Rafael Celestino Benítez
|Rafael Celestino Benítez|
Rear Admiral Rafael Celestino Benítez
March 9, 1917|
Juncos, Puerto Rico
|Died||March 6, 1999
|Buried at||Oxford Cemetery in Talbot County, Maryland.|
|Allegiance||United States of America|
|Service/branch||United States Navy|
|Years of service||1939–1959|
|Commands held||USS Cochino (SS-345)|
|Battles/wars||World War II|
|Awards|| Silver Star (2)
|Other work||Pan American Airways VP|
Rear Admiral Rafael Celestino Benítez (March 9, 1917 – March 6, 1999) was a highly decorated submarine commander who led the rescue effort of the crew members of the USS Cochino during the Cold War. After retiring from the Navy, he was Pan American World Airways' vice president for Latin America. He taught international law for 16 years at the University of Miami School of Law, and served as Associate Dean, Interim Dean and director and founder of the foreign graduate law program. While there, he founded the Comparative Law LL.M. program, the Inter-American Law LL.M. program, and the Inter-American Law Review. After his death, the university established a scholarship in his memory to benefit a foreign attorney who is enrolled in one of the Law School's LL.M. programs.
Benítez was born in Juncos, Puerto Rico, where he received his primary and secondary education. After he finished high school he was accepted in the United States Naval Academy by appointment of the Honorable Santiago Iglesias, Puerto Rico's Resident Commissioner. He graduated from the academy in 1939 and was assigned to submarine duty. During World War II, Benítez saw action aboard submarines and on various occasions weathered depth charge attacks. For his actions, he was awarded the Silver Star and two Bronze Stars. He served as Lieutenant Commander of the submarine USS Halibut (SS-232) from February 15, 1945 to May 19, 1945. The Halibut was the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the halibut, a large species of flatfish. She was launched on December 3, 1941 and commissioned on April 10, 1942. On January 29, 1946, Lieutenant Commander Benítez was given his first submarine command, the USS Trumpetfish. Benítez, inspired by his father who was a judge, attended Georgetown Law School and earned his law degree in June 1949.
During the latter part of 1949, in the era which is commonly known as the Cold War Era, Benítez was given the command of the submarine USS Cochino. On August 12, 1949, the Cochino, along with the USS Tusk, departed from the harbor of Portsmouth, England. Both diesel submarines were reported to be on a cold-water training mission. However, according to Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, the submarines — equipped with snorkels that allowed them to spend long periods underwater, largely invisible to an enemy, and with electronic gear designed to detect far-off radio signals — were part of an American intelligence operation.
The mission of the Cochino and Tusk was to eavesdrop on communications that revealed the testing of submarine-launched Soviet missiles that might soon carry nuclear warheads. This was the first American undersea spy mission of the cold war.
On August 25, one the Cochino's 4,000-pound batteries caught fire, emitting hydrogen gas and smoke. Unable to receive any help from the Tusk, Commander Benítez directed the firefighting. 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. Benítez tried to save his ship and at the same time save his men from the toxic gases. He realized that the winds were about to tear the ropes and ordered his men to form a pyramid on the ship's open bridge, which was designed to hold seven men.
The Cochino suffered two casualties, Lt. Cmdr. Richard M. Wright, who survived despite the fact that he was severely burned and Robert Philo, a civilian sonar expert, who attempted to reach the Tusk on a raft to report on the conditions of the Cochino, but was knocked overboard along with 11 of the Tusk's crew members. As a result, Philo and six of the Tusk's crew perished.
The ocean waters became calmer during the night and the Tusk was able to approach the Cochino. All of the crew, with the exception of Commander Benítez, boarded the Tusk. Finally, the crew members of the Tusk convinced Benítez to board the Tusk, which he did two minutes before the Cochino sank off the coast of Norway.
In 1952, Benítez was named chief of the United States naval mission to Cuba, a position which he held until 1954. In 1955, Rear Admiral Benítez was given the command of the destroyer USS Waldron. The Waldron resumed normal operations along the east coast and in the West Indies under his command after having completed a circumnavigation of the globe. Rear Admiral Rafael Celestino Benítez was the recipient of two Silver Star Medals.
Aftermath of the Cochino incident
According to the New York Times of April 5, 1997, "On September 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 September 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".
Benítez retired from the Navy in 1959, and became Pan American World Airways' vice president for Latin America. He 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. During his years at University of Miami Law School, Benítez founded the Graduate Program for Foreign Lawyers, now known as the LL.M. Program in Comparative Law. He also inaugurated the "Lawyer of the Americas" (the predecessor of the Inter-American Law Review) and started the Masters Program in Inter-American Law for U.S. Lawyers. In 1978, he served as a board member of the US Foundation of the University of the Valley of Guatemala, located in Delaware. Benítez was also the author of Anchors (ISBN 1-884878-05-9), a compilation of ethical and practical maxims, published on August 1996. On March 15, 2000, the University of Miami School of Law launched a Rafael C. Benítez Scholarship Fund to support the studies of foreign graduate students.
Benítez resided in Easton, Maryland with his wife and three children, a son and two daughters. On March 6, 1999, he died at the Memorial Hospital located in Easton. He was buried with full military honors at Oxford Cemetery in Talbot County, Maryland.
Awards and recognitions
Among Rear Admiral Benítez's decorations and medals were the following:
- Silver Star with a Gold Star in lieu of a second award,
- Bronze Star,
- American Campaign Medal,
- Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal,
- World War II Victory Medal
- Hispanic Admirals in the United States Navy
- List of famous Puerto Ricans
- Puerto Ricans in World War II
- List of Puerto Rican military personnel
- Hispanics in the United States Navy
- Hispanics in the United States Naval Academy
- Warship Commands listed for Rafael Celestino Benitez, USN
- Galantin, I. J. Take Her Deep! (Pocket Books, 1987) ISBN 0-671-66126-4
- Sontag, Blind Man's Bluff.
- Richard Goldstein (April 5, 1999). "Rear Admiral R.C. Benitez, 81, Dies; Led Cold War Rescue". The New York Times. Retrieved 2006-10-21.
- Sontag, Sherry; and Christopher Drew, with Annette Lawrence Drew (1998). Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. Public Affairs. ISBN 0-06-097771-X.
- "R.C. Benitez Dies; UM Law Dean, Naval Hero". University of Miami School of Law. 199. Retrieved 2006-10-21.
- Commander William J. Lederer, USN (1950). The Last Cruise: The Story of the Sinking of the Submarine, U.S.S. Cochino. Sloane. ASIN B0007E631Y.
- "USS Cochino". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
- "USS Cochino". NavSource Naval History. Retrieved 2006-10-10.
- "USS Cochino". On Eternal Patrol. Retrieved 2006-10-10.