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 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.
The Scorpion’s last message on May 21, was that it was closing on the Soviet submarine and research group, running at a steady 15 knots (17 mph) at a depth of 350 feet “to begin surveillance of the Soviets.”
She was never heard from again. Six days later, the Scorpion was declared overdue at Norfolk. The Navy launched a search for the submarine but it was declared lost on June 5.
The Hull Is Located
However, details later emerged that the Navy had begun searching for the USS Scorpion three days earlier than the boat was even due back in Norfolk. This would indicate that the Navy knew that the Scorpion was lost.
At the end of October 1968, the Navy’s oceanographic research ship Mizar located sections of Scorpion’s hull on the seabed, about 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores at a depth of nearly 10,000 feet. The Navy had released sound tapes from its underwater SOSUS listening system off of the Canary Islands that captured 15 acoustic events over 190 seconds. This corresponded to an underwater explosion or implosion of the hull. The bathyscaphe Trieste II was deployed to the area to collect pictures and other data.
When hitting the bottom of the ocean bed, the Scorpion had plowed a deep trench across the ocean floor, and imploded by the deep pressure of the surrounding water. The submarine’s operation center had collapsed inward, causing the conning tower located above it to tear off.
Theories of the Sinking of the USS Scorpion
Several theories have circulated about what caused the submarine to sink. The Navy’s Court of Inquiry deemed that a positive cause could not be ascertained.
One possible cause, which was floated around, was that a defective Mark 37 torpedo exploded which caused the hull to breach. The Mark 37 torpedoes used a silver-zinc battery which was prone to overheating and even combusting. Blind Man’s Buff, a book that was written several years later, theorized that a “hot-running” torpedo battery led to a fire, causing a torpedo explosion dooming the ship.
Another theory from former Vice Admiral Arnold Schade was that the USS Scorpion sank due to a faulty Trash Disposal Unit. The failure of a valve in the galley could have allowed seawater to flood in and contaminate the batteries, producing hydrogen gas that may have incapacitated the crew and eventually led to the apparent explosion in the center of the Scorpion’s hull.
Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, who served on both diesel and nuclear subs, believes that the Scorpion suffered a hydrogen explosion while charging batteries at periscope depth. During the charging of the batteries, excessive charges could result in the release of an excess of hydrogen gas which could cause an explosion. It was reportedly a common problem in U.S. submarines of the era.
But there remains a more sinister theory.
Soviet Foul Play and a Massive Cover-up?
It wasn’t until 2007 that more information would come out concerning the sinking of the USS Scorpion.
Author and military historian Ed Offley did a deep dive into the events around the Scorpion. He gathered compelling evidence indicating that perhaps the Scorpion met its end due to Soviet actions.
Offley cited the remembrances of RM2 Mike Hannon, who worked in Norfolk at the Submarine Force Atlantic HQs (COMSUBLANT). His information was confirmed by Ken Larbes who also worked in the office at Norfolk in 2018.
Hannon processed messages from the submarines in the Atlantic, which had to check in every 24 hours with a coded message stating that all was well. When he had gone off duty on the night of May 22, 1968, the Scorpion hadn’t checked in. Hannon recalled that many times submarines were late reporting in for a variety of reasons, so Scorpion not reporting punctually didn’t immediately cause alarm.
Hannon’s office was normally staffed by a handful of Navy radiomen and a few officers. Nevertheless, when he entered the office on May 23, Hannon was shocked to find several admirals and a Marine Corps general inside the office. He had never seen any of them before and now they were talking among themselves in hushed tones.
Hannon told Offley that the Navy knew full-well that the Scorpion was lost, but pushed the narrative that the submarine would arrive in Norfolk on May 27 at 1300hrs, regardless.
“There were officers openly discussing the fact that they believed the Scorpion had been sunk,” Hannon said. He also said he had overheard the admirals saying that the Scorpion’s sinking had been tracked by the Navy’s top-secret Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), a network of underwater acoustic sensors used to monitor and track both submarines and surface vessels. The SOSUS hydrophones in the Atlantic “did hear the explosion,” Hannon said, but “a Soviet submarine was tracked leaving the area at a high rate of speed.”
Officially, the Navy maintains that no Soviet ships were within 200 miles of the Scorpion when she sank. However, the SOSUS sensors point to a very different scenario.
The Navy then reportedly destroyed much of the sound and communication data at SOSUS ground stations in the U.S. and Europe that documented torpedo sounds, evasion sounds from the Scorpion, an explosion, and eventually, the sounds of implosions as Scorpion plunged to the bottom.
Offley also conducted a telephone interview with former Vice Admiral Arnold Schade in 1983. The admiral admitted that the Navy knew that there was an issue with the Scorpion within hours of its sinking and not four days later as was officially reported.
Schade admitted that the Navy had been actively searching for the Scorpion for four days before they claimed that anything was wrong.
The Navy still periodically surveys the wreckage of the Scorpion to monitor the sub for radioactive leakage from her S5W nuclear reactor and the two ASTOR nuclear-armed torpedoes that are inside the wreckage.
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