USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
USS Scorpion, 22 August 1960, off New London, Connecticut
|United States of America|
|Ordered:||31 January 1957|
|Builder:||General Dynamics Electric Boat|
|Laid down:||20 August 1958|
|Launched:||29 December 1959|
|Commissioned:||29 July 1960|
|Struck:||30 June 1968|
|Fate:||Sank on 22 May 1968; cause of sinking unknown. All 99 on board killed.|
|Status:||Located on the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean,  in 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water, 740 km (400 nmi) southwest of the Azores,|
|Class and type:||Skipjack-class submarine|
|Length:||76.8 m (252 ft 0 in)|
|Beam:||9.7 m (31 ft 10 in)|
|Draft:||9.1 m (29 ft 10 in)|
|Complement:||8 officers, 75 men|
USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine of the United States Navy and the sixth vessel of the U.S. Navy to carry that name. Scorpion was lost on 22 May 1968, with 99 crewmen dying in the incident. USS Scorpion is one of two nuclear submarines the U.S. Navy has lost, the other being USS Thresher. It was one of four mysterious submarine disappearances in 1968, the others being the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, the French submarine Minerve and the Soviet submarine K-129.
- 1 Service
- 2 Disappearance: May 1968
- 3 Navy investigations
- 4 Theories about the loss
- 5 Books
- 6 Songs
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Scorpion's keel was laid down 20 August 1958 by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. She was launched 19 December 1959, sponsored by Mrs. Elizabeth S. Morrison, the daughter of the last commander of the World War II-era USS Scorpion (which was also lost with all hands, in 1944). Scorpion was commissioned 29 July 1960, Commander Norman B. Bessac in command. (See USS George Washington for info on how that sub had originally been laid down with the name and hull number, USS Scorpion SSN-589, intended to be an attack sub.)
Assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62, Scorpion departed New London, Connecticut, 24 August for a two-month European deployment. During that time, she participated in exercises with 6th Fleet units and NATO-member navies. After returning to New England in late October, she trained along the eastern seaboard until May 1961. On 9 August 1961, she returned to New London, moving to Norfolk, Virginia, a month later. In 1962, she earned a Navy Unit Commendation.
Norfolk was Scorpion's port for the remainder of her career, and she specialized in developing nuclear submarine warfare tactics. Varying roles from hunter to hunted, she participated in exercises along the Atlantic coast, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico operating areas. From June 1963 to May 1964, she interrupted operations for an overhaul at Charleston. She resumed duty in late spring, but was again interrupted from 4 August to 8 October for a transatlantic patrol. In the spring of 1965, she conducted a similar patrol in European waters.
During late winter, early spring, and autumn of 1966, she deployed for special operations. After completing those assignments, her commanding officer (CO) received a Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership, foresight, and professional skill. Other Scorpion officers and crewmen were also cited for meritorious achievement. Scorpion is reputed to have entered an inland Russian sea during a "Northern Run" in 1966, where it filmed a Soviet missile launch through its periscope before fleeing from Soviet Navy ships.
On 1 February 1967, Scorpion entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard for another extended overhaul. However, instead of a much-needed complete overhaul, she received only emergency repairs to get quickly back on duty. The preferred SUBSAFE program required increased submarine overhaul times, from nine months in length to 36 months. Intensive vetting of submarine component quality SUBSAFE was required, coupled with various improvements and intensified structural inspections — particularly, hull-welding inspections using ultrasonic testing — and reduced availability of critical parts like seawater piping. Cold War pressures prompted U.S. Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT) officers to hunt for ways to cut corners; the last overhaul cost only one-seventh of those given other nuclear submarines at the same time. This was the result of concerns about the "high percentage of time offline" for nuclear attack submarines, estimated at about 40 percent of total available duty time.
Scorpion's original "full overhaul" was reduced in scope; long-overdue SUBSAFE work, such as a new central valve control system, was not performed. Crucially, her emergency system was not corrected for the same problems that destroyed Thresher. While Charleston Naval Ship Yard claimed the Emergency Main Ballast Tank Blow (EMBT) system worked as-is, SUBLANT claimed it did not and their EMBT was "tagged out" or listed as unusable. Perceived problems with overhaul duration led to a delay on all SUBSAFE work in 1967.
In late October 1967, Scorpion started refresher training and weapons system acceptance tests, and was given a new commanding officer, Francis Slattery. Following type training out of Norfolk, Virginia, she got underway on 15 February 1968 for a Mediterranean Sea deployment. She operated with the 6th Fleet into May and then headed west for home. Scorpion suffered several mechanical malfunctions including a chronic problem with Freon leakage from refrigeration systems. An electrical fire occurred in an escape trunk when a water leak shorted out a shore power connection. (However, major steam and leakage problems are not uncommon on U.S. Navy or Royal Navy submarine deployments, even in the 21st Century.) There is no evidence that the Scorpion's speed was restricted in May 1968, although it was conservatively observing a depth limitation of 500 feet, due to the incomplete implementation of planned post-Thresher safety checks and modifications.
Departing the Mediterranean on 16 May, two men left Scorpion at Naval Station Rota in Spain, one for a family emergency (RM2 Eric Reid) and the other (IC1 Joseph Underwood) was dispatched for health reasons. Some U.S. ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) operated from the U.S. Naval base at Rota and it is speculated that USS Scorpion provided noise cover for USS John C. Calhoun (SSBN-630) as they both ran out to the Atlantic and that, as usual, there were Soviet fast nuclear attack submarines (SSN) attempting to detect and follow the U.S. SSBN; in this case two fast 32 knot Soviet November-class hunter-killer subs. Scorpion was then detailed to observe Soviet naval activities in the Atlantic in the vicinity of the Azores. An Echo II class submarine was operating with this Soviet task force, as well as a Russian guided missile destroyer. Having observed and listened to the Soviet units, Scorpion prepared to head back to Naval Station Norfolk.
Disappearance: May 1968
For an unusually long period of time, beginning shortly before midnight on 20 May and ending after midnight 21 May, Scorpion attempted to send radio traffic to Naval Station Rota, but was only able to reach a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, which forwarded Scorpion's messages to ComSubLant. Lt John Roberts was handed Commander Slattery's last message, that he was closing on the Soviet submarine and research group, running at a steady 15 knots at 350 feet "to begin surveillance of the Soviets". Six days later the media reported she was overdue at Norfolk.
The Navy suspected possible failure and launched a public search. Scorpion and her crew were declared "presumed lost" on 5 June. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June. The public search continued with a team of mathematical consultants led by Dr. John Piña Craven, the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy's Special Projects Division. They employed the methods of Bayesian search theory, initially developed during the search for a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain, in January 1966 in the Palomares B-52 crash.
Some reports indicate that a large and secret search was launched three days before Scorpion was expected back from patrol. This, combined with other declassified information, leads to speculation that the U.S. Navy knew of the Scorpion's destruction before the public search was launched.
At the end of October 1968, the Navy's oceanographic research ship, Mizar, located sections of the hull of Scorpion on the seabed, about 740 km (400 nmi; 460 mi) southwest of the Azores, under more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water. This was after the Navy had released sound tapes from its underwater "SOSUS" listening system, which contained the sounds of the destruction of Scorpion. The court of inquiry was subsequently reconvened and other vessels, including the bathyscaphe Trieste II, were dispatched to the scene, collecting many pictures and other data.
Although Craven received much credit for locating the wreckage of Scorpion, Gordon Hamilton, an acoustics expert who pioneered the use of hydroacoustics to pinpoint Polaris missile splashdown locations, was instrumental in defining a compact "search box" wherein the wreck was ultimately found. Hamilton had established a listening station in the Canary Islands that obtained a clear signal of what some scientists believe was the noise of the vessel's pressure hull imploding as she passed crush depth. A Naval Research Laboratory scientist named Chester "Buck" Buchanan, using a towed camera sled of his own design aboard Mizar, finally located Scorpion. The towed camera sled, which was fabricated by J. L. "Jac" Hamm of Naval Research Laboratory's Engineering Services Division, is housed in the National Museum of the United States Navy. Buchanan had located the wrecked hull of Thresher in 1964 using this technique.
It would appear that the bow of Scorpion skidded upon impact with the globigerina ooze on the sea floor, digging a sizable trench. The sail had been dislodged as the hull of the operations compartment upon which it perched disintegrated, and was lying on its port side. One of Scorpion's running lights was in the open position, as if it had been on the surface at the time of the mishap, although it may have been left in the open position during the vessel's recent nighttime stop at Rota. One Trieste II pilot who dived on Scorpion said the shock of the implosion may have knocked the light into the open position.
The secondary Navy investigation — using extensive photographic, video, and eyewitness inspections of the wreckage in 1969 — offered the opinion that Scorpion's hull was crushed by implosion forces as it sank below crush depth. The Structural Analysis Group, which included Naval Ship Systems Command's Submarine Structures director Peter Palermo, plainly saw that the torpedo room was intact, though it had been pinched from the operations compartment by massive hydrostatic pressure. The operations compartment was largely obliterated by sea pressure and the engine room had telescoped 50 ft (15 m) forward into the hull by collapse pressure, when the cone-to-cylinder transition junction failed between the auxiliary machine space and the engine room.
The only damage to the torpedo room compartment appeared to be a hatch missing from the forward escape trunk. Palermo pointed out that this would have occurred when water pressure entered the torpedo room at the moment of implosion.
Court of Inquiry report — 1968
Shortly after her sinking, the Navy assembled a Court of Inquiry to investigate the incident and to publish a report about the likely causes for the sinking. The court was presided over by Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, who had presided over the inquiry into the loss of Thresher. The panel's conclusions, first printed in 1968, were largely classified. At the time, the Navy quoted frequently from a portion of the 1968 report that said no one is likely ever to "conclusively" determine the cause of the loss.
The Clinton administration declassified most of this report in 1993, and it was then that the public first learned that the panel considered that a possible cause was the malfunction of one of Scorpion's own torpedoes.
An extensive, year-long analysis of Gordon Hamilton's hydroacoustic signals of the submarine's demise was conducted by Robert Price, Ermine (Meri) Christian and Peter Sherman of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL). All three physicists were experts on undersea explosions, their sound signatures, and their destructive effects. Price was also an open critic of Craven. Their opinion, presented to the Navy as part of the Phase II investigation, was that the death noises likely occurred at 2,000 ft (610 m) when the hull failed. Fragments then continued in a free fall for another 9,000 ft (2,700 m). This appears to differ from conclusions drawn by Craven and Hamilton, who pursued an independent set of experiments as part of the same Phase II probe, demonstrating that alternate interpretations of the hydroacoustic signals were possibly based on the submarine's depth at the time it was stricken and other operational conditions.
The Structural Analysis Group (SAG) concluded that an explosive event was unlikely, and was highly dismissive of Craven and Hamilton's tests. The SAG physicists argued that the absence of a bubble pulse, which invariably occurs in an underwater explosion, is absolute evidence that no torpedo explosion occurred outside or inside the hull. Craven had attempted to prove Scorpion's hull could "swallow" the bubble pulse of a torpedo detonation by having Gordon Hamilton detonate small charges next to steel, air-filled containers.
The 1970 Naval Ordnance Laboratory "Letter", the acoustics study of Scorpion destruction sounds by Price and Christian, was a supporting study within the SAG report. In its conclusions and recommendations section, the NOL acoustic study states: "The first SCORPION acoustic event was not caused by a large explosion, either internal or external to the hull. The probable depth of occurrence ... and the spectral characteristics of the signal support this. In fact, it is unlikely that any of the Scorpion acoustic events were caused by explosions."
The Naval Ordnance Laboratory based much of its findings on an extensive acoustic analysis of the torpedoing and sinking of Sterlet in the Pacific in early 1969, seeking to compare its acoustic signals to those generated by Scorpion. Price found the Navy's scheduled sinking of Sterlet fortuitous. Nonetheless, Sterlet was a small World War II-era Diesel-electric submarine of a vastly different design and construction than Scorpion with regard to its pressure hull and other characteristics. Its sinking resulted in three identifiable acoustic signals as compared to Scorpion's 15. The mathematical calculations Price used remain unknown to the public. In addition, the NOL based its findings on the data recorded by the Canary Island hydro acoustic facility, and that data may have been "cleansed" of the initial (bubble pulse) signature from an external torpedo explosion before release.
The NOL acoustics study provided a highly debated explanation as to how Scorpion may have reached its crush depth by anecdotally referring to the near-loss incident of the Diesel submarine Chopper in January 1969, when a power problem caused her to sink almost to crush depth, before surfacing.
In the same May 2003 N77 letter excerpted above (see 1. with regard to the Navy's view of a forward explosion), however, the following statement appears to dismiss the NOL theory, and again unequivocally point the finger toward an explosion forward:
The Navy has extensively investigated the loss of Scorpion through the initial court of inquiry and the 1970 and 1987 reviews by the Structural Analysis Group. Nothing in those investigations caused the Navy to change its conclusion that an unexplained catastrophic event occurred.
Today, the wreck of Scorpion is reported to be resting on a sandy seabed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in approximately 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water. The site is reported to be approximately 400 nmi (740 km) southwest of the Azores, on the eastern edge of the Sargasso Sea. The actual position is . The U.S. Navy has acknowledged that it periodically visits the site to conduct testing for the release of nuclear materials from the nuclear reactor or the two nuclear weapons aboard her, and to determine whether the wreckage has been disturbed. The Navy has not released any information about the status of the wreckage, except for a few photographs taken of the wreckage in 1968, and again in 1985 by deep water submersibles.
The Navy has also released information about the nuclear testing performed in and around the Scorpion site. The Navy reports no significant release of nuclear material from the sub. The 1985 photos were taken by a team of oceanographers working for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
The U.S. Navy has periodically monitored the environmental conditions of the site since the sinking and has reported the results in an annual public report on environmental monitoring for U.S. nuclear-powered ships and boats. The reports provide specifics on the environmental sampling of sediment, water, and marine life that is done to ascertain whether the submarine has significantly affected the deep-ocean environment. The reports also explain the methodology for conducting this deep sea monitoring from both surface vessels and submersibles. The monitoring data confirm that there has been no significant effect on the environment. The nuclear fuel aboard the submarine remains intact and no uranium in excess of levels expected from the fallout from past atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons has been detected by the Navy's inspections. In addition, Scorpion carried two nuclear-tipped Mark 45 anti-submarine torpedoes (ASTOR) when she was lost. The warheads of these torpedoes are part of the environmental concern. The most likely scenario is that the plutonium and uranium cores of these weapons corroded to a heavy, insoluble material soon after the sinking, and they remain at or close to their original location inside the torpedo room of the boat. If the corroded materials were released outside the submarine, their density and insolubility would cause them to settle into the sediment.
Call for inquiry: 2012
In November 2012, the U.S. Submarine Veterans, an organization with over 13,800 members, asked the U.S. Navy to reopen the investigation on the sinking of USS Scorpion. The Navy denied approval to re-open the investigation of the cause. A private group including family members of the lost submariners stated they would investigate the wreckage on their own since it was located in international waters.
Theories about the loss
Accidental activation of torpedo
The U.S. Navy's court of inquiry listed as one possibility the inadvertent activation of a battery-powered Mark 37 torpedo by stray voltage. This acoustic homing torpedo, in a fully ready condition and without a propeller guard, is believed by some to have started running within the tube. Released from the tube, the torpedo then somehow became fully armed and successfully engaged its nearest target: Scorpion.
Explosion of torpedo
A later theory was that a torpedo may have exploded in the tube, caused by an uncontrollable fire in the torpedo room. The book Blind Man's Bluff documents findings and investigation by Dr. John Craven, who surmised that a likely cause could have been the overheating of a faulty battery. (Dr. Craven later stated in the book Silent Steel that he was misquoted.) The Mark 46 silver-zinc battery used in the Mark 37 torpedo had a tendency to overheat, and in extreme cases could cause a fire that was strong enough to cause a low-order detonation of the warhead. If such a detonation had occurred, it might have opened the boat's large torpedo-loading hatch and caused Scorpion to flood and sink. However, while Mark 46 batteries have been known to generate so much heat that the torpedo casings blistered, none is known to have damaged a boat or caused an explosion.
Dr. John Craven mentions that he did not work on the Mark 37 torpedo's propulsion system and only became aware of the possibility of a battery explosion twenty years after the loss of Scorpion. In his book The Silent War, he recounts running a simulation with former Scorpion executive officer Lieutenant Commander Robert Fountain, Jr. commanding the simulator. Fountain was told he was headed home at 18 knots (33 km/h) at a depth of his choice, then there was an alarm of "hot running torpedo". Fountain responded with "right full rudder", a quick turn that would activate a safety device and keep the torpedo from arming. Then an explosion in the torpedo room was introduced into the simulation. Fountain ordered emergency procedures to surface the boat, stated Dr. Craven, "but instead she continued to plummet, reaching collapse depth and imploding in ninety seconds — one second shy of the acoustic record of the actual event."
Craven, who was the Chief Scientist of the Navy's Special Projects Office, which had management responsibility for the design, development, construction, operational test and evaluation and maintenance of the UGM-27 Polaris Fleet Missile System had long believed Scorpion was struck by her own torpedo, but revised his views during the mid-1990s when engineers testing Mark 46 batteries at Keyport, Washington, said the batteries leaked electrolyte and sometimes burned while outside their casings during lifetime shock, heat and cold testing. Although the battery manufacturer was accused of building bad batteries, it was later able to successfully prove its batteries were no more prone to failure than those made by other manufacturers.
Malfunction of trash disposal unit
During the 1968 inquiry, Vice Admiral Arnold F. Shade testified that he believed that a malfunction of the trash disposal unit (TDU) was the trigger for the disaster. Shade theorized that the sub was flooded when the TDU was operated at periscope depth and that other subsequent failures of material or personnel while dealing with the TDU-induced flooding led to the sub's demise.
The book All Hands Down by Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler (Simon and Schuster, 2008) concludes that the Scorpion was destroyed while en route to gather intelligence on a Soviet naval group conducting operations in the Atlantic. While the mission for which the submarine was diverted from her original course back to her home port is a matter of record, its details remain classified.
Ed Offley's book Scorpion Down promotes a hypothesis suggesting that the Scorpion was sunk by a Soviet submarine during a standoff that started days before 22 May. Offley also cites that it occurred roughly at the time of the submarine's intelligence-gathering mission, from which she was redirected from her original heading for home; according to Offley, the flotilla had just been harassed by another U.S. submarine, the USS Haddo. W. Craig Reed, who served on the Haddo a decade later as a Petty Officer and diver, and whose father was a U.S. Navy officer responsible in significant ESM advances in sub detection in the early 1960s, recounted similar scenarios to Offley in Red November, over Soviet torpedoing of the Scorpion and details his own service on USS Haddo in 1977 running inside Soviet waters off Vladivostok, when torpedoes appeared to have been fired at the Haddo, but were immediately put down by the Captain as a Soviet torpedo exercise.
Both All Hands Down and Scorpion Down point toward involvement by the KGB spy-ring (the so-called Walker Spy-Ring) led by John Anthony Walker, Jr. in the heart of the U.S. Navy's communications, stating that it could have known that the Scorpion was coming to investigate the Soviet flotilla. According to this theory, both navies agreed to hide the truth about both incidents. Several U.S. Navy SSNs collided with Soviet Echo subs in Russian and Scottish waters in this period. Commander Roger Lane Nott, Royal Navy commander of the SSN HMS Splendid during the 1982 Falklands War, stated that in 1972, during his service as a junior navigation officer on the SSN HMS Conqueror, a Soviet submarine entered the Scottish Clyde channel and Conqueror was given the order to 'chase it out'. Having realized it was being pursued, "a very aggressive Soviet Captain turned his submarine and drove it straight at HMS Conqueror. It had been an extremely close call."
The Soviet submarine force was as professional as the British and the Americans. According to a translated article from Pravda, Moscow never issued a 'fire' command during the cold war. This is disputed by Royal Navy officers, "there had been other occasions when harassed Russians had fired torpedoes to scare off trails." The Navy court of inquiry official statement was that there was not another ship within 200 miles of Scorpion at the time of the sinking.
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The results of the U.S. Navy's various investigations into the loss of Scorpion are inconclusive. While the court of inquiry never endorsed Dr. Craven's torpedo theory regarding the loss of Scorpion, its "findings of facts" released in 1993 carried Craven's torpedo theory at the head of a list of possible causes of Scorpion's loss.
The Navy failed to inform the public that both the U.S. Submarine Force Atlantic and the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Fleet opposed Craven's torpedo theory as unfounded and also failed to disclose that a second technical investigation into the loss of Scorpion completed in 1970 actually repudiated claims that a torpedo detonation played a role in the loss of Scorpion. Despite the second technical investigation, the Navy continues to attach strong credence to Craven's view that an explosion destroyed her, as is evidenced by this excerpt from a May 2003 letter from the Navy's Submarine Warfare Division (N77), specifically written by Admiral P.F. Sullivan on behalf of Vice Admiral John J. Grossenbacher (Commander Naval Submarine Forces), the Naval Sea Systems Command, Naval Reactors, and others in the U.S. Navy regarding its view of alternative sinking theories: The official U.S. Navy Reports and Commission findings into the loss of the Scorpion, suggest strongly that the Scorpion was lost to its own Mk 37 torpedoes. K. Sewell and J Preslier's argument in All Hands Down that the submarine must have been sunk by Soviet torpedoes can be rejected. Their assertion that the Scorpion had a speed of 45 knots, cf the Mk 37 torpedo speed of 24 knot  has no credence. It is unlikely Soviet a/s torpedoes had any better performance than the MK 37 in 1968 and no U.S. Navy/Soviet sub other than the Russian Alfa has ever been reported as have a confirmed speed of more than 33 knots. There is no possibility a Skipjack could have exceeded 35 knots in good condition and the Scorpion carried 10 Mk 37 Mod 1 wire guided a/s torpedoes, set to run at 26 knots to targets up to 6 miles, as well as the Mk 37 unarmed training variant and Mk 14 fast torpedoes for surface targets. The photographic evidence suggests that the Scorpion's prop has been taken off by the Mk 37 which is exactly the way the Mk 37 and related Mk 46 attack submarines; they home on the prop shaft and take it off with a small explosion. The issue is how the Mk 37 fired. There is evidence that the Scorpion was running in the Black Sea in internal Soviet waters and it is certain its crew included a number of officers and ratings who were Russian speakers translators. Had Scorpion detected evidence that the Russians were intercepting U.S. Navy communications it is unlikely to have sent that message by closed/open channels until it reached Norfolk. The fast Skipjack class were capable of 30 to 33 knots and were unlikely to have been intercepted by a 22-knot Echo submarine and speculation about the Scorpion's condition may well be just another official attempt to confuse the issue of strategic significance in 1968 at possibly the most dangerous point of the Cold War. The leading U.S. Admirals and defense advisers may have also suppressed issues of potential espionage, and drug use and disorder on U.S. Navy surface warships and submarines in the Vietnam war period. Another possibility is that Captain Slattery may have issued orders to fire the Mk 37 under stress having heard a false echo of a sonar reader after possibly being harassed and even engaged earlier in the long deployment by Soviet submarines. U.S. Navy and RAN destroyers chased false echo sonar indications several times during the Vietnam war, n.b. USS Turner Joy and USS Maddox in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. Older RN frigates constantly heard false torpedo tracks during the Falklands War. On the day HMS Sheffield was sunk, HMS Yarmouth communicated it was under torpedo attack on nine separate incidents during the day, using the non-Doppler 170/177 passive/active pulse.
The first cataclysmic event was of such magnitude that the only possible conclusion is that a cataclysmic event (explosion) occurred resulting in uncontrolled flooding (most likely the forward compartments).
In his book Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy (2014), and in particular in a section titled "The Danger of Culture", retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Dave Oliver offers a convincing flow of logic that it was quite likely a hydrogen explosion, either during or immediately following a battery charge, that destroyed USS Scorpion and killed her crew.
In the mid-1960s, diesel boat operational styles still permeated the U.S. submarine force, and in particular the setting of "Condition Baker" (the closing of all watertight hatches) upon proceeding to periscope depth. Condition Baker was a hard lesson-learned during diesel boat days, as the crew frequently went to periscope depth to charge the battery with the diesel engines, and these excursions commonly took place near shipping lanes due to the submarines' largely anti-surface ship mission. The setting of watertight conditions prior to proceeding to periscope depth, along with design changes that permitted one compartment to flood without losing the boat, essentially increased the survivability of diesel boats during collisions. Notably, diesel boats could only charge their batteries while on the surface or at periscope depth and were running their diesel engines, which ventilated the entire ship, including the battery well.
As Oliver describes from a personal incident he was central to on board USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656), the setting of Condition Baker was still a standard, inherited practice on nuclear-powered submarines, even though compared to diesel boats they did not spend nearly as much time near shipping lanes, and also rarely charged their batteries — commonly monthly as opposed to several times daily.
In the underway submerged incident aboard Carver, Condition Baker was once inadvertently set — essentially stopping air flow to the battery well — while a battery charge was ongoing and nearly complete. Oliver was on watch as Engineering Officer of the Watch, and, while he clearly lived to tell the tale, witnessed the hydrogen readings in the battery well exceed 7 percent, even despite having stopped the battery charge upon setting Condition Baker. The lower limit at which hydrogen forms a combustible mixture with air is 4 percent.
While Carver, due to the above incident, stopped setting Condition Baker during preparations for proceeding to periscope depth, this was not a fleet-wide change. Two years after the Carver incident, Scorpion was lost. Per above, the Navy's findings on the loss of Scorpion were inconclusive, however it was established with some confidence that the boat was lost due to an explosion in the forward compartment — where the ship's battery well is located — and while at or near periscope depth.
In his book, Rear Admiral Oliver states: "I always felt that the investigators closed their eyes to the most likely cause because they did not want to acknowledge their own involvement in this tragedy. I had forwarded my letter about Condition Baker via some of the same people responsible for the Scorpion investigation."
Stepping back from the loss of Scorpion, Oliver goes on to comment on the entire set of circumstances regarding the wide-ranging effects of shifting from diesel propulsion to nuclear power:
Even though it was wrenching and painful to personal and professional relationships, elimination of the Diesel culture was a necessary and farsighted tactic in Rickover's overall strategy to remake the Navy. I first served at sea on board a Diesel submarine and twenty years later commanded the last squadron of Diesel submarines remaining in the Navy. It is unpopular to say, but remains nevertheless true, that a Diesel submarine is a much less complex platform to maintain. A Diesel submarine demanded boldness but much, much less work to keep operating. In addition, a less-capable Diesel submarine provides the citizens of the United States significantly less security than a nuclear submarine does.
The old guard didn't want to hear this, but I was uniquely positioned to know it to be so. I am convinced that despite the unrelenting personal attacks on him, without Rickover insisting upon dramatic change, many more of us would have died while building the nuclear-submarine force. As Rickover commented in testifying about the Thresher disaster, "Our problem is in the submarine staffs where nearly all of the people are nonnuclear people, some of whom have a deep resentment against the nuclear navy because it has put them out of business."
Released in 2006, Stephen Johnson’s Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion provides a meticulously detailed listing of every mechanical problem on the submarine cited by the Navy or mentioned in crewmen's letters, but ultimately fails to provide any explanation for Scorpion's sinking. Johnson, a critic of Dr. Craven, agrees with Navy scientists who, in 1970, gave their opinion that the sub’s hull was smashed by implosion damage and not a torpedo blast, a finding they support with their interpretation of certain evidence about the condition of the hull and hydroacoustic recordings of the disaster. Silent Steel portrays an overworked submarine denied needed maintenance and manned by a demoralized crew, a depiction contradicted by many former Scorpion enlisted men and officers, and based in part on the testimony of sailors who had applied for transfer from the boat. Johnson also enumerates many of the Navy-wide submarine maintenance issues that denied Scorpion an overhaul and overdue safety improvements, though the Navy would maintain that virtually all necessary and vital improvements and repairs were made on the submarine before her final deployment. The Submarine Safety Program, initiated following the 1963 loss of Thresher, delayed new submarine construction and sub overhauls by monopolizing skilled workers and critical spare parts. Fearing that a normal overhaul and safety work during 1967 might sideline Scorpion for three years, it was selected for a brief experimental overhaul, but this was canceled due to a shortage of workers. Scorpion sank eight months after leaving Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Blind Man's Bluff
In 1999, two New York Times reporters published Blind Man's Bluff, a book providing a rare look into the world of nuclear submarines and espionage during the Cold War. One lengthy chapter deals extensively with Scorpion and her loss. The book reports that concerns about the Mk 37 conventional torpedo carried aboard Scorpion were raised in 1967 and 1968, before Scorpion left Norfolk for her last mission. The concerns focused on the battery that powered the torpedoes. The battery had a thin metal-foil barrier separating two types of volatile chemicals. When mixed slowly and in a controlled fashion, the chemicals generated heat and electricity, powering the motor that pushed the torpedo through the water. But vibrations normally experienced on a nuclear submarine were found to cause the thin foil barrier to break down, allowing the chemicals to interact intensely. This interaction generated excessive heat which, in tests, could readily have caused an inadvertent torpedo explosion. The authors of Blind Man's Bluff were careful to say they could not point to this as the cause of Scorpion's loss — only that it was a possible cause and that it was consistent with other data indicating an explosion preceded the sinking of Scorpion. Notably, the authors cite examples of hot running torpedo incidents that had occurred on other U.S. submarines prior to the loss of Scorpion. (Although none of those incidents caused the loss of a submarine.)
Red Star Rogue
In 2005, the book Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S., by former American submariner Kenneth Sewell in collaboration with journalist Clint Richmond, claimed K-129 was sunk 300 nmi (560 km) northwest of Oahu on 7 March 1968 while attempting to launch her three ballistic missiles, in a rogue attempt to destroy Pearl Harbor.
Sewell claims that the sinking of Scorpion was caused by a retaliatory strike for the sinking of K-129, which the Soviets had attributed to a collision with USS Swordfish.
In 1995, when Peter Huchthausen began work on a book about the Soviet underwater fleet, he interviewed former Soviet Admiral Victor Dygalo, who stated that the true history of K-129 has not been revealed because of the informal agreement between the two countries' senior naval commands. The purpose of that secrecy, he alleged, is to stop any further research into the losses of either Scorpion or K-129. Huchthausen states that Dygalo told him to "forget about ever resolving these sad issues for the surviving families."
All Hands Down
All Hands Down was written by Kenneth R. Sewell, a nuclear engineer and a U.S. Navy veteran who spent five years aboard Parche, a fast attack submarine. It attempts to link the sinking of Scorpion with the Pueblo incident, the John Anthony Walker spy ring, and Cold War Soviet aggression, The thesis of this book is that action off the Canary Islands was the direct cause of the sinking. This book purports that this is supported by motives in the Soviet Navy following the sinking of K-129, which caused the Russian Navy to trap a U.S. submarine. The bait for this trap would be strange military operations and furtive naval maneuvers in the Atlantic, accompanied by countermeasures that would only seemingly be defeated by the deployment of a nuclear submarine. With information from spying by Walker, the position and arrival time of Scorpion was known by the Russians, and its sinking followed the springing of the trap. The book claims Scorpion was sunk by a Ka-25 helicopter equipped with anti-submarine torpedoes, which took off from one ship and landed on a different one. This was so that no one, other than the aircrew of the helicopter would notice one torpedo missing.
The book then purports a cover-up by American and Soviet officials, to avoid public outrage and an increase in Cold War tension.
Ed Offley, a reporter on military affairs, has closely followed developments in information concerning the sinking of the Scorpion. His most recent article on the subject is "Buried at Sea" published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Military History. This article summarizes the facts in the case as presented in his 2007 book Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion. In the book Offley, gathering decades of his own research, hypothesizes that Scorpion was sunk by the Soviets, possibly in retaliation for the loss of K-129 earlier that year. The book paints a picture of increasing Soviet anger at U.S. Navy provocations — specifically, close-in monitoring of Soviet naval operations by almost every U.S. nuclear submarine. At approximately the same time, the Soviet intelligence community scored a huge boon in receiving the mechanical cryptologic devices from Pueblo. These machines, combined with daily crypto keys from the John Anthony Walker spy ring, likely allowed the Soviets to monitor in real time U.S. Navy ship dispositions and communications. Offley contends that the Scorpion was tracked by several Soviet Navy assets from the Mediterranean to its final operational area south of the Azores, where it was then sunk by a Soviet torpedo. Ed Offley claims the US Navy was aware of the loss of the Scorpion on 21 May 1968 and engaged in a massive coverup, within days destroying much of the sound and communication data at SOSUS ground stations in the US and Europe, and delaying any public indication of the loss until, its scheduled arrival at Norfolk, Virginia 5 days later, partly to disguise the fact the US nuclear subs were in constant or frequent communication with US Naval Communication bases and that the subsequent search for the Scorpion was a five months deception to pretend they had no idea of the location of the hull. The oral testimony relied upon by Offley are recountings of surviving SOSUS recording documenting torpedo sounds, evasion sounds, an explosion, and eventually the sounds of implosions as Scorpion plunged past crush depth. The Russian newspaper, Pravda and RT have attempted to discount, Ed Offley as a provincial, Seattle, journalist and professor outside and rejected by the inner Washington, NY loop of the US media.
Phil Ochs released a song on the album Rehearsals for Retirement (1969) titled "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns".
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- Rebutting Conjecture SCORPION Reversed Course Just Before Being Lost Bruce Rule — 22 September 2013
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to USS Scorpion (SSN-589).|
- USS Scorpion SSN-589
- Memorial for 99 crew
- Loss of USS Scorpion
- Thresher-Scorpion Memorial
- Photo gallery of Scorpion at NavSource.org
- World War II National Submarine Memorial — West
- World War II National Submarine Memorial — East
- U.S. Navy photographs of the wreck in 1968
- U.S. Navy photographs taken since 1968
- On Eternal Patrol: USS Scorpion