUSK personnel were attempting to administer artificial respiration, two huge waves swept eleven crewmen and the civilian overboard. Five crewmen were recovered but the others could not be located during a two-hour search.
“During the afternoon, three attempts were made to enter COCHINO’s forward torpedo room from topside to clear it of gases. An attempt was made to vent the after battery compartment through the high external salvage valve but this valve would not open. The men suffering from gas were being revived and treated. The general situation was being discussed with the hope of finding solutions to the problems. At 1537 auxiliary power was lost when a short circuit tripped out the forward battery auxiliary circuit breaker. At 1610 the engines were stopped when the clean fuel oil tank became empty.
“Auxiliary power was restored about 1800 and shortly thereafter COCHINO get underway, steering for the nearest land with the screws only. Rudder steering was restored about 1900. For the next four hours, COCHINO proceeded astern of TUSK. Personnel who had been evacuated from below were sheltered in the sail.
“At 2306, the fourth and final explosion occurred (probably in the forward engine room) and filled the after engine room with fire and gases. The latter space and the maneuvering room were abandoned at once. Around midnight, the remaining personnel below, all in the after torpedo room, were ordered topside.
“Ten minutes later, TUSK came along and transfer of personnel to her was commenced. At 0036, because of a starboard list and low freeboard aft, the Commanding Officer ordered COCHINO abandoned. The Commanding Officer transferred at 0043 and three minutes later COCHINO sank in 170 fathoms of water.”
The clinical language of the report conceals what must have been a terrifying experience. The water temperature stood at less than 50 degrees; winds were steady at 20-25 miles per hour.
It also conceals a number of acts of extraordinary heroism. When Seaman J.E. Morgan went overboard, Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Hubert Rauch dove in after him, keeping the exhausted Sailor afloat until Culinary Specialist Clarence Balthrop could haul them both back on board. LT (jg) Charles Cushman, Jr., rigged a safety line on the pitching bridge and deck that provided a critical handhold for 60 crewmen who had been ordered topside, most without adequate clothing. The executive officer, LCDR Richard Wright, remained in control of the situation even after one of the explosions burned him badly. Despite the obvious risks, two men, ENS John Shelton and a civilian engineer named Robert Philo, volunteered to ride a rubber raft over to TUSK to convey the gravity of COCHINO’s situation. The raft capsized almost immediately; Sailors aboard TUSK raced to haul the raft across the waves and one, Seaman Norman Walker, jumped into the water to provide assistance. But the heavy seas bashed Philo’s head into the boat’s hull and while 15 TUSK crewmen scrambled to resuscitate him and pull Shelton aboard, a huge wave washed 11 of them into the ocean. Six of the men died but five more were rescued, at least two by Sailors who jumped into the water to render assistance.