USS CUBERA (SS 347) lazed along on the surface in the Gulf Stream that late afternoon in summer of 1959, far out to the east of the Virginia Capes Operating Area, waiting for a visit of our Division Commander, Captain C.N.G. “Monk” Hendrix. We were one of two modernized Guppy submarines attached to Task Group Alpha, a special group of ships, planes and subs assigned to research and develop the best possible anti-submarine warfare tactics for use against the world-wide spread of the rapidly expanding and modem Soviet submarine force. In that Cold War era of reduced defense budgets, we were using any and all kinds of available, off the shelf equipment, plus any in house inventions that could be built and tested inexpensively on the units of our group. The task group was formed around an ESSEX class carrier with its squadron of ASW planes and helicopters, a division of destroyers, all specially equipped with the latest sonar gear, a squadron of long-range ASW patrol planes, and ourselves, two World War II submarines refitted with higher capacity batteries, snorkels and the latest in submarine sonars. Our boats were called Guppies from the designation, “Greater Underwater Propulsive Power.”
Monk Hendrix was the ideal man to be in command of submarines engaged in such an endeavor. He was a prophet of undersea warfare, the first Academy grad to take a P.G. course in Oceanography at Scripps Institute, and a tireless advocate of increased U.S. efforts in that field, in order to counter the Soviet effort underway through its far-flung fleet of fishing trawlers, which were busily charting the sea floor and the nature of the waters above it, which he knew were the battle ground of the Navy’s future. Though already something of a legend in the Submarine Force, Monk was down to earth, friendly and encouraging to his juniors. Our skipper, Hank Wilson, had served with him before, and was quick to invite him to join us in our Wardroom, where we soon became acquainted with his intense, impassioned and inspiring discourses on the ways and means of overcoming the incursions of the Russian subs, which he always referred to as U-boats.
We knew that Monk had a distinguished record in submarines, both during and since the war, part of it in recent years stemming from his having stepped on a few senior toes in his drive for greater efforts in undersea warfare research. We’d get him to tell sea stories, including the tale of his shipwreck in an old S-boat, early in the war, on a reef near Australia. Unable to get the boat off the submerged coral, and wanting to get the crew clear of what would become a prime target for Japanese planes once dawn came, the skipper decided to abandon ship and move the crew to a nearby reef that rose above the water. A torpedo was disarmed and fired into the second reef to make a mooring for a safety line for the crew’s passage. Monk, a good swimmer, volunteered to take the first light line through the several hundred yards of fairly turbulent water. This he did, and hauled over the heavier lifeline by which the crew got to safety. Fortunately, they were not sighted by the enemy, and all were soon rescued. Seventeen years later, Monk was still a rugged, feisty little guy, and that story, to us, personified one of his favorite expressions, “there’s one way to go”.
At last, we got the word that the helicopter bringing Monk and his assistant, LT Roy Battles, was on its way, and we called away the Helicopter Receiving Party. The skipper was on the bridge, and, as Exec. I went out on deck to meet and greet the “Commodore”. Our party consisted of about 8 men, of various rates, as was common in submarines, as we had no Boatswain’s Mates, who handled such duties on surface ships. One of the party was our Hospital Corps-man. Two more were designated swimmers, ready to dive in and rescue people in the water, and each had his line tender, ready to haul him back alongside. They wore inflatable life jackets, but were not in wet suits -just their dungarees. The rest stood ready to gather in beneath the ‘copter, to guide and steady the descent of our visitors being lowered some 15 or 20 feet by the cable of its winch. This was a drill we’d carried out many times during our time with the task group.
As the helicopter hove in sight over the horizon, we turned the boat up so that the wind was on our starboard bow, in accordance with standard procedures, and notified the pilot of our course and speed, to facilitate his approach. He should then fly up into the wind, which would give him the best control, and hover over our bow while he delivered his passengers. The ‘copter approached, a stubby little model with twin rotors tilted at angles from her center line. The pilot circled us, then, surprisingly, began his approach downwind. We stood watching and waiting, as he descended toward us, and as he swept over the deck-and into the sea! One of his wheels caught in a wave top, and the plane lurched forward, hit the surface and rolled over. As the rotors struck the water, they seemed to explode, and the air was filled with long spinning bits and pieces as the ‘copter, its doors open, immediately filled and sank, it seemed without a trace.
We were stunned, transfixed as we watched to see that the spinning debris fell clear, then turned our attention back to the still-roiling spot where the helicopter had disappeared, searching for survivors. Suddenly a head bobbed to the surface, still covered by an officer’s cap bedecked with “scrambled eggs” -the Commodore! He swam toward the boat, as three more heads surfaced -all safe! Waving off the swimmers, Monk reached the side ladder cut into our superstructure, and climbed aboard. I greeted him, and he assured me he was OK, as he turned his attention to the rescue efforts, where Roy Battles was coming alongside. “[ don’t think that pilot’s doing too well”, he said, and as I followed his gaze, he turned to a swimmer tender, grabbed a spare tending line, made a bowline around his waist, and dove back in to assist the pilot! He quickly reached his side, spoke to him and started back to the boat, this time assisted by the admiring line tender. With the pilot and copilot at the ladder, Monk shouted up, “I saw my files, I’m going to get them.” and off he went again to recover his bulging brief case, which had somehow floated free of the sunken ‘copter. It was not until he returned again and clambered back aboard that the Doc got a look at him, and found a long gash down his leg, which was now bleeding profusely.
We bound his leg and hustled him below, where the corpsman took quite a few stitches to close up what had been cut by a torn edge of the sinking fuselage. Monk was as chipper as ever, and at supper that evening he gave all hands a thank you “attaboy”, regaled the wardroom with sea stories and the latest info on ASW, and gave us one of his inimitable pep talks on professional development for submariners. Looking at his bandaged leg, I couldn’t help thinking that we had recently caught sharks in these same waters! He too knew these waters and their denizens, and only he had known he was cut and bleeding, yet he unhesitatingly dove back in to help someone else. That was just the way Monk was.
I don’t know what happened to that pilot for what I considered an improper approach leading to the loss of his aircraft; but I know I never heard Monk Hendrix utter a single word in public or private about the man who nearly got him killed, and whose life Monk risked his own to save! We felt even closer to Monk after that incident, and had a special mounting made for our ship’s plaque, beneath which we mounted a little copper figure of a helicopter and a statement of appreciation for our shipmate, Captain C.N.G. Hendrix, USN, Commander, Submarine Division 61, an all around outstanding Navy man and friend.