The weather was sweltering on the mid-June 2005 day when Captain Slade D. Cutter, U.S. Navy (Retired), went to his final resting place in the Naval Academy Cemetery. The gathering at his funeral in the Academy chapel that afternoon had been relatively small; a man who lives to be 93 has few contemporaries to observe his passing. Even so, a number of Navy people were on hand to honor him, for he was a legend in the World War II submarine force and a world-class human being.
The obituaries at the time commented on the contrasts involved in a man who was a capable flutist as a bandsman and a first-team All-American football tackle. He gained national recognition in the autumn of 1934 when he kicked a 20-yard field goal for the only score in a 3-0 victory over Army at muddy Franklin Field in Philadelphia. For years afterward, Cutter often winced at that identifying tag because he preferred to be known as a professional naval officer.
Indeed, his modesty was refreshing for someone who accomplished as much as he did. As commanding officer of the submarine Seahorse (SS-304) in World War II, he earned four Navy Crosses for heroism and was credited by the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee with sinking 19 Japanese ships. Fie explained that it was a team effort and that his crew really deserved the credit. Understandably, his crew was dedicated to him, particularly because of the obstacle he had to overcome to attain command.
More than 20 years ago, in his Naval Institute oral history, Cutter told of his disappointing early experiences in the Seahorse. He had come to that boat from the Pompano (SS-181), in which his natural aggressiveness had been honed by his skipper, Lieutenant Commander Lew Parks. Cutter credited Parks as the mentor who really made him into a submariner. Alas, the first skipper of the Seahorse, Commander Donald McGregor, had a sense of caution that a number of his fellow submarine commanding officers shared. Cutter, the boat’s executive officer, kept pushing McGregor to attack, and for his efforts the captain recommended that Cutter be disqualified from submarines.
As Cutter related the story, Rear Admiral John “Babe” Brown knew the truth of the situation. McGregor was relieved of command, and his exec moved up to be skipper. Success then begat success as Cutter’s adeptness in sinking ships led him to be assigned to areas where targets were likely to be encountered. Then in his early 30s, Cutter charged in and got results. He observed in his oral history that many of the best submarine skippers during the war were relatively youthful because people acquire an understandable sense of caution as they grow older. Cutter, a man of great honesty, added that he could have used a bit more caution. The success of the Seahorse sometimes led him to be overconfident and thus at times reckless.
Cutter was reflective when thinking about the men who died in their boats. As the war progressed, he knew the numbers. A U.S. submariner had a l-in-5 chance of being lost on patrol. His friends and shipmates left on patrols and did not come back. Commander Dave Connole, who had served with him in the Pompano, was lost when commanding the Trigger (SS-237) in March 1945. He saw Lieutenant Commander Jim Clark of the Golet (SS-361) and Lieutenant Commander Joe Bourland of the Runner (SS-275) off on what proved to be their last patrols. In those days the diesel boats generally submerged in the daytime and then surfaced at night to recharge their batteries. Years afterward Cutter recalled the experience of seeing the morning stars as he prepared to submerge and wondering if he would still be alive to see that night’s evening stars. It was a haunting image.
Many people remember Slade Cutter’s physical stature. He topped 200 pounds at a time when that was rare. He was a top-notch boxer at the Naval Academy, so capable that when he graduated in 1935 he received an offer of $50,000, a fortune in that era, to turn pro. He declined because he had worked too hard to get to the Academy and receive an education. His father reminded him that he had an obligation to the Navy. As Cutter later remembered, “It was a good thing, because I never would have beaten Joe Louis the best day of my life.” When he had disagreements with others, even as an officer, Cutter was likely to resort to his fists. He was so strong that he and an enlisted man once used a hacksaw blade to cut through a heavy metal flange in order to make an emergency repair at sea. And Joe Williams Jr. recalled Cutter’s unintentional physical force from a time when they were sitting together at a table on board a submarine and Cutter was telling sea stories. To emphasize his points, Cutter poked Williams in the ribs, leading the junior officer to play defense in order to protect his midsection.
In his classic book Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan, author Clay Blair Jr. reported that Cutter was a terror on the beach. Asked about that description during an interview, Cutter responded with an amusing story of being part of a crew that swiped an Army command car at Pearl Harbor early in the war. The Navy men roared through the streets of Honolulu as Cutter used a rifle for target practice on such things as streetlights and a water tower. On another occasion, the competitive Cutter took his crew to a joint luau with the crew of the Trigger, commanded by his classmate Lieutenant Commander Robert “Dusty” Dornin. The submariners drank some beer to pass the time while the pig was cooking, and one thing led to another. Before it was over, sailors were swinging at each other, and the two skippers found themselves in the role of peacemakers, trying to separate the brawling crewmembers. The sailors were hauled away, and as Cutter explained, “End of luau. . . . Somebody had the pork—not the Trigger or the Seahorse."
After he was relieved of the Seahorse, Cutter returned to the States to put the new Requin (SS-481) into commission. He trained her crew and took them to Hawaii en route to the war zone and more patrols. But before the submarine could get into combat, the Japanese surrendered and the war ended. Around 0200 after he had received the news, Cutter went to the crew’s mess to talk to his men. He found one of them with tears streaming down his cheeks. “For God’s sake,” he asked, “What’s the matter?” The young man explained that he had enlisted 2'A years earlier to get submarine duty, and now he realized that he was not going to get a submarine combat pin. The skipper responded: “Boy, you are lucky. You are alive.”
In his oral history, Cutter said wistfully that everything after the war was rather anticlimactic for him. Action during the conflict had been a great stimulant, and afterward the only action was in peacetime exercises. He spent a tour ashore in the Navy’s public information office because his old skipper, Rear Admiral Parks, asked him to do so. It was not a role for which he was well suited because his reaction in any situation was to tell the truth, whereas the PR types were much more inclined to shade things or deliver information selectively. Once he got into a brouhaha with Clay Blair, then a Time magazine writer, after Blair depicted the Navy as being against Captain Hyman Rick- over and the nuclear power program. Cutter’s message to Blair was blunt: “You son of a bitch, you come to my office again, I’m going to throw you out the window.” As Cutter recalled later, “I was on the fourth floor, and he never came again to my office.” It is a measure of both men that they later buried their differences and returned to speaking terms.
Cutter had other duties in the peacetime Navy, including serving as athletic director for his alma mater. Loyalty was one of his finest traits, and he was especially loyal to the Naval Academy. He believed that he got the job there specifically so he would fire the football coach, Eddie Erdelatz, who behaved as if football were the only thing in the lives of his midshipman players. Cutter was disturbed when Erdelatz appeared to put himself above the school, and he got rid of him. Because of his own stardom two decades earlier, Cutter had the credibility needed to accomplish it.
Still later he was skipper of the command ship Northampton (CLC-1), built on a heavy cruiser hull. The ship had a history as an admiral-maker. All his predecessors as commanding officer had been selected for flag rank, but Slade was not. He was philosophical in accepting what happened. He talked to Admiral Jim Russell, the president of the selection board, who told him that the choice for the final slot had come down to him and one other captain. The other man had a master’s degree and had been to the Naval War College, and Cutter had not. His response to Russell was: “Hell, Admiral, that’s the way it is, and I can understand that. I should have gone to the war college too.” In recent years, some of Slade’s friends and admirers mounted a campaign to have him promoted to rear admiral on the retired list. The modest Cutter himself would have nothing to do with the effort.
After his retirement from active duty in 1965, after 30 years of commissioned service, Cutter worked for a time as headmaster of a school in Arizona and later lived in San Antonio, Texas. In recent years he had moved to a retirement home in Annapolis with his wife, Ruth. That home put him near the Naval Academy, for which he cared so much, and he visited it often. As part of the downsizing process in the move to Maryland, the Cutters gave me a large framed photo of him during his boxing days at the Academy. I hung it in my Naval Institute office because of my immense respect for the man. 1 vividly recall a time when Cutter, then in his 80s, was sitting in the office, right below a photo of him in his 20s.
Alas, a few years ago, he slipped and fell on some steps in the Academy’s Bancroft Hall and broke a hip. He moved out of the apartment that he and Ruth had shared, into the establishment’s hospital like health center. Ruth became a nearly full-time caregiver as age and Parkinson’s disease took their toll on her husband. On the walls in the hospital room were mementos that recalled his glory days: a document honoring his membership in the College Football Hall of Fame, newspaper clippings of his football prowess, pictures of the Seahorse and her crew, a copy of the cover of Carl LaVO’s biography Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior, and a framed note from a loan that Slade had long ago paid off. In the early 1930s he had borrowed $600 to pay for the prep school that would qualify him to attend the Naval Academy. The paid-off note symbolized his life-long trait as someone who fulfilled his obligations.
Slade always welcomed a visit from old friends, but it was sad to see him in his degenerating condition. Here was a man of great physical prowess who had been robbed of his mobility and relied on nurses to help him in and out of his bed and wheelchair. His tart comment was, “This is a hell of a way to live.” And, knowing Slade, that was not a complaint; it was just an honest statement of fact.
At his funeral on the hot day in June, the chaplain who officiated repeatedly referred to Cutter as a “warrior,” and he was indeed that. Rear Admiral Jim Winnefeld delivered an apt eulogy in which he told of Cutter being honored in April 2005 as a distinguished graduate of the Naval Academy. Slade attended the ceremony in the Academy’s Alumni Hall and was surrounded by the current crop of midshipmen. Winnefeld recalled Cutter waving to the crowd and, in that way, saying goodbye to the institution for which he felt so much affection.
As the funeral honoring the old submariner moved to the gravesite, an active-duty nuclear submariner presented Ruth Cutter with an American flag and expressed thanks for her husband’s service to his country. Soon afterward, Slade Cutter Jr. knelt on a piece of plywood and gently lowered a golden urn bearing his father’s ashes into the earth. Seventy years after he had graduated from the Naval Academy, the old submariner was home for good.