Part III: America's First Spy Sub

Part III: America’s First Spy Sub

by | published November 10th, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is Part II of a three-part article series about America’s first spy submarine, written by my friend and colleague Bill Patalon. This is to introduce you to my new video series called Spy Tales, where Bill and I sit down and discuss my experiences in counter-intelligence during the Cold War. To access Spy Tales Episode I, just click here.Chapter IV: When Heroes Shine

Benitez wanted to avoid abandoning ship. Indeed, his goal was to get the wounded crewman over to Tusk – which could then race ahead and get the men to a hospital in Hammerfest, Norway.

Down below, the fires continued to burn. Toxic gases continued to climb up out of the submarine. By now, 57 men were crammed into the sub’s “sail” or onto the bridge with Capt. Benitez – again, an area designed to hold only seven. The sub commander was freezing: He’d given his jacket to one man, his sweater to another and his shoes to a third – Lt. Frank Clifford Jr., who only put them on after Benitez made it an order.

Down below – in the very back of the sub, the one spot the flames and fumes hadn’t reached – Hubert T. “Doc” Eason ministered to Wright, the horribly burned XO.

On the bridge, Capt. Benitez was drawing on every leadership trick he’d learned as a war hero, the authors wrote in Blind Man’s Bluff.

“Benitez kept talking to his men, encouraging them, asking them to just hang on,” the authors recalled. “The CO was calling upon every moment he had spent in the war, when he had crouched silently among another crew as their sub was depth-charged. If he was showing his aristocracy now, it was an aristocracy of sheer valor, and he was impressing even the hulking, red-headed Celt [Austin], who stood at his side.”

All afternoon, Benitez told his men over and over that they were nearing Norway – were in fact only three hours away. Four hours later, he repeated the promise. The crew knew he was lying – knew he was trying to lift their spirits – and they loved him for it.

The boat commander still believed he could beat the fire.

But he was wrong.

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Just after midnight, Friday, Aug. 26, 1949, another explosion rocked the sub. Fire broke into the second engine room – closer to the aft-torpedo room where the can’t-be-moved Wright lay immobile on a bunk. The 15 men that remained below – other than Doc Eason, Wright and one other wounded crewman – had to come topside.

Benitez knew he had to move his crewman over to Tusk. He needed to tell the other submarine to move in close – and to come alongside.

Still pinch-hitting as Cochino’s point man on emergency communications, Red Austin switched from the semaphore flags to a battle lantern with a toggle switch. Again, in Morse code, one painful letter at a time, he toggled out his message:

“A-n-o-t-h-e-r … e-x-p-l-o-s-i-o-n … C-l-o-s-e … m-e.”

Benitez had to get those last three men topside. He also knew that Wright probably couldn’t move.

In that moment, he came to a decision: If Wright went down with Cochino, Benitez would go down with Wright.

“The sense of clarity was almost overwhelming,” the authors wrote in Blind Man’s Bluff. “A deep calm washed over him. It was the same feeling he’d had during the war when he was on the submarine Dace as it was being pummeled by Japanese destroyers, when he had believed there could be no escape. He had been lucky that time. Now he thought, ‘Well, I’m gonna die. This is it.’ … his calm gave way to a sense of peace, a peace that seemed to pass all understanding, reaching beyond feeling to prayer.”

But Wright, too, was showing his mettle, said Cmdr. William J. Lederer, who interviewed the survivors and wrote both a Saturday Evening Post report and a book about the rescue.

Wright led his fellow crewman in a spirit-lifting “song-fest,” Lederer wrote in his book The Last Cruise, which soon became a Westinghouse Playhouse TV docudrama.

Wright told Doc Eason that he was okay where he was, that he didn’t believe the sub would sink. But when Eason told Wright that “The Old Man” (Benitez) had ordered him topside, he rolled off the bunk and somehow (he still doesn’t know how) made his way up the ladder that led out onto the wave-whipped deck; the emergence of the XO, his hands and face heavily bandaged, quietly energized his crewmates.

As this transpired, Tusk was working its way alongside Cochino – after first firing off its torpedoes, to avoid incidental explosions in case the two boats collided in the heavy seas. Another explosion hammered Cochino. Tons of water were pouring into the dying submarine.

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With XO Wright and Doc Eason now up on deck, Cochino’s internal compartments were empty. A single, narrow 20-foot plank was being rigged between the two subs. The hope was that “walking the plank” here would lead to safety – not death.

But it would be the most-dangerous stroll imaginable.

Both boats were rolling in the pitching seas. The plank was held in place by ropes on either side – and had barely an inch to spare on either end.

Held in place by ropes, and with barely an inch to spare on either end, this would be the most-dangerous stroll imaginable. The plank kept slipping from its perch – pulled back in place by the ropes. But if that occurred while a man was making the move from Cochino to Tusk, he’d be crushed to death between the hulls at the waterline, where they were widest.

The first volunteer to make the trip … was Wright.

The crews of both subs watched – in “stunned silence,” writers said. One painful step at a time he went.

And he made it.

“I don’t know how I got over there [to Tusk],” Wright told an interviewer in 2001. “I just almost have a sense of levitating up that ladder. Couldn’t have been. I’m not a very religious person. I don’t believe God reached his hand down and pulled me up, but I did get up there. The body, I suppose, responds in self-defense to something. My muscles were enough to get me up. And as I say, probably, Eason, the hospital man, was pushing on me too. But I got up there to the bow of the ship and, hell, nobody was crossing that plank. I figured, what the hell, we might as well. I guess they were afraid of falling in between the two hulls, which was a real danger because the plank wasn’t made fast and was only about 12 inches wide. But I thought, Christ, we might as well fall in the sea as go down with the ship, so I crossed.”

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Wright’s silent heroism had the most-inspirational impact on his crewmates.

“That was it. That was all the rest of the crew [of Cochino] needed,” the authors wrote in Blind Man’s Bluff. “If Wright could make it in his condition, they could, too. One by one, they skittered across, the wounded first. They timed it, waiting as one boat was picked up by the waves, then the other, waiting for that short moment when the boats were level. Nobody coached them … each man picked his own moment to rush across.”

Only two or three would cross before the board would slip out of place – to be quickly replaced. When about a third of the crew had crossed, the waves pulled the two subs so far apart that some lines snapped. Tusk slipped back into place, but the end was fast-approaching.

Soon every crewman had crossed – except Benitez.

It was now 1:45 a.m. Friday.

As the captain of his own boat, Benitez didn’t want to give the “abandon ship” order. But his submarine was listing to starboard. So much water had poured into the boat that the deck over the rear torpedo room was underwater.

It wouldn’t be long before Cochino recreated the same vertical death stance that James Cameron displayed for Titanic in the blockbuster movie of the same name.

Yelling “abandoning ship,” Capt. Benitez trotted across the plank – and seconds later it shattered.

Soon, Cochino stood up on end. There, 100 miles off the Norway coast, after attempting the first spy-sub eavesdropping mission of the Cold War, the first Cold War spy sub plunged to the bottom in 950 feet of water.

It was Friday, Aug. 26, 1949.

And it was 15 hours – and a whole lot of valor – since the first explosion.

Epilogue: When the Cold War Changed

Six hours later, Tusk pulled into Hammerfest. The non-injured crewmen were given a choice: Fly back to their base in New London, Conn., or ride with their rescuers back to the United States.

Every crewman stayed for the journey aboard Tusk.

And the secret mission was secret no more. The sinking made headlines in the USA and USSR. And while the Soviets didn’t know about Red Austin, about the “ears” or about Cochino’s attempts to steal telemetry out of the air, it found the boat’s positioning suspicious and accused America of spying.

It didn’t matter.

On Aug. 29, 1949 – the Monday that followed Cochino’s Friday sinking – the Soviet Union conducted its first nuclear weapons test – a bomb the Pentagon code-named “Joe I.” In The USSR, it was known as RDS-1, and “First Lightning.”

The blast was detected on September 1 by a Boeing WB-29 – a weather plane version of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber that had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. In effect, a kind of spy plane, the WB-29s flew from Japan to Alaska, taking atmospheric tests along their route.

On that day, the Cold War entered an entirely new phase – one that quickly escalated the kind of spying and acts of espionage.

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This new age of spying and espionage is one that we’ll be looking at as part of a new Kent Moors podcast Spy Tales.

Kent is one of the world’s foremost experts on energy, security and related geopolitics, has asked me to moderate the series for him.

In this video series, Kent and I talk about his experiences and operations during the Cold War, beginning with Episode I: The Woodpecker, Agent Piccadilly, and the Case of the Deadly Bulgarian Umbrella.

Just click here for the first episode.


Bill Patalon

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