Aug 25

The Loss of USS Cochino (SS-345)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010 12:00 PM


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 comraderie that animates our submariners. Only their bravery and professionalism kept the tragic toll from being far higher.

  • Tricia Staley

    I spent yesterday (25 Sept. 2010) with Lt.(now Retired Captain) Cushman and about 100 other World War II veterans from Connecticut on a Day of Honor trip to Washington D.C., to see the World War II Memorial, the U.S. Navy Memorial and the other memorials honoring veterans. As we were walking around, he mentioned the Cochino, but only in passing (apparently out of modesty). Wish I’d had the background beforehand!
    As a whole, these men and women are an amazing group of people, for the heroic deeds they did and for the way they universally shrug off any praise and insist they were just doing their jobs.
    Capt. Cushman and all of the others have my greatest respect and gratitude.

  • John Lariviere

    My father served aboard the USS Cochino. It is only now as people approach him to speak at the memorial services of serviceman that he has ever really spoken of it. When I recently went through his Navy scrapbook and I saw all his pictures, read the notes, the letter from the President, my Dad’s telegram to his parents telling them he was alive I found myself in awe of how a teenager could handle such an event, and proud of our service men and women.

  • The illusion to Raymond Shugar in Tusk crew is inaccurate. His full name is Joseph R. Shugar, the R. likely for Raymond. He is from Reading, PA. Shugar was in the Naval Academy Preparatory School NAPS class of ’50. I have a photo of Shugar I can submit if I had an address.

  • Mitchell Allen Agate

    I can remember my mom telling my brother and I as kids, stories of her uncle John (my grandma’s brother), jumping off his sub (Tusk),trying to rescue a friend that was swept off the deck by a wave. She told us that he was wearing an experimental floatation device, a bulky air filled chest jacket and air filled boot’s, that was dubbed the Mea West, she told us that the jacket air bladder failed when he hit the water, which left his boots being the only bouyant part of the device, I remember her telling us that he was able to keep his head above the water, but he was batteling 20ft seas, and the air filled boot’s were just to much for him to handle physically, I’m sure he put up a fight, but those are impossible odds. I just wanted to share this, I’ll never forget my Uncle John Guttermuth.

  • Rear Admiral Thomas Logan Malone, USN Ret

    As a retired submarine officer with experience in Cold War submarine missions, I express my gratitude and respect for those who went ahead of us in this troubled period. The Officers and Crew of Cochino were among the first to struggle with sailing north of the Arctic Circle on missions of great importance to our National Defense.
    I salute them on this Veterans’Day!

  • Tom “Harry” Allison

    At 70 years old and have ridden these beautiful ladies for 10 years in the U.S.Navy, I weep to read the story of these stricken few. Those “NORTHERN RUNS”

  • William (Bill) Soniak

    I was a Quartermaster/Signalman in 1946, just finished school at Sub Base in Groton, Conn. On the way back to Sub/Tender AS-16 Howard
    W. Gilmore. Arrived at Sub Base, Key West, FL. to find Gilmore was at GITMO Cuba. Transferred as a transient to SS-345 Cochino duty as a messenger on the 12 AM to 4 AM shift to notify Captain when we passed various light houses as we proceeded east along Cuba. I
    got to know a few of the men. I was stunned when I later heard of the Cochino disaster. At that time, very little news was published.
    My prayers went out to the men and their families. I still think of them this day. May God Bless Them.

  • Robert Smith

    My old friend Bill Polzin (now deceased) told me the whole story in detail. The first blast blew him against the bulkhead. The Exec entered the compartment and closed the hatch, and shortly there was a battery explosion and Bill said he saw a flash from around the gaskets in the hatch. Everybody was thinking the Exec was dead until he came out of the compartment. How he survived nobody knows. Later Bill got onto the Tusk and went below to get a cup of coffee and when he came back topside, the Cochina was gone. Bill was upset because not only was he sunk and all his records lost, but his false teeth were left on board. Here’s to my friend Bill and all of the crew of both boats, especially those who lost their lives in the rescue.

  • Mary Champlain Humphrey

    I am sitting here with my father, Robert Champlain, who was on the USS Cochino on that fateful day. He laughed when I read the description that their trip was a “training cruise”. I have listened to his stories of that day and read a book about it. I too am amazed at the bravery those men showed that day.

  • Bill Brown

    My uncle Bill, Lt. Wilson Shafer served aboard the Tusk and lost his life after being washed off the deck while resuscitating Philo. Among his personal effects was a membership card inducting him into THE ORDER OF THE BLUE NOSE, no doubt that speaks to the cold weather above the Arctic Circle.

  • Bill Brown

    The word was that the Mae West suit was replace as a result of this incident. I am pleased that aside from the rescue of the Cochino crew, that the sacrifice of the lives of my uncle Bill and his shipmates resulted in a safety modification for the benefit of others.

  • Kris Wendt

    My Dad was on the Cochino. He told me the story of the fire and what happened. He was in the engine room, trying to keep the engines running. My Dad, George Wendt, still does not talk about the sinking. I have to ask the questions. He is 83 and remembers it well.

  • Brunner

    I have a family member who lost their life while serving on the Tusk. I am curious to know what the death notice stated of the event. By any chance do you know what it said or how it was presented?

  • Ralph

    hHi my uncle was the cochino that day. The true story is that the cochino was on a spy mission on the Russia fleet and was detected. The cochino had to fight it way out. They fired all torpedos at the Russian fleet but they got damaged. My uncle and captain was the last to leave the cochino submerged in free dive too the surface. If you like more info send me email and then we can talk via cell Thank you and god bless the Cochino crew

  • Ralph

    Hi My uncle was a electrician on Cochino and told my dad and his brother the true story what happen that day. Cochino was on a black ops mission and was detected and damaged by the Russian. If like to talk about it please email at [email protected]

  • John Lariviere

    My father Earl Lariviere passed away last year. He was proud of his service to his country but never really would speak of the events of the Cochino sinking. Is it possible that not all those aboard knew about the torpedos being fired? It has been years since I read the book The Last Cruise – which clearly tells a different story. [email protected]