Kursk Tragedy Recalls A Submarine Disaster That Hit Close To Home

Once Upon A Time, we in southeastern Connecticut, prayed for our submariners in trouble off the coast of Norway. Unlike the Russian tragedy, our disaster was something of a miracle, because fate was kind.

When an event like the sinking of a sub occurs, all of southeastern Connecticut feels the pain. It is in time of crisis that we appreciate how much a part of the submarine service we are. During the war, we felt such pride as subs would return from combat and sail up the Thames River with a broom strapped to their periscopes, indicating a clean sweep.

There was a great submarine captain at the base in my time, 1952, Capt. William Seiglaff. He was twice awarded the Navy Cross, three Silver Stars, and the Legion of Merit twice. What a man! His submarine, the USS Tautog, sank 26 Japanese vessels, more than any other submarine in the war. His gun crew at Pearl Harbor shot down the first Japanese plane of the war, and his boat sank two enemy subs and two destroyers.

Today we remember our fallen submariners, and the boats that are still on duty but will never return, on the wall of honor monument in the shadow of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge in Groton.

There is a fraternal quality about the submarine service that is greater than in any other military branch. During my years in the Marine Corps, my final tour was as Commander of the Guard at the base. Marines were never welcomed. I felt the corps had an unparalleled camaraderie, but I was wrong. The Submarine Service, the silent service, is like a big family.

Because they are so close, when a submarine is missing, it strikes very hard. It was exactly 51 years ago that The Day reported the loss of the USS Cochino, but unlike the Russian tragedy, there was a miracle. While 13 died, most of the crew was saved. It was off the coast of Norway, in the same type Arctic waters that took the Russian sub.

First there was an audible cry of “fire” followed by several explosions in the aft section. The sub was at periscope depth, approximately 60 feet. Cmdr. Rafael Benitez gave the order to surface. Dense smoke filled the boat. Three additional explosions forced all hands on to the sail of the sub (the conning tower).

As it happened, the sister ship, USS Tusk, had been 300 miles away several days before but now appeared over the horizon. Rough seas made transfer of the crew difficult. The disabled boat rode up and down like a cork in the stormy North Atlantic.

There was such difficulty in getting the men into rubber rafts, and one raft overturned. Six crew members were killed because of severe water temperatures. The entire crew would have been lost except for the miracle that their sister ship was on the scene almost immediately.

This morning's picture was taken on a cloudy but happy day, as the sub base welcomed home the precious cargo of survivors. I remember all personnel on the base fell out to honor the men of the ill-fated USS Cochino, who, at attention, stood on the deck of the Tusk, their wives, sweethearts and families waving anxiously.

Most of the married members of the crew lived in eastern Connecticut. They were from all over the nation, but there was a local fellow I knew personally, Norm Gauthier. We graduated at NFA in 1948, and as he came down the gangplank that day to hug and kiss his sweetheart, Dorothy Przygoda, I more fully realized the impact of the tragedy. Because I knew Norm, it became more personal. As I watched the two of them, I thought what might have been except for the grace of God that miraculously placed the two ships, coincidentally, in close proximity.

In 1939 we lost a boat, USS Squalus; 26 men died, 33 survived. It was off the coast of New Hampshire on a shakedown cruise. In 1963, there was another more severe tragedy that we will all remember. The USS Thresher sank to the bottom with all hands lost. The USS Thresher was one of the last of our horrible submarine disasters at sea. The Scorpion, in 1968, was the last. The USS Cochino was the first sub to sink after World War II.

We, more than any area in this country, appreciate the loss of those Russian sailors, because the Sub Service is such a part of our heritage, as well as our everyday life. We live with the Sub Service. Groton is the Submarine Capital of the World, and our people build the best submarines on earth. We enjoy their victories, are proud of their success, but we deeply mourn their tragedies and always share their sadness.

Bill Stanley, a newspaper columnist for 10 years, has published five books on area history and events. The books are available at Magazines & More, Suburban Stationers, and Johnson's Flowers & Gifts, all in Norwich.
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