In March 2008, a 66-year old mystery came to an end with the discovery of the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney , which had sunk with all 645 of her crew after a battle with a German raider in November 1941. The discovery of Sydney held special significance for the people of Australia, which was reflected by the fact that the prime minister personally announced the event, as well as the $4.2 million invested by the Australian government in this expedition. Sydney 's discovery ended numerous conspiracy theories and brought closure to the surviving families of her crew, who spent so many decades wondering what happened in their loved ones' final hours. It is time to bring that sort of closure to the memory of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589).
A Skipjack -class nuclear-powered attack submarine, the Scorpion was lost with her crew of 99 men while returning from a Mediterranean deployment on 22 May 1968. A determined search by the U.S. Navy discovered her shattered hull six months later approximately 400 miles southwest of the Azores Islands, lying in about 10,000 feet of water. Using the deep-diving submersible Trieste II, the Navy explored the wreckage in 1969. Despite this expedition, as well as follow-up expeditions in 1985 and 1986, the cause of the Scorpion 's loss has never been determined.
Theories about the Scorpion 's demise abound. Since 2006, three new books have been published regarding the Scorpion . One, Silent Steel (2006) by Stephen Johnson, examines the numerous theories about the boat's loss and creditably assesses their likelihood. But the other two books offer lurid conspiracy theories that claim the Scorpion was sunk by the Soviets and that the U.S. Navy deliberately covered up the truth behind her loss. Both of these books have been discredited in the pages of this journal and others, but their existence and wide publication continue to prolong the pain of the Scorpion's last victims, the families of her crew. These conspiracy theories are a disservice to those families and the U.S. submarine force, whose integrity is smudged by allegations of a cover-up.
The discovery of Sydney and the extent to which the Australians went to close out her story should inspire us to make the same sort of investment. Deep-sea technology has evolved tremendously since the 1986 expedition to the Scorpion 's wreck. Submersibles and small remote operating vehicles have made detailed studies of the wrecks of the Titanic and Bismarck , both of which are as deep if not deeper than the Scorpion . A thorough survey of the wreck can conclusively prove or disprove the theory that a torpedo detonation, whether internal or external, caused her sinking. Indeed, such a survey may very well point to a more likely cause by being able to examine some interior portions of the wreck more comprehensively than was previously possible. Additional wreckage could also be recovered and examined.
The possibility of determining the cause of the Scorpion 's sinking is bolstered by the extraordinary extent to which NASA researchers were able to piece together the final moments of the space shuttle Columbia from disintegrated fragments scattered across three states. Admittedly, the wreckage necessary for such a determination, such as the sub's control panel and ballast control panel, may have been completely destroyed. In fact, given the depth of the wreckage and the passage of time, it is possible that another expedition will only be able to disprove some theories and find no other clues. But until a more thorough expedition with the latest deep-sea technology actually takes place, the possibility remains that the answer to the Scorpion 's last moments lies in her hull.
The time has come to bring closure to the story of the Scorpion and eliminate these hurtful conspiracy theories. The $4.2 million invested by the Australian government to find and survey Sydney is about 0.25 percent of what our country is paying for a new Virginia -class submarine. This is a small price to pay for the U.S. Navy to honor the memory of the 99 sailors of the USS Scorpion and bring peace to their families.
Lieutenant Holwitt is assigned to the USS Houston (SSN-713), based out of Apra Harbor, Guam. He has a Ph.D. in history from The Ohio State University.