By Richard Goldstein, , April 5, 1999
Rear Admiral Rafael C. Benitez, who directed an extraordinary rescue operation when his submarine caught fire in one of the first American undersea spy missions of the cold war, died on March 6 at Memorial Hospital in Easton, Md. Admiral Benitez, who saw his submarine sink but lost only one of his 77 crew members, was 81 and lived in Easton.
On Aug. 12, 1949, Admiral Benitez, then a commander, guided his diesel submarine, the Cochino, out of the harbor in Portsmouth, England.
The Cochino and another submarine, the Tusk, were ostensibly on a cold-water training mission. But they had snorkels that allowed them to spend long periods underwater, largely invisible to an enemy, and they carried electronic gear designed to detect far-off radio signals.
The submarines were in fact the vanguard of an American intelligence operation. Their crews hoped to eavesdrop on communications that revealed the testing of submarine-launched Soviet missiles that might soon carry nuclear warheads, according to "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage" (Public Affairs, 1998) by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew.
The Cochino was submerged in waters above the Arctic Circle, 125 to 150 miles off the Soviet port of Murmansk, on Aug. 25, when one of its 4,000-pound batteries caught fire, emitting hydrogen gas and smoke.
High winds and 16-foot waves prevented the Tusk from drawing alongside, leaving Commander Benitez to oversee the firefighting while trying to save his men from toxic gases. He ordered the Cochino to surface and had dozens of crew members lash themselves to the deck rails with ropes while others fought the blaze.
Then, when the winds were about to tear the ropes, he stacked 60 sailors in a pyramid on his open bridge, which was designed to hold seven men. He gave his jacket and shoes to lightly clad seamen. The executive officer, Lieut. Cmdr. Richard M. Wright, tried to force open the battery compartment where the fire began, but was severely burned.
Robert Philo, a civilian sonar expert, rode on a raft to the Tusk to report on conditions on the Cochino, but was knocked unconscious when the raft turned over. Philo was pulled aboard the Tusk, but a wave pitched him and 11 others overboard. He was among six lost at sea.
Commander Benitez followed the Tusk to calmer waters, all the while trying to bolster his men's spirits.
During the night, the Tusk could finally approach, and the Cochino's crew -- including Commander Wright -- dashed to the sister submarine on a plank that tottered as the two subs rode the waves.
Commander Benitez was the only man left aboard the Cochino. He shouted, "I'm not abandoning ship." But the Cochino began to list severely. He crossed to the Tusk seconds before the plank shattered. Two minutes later, 15 hours after the fire had begun, the Cochino sank in 950 feet of water, 100 miles off Norway's coast.
The Tusk took the Cochino's crew to Hammerfest, Norway. In reporting the loss of the Cochino, the Navy said it had been on a "routine cruise outside of Norwegian territorial waters." But on Sept. 20, 1949, the Soviet publication Red Fleet said the Cochino had been "not far from Murmansk" and suggested that it had been seeking military information. On Sept. 23, President Harry S. Truman, confirming fears that had led to Commander Benitez's mission, announced that the Soviet Union had detonated its first nuclear device.
Rafael Celestino Benitez, a native of Juncos, P.R., graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1939. In World War II, he weathered depth-charge attacks aboard submarines and was awarded the Silver and Bronze Stars.
In June 1949, he graduated from Georgetown Law School. He was chief of the United States naval mission to Cuba from 1952 to 1954, and commanded the destroyer Waldron from 1955 to 1957. After retiring from the Navy in 1959, he was Pan American World Airways' vice president for Latin America, taught international law and was associate dean at the University of Miami Law School and dean of the university's Graduate School of International Studies.
He is survived by his wife, Nancy, of Easton; a son, John, of Denver; two daughters, Cristina Benitez of Chicago and Peg Evans of Miami; three sisters, Susana Lacy, Isabelle McCartney and Martha Ables, all of Miami, and three grandsons.
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© 1999 by Neil Mishalov