At around midnight on 16 May 1968, the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) slipped quietly through the Strait of Gibraltar and paused just long enough off the choppy breakwaters of Rota, Spain, to rendezvous with a Navy ship and offload two crewmen and several messages. A high-performance nuclear-propelled attack submarine with 99 men on board, the Scorpion was on her way home to Norfolk, Virginia, after three months of operations in the Mediterranean with the Sixth Fleet and NATO.1
1. Manual of the Judge Advocate General (JAGMAN) / U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry Record of Proceedings and the Supplementary Record of Proceedings Concerning the Loss of the USS SCORPION (SSN-589), (hereafter called Inquiry Record and Supplementary Record), p. 1043. The Scorpion participated in two operations in the Mediterranean: Dawn Patrol and Easy Gambler.
2.Inquiry Record, pp. 1043, 1046. U.S. Navy planes resumed surveillance of this formation on 21 May, presumably after the Scorpion had completed her own operation. The Soviet ballistic-missile destroyer and oiler did not arrive until the Scorpion already was 200 miles to the west of the formation.
3. Ibid. Although still classified, the Scorpion's final broadcast is said to have occurred at 31:19 north latitude, 27:37 west longitude. Ed Offley, “The Death of the Scorpion,” The Virginian-Pilot & Ledger-Star, 12 June 1983.
5. Inquiry Record, p. 1043
6. Offley, 12 June 1983. Admiral Schade’s claim that he became concerned about the Scorpion after her failure to respond to several messages is one of the strangest in this disaster. The Scorpion was under strict orders to maintain radio silence unless absolutely necessary. As a witness before the Court of Inquiry, he admitted that the Scorpion was not expected to respond to any messages and that he did not expect to hear from her until 27 May, the day she was supposed to arrive in Norfolk. Moreover, it was common during this era for a submarine to receive messages but be unable to respond because of broadcast difficulties. Because of this, it was not unusual for a submarine not to respond to incoming traffic. A more likely explanation for Admiral Schade’s statements is that he did not want to disclose that the SOSUS readouts indicating that the Scorpion had been destroyed were known earlier than reported.
7. Inquiry Record, p. 1049. The court actually was established on 4 June, one day before the Navy officially declared the Scorpion lost and her crew dead.
8. Ibid., p. 1082. See also “Third Endorsement of Chief of Naval Operations to Secretary of the Navy,” dated 29 March 1969.
9. Supplementary Record, p. 244.
10. “Third Endorsement from Chief of Naval Operations to Secretary of the Navy,” dated 29 March 1969.
11. Evaluation of Data and Artifacts Related to USS Scorpion: Prepared For Presentation to the CNO Scorpion Technical Advisory Group by The Structural Analysis Group, 29 June 1970 (hereafter referred to as SAG Report), pp. 2, 3.
12. Ed Offley, “USS Scorpion: Mystery of the Deep in Which 99 Were Killed,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 20 May 1998.
13. Jeffrey T. Richelson, The U.S. Intelligence Community (Cambridge: Ballenger Pub. Co., 1989), p. 207.
14. Offley, 20 May 1998.
15. Inquiry Record, p. 1047.
16. Eight SOSUS stations picked up these recordings. Supplementary Record, p. 241. The actual length of the recordings was three minutes and ten seconds. See Inquiry Record, p. 1047.
18. SAG Report, p.1.1.
19. Court of Inquiry, pp. 1046 and 1047.
20. The Whiskey had a top speed of 15 knots while submerged. See John E. Moore, ed., Jane’s Pocket Book of Submarine Development (New York: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976), p. 201.
21. In 1986 the Snook (SSN-592) became the first Skipjack-class submarine to be deactivated. Among the most bizarre episodes involving the Scorpion's loss, and dutifully reported by the Defense Intelligence Agency, was the statement by Jean Dixon, the soothsayer, who claimed she had experienced a vision in which the Soviets destroyed the submarine.
22. Inquiry Record, p. 1058.
23. Inquiry Record, p. 1057.
24. Officer Biography Sheet. In an anecdote related by Stephen Johnson, Slattery wrote a short story while in high school, forecasting his death in a submarine.
25. Inquiry Record, p. 1052.
27. Ibid., p. 1053. The court also determined the loss was not caused “by the intent, fault, negligence, or inefficiency of any person or person in the naval service or connected herewith.” See Supplementary Record, p. 256.
28. SAG Report, p. 1.1.
29. The first “acoustic event” had a signal greater than a 30-pound TNT charge detonated at a depth of 60 feet or more. Inquiry Record, p. 1079. Elsewhere, however, the same report states that “the amplitude of the first event was greater than the amplitude of a 70-pound charge detonated at 60 feet and less than a 70-pound charge detonated at 1,500 feet.” Ibid., p. 1048.
30. Ed Offley, “Mystery of Sub’s Sinking Unravels,” The Virginian-Pilot & Ledger-Star, 16 December 1984. Although no clear explanation has been advanced as to why the Scorpion may have been headed in an easterly direction during her final moments, possibilities are she may have been heading for shallower water, or she might have spun out of control after her crew became incapacitated. ‘‘Ibid.
32. Supplementary Record, p. 253.
33. Inquiry Record, p. 1083. The Inquiry Record—before the Scorpion's wreckage was found—listed the most probable cause of the loss as the submarine’s being struck by one of its own torpedoes after confronting a “hot run” and expelling it out of one of its firing tubes. The theory that a short in a piece of testing equipment could have triggered a hot run is detailed in Ed Offley’s article of 16 December 1984.
35. “First Endorsement on Vice Admiral Bernard Austin From the Chief of Naval Operations to Judge Advocate General,” dated 31 December 1968. See also Offley’s article of 16 December 1984, and Stephen Johnson, “A Long and Deep Mystery: Scorpion Crewman Says Sub’s ‘68 Sinking Was Preventable.” The Houston Chronicle, 23 May 1993, and Supplementary Record, p. 249.
36. Supplementary Record, p.250.
37. Johnson, 23 May 1993. Admiral Schade doubted that the first “high-energy” event recorded by SOSUS was an explosion. He speculated that the first sound was that of the engine room telescoping and imploding.
38. Interview with retired Vice Admiral Robert F. Fountain by author on 6 September 1997. See also Johnson, 23 May 1993, which points out that several other nuclear-powered submarines of that era almost sank because of trash disposal unit floods.
39. Supplementary Record, p. 250. See also Johnson, 23 May 1993.
40. SAG Report, p. 1.2.
42. Ibid., pp. 7.1–7.8.
44. The three statements are from: Lieutenant R. E. Saxon to Commander Submarine Development Group One, 16 February 1970; From Lieutenant D.T. Byrnes to COMSUB DFYGRU, 25 February 1970; and From Lieutenant John B. Field to Captain R. H. Gautier, 26 February 1970.
45. SAG Report, p. 8.1.
46. The most likely pattern was a faint sound 22 minutes before the first sound was recorded by SOSUS at approximately 1844. The second sound followed approximately 26 seconds later. The second as followed approximately 91 seconds later by 13 more. The explanation for the 1844 recording has ranged from a torpedo erupting inside the submarine to her hull imploding. SAG Report, pp. 5.1–5.4.
47. Ibid., 5.17
48. Ibid. See also Marty Lussier, “The Scorpion Revisited,” American Submariner: Submarine Review, No.2, April–June 1995, pp. 20–21. According to a letter written by Bob Dwinnel of Mare Island base, in response to Lussier’s article, hydrogen gas would have been produced only during the finishing rate of a battery charge or during a period of high discharge rate. See “Forum,” September 1995, American Submariner. The Scorpion's battery would have been experiencing a high discharge rate while she was near the surface and using her periscope and communication gear.
49. SAG Report, pp. 5.17–5.18; 7.2; and 7.7.
50. Ibid., 7.8.
51. Ibid., 7.6. The Scorpion's crush depth was probably around 1,100 feet. The Thresher's was 1,300 feet.
52. 14 January 1987 Letter from Peter M. Palermo, Chairman of SAG.
53. Ibid., p. 255. Indeed, the court did not consider the trash disposal unit to be the likely cause of serious flooding. Inquiry Record, p. 1087. NavShips rated the possibilities of explosions from the Scorpion's various sources. It ranked the possibility of a hydrogen gas explosion—presumably a spontaneous explosion—as “very low” and a weapons accident as “unlikely.”
54. Inquiry Record, p. 1075.
55. The court determined that the Scorpion's flooding recovery capability was excellent. Inquiry Record, p. 1086.
56. Unsigned Confidential Memorandum, entitled “Submarine Safety Program Status Report”; another undated, unsigned one-page memorandum entitled “SUBSAFE PROGRAM”; and a 5 April 1968 confidential memorandum entitled “SUBSAFE SAFETY PROGRAM” under the name of Lieutenant Commander W. T. Hussey. OP-312E, X76-191. All three of these were found by the author in the Scorpion files at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C.
57. Details of the Scorpion's overhaul history are found in several sources: Inquiry Record, pp. 1042, 1066–1069; confidential memorandum for the record dated 28 May 1968, and signed by Captain Carl F. Turk; and an undated, unsigned confidential memorandum tracing the Scorpion's operational and maintenance history from January 1967 until 16 May 1968. The last two were found in the Scorpion files at the Naval Historical Center.
58. Hussy Memorandum, 5 April 1968.
59. Stephen Johnson, “Sub Sank in 1968 After Skimpy Last Overhaul/USS Scorpion Was Lost With All on Board,” The Houston Chronicle, 21 May 1995.
60. Confidential memorandum, 24 March 1966, Subj: “SSN Overhaul Policy; Comments On,” signed by P. P.Cole. In addition, this memo noted that the Scorpion's scheduled overhaul in Norfolk would overlap with the USS Shark (SSN-591), that of the USS Triton (SSN-586) and that of the first major overhaul and conversion by that yard of an SSBN, the Andrew Jackson (SSBN-619). It also observed that the Norfolk Naval Yard recently had entered the nuclear-powered submarine overhaul business and that much of the work needed by the Andrew Jackson would be novel and demanding. Stephen Johnson provided a copy of this memorandum.
61. Naval Message from CNO to CinCLantFlt and CinCPacFlt, 17 June 1966.
62. Unsigned undated message. Ref: (a) ComSubLant ltr ser 1008 of 2 Mar 1966; (b) NavShips 2nd end. Ser 525-1004 of 17 Jun 1966; CNO message 202135Z July 1966; and ComSubLant message 221858Z Jul 1966. Stephen Johnson provided a copy of this message.
63. Letter from Admiral Thomas H. Moorer to Hon. William Bates, United States House of Representatives, 8 September 1967. A copy of this letter went to South Carolina Senator Mendell Rivers, a legislator keenly interested in defense matters and a zealous advocate of the Charleston Naval Shipyard.
64. Hussey, 5 April 1968, confidential memorandum. Tab A, “Status of Depth Restrictions and Certificates.”
65. Johnson, 21 May 1995. 28 May 1968 confidential memorandum for the record by Captain Carl F. Turk. The actual figures for the Scorpion's reduced overhaul were $2 million for refueling, $0.3 million for nuclear alterations and $1 million for repairs. Her first and last full overhaul in Charleston cost $3,729,760. $1,277,140 of this went into what SUBSAFE work the yard was able to do. See Inquiry Record, p. 1066. According to the Turk memorandum, 23,000 man days were spent on the Scorpion, compared with 40,000 spent on the USS Skipjack (SSN-585), which received a full SUBSAFE package. When all these figures are added, the Scorpion, in both her overhauls, received about one quarter of the funds expended on several of her sister ships.
66. Johnson, 23 May 1993 and 21 May 1995; Turk, confidential memorandum for the record, 28 May 1968. In several documents, the Scorpion's 1967 overhaul is characterized simply as a “Refuel Overhaul.”
67. Inquiry Record, p.109. The trash disposal latch work order was found at the Naval Historical Center.
68. Ibid., p. 1072. See also Johnson, 23 May 1993. The court noted that “the stem plane control system constitutes one of the most potentially hazardous systems affecting the safe operation of high speed nuclear submarines.” Inquiry Record, p. 1092.
69. Johnson, 23 May 1993.
71. Confidential Memorandum from Commanding Officer, USS Scorpion, to Commander Submarine Squadron Six,” dated 23 March 1968. This memorandum was provided by Stephen Johnson. Among the valves Commander Slattery was concerned about were the sea valves and main ballast tank vent valves.
72. SAG Report, pp. 3.8–3.9. She did, however, receive the standard magnetic particle inspection on her hull’s surface.
73. ubmarine Warfare Division: Series III, Box 13, News Releases about Search Operation; Miscellaneous Correspondence on Search, Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.
74. Ibid. File “Information on Final Report to the Secretary of Defense.”
75. Submarine Warfare Division: Box 5, Series 1, Declassified Testimony from Court of Inquiry, Vols. 1–4.
77. Ibid. On 4 April 1968, Clarke wrote a memorandum about the Scorpion's Planned Availability Concept (PAC) to the Commander of the Naval Ship Systems Command. In it, he wrote: “It is recommended that those portions of SCORPION maintenance, repair and modernization work not covered by shipyard PAC be carefully considered prior to implementation of PAC. This review should have as its primary goal the avoidance of a situation which requires additional industrial assistance to forces afloat to keep SCORPION's material readiness equal to that of her sister ships.” Stephen Johnson provided a copy of this memorandum.
79. Johnson, 23 May 1995.
80. Offley, 20 May 1998.
81. Ibid. Offley wrote another article that same day entitled “Scorpion May Have Been Doomed Before It Even Set Out.”
83. Ibid. In April 1968, the Soviets lost the Golf-II in the Pacific Ocean. In 1974, this sunken submarine became the target of a highly ambitious clandestine operation by the CIA, using the deep-sea recovery ship Glomar Explorer. As far as is known, the CIA recovered the submarine’s forepart but whether any SS-N-5 SLBM missiles—the real targets—were recovered is unknown.
84. Pete Early, Family of Spies (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), pp. 68–69, 72–73, and 75–76.
85. See Inquiry Record, pp. 1046–1047.
86. Early, p.72.
87. Ibid., pp. 75-76.
88. Supplementary Record, pp. 245, 250, and 255. Indeed, the inquiry concluded “That in view of the lack of identifiable debris from the Torpedo Room, it is concluded that the Torpedo Room was not the location of a major explosive event.” The SAG Report (p. 5.13) states that the debris field measured approximately 800 feet north and south by 400 feet east and west.
89. Johnson, 27 December 1993.
90. Confidential Memorandum To File, dated 25 March 1966, USS Scorpion (SSN-589) Overhaul/Refueling Fact Sheet #1. This memorandum, signed by “H. L.Young,” also mentions the “mute skepticism” of many who question the practicality of the reduced overhaul concept and the need of “selling” this concept to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard.