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Rafael Celestino Benítez: Navy Hero

Rafael Celestino Benítez is just one of many Puerto Rican military heroes, but he has one of the most dramatic stories. Celestino Benítez was born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, educated in his hometown, and then appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy by then-Resident Commissioner Santiago Iglesias. He graduated in 1939 and entered service as a submariner.

He served during World War II and received a Silver Star, a Silver Star with a Gold Star, and a Bronze Star. He commanded the Halibut, the Trumpetfish, and then the Cochino. In June of 1949, he earned a law degree from Georgetown University. In August of the same year, he was involved in the loss of the Cochino in the Arctic Ocean.

The Cochino and sister ship the Tusk were said to be on training duties, but they were actually listening in on Soviet communications in the first undersea spy mission of the Cold War. Both submarines had breathing snorkels which allowed them to stay underwater for long periods of time, as well as electronic listening devices which allowed them to listen in on Soviet communications as the USSR prepared to detonate its first warhead.

The Cochino caught fire in the battery compartment, and it was only Celestino Benítez’s creativity and quick thinking that allowed all but one of the crew to survive the event. The Commander ordered most of the men to go topside to avoid breathing in the toxic fumes of the burning battery, and directed them to create a human pyramid that allowed more than 60 men to stay safe on a surface designed to hold just seven.

Celestino Benítez and a handful of others tried to get the fire under control, while the Tusk tried and failed to draw alongside to rescue the crew. The chlorine gases released by the batteries made the task of quenching the fire impossible, and many of the men were injured or suffering from exposure.

At last, the Cochino moved toward the Tusk instead, and through a series of harrowing adventures the seamen pulled together to keep their shipmates alive until at last, more than fourteen hours later, 76 men were safely brought aboard the Tusk. Celestino Benítez was the last to leave the Cochino, and just minutes later it slipped into the sea.

Civilian Robert Philo, a sonar specialist from the Cochino, was lost when he tried to reach the Tusk on a raft to let them know how bad conditions were on the Cochino. The men from the Tusk were trying to bring Philo aboard, but the raft was turned over in the Arctic Ocean, and Philo and six of the men from the Tusk were drowned.

The video below tells the story of the Cochino. A book, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Lawrence Drew, also tells the dramatic tale.

Celestino Benítez continued in the Navy for another decade, as chief of the U.S. naval mission to Cuba and then as Commander of the Waldron.  He left the Navy as a Rear Admiral. After his military career, he was Vice President of the Pan-American Airlines Latin American program and then a law professor and finally Dean of the International Law Program at the University of Miami Law School. He was known for the innovative programs he developed around international law, and a scholarship in his name was created for foreign students in the program. He served on the board of the University of the Valley of Guatemala and wrote Anchors: Ethical and Practical Maxims, published by The Annapolis Publishing Company.

Celestino Benítez was married and had three children. He died in 1999 and was buried with full military honors at Oxford Cemetery in Talbot County, Maryland, the State where he lived at the end of his life.

Information from Admirals of the World: A Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present, by William Stewart, from, from Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew,and Annette Lawrence Drew, and from The Guardian.

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