All of the information in this article comes from unclassified sources. In those instances where the I know more accurate information due to my security clearance and service in the United States Navy submarine force I have used the published unclassified information instead. I do this to protect the lives and missions of those men and women currently serving in the United States submarine force.
On Memorial Day 27 May 1968 the USS Scorpion was scheduled to arrive at its home port of Norfolk, Virginia. The families of the crew of the USS Scorpion waited in the storm at pier 22, but the USS Scorpion never arrived. The families were told to go home. Only then, through news outlets, did the families learn that the USS Scorpion was missing. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, declared the USS Scorpion presumed lost with all hands on 5 June 1968. The Scorpion was stricken from the register of United States Naval ships on 30 June 1968. The reason for the loss of the USS Scorpion has never been conclusively determined. There are many theories for the loss; this article will examine those theories and the actions of the navy that concern the loss of the ship and the investigation into the loss of the ship.
The USS Scorpion was the third of six Skipjack class submarines built from 1956 to 1961. The Scorpion construction began with the laying down of the keel on 20 August 1958. The ship first became water borne with its launching on 29 December 1959. The Scorpion became an official part of the United States Navy with its commissioning on 29 July 1960.
Skipjack class submarines were 252 feet long, 31 feet wide. They used a S5W nuclear reactor for propulsion and electrical power, creating 15,000 shaft horsepower on one shaft. Skipjack class submarines displace 3,000 tons on the surface and 3,500 tons submerged. Surfaced speed was 15 knots and submerged speed was 33 knots. Normal crew was 80 to 90 men with 8 to 10 of these being officers (the Scorpion had 99 men onboard at the time of her loss). These ships had 6 torpedo tubes in the bow and could carry a variety of torpedoes. At the time of the loss of the of the USS Scorpion she was carrying, MK 14 torpedoes, MK 37 electric torpedoes, and two MK 45 nuclear torpedoes, all three torpedoes are no longer used in the United States Navy. The MK 45 torpedo, if used, would destroy both the target and the ship launching it; the blast radius was greater than the range of the torpedo itself.
In June 1963, the Scorpion entered the shipyard for a routine eleven-month overhaul in Charleston, South Carolina. From February to July 1967, the Scorpion went through a second abbreviated overhaul (at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard) instead of the full overhaul it was scheduled for. These were the only two overhauls the Scorpion had. The Charleston, South Carolina shipyard performed the first overhaul. It was the first time the shipyard had overhauled a nuclear powered submarine. There were many problems found with the Scorpion, of particular concern were the many bad welds found in the piping systems on board.
Bad welds and pipes that were brazed instead of welded, are believed to be the cause for the loss of the USS Thresher on 10 April 1963. After the loss of the Thresher, a change to submarine construction dictated that any pipe subjected to sea pressure could no longer be brazed and was required to be welded.
Admiral David Lamar McDonald (the Chief of Naval Operations in 1966) on 17 June 1966 approved a reduced overhaul for the USS Scorpion (from 36 months to 6 months). Admiral McDonald also approved the postponement of the SUBSAFE improvements on the Scorpion which had been scheduled for this overhaul. The SUBSAFE program came from the loss of the USS Thresher, and improved the safety of the Navy’s submarines to prevent a similar loss; in 1963, these improvements were declared essential. At the time of the loss of the Scorpion 4 of the 60 submarines in the Navy had been given waivers to allow them to continue to operate without these SUBSAFE changes. USS Scorpion was one of those four submarines.
The shortened overhaul has been a frequent topic, most often attributed to the cost. Due to the loss of the Thresher and the new SUBSAFE program, overhauls had gone from 11months to 36 months. This was an incredible increase in costs. However, the real concern of the commander of the Atlantic force submarines was the offline time (in the late 1960’s this was 40% of the total available duty time). This was the second decade of the Cold War and the Vietnam War was in its third year. Due to the Vietnam War effort, defense department budgets were centered around the Army. The submarine force took a backseat to the war effort in Asia, and yet still had to meet the Soviet threat while also conducting intelligence operations for the United States. SUBLANT (the most senior admiral in the Atlantic submarine force) and the CNO (Chief of Naval Operations, the most senior admiral in the United States Navy) were looking for ways to decrease nuclear submarine offline time (overhaul, repairs and upkeep), and increase the on duty time (time on patrol and available for patrol). After the loss of the Scorpion the longer overhauls were re-instituted, and the SUBSAFE improvements were completed on the remaining three submarines.
The Scorpion had chronic problems with its hydraulic system throughout its career, beginning when it was turned over to the Navy in 1960. The hydraulic system operates the rudder, stern planes (wing like, near the rudder for control depth), and fairwater planes (wing like, on the sail or conning tower to control depth), as well as other vital pieces of equipment on board. When the Scorpion left Norfolk on patrol on 15 February 1968, it had a hydraulic leak in the area of the sail, of 50 gallons an hour (yes that’s right fifty gallons an hour). Mysteriously, during its transit across the Atlantic to the Mediterranean the leak stopped. The crew was uncertain as to the cause, but they believed the leak was from the fairwater planes.
The USS Scorpion had a number of material problems after its second overhaul when it left the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in July 1967. The nuclear reactor and its systems were given excellent attention by the shipyard, but work on the rest of the ships systems, which would normally be done by the shipyard, fell to the ship’s crew and a submarine tender (a submarine maintenance ship). The USS Scorpion crew was working 12 hours a day while the ship was in the shipyard, often manufacturing parts they could not get through normal channels. One crewman said that the crew called the USS Scorpion the USS Scrap-Iron, he went on to say that the crew would work all day on a piece of equipment and it was still in bad shape at the end of the day. This same crewman said they (the crew not the shipyard workers) were giving the Scorpion an overhaul without spare parts.
The first post-overhaul problem was a seawater leak through the shaft seals (a seal that keeps out seawater while allowing the propeller shaft to rotate). Next, in November 1967, the USS Scorpion was on a high-speed run when it began to corkscrew through the water so bad that equipment began swaying on the rubber mounts. Scorpion was put into drydock, but the cause of the severe corkscrew effect was never determined. This problem was mentioned during the investigation into the loss of the Scorpion with conflicting explanations and has never been fully explained.
During Scorpion’s deployment to the Mediterranean, many of the ship’s crew wrote, in their letters home, of numerous problems with equipment on the Scorpion. In one letter, a crewman wrote that they had repaired, replaced or jury-rigged every piece of equipment on board the ship. When Scorpion’s new radio chief arrived at the ship in Rota, Spain, he wrote home that on his arrival every piece of communications equipment was broken and the radiomen were attempting repairs. On 23 March 1968, five weeks after leaving Norfolk for the Mediterranean, the commanding officer wrote a request for emergency repairs, to his senior officers. He went on to say that a delay in the repairs would seriously jeopardize the Scorpion’s material readiness.
Another of the problems plaguing the ship was a freon leak in the ship’s refrigeration system. The Scorpion also had a fire in an escape trunk cause by a seawater leak that sprayed seawater on shore power connections. The Scorpion, at the time of its loss, has so many leaks its maximum safe operating depth was restricted to 300 feet, even though it was originally designed to go more than 2000 feet deep safely.
Of the many items the Commanding Officer, Francis Slattery, wanted replaced was the propeller, the drain valves on the torpedo tubes, and several valves connected with the ship’s drain system. The ship’s drain system allowed water to be pumped out of the ship to sea. Several of these valves leaked water at sea pressure, and sprayed the drain pump with seawater creating a fire hazard as well possibly disabling the drain pump. During flooding this pump is used to pump the floodwaters out of the ship.
One other ship system I wish to comment on, is the ship’s EMBT (Emergency Main Ballast Tank blow system). This is the system that when operated is supposed to blow all water out of the main ballast tanks in an emergency, causing the submarine to surface. The system can be operated from one location. The EMBT did not work on the Thresher, water vapor in the air caused the ice to form in the valve blocking air from the main ballast tanks. The Charleston shipyard and SUBLANT argued about this system on the Scorpion. The shipyard claimed the system worked as advertised and the Navy claimed it did not. As a result, the system was tagged out at the time of Scorpion’s loss, just one more system that was scheduled for a SUBSAFE upgrade that never happened.
During the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the USS Scorpion, the officers on the investigation board were never given information on the true physical condition of the ship. The board wrote in its conclusions that USS Scorpion was in “excellent” condition at the time of its loss. Through no fault of the board, this was not an accurate statement.
THE LAST PATROL
The USS Scorpion was not originally scheduled for a Mediterranean patrol in 1968, the USS Seawolf (SSN-575) was. The USS Seawolf was unable to make its deployment due to damage in an accident, and the assignment was given to the USS Scorpion. This is not the navy’s new USS Seawolf SSN-21. This is the only submarine the United States Navy built with a liquid metal cooled (sodium) nuclear reactor, the same type of reactor that the Soviet Union would use thirty years later for its Alfa class submarines. From 12 December 1958 until 30 September 1960 the Seawolf was in the shipyard having her liquid metal cooled reactor replaced with a more conventional reactor.
On 30 January 1968, two weeks before she was supposed to leave for a Mediterranean patrol, the Seawolf ran aground off the coast of Maine. The Seawolf was towed back to the shipyard for repairs and did not go to sea again until 30 March 1969.
Meanwhile, the USS Scorpion, in place of the disabled USS Seawolf, departed Norfolk on schedule on 15 February 1968. While on this last patrol the USS Scorpion made port visits to Rota, Spain; Taranto, Italy; Augusta Bay, Sicily; Naples, Italy; and again to Rota, Spain. While in the Mediterranean the USS Scorpion performed numerous NATO operations as well as other classified operations for the United States. When the Scorpion left Rota the second time on 16 May to come back to the United States, they left two crewmembers behind to fly back to the United States; one for personal health reasons and the other for a family emergency. These men were among the families waiting for the Scorpion to return to pier 22 in Norfolk on 27 May 1968.
Two other crewmen managed to get transferred from the Scorpion permanently just before the ship left for the Mediterranean. One, electrician’s mate Dan Rogers was on the submarine USS Lapon at sea on 27 May 1968 when the USS Scorpion was declared overdue. The USS Lapon was part of the massive search effort to find the USS Scorpion.
On entering the Atlantic Ocean the USS Scorpion supposedly was being trailed by a Soviet Echo II class submarine. Supposedly, the Scorpion sent a radio message that it could not break away from the trailing submarine.
During the USS Scorpion’s transit back to Norfolk, and after picking up a trailing Soviet submarine, she was sent on a highly classified mission to investigate a task force of Soviet warships near the Canary Islands, close to the US Navy’s SOSUS underwater listening hydrophones.
After completing this mission, the Scorpion resumed its transit home. The Scorpion then attempted to get into radio contact with SUBLANT, but unable to establish communications. The Scorpion then radioed the Naval Station in Greece, which forwarded the message. This was the last message received from the USS Scorpion.
Next Sunday this article will continued with: the discovery that the USS Scorpion is missing, the search for the USS Scorpion, the official inquiry into the loss of the USS Scorpion, and some of the many theories on the loss of the USS Scorpion.
To read part two click here: http://wp.me/p1MLkF-Fw
- USS Scorpion (gunnerscorner.wordpress.com)
- Extent of fire damage to Maine sub not yet clear (wtvm.com)
- Experts out to solve deep-sea mystery of the USS Scorpion – USATODAY.com (xbradtc.wordpress.com)
- Dr. Robert Ballard: Geologist, Oceanographer, Archeologist, Scientist, Naval Officer, Discover, Explorer, & So Much More ! (joeccombs2nd.com)
- Experts out to solve deep-sea mystery of the USS Scorpion (stripes.com)
- USS Miami fire injures four (wjla.com)
- Fire on nuke-powered sub at Maine shipyard hurts 4 (sacbee.com)
- Fire on Nuclear Submarine at a Navy Shipyard in Maine (ex-skf.blogspot.com)
- Fire Burning Aboard Nuclear Sub USS Miami (federaljack.com)
- Nuclear submarine, USS Miami, catches fire in Portsmouth Naval Shipyard; seven minor injuries reported (boston.com)
- Fire burning aboard nuclear sub USS Miami – Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com)
- USS Mississippi Arrives in Pascagoula (wtok.com)