America's First Spy Sub: Innovation, Tragedy, and Heroism in the Early Days of the Cold War

America’s First Spy Sub: Innovation, Tragedy, and Heroism in the Early Days of the Cold War

by | published November 8th, 2018
Editor’s Note: I just launched a new series for my subscribers called Spy Tales. In this audio series, I sit down with my good friend and colleague Bill Patalon, and we discuss my experiences during my years as a counter-intelligence officer during the Cold War. In addition, we discuss the current geopolitical climate and the New Cold War we’re facing these days. To get access to the first podcast of Spy Tales, just click here. To introduce you to Spy Tales, Bill has produced a three-part article series about America’s first spy submarine.

It was August 1949. World War II had been over for almost exactly four years.

But something else had taken its place.

A replacement war. A non-shooting war.

A Cold War.

The Soviet Union had flipped from ally to enemy, instituting a blockade in Berlin, and thrusting Eastern Europe behind an “Iron Curtain.” Chairman Mao Zedong’s Communist Army had pushed Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek out of China, and to Formosa (Taiwan).

America and its allies watched as Communism spread like a plague – and adopted a non-shooting strategy called “containment.”

This wasn’t just a new war, it was a new kind of war – one with the highest stakes in history. New technologies had created new weapons – weapons so powerful that a single bomb could destroy an entire city.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t completely clear just who possessed these weapons – or the rockets, ships or planes needed to deliver those weapons to their targets.

This lack of information – this uncertainty – was a dominant theme of the Cold War. It would be almost seven years before the Lockheed U-2 spy plane made its first overflight of Soviet territory.

It would be nearly 10 years before the United States launched its first spy satellite – codenamed “Corona” – which could grab images of Soviet airfields, naval bases and missile-launching facilities. And it would be almost two decades before the first operational mission of the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird” – a stealthy, Mach 3 spy jet that was fired at but never hit during all the years it was used.

This lack of access – and the lack of “hard data” that resulted – bedeviled the Pentagon for much of the Cold War, triggering fears of a “missile gap” and a “bomber gap” with the Soviet Union.

The United States had the atom bomb. The Soviets didn’t.

Or at least we didn’t think they did.

Here, at the dawn of the Cold War, this “not knowing” was terrifying – and couldn’t be tolerated. It set into motion a cycle of innovation-fueled espionage that continually pushed the boundaries on risk-taking. That sometimes led to tragedy. But it also gave rise to the heroism folks are capable of when they find that their backs are to the wall.

Today’s tale is just such a story.

It was August 1949.

Chapter I: A Sub with Ears – And Its Own “Spook”

To get needed new insights, new information and new perspectives on their new enemy – and to see if Russia had “The Bomb” – U.S. military leaders knew they needed to get in close.

Real close.

And in the summer of 1949 – before spy satellites, before supersonic spy jets and before cyberespionage – the best way to do that was with a submarine.

We’re not talking about the nuclear-powered marvels of today. In the aftermath of World War II, subs were seeing radical advances. Though the nuclear-powered submarines of today were still in the future, postwar subs still were big advances over their predecessors.

No longer were they the old – a “worst-of-both-worlds” compromise that saw these U-boats live most of their life on the surface, dropping beneath the waves only to fight.

These new subs had new “passive” sonar systems and “snorkels” – a pipe that allowed the captain to run his boat’s diesel motors and recharge his batteries while still submerged, an innovation that transformed subs into truly stealthy weapons of war.

Batteries were better, too, with longer lives, meaning when the subs really needed to hide, they could switch to their electric motors, “go deep” – and stay there longer, too.

But while the technology had advanced, the tactics had not.

By the middle of 1949, the U.S. Navy was attacking that problem, too. The USS Cochino (SS-345) and USS Tusk (SS-426) – two of these newer-type subs – were scheduled to participate in “Operation Kayto,” a hunter-killer exercise that was the undersea’s version of hide-and-seek.

But Cochino had a second mission – a spying mission. And the boat’s commander – Capt. Rafael C. Benitez, a lawyer and WWII hero – was both stunned and chagrined to discover that the espionage activities took precedence over his hide-and-seek exercise with Tusk.

Before it left port, Cochino had undergone “electronic listening” alterations that essentially transformed it into America’s first spy sub. It had also added an interesting new crewman: Harris M. Austin, a hulking man of Scottish ancestry whose blazing hair earned him the moniker “Red.”

A WWII radioman who subsequently received training in electronic-intelligence/electronic-support measure (ELINT/ESM), Austin had now become a “direct-support intercept operator” (DIRSUP).

In short, Red Austin was the U.S. Navy’s first submarine “spook” – intelligence-circle parlance for a spy.

Under Austin’s direction, shipyard workers attached “C-shaped” antennae to each side of the Cochino’s sail – running coaxial cable into a special cubicle on the same deck as the control room – a cubicle that contained all spy gear. That spy gear included the “black boxes” that were supposed to take the Russian radio signals grabbed out of the ether, translate them and record them on thin slivers of wire tape.

Because of the shape of the antennae – and because they were designed to “listen” for radio signals – crewman said the sub had “ears.”

(The addition of those “ears” greatly exacerbated Capt. Benitez’s consternation about the mission. You see, for that “coax” cable to make its way from the antennae at the top of the sub to the listening post within, shipyard workers had to drill holes in the boat’s “pressure hull” – the strong inner hull that resisted tremendous pressures at depth, and kept the crew from being crushed to death.

Armed with its red-headed “spook” and its awkward pair of “ears,” America’s first real spy sub and first “sub spook” set out on its first electronic spying mission…

A Cold War Spy Tells All

Stay tuned for Part II of this epic submarine tale, coming to Oil & Energy Investor tomorrow.

In the meantime, you can check out another espionage tale we have in store for you – part of the new Spy Tales series I’m hosting with Dr. Kent Moors.

Kent is a top global expert on energy and energy-related geopolitics, but he had another job.

One not many folks know about.

He was a spy.

In Spy Tales, we’ll be sharing some of his personal tales.

And we’ll be sharing other tales, both current and historical, just like this one.

If you’d like to check out Spy Tales Episode I: The Case of the Deadly Umbrella, just click here.

I’ll see you there.


Bill Patalon

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  1. January 2nd, 2019 at 05:26 | #1

    Wow. And this was real, too. (?)..

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