We bandy the word “hero” around a lot these days, to the point that its true meaning has been severely devalued. A word that used to be reserved for those who did heroic acts above and beyond normal behavior, hero is now applied indiscriminately to everyone from police officers to military personnel just doing their everyday jobs.
But back in the day when “hero” really meant something, Oswego had its share. There was Robinson B. Murphy, the 15 year-old who earned the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Ezra Church during the Civil war. There was Anna Brown, “The Hero Teacher,” in the 1870s. And during World War II, there was Slade Cutter.
It’s not often that someone earns fame in three separate arenas. But Slade Cutter managed to do just that, excelling in music, sports, and in the military, and along the way became a legitimate American hero.
Not only was he a nationally award-winning high school musician, but he went on to become a football All-American and national collegiate boxing champ at the U.S. Naval Academy. Then, during World War II, Cutter became one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful submarine commanders, whose exploits during the battles against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific were, and still are, legendary.
Slade Deville Cutter was born on Nov. 1, 1911 in Chicago and then taken home to the family farm, located just south of the Oswego village limits along what eventually became Ill. Route 71. The Queen Ann-style farmhouse where his parents, Watts and Esther (Sundeen) Cutter, lived and where Slade grew up with his brothers and sister still stands, as does the old Cutter School (named after his family and now remodeled into a private home) he attended at the northwest corner of the old Ill. Route 71 and Minkler Road intersection.
When Cutter started school there were no other first graders, so he was promoted to second grade where there was at least one more student. The same thing happened when he entered fifth grade. As a result, he graduated from eighth grade Cutter School at age 11, too young to be allowed to enter high school. So he took eighth grade over at an Aurora junior high, where he became fascinated with playing the flute.
While Cutter’s parents encouraged their children to excel, sports wasn’t part of the encouragement. Cutter’s father had lost an eye playing football at the University of Illinois and so banned his tall, muscular son from getting involved in the game.
After completing eighth grade one more time, and since Oswego High only offered a two-year program, Cutter chose to attend East Aurora High School. In those days, students could hop the interurban trolley—the tracks ran right past Cutter’s home—and commute to school in Aurora.
At East High, Cutter continued to excel with the flute. He joined the East High marching band, but felt so ridiculous playing the flute that he managed to persuade the band director to let him switch, for marching only, to the bass drum.
Encouraged by his parents, Cutter traveled into Chicago each Sunday morning to take flute lessons from the first chair flautist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He paid for the lessons—$5 for a half-hour—and trolley fare by giving lessons to local Oswego youngsters at $1 each.
During his senior year at East, he entered the national high school music competition. He won the city, district, and state championships and went on to the national championship, held that year—1928—in Joliet. He recalled the head judge was the leader of the era’s most famous touring band, John Philip Sousa. The judge of the flute competition was a young clarinetist who had only recently started touring with his own band. The slight, bespeckled musician was impressed both with Cutter’s performance. But although Benny Goodman tried to persuade Cutter to join his band’s summer tour, Cutter declined, opting instead to attend the Sherwood School of Music, where he found he simply didn’t really have what it took to be a music pro.
“I had the ear, and I had the technique, but I didn’t have the rhythm,” he recalled in a 1984 interview.
After graduating from East High, Cutter, through a typically (for him, at least) serendipitous series of events, found himself attending the Naval Academy’s prep school at Severn School in Maryland.
While at Severn, the school’s new 22 year-old football coach strongly urged the Illinois youngster to play football. The coach and the school’s president pleaded with Cutter’s father to let the boy play, and soon he did. Not only did Cutter come to enjoy football, he became a star player. The coach, whose name was Paul Brown, went on to become one of the most successful and influential coaches in National Football League history.
Following his appointment to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Cutter played football for the Midshipmen, earning All-American honors as a hard-hitting tackle. But it was his skill as a field goal kicker that won Cutter enduring fame. During the rain-soaked Army-Navy game on Dec. 1, 1934 in Philadelphia, the 6-1, 215-pound Cutter booted a 20-yard field goal—the only score of the game—giving Navy its first victory over Army since 1921. The game–and Cutter–were immortalized on Dec. 2, 1934 in a Philadelphia Sunday News story by Damon Runyon.
How did he manage the kick? Of course it depended on skill and accuracy (Cutter was also a dead shot with a rifle), but divine intervention may have also played a part. During Cutter’s Midshipman Cruise in the summer of 1934, the cadets visited Rome and the Vatican where the Pope was scheduled to bless the young naval officers-to-be.
As Cutter recalled the event in a 1999 reminiscence:
“Bill Clark, one of the best punters in the history of Navy football, was standing next to me and we decided to take advantage of the Pope’s blessing to help us in the coming football season. As the blessing was given, we remained erect while standing on our left leg and extending our right foot in the direction of His Holiness.
“It paid off. On Dec. 1, we played Army in a sea of mud in Philadelphia. Late in the first quarter, Clark got off a great punt that went out of bounds on Army’s one-yard line. Army punted on first down and the partially blocked punt gave Navy the ball on Army’s 20-yard line. Unable to advance the ball in the quagmire of Franklin Field, we settled for the field goal that held up for the rest of the game.”
After the game, one newspaper dubbed Cutter “the boxing flautist from Oswego,” because he not only excelled in music and football—he was inducted into the NCAA College Football Hall of Fame in 1967—but also won three letters in boxing at the academy. He was eventually crowned collegiate heavyweight boxing champion, and seriously considered, for a time, taking up professional boxing. Until he got a good look at Joe Louis, anyway.
“I saw Louis, and I was pretty objective about it,” Cutter recalled years later. “He was just too good. Why not be honest? I was good in my league, but he was out of my league.”
Instead, Cutter decided to make the Navy his career and then decided to enter the submarine service. He completed the sub training course at New London, Conn. in 1938.
Cutter was serving aboard the USS Pompano on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. During three war patrols aboard the Pompano, Cutter learned the submarine warfare trade and also earning a Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat “V,” and a gold star in lieu of a second Silver Star.
Cutter was detached from the Pompano in November 1942 and returned to the U.S. to fit out the new USS Seahorse at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. After the Seahorse was commissioned, he was appointed executive officer, moving up to command the sub on Sept. 30, 1943 after the sub’s original commander was found to be insufficiently aggressive.
It was as skipper of the Seahorse that Cutter–who was never accused of being insufficiently aggressive at any time in his life–earned fame as a tough, aggressive, skillful, tactically gifted submariner.
With Cutter in command during the Seahorse’s second war patrol starting from Pearl Harbor in October 1943, the boat sailed to the Japanese held island of Palau, where he intercepted a convoy. During an 80-hour running battle over 600 miles of ocean, the Seahorse managed to sink all three convoy transports while undergoing constant attack by the convoy’s escorts.
When it was over, Cutter had won one of World War II’s most epic naval battles for which he was rewarded with his second gold star for the Navy Cross and gold star he’d won earlier.
In August 1944, Cutter was given a rest from serving at sea and was assigned a staff position with the Atlantic Fleet. He took command of the new sub, USS Requin, in 1945 and was headed back into the Pacific for another war patrol when the Japanese surrendered and the war ended.
After World War II, Cutter served in a variety of staff and command positions, including head of the physical education department and director of athletics at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1957. His battle with the Navy hierarchy during World War II, especially his inability to suffer fools gladly, prevented him from being promoted to admiral. Bad blood between Cutter and Hyman Rickover, which dated back to their days as lieutenants serving aboard battleships, didn’t help either, as Rickover gradually became the face of the new Navy.
Winding down a long and successful career, Cutter returned to Illinois in June 1963 when he was named commander of the U.S. Naval Training Center at Great Lakes. His final Navy stint was as director of the Naval Historical Display Center in Washington, D.C. Cutter retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in July 1965 after 30 years service. He lived the rest of his life close to the Academy at Annapolis before his death on June 9, 2005.
For a complete rundown on Cutter’s life and times, read Slade Cutter: Submarine Warrior by Carl LaVo, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2003; and The Reminiscences of Captain Slade D. Cutter, U.S. Navy (Retired), interviewed by Paul Stillwell, U.S. Naval Institute, 1985.