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Capt. Slade Cutter, Naval Athlete and Submariner, Dies

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

Slade D. Cutter, 93, the U.S. Naval Academy athletic icon who later amassed one of the great World War II combat records as a submariner, died June 9 at Ginger Cove retirement community in Annapolis. He had Parkinson's disease.

"College football players should forget the game the moment it is over," Capt. Cutter once said. Still, he will be remembered for his sporting efforts as much as the far more dangerous work he completed during the war, exploits that earned him four awards of the Navy Cross and two awards of the Silver Star. The Navy Cross is the highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor.

Capt. Cutter once wanted to be a professional flutist but was pressed into athletic duty at the Severn School, the preparatory feeder school for the Naval Academy. Being tall (6-2) and husky (215 pounds), the "blonde, easy-moving chunk of brawn," as one reporter wrote, became one of the collegiate athletic world's celebrated Depression-era figures.

He won the intercollegiate heavyweight boxing championship, became an All-America tackle and, in 1967, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

His most acclaimed feat came Dec. 1, 1934, the day of a wet mudfest against Army at Philadelphia's Franklin Field. He said he exchanged long cleats for shorter ones -- giving him better advantage for a smooth kick -- surprising coaches who expected him to fake-kick the ball.

"When they saw it was going to be a real kick, they yelled, 'The damned fool!' " he said years later. "Then it went through, and they thought it was great."

He kicked a game-winning, 20-yard field goal before 79,000 people, giving Navy its first victory against Army in 13 years. The final score was 3-0, and Capt. Cutter was heralded as the "hero of the day."

Slade Deville Cutter was born Nov. 1, 1911, in Chicago and raised on his family's corn and alfalfa farm in Oswego, Ill.

He was steered away from sports by his father, who had been severely injured as a college athlete. Encouraged by his mother, Slade learned piano and then the flute. He won an interscholastic solo flute championship at which John Philip Sousa was a judge.

Later, in his Naval Academy yearbook, he listed the flute, along with chewing tobacco and swearing, as among his major vices.

At Severn, he was spotted by Paul Brown, later the famed coach of the Cleveland Browns, who called Capt. Cutter's father to plead permission to sign up his son. That began his athletic career, which accelerated when he entered the academy in 1931.

Despite lucrative temptations to became a professional boxer, he stayed in the Navy and attended submarine school.

Early in the war, he served as executive officer of the submarine Pompano and was mentored by then-Capt. Lewis Parks, who encouraged aggressive action by his crew. Parks also wanted his officers to calculate firing trajectories in their minds, which he felt would save time and allow quicker maneuvering and successful attacks.

Made executive officer of the submarine Sea Horse in early 1943, Capt. Cutter soon clashed with his new commander over what he viewed as the man's cautious tactics. Capt. Cutter was relieved of duty and ordered to his quarters. He wrote in a letter to his wife that the officer was letting enemy vessels go by "like trolley cars."

Back at Pearl Harbor, a vice admiral agreed with Capt. Cutter and gave him command of the Sea Horse for its second patrol. He received the Navy Cross awards while on the Sea Horse, which sunk more than 100,000 tons of Japanese vessels in enemy-controlled waters.

Although he is sometimes credited with sinking 23 ships, four were believed to be unarmed Japanese trawlers. Capt. Cutter expressed regret at having torpedoed those vessels, despite orders to shoot all enemy craft. He preferred to say he sank 19 ships, mostly troop transports and oil tankers.

Capt. Cutter once said his most worthy wartime contribution was a reconnaissance mission in the southern Philippines in June 1944 that warned of the massive and fast-moving Japanese fleet off Mindanao, preparing for a surprise attack against the Americans.

"The U.S. hadn't known where that task force was for two weeks," he told a reporter in 1997. "It was far ahead of us and we couldn't catch up, but we radioed its position, course and speed to headquarters."

After every battle or depth-charging, he was known to meet with his crew to explain what they had just been through. This openness earned him great admiration among his sailors.

Known for his great tenacity, he had a blunt personal style that often rankled superior officers and may have hindered his advancement to flag rank, said Carl LaVO, author of "Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior" (2003).

LaVO cited Capt. Cutter's invitation to witness the 1954 launching of the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. According to LaVO, he told the media that the Nautilus was not an offensive fighting ship but instead a vehicle meant to test nuclear propulsion -- the opposite of how the military had sold the expensive vessel to the public.

In the late 1950s, Capt. Cutter was made the Naval Academy's athletic director to encourage popular football coach Eddie Erdelatz to resign. LaVO said that Erdelatz was running a "professional-style football program" but that too few players were opting to remain in the Navy after graduation because of his reputed disparaging of the service. Capt. Cutter's knowledge of the sports program and his feeling that Erdelatz was "disloyal to the Navy" led to Erdelatz's departure. Much of the task was helped by Capt. Cutter's stature as an athletic and wartime hero.

His final active-duty assignment, in 1965, was head of the Naval Historical Display Center in Washington. He later became headmaster of a boys school in Tucson, where he moved to care for his first wife's asthma condition.

His first wife, Frances Leffler Cutter, died in 1981.

Survivors include his wife of 23 years, Ruth McCracken Buek Cutter of Annapolis; two children from the first marriage, Slade D. Cutter Jr. of Austin and Anne McCarthy of Santa Fe, N.M.; three stepchildren, Scott Buek of Delran, N.J., Harvey Buek of Conshohocken, Pa., and Pamela Sullivan of Sparks, Nev.; a sister; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company