During the height of the Cold War, in 1968, four submarines disappeared with all hands on board: the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, the French Minerve, and the Soviet K-129, as well as the USS Scorpion which was lost with all hands (99 sailors) on May 22, 1968, off the coast of the Azores.

The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was a Skipjack-class nuclear-powered submarine. It was the sixth vessel and the second submarine of the U.S. Navy to carry that name. The Scorpion was commissioned on 29 July 1960. With its tear-dropped-shaped hull, the USS Scorpion could muster speeds of 34 knots (38 mph). 

During the years 1960-67, the Scorpion performed numerous deployments in the Atlantic and was involved in the development of nuclear submarine tactics. It also took part in several U.S. and NATO exercises. In 1966, the boat was even reported to have infiltrated into an inland Soviet sea to photograph a large Soviet missile launch through its periscope.

Clouds on the Horizon

In 1967, however, a portentous event happened. The USS Scorpion entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a scheduled overhaul. The Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) required increased submarine overhaul times, from nine to 36 months. However, instead of a much-needed complete overhaul, she received only emergency repairs to get quickly back on duty. 

The heating up of the Cold War had caused the U.S. Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT) officers to cut corners on much-needed maintenance. Therefore, the Scorpion’s original “full overhaul” was reduced in scope. Long-overdue SUBSAFE work, such as a new central valve-control system, was not performed. Additionally, the Charleston Naval Shipyard claimed the submarine’s Emergency Main Ballast Tank Blow (EMBT) system was in working order, but SUBLANT claimed it did not, and their EMBT was “tagged out” (listed as unusable). 

The Chief of Naval Operations Admiral David Lamar McDonald approved Scorpion’s reduced overhaul. He deferred SUBSAFE extensions, which had been put in place as mandatory since the 1963 sinking of the USS Thresher.

USS Scorpion launch
The launch of the USS Scorpion Skipjack-class submarine. (U.S. Navy)

USS Scorpion Returns to Sea for the Last Time

The Scorpion returned to the fleet and set sail for a Mediterranean deployment in February 1968. During this time the boat suffered several mechanical malfunctions, including a leaky seal on its propeller shaft, hydraulic oil leakage, unstable control surfaces, leaks of Freon gas, and an electrical fire near her Trash Disposal Unit. This limited her depth to a limit of just 500 feet. 

The Scorpion dropped two men at Naval Station Rota in Spain: RM2 Eric Reid who had a family emergency; and ICS Joseph Underwood, who was put ashore for a medical issue. The boat was then tasked to observe Soviet naval activity near the Azores as a Soviet Echo II-class submarine and a Russian guided-missile destroyer were operating in the area. After tracking and observing the Soviets, the Scorpion was due to return to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia.