September 15th marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. In honor of recognizing the feats of Hispanics in the Navy, we start with the story of CDR Rafael Benitez and his courageous crew on board the USS Cochino in 1949.
On the morning of 25 August 1949, during a training cruise north of the Arctic Circle, the submarine Cochino (SS-345), in company with Tusk (SS-426), attempted to submerge to snorkel depth in the Barents Sea, but the crashing waves played havoc with these efforts. At 1048, a muffled thud rocked Cochino and news of a fire in the after battery compartment quickly passed through the boat. A second explosion soon followed and CDR Rafael Benitez, the commanding officer, ordered all of the crew not on watch or fighting fires topside. During this orderly evacuation, however, Seaman J. E. Morgan fell overboard. The 48° water and the swells created by the 20 to 25 mph winds rapidly exhausted the sailor, so Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Hubert H. Rauch dove into the chilly sea to keep him afloat before Culinary Specialist Clarence Balthrop pulled him to safety.
At 1123, another explosion badly burned LCDR Richard M. Wright, the executive officer, and left him temporarily in a state of shock, as he moved to sever the connection between the after and forward batteries on board Cochino to stem the generation of dangerous hydrogen gas. Thanks in part to a safety line run by LT (j.g.) Charles Cushman, Jr., by 1208, 60 men huddled, cold and wet, on the bridge and deck of the submarine. Almost all of them had not had time to dress properly for the stormy weather. It was no better for those who remained below, as men began to pass out from the gas and toxic smoke. At 1230, Tusk attempted to come alongside, but the swells and wind made this nearly impossible, but she did manage to send needed medical supplies to Cochino by raft.
CDR Benitez decided that he needed get word of the dire conditions on board to Tusk and the Commander, Submarine Development Group Two. Aware of the perils that awaited him, ENS John Shelton agreed to make the attempt as did a civilian engineer on board, Mr. Robert Philo. After receiving confirmation of Philo’s desire to make the journey, CDR Benitez ordered the men lowered into the angry sea, but their raft immediately overturned. Sailors from Tusk pulled Shelton and Philo alongside as they desperately clung to the raft, but the waves that swept across the submarine prevented them being brought on board. Seaman Norman Walker jumped into water to help both men onto Tusk, but not before the waves slammed Philo’s head against the hull. By this time, fifteen men from that submarine stood on the deck handling lines and attempting to resuscitate Philo, when an unusually large wave broke one of the lifelines and swept eleven members of the Tusk crew and the still unconscious Philo overboard. In addition to Philo, the sea claimed the lives of six of Tusk’s crew including Electrician’s Mate John Guttermuth whose inflatable life jacket had burst upon hitting the water which left only his boots inflated as he attempted to save the unconscious Fireman Robert F. Brunner, Jr. He fought desperately to keep his head above water, but eventually drowned in the frigid sea with his boots still visible above the water. A kinder fate awaited LT (j.g.) Philip Pennington when LCDR George Cook dove over the side to pluck him from the unruly waves. Of two life rafts thrown to those who been swept overboard, one was recovered empty, but the other contained Torpedoman’s Mate Raymond Reardon who suffered gravely from exposure to the elements. Engineman Henry McFarland entered the water but could not reach the raft then Seaman Raymond Shugar overcame the raging waters long enough to attach a line to Reardon who was subsequently rescued.
By 1800, Cochino had regained power and signaled Tusk that she could make ten knots but had no steering. It appeared the crippled boat might make it back to Norway. However, at 2306 she suffered a fatal blow in the form of yet another battery explosion. Tusk loosed her ready torpedoes then transferred the 76 officers and men from the stricken submarine. CDR Benitez, the last to leave Cochino, departed only minutes before the boat slipped beneath the waves. These selfless acts of heroism provide an example of the dedication and comradery that animates our submariners. Only their bravery and professionalism kept the tragic toll from being far higher. (Story taken from https://www.navalhistory.org/2010/08/25/the-loss-of-the-uss-cochino-ss-345)
Benitez, just like any captain, made sure the rest of his crew went to safety before saving his own life. According to a New York Times article about his death, Benitez, before jumping to safety, said, ”I’m not abandoning ship.” The plank they were using to escape to the Tusk was about to shatter when he crossed. Two minutes later and 15 hours after the fire had broken out, Cochino would be lost to the ocean. Both crews did everything they could that day. The trip to port after the accident was a somber one as they remembered those that were lost. When finally on land, the crew of the Cochino was asked to fly home or ride cramped, with the crew of the Tusk back home. The crew, submariners through and through, went home with the crew of the Tusk. Benitez, a native of Puerto Rico, would continue to serve in the Navy until 1959. The heroism of both crews will forever be remembered as well as those who lost their lives on that fateful day.