1968 was a tragic and peculiar year for the world’s navies, with the loss of four submarines bringing tragedy to Russia, Israel, France and the United States. The year began with the loss of the Israeli submarine the INS Dakar on January 25 and just two days later the French submarine Minerve was lost. The wreck of the Dakar was found in 1999 located between the islands of Cyprus and Crete, the Minerve was not discovered until 2019, laying 28 miles south of Toulon. There was no link between their sinking. On March 8, the Soviet Union lost K-129. While no official reason was given, the unofficial position of the Soviet Navy was that the boat had been struck by the American submarine USS Swordfish. The Swordfish had received emergency repairs for a bent periscope soon after the loss of the K-129.
In May, this tragedy would come to the United States with the mysterious disappearance of the USS Scorpion. While the position of the US Navy is that the cause of the sinking remains unknown, favouring an accident, some contend that a cover-up ensured that the real reasons behind the loss of 99 crewmen remain hidden.
With its keel laid down in 1958, the USS Scorpion was launched in December of the following year and commissioned on July 29, 1960, under the command of Commander Norman B. Bessac. The boat was a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine, named in honour of the leading USS Skipjack. They were officially the fastest submarines in the US Navy before the Los Angeles-class, even though full details of their abilities remained classified. 251 feet long, displacing 2,880 long tons light and armed with 8 torpedos, 2 of them nuclear, the USS Scorpion was an impressive display of American Cold War military power.
The Scorpion had been involved in the kinds of operations you might expect from a Cold War submarine. Based out of Norfolk, Virginia, she had taken part in NATO training exercises where she specialised in developing nuclear warfare tactics, acting as both hunter and hunted. The boat is even reported to have been involved in a clandestine operation into Russian waters to film a Soviet missile launch in 1966, expertly fleeing from the pursuing Russians. In October of 1967, Scorpion was given a new commander, Francis Slattery.
Slattery was the youngest commander of a nuclear-powered submarine in the US Navy, being aged just 36. He had already served on several submarines, including the USS Daly and the USS Tunny. Following his attendance at Nuclear Power School in 1959, he transferred to working aboard nuclear-powered submarines and in other related posts. He was promoted to commander before taking charge of the Scorpion.
Despite the submarine fleet’s obvious importance to US military strength, US Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT) were needing to cut corners, the upkeep of the fleet being expensive during a time when the international armaments race put pressures on services. A 1967 overhaul of the Scorpion cost one-seventh of the usual cost and crucial overhauls were not undertaken. On July 20, worried about taking the boat out of service for three years at a time of high tension, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral David Lamar McDonald signed off on deferring work. The Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) had deemed these repairs necessary since the 1963 destruction of the USS Thresher and the loss of her 129 crewmen. Alarmingly, this included work on issues that had led to that loss. By 1968, Scorpion was suffering from several malfunctions, including leaks from refrigeration systems and an electrical fire following a water leak. Incomplete implementation of the SUBSAFE safety checks meant she was limited to a depth of 500 feet.
Scorpion was sent to observe Russian activity in the Azores, with the Soviets having both a guided-missile destroyer and an Echo II-class submarine as part of a task force. Beginning on the night of May 20, the submarine attempted to send signals to US Naval base Rota, a Spanish-American base located in Rota, Cádiz. These signals were noted for their unusual length, ending at midnight on May 21. They never made it to Rota, instead being picked up at a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, who subsequently send them to Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic (COMSUBLANT). The messages stated that the boat was closing on the Soviet task force and running steady. It would be the last anyone ever heard from the USS Scorpion.
Six days after the Scorpion’s last communication, the US media reported that the boat was overdue returning to port in Norfolk, with some reports indicating that an extensive and secret search had already begun three days before the news. These reports, alongside other more recently declassified information, has led to speculation that the Navy already believed something was tragically wrong before the public search following the media reports. The search for the vessel brought no findings, and on June 5, 1968, the USS Scorpion was declared to be lost, being struck from the Naval Vessel Register on June 30.
The search continued, however, and in October USNS Mizar, the Navy’s oceanographic research ship, finally found the USS Scorpion laying on the seabed around 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores. Other vessels were quickly dispatched to the scene to investigate.
The boat was laying under 9,800 feet of water and had dug a sizeable trench along the seabed, seemingly skidding as it hit bottom. The vessel was on its port side, and one of the running lights was in the open position, indicative that it had initially been on the surface when calamity had taken hold. Equally, the force of an explosion may have knocked the light open. Naval investigations suggested the boat had suffered hull implosion, being crushed as it sank to the depths, breaking the submarine in two. The operations compartment had been obliterated. The engine room, meanwhile, had been pushed 50 ft forward into the hull. The torpedo room had been pinched by the pressure, all be it remaining mostly intact.
A court of inquiry sat for 11 weeks and interviewed 90 people. After analysing the available evidence, it found that “the certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion cannot be ascertained from evidence now available,” yet emphasised that there was no evidence of “foul play or sabotage.” Secretly the Navy had ascertained that the “most probable” cause of the disaster was that the Scorpion had been destroyed by one of her own torpedos.
The confidential findings suggested that the battery of one of the USS Scorpion’s non-nuclear torpedos activated. Unable to shut it down, the crew jettisoned the explosive and, seeking its nearest target, it hit the Scorpion. Holed and flooding, the boat went down nose-first. Unable to control the flooding, the Scorpion sank and imploded at crush depth. The secret findings ruled out collision, sabotage and structural failure and reported that no enemy ships, submarines or aircraft were known to be within 200 miles of the US Navy boat. Despite the sub being limited in its diving depth through the incomplete implementation of the SUBSAFE checks, the Court of Inquiry ascertained that the condition of the submarine was “excellent.”
In 1999, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage alleged that concerns about the Mk37 Torpedo had been raised in both 1967 and 1968 before the sinking, with worry focusing on the battery where only a thin metal-foil barrier separated two highly volatile chemicals. Any breaking of this barrier could lead to disaster. Alarmingly, the regular vibrations that are experienced on a nuclear submarine would lead to such a breakdown.
However, the secrecy surrounding the findings led to accusations of a “cover-up” of the real causes of the disaster. Many believe that the failings of the Navy to maintain the submarine fleet or an encounter with a hostile Russian submarine was really behind the sinking.
Dan Rogers, an electrician’s mate who served on the submarine for a year, said that he doubted the findings. Rogers requested a transfer over the condition of the Scorpion after it was made to carry out manoeuvres with “leaking valves, faulty safety systems, a malfunctioning hydraulic system and broken, worn-out equipment.”
“I didn’t know it was going to sink, but I was absolutely uptight after having been on there and seeing the things I had seen. I was just unable to deal with going to sea again on the Scorpion.”
The 2006 book Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion concurs with Roger’s assessment of the state of the Scorpion, claiming that the boat was in poor condition and was manned by an overworked and demoralised crew. The author Stephen Johnson states that the US Navy’s desire to keep up the speed of production and maintenance during the high-pressure days of the Cold War led to SUBSAFE checks being frequently ignored, the checks delaying construction and sub overhauls. The full work was likely to have sidelined Scorpion for three years.
While a torpedo accident was the Navy’s favoured finding, other hypotheses include a hydrogen explosion during a battery charge, a malfunction of a trash disposal unit and, of course, an attack by a Soviet submarine or ship.
The modern resumption of the Cold War against Vladimir Putin’s Russia has led to a plethora of new books highlighting Russian involvement in all manner of subversive activity, including historical ones. While there was talk at the time of the Scorpion sinking that the Soviets were involved, it wasn’t until more recent times that these theories actually found favour following the publication of two books by former American submariner Kenneth Sewell, Red Star Rogue in 2005 and All Hands Down in 2008. Sewell’s books would be joined by others such as military affairs expert Ed Offley’s 2007 book Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion.
Kenneth Sewell hypotheses that the sinking of the Scorpion was in retaliation for the sinking of the Soviet submarine K-129 which Russia had blamed on a collision with the USS Swordfish in March of 1968, two months before the sinking of the USS Scorpion. Sewell believes that the real reason for the destruction of the K-129 was that the submarine had gone rogue was intent on launching a nuclear strike on Pearl Harbour. Failsafe systems aboard the boat detected the unauthorised command to fire and detonated two catastrophic explosions. Why Russia would wish to take revenge if they had been responsible for the sinking of the K-129 is not satisfactorily explained.
However, working on a book in 1995, Captain Peter Huchthausen, a retired Navy Captain and former naval attaché in Moscow, says he has proof that Russia was involved. He claims that in 1987 he spoke with Admiral Peter Navojtsev who indicated that there had been a cover-up, saying “you will learn that there were some matters that both nations have agreed to not discuss, and one of these is the reasons we lost K-129.” Hutchinson also states that in an interview with Russian Navy Admiral Victor Dygalo, Dygalo made it clear that what happened to the USS Scorpion and K-129 had been mutually agreed to be covered up by the US and Soviet governments.
Sewell states in his second book that the Soviet Union had deliberately ensnared the Scorpion by performing the manoeuvres that it had been sent to investigate. He contends that the task force at the Azores was a smokescreen, the Soviets seeking to ensure that the US Navy would send a nuclear-powered submarine to investigate. Through the information provided by the spy John Anthony Walker Jr., the position of the Scorpion was easily known to the Russians.
Walker was a chief warrant officer and communications specialist serving in the US Navy who spied for the Soviet Union between 1967 and 1985. In March of 1967, he had been assigned as a communications watch officer at the Norfolk HQ of COMSUBLANT, the home port of the Scorpion. His duties there included “running the entire communications centre for the submarine force.” He first began spying for the Soviets in late 1967, right around the time of the Scorpion’s disappearance, providing the KGB with crypto keys for US submarine communications.
Ignoring the claims that K-129 was about to launch a nuclear strike on the United States, the sinking of the Scorpion as revenge for the USS Swordfish sinking K-129 has won some favour, particularly given the highly coincidental timing of Walker’s spying.
Ed Offley suggests that the Scorpion was engaged in a standoff in the Mediterranean, the Russian task force on high alert after being harassed by the USS Haddo. The theory was backed by W. Craig Reed in the 2010 book Red November. Reed served on the Haddo ten years after the alleged incident.
Tracked south of the Azores by the Soviet task force, Offley believes the boat was indeed sunk by an enemy torpedo. The US Navy were aware of the true nature of the incident as early as May 21, 1968, and subsequently engaged in a cover-up, knowing that public pressure could push the United States into open war with the Soviets. The Navy proceeded to destroy Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) data at ground stations in both the US and Europe. Offley contends that these recordings show clear sounds of a torpedo launch, evasion and eventual explosion.
Despite the allegations, US Navy submarine Captain Robert LaGassa has stated that “no Soviet Submarine in 1968 could detect, track, approach and attack any Skipjack or later class US submarine.” The Russian Navy meanwhile says that no command to fire was ever given by a Soviet submarine during the Cold War.
“While the precise cause of the loss remains undetermined, there is no information to support the theory that the submarine’s loss resulted from hostile action of any involvement by a Soviet ship or submarine.”
The four losses of submarines in 1968 show how dangerous submarine warfare truly is, with the slightest malfunction having the deadliest of consequences. Cost-cutting and the quest for the smallest advantage in the international arms race led the US Navy to cut corners and put lives in jeopardy, whether that resulted in the deadly sinking of the USS Scorpion remains a matter of conjecture. Others, either through legitimate Cold War fears of Soviet action or a desire to shirk responsibility, favour a direct and secret confrontation beneath the waves of the Mediterranean. Sadly for family, friends and comrades, the truth behind the loss of the Scorpion and the 99 brave crewmen aboard seems destined to remain one of the mysteries of the sea.
“There is mystery in death. There is mystery in the sea. Both are in some degree, incomprehensible and unfathomed. Timid men fear to approach any mystery. There is greater safety in the known. But someone must probe the mystery of the sea even at the price of probing the mystery of death.”
US Navy chaplain at USS Scorpion memorial service
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