If you are a regular reader of my articles you know I present events like the loss of the USS Scorpion and the most popular or probable causes of the event. I try to treat each theory fairly. However, I always keep my most preferred theory to myself.
I do that for a reason. You are intelligent and I want you to form your own opinion. Whether we agree or not is irrelevant. I view my job as to present as much of the facts and evidence as possible, to allow you to form your own intelligent opinion.
I do, fairly often, get requests for what my opinion or theory is. Even in private, I decline to answer that question. I do not want anyone to simply take my word for it, I want you to decide for yourself. Only once did I bow to pressure and make public my personal thoughts (that was about the submarine H.L. Hunley). Now for the second time I will bow to pressure and state my opinion as to the cause of the loss of the USS Scorpion.
First I want to say my opinion is based on circumstantial evidence and not a thorough examination of the debris field and the ship itself. Only a thorough examination of the debris field and the ship itself will ever provide the conclusive evidence as to the loss of the USS Scorpion. The United States Navy has made that impossible by withholding some of the pertinent information.
There is no real reason to continue to withhold that information. The last sister ship of the Scorpion was taken out of service and decommissioned decades ago. Taking a look at the many theories and the causes they point to, there no longer exists a reason to withhold information as well.
The theory one of Scorpion’s own weapons caused the accident. The weapons the Scorpion carried were taken out of service and no longer used by the navy long before the last sister ship of the Scorpion was decommissioned.
The theory that the Soviet Navy somehow caused the loss of the USS Scorpion. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) has not existed for almost three decades. That nation does not exist now.
The theory that cost cutting measures caused the loss of the USS Scorpion. The decision to reduce the Scorpion’s last overhaul from 36 months to 6 months was a bad decision. To be fair though, it was a decision made because of the escalating costs of the war in Vietnam. A war where, except for the navy S.E.AL.S., navy river boats, and naval air, the navy had very little role. Yet our submarine force was a major expenditure on the navy.
I also want to point out that after the loss of the Scorpion, naval cost cutting ideas involving the submarine force were all canceled. No more abbreviated overhauls. Also those submarines that had not under gone conversion to the Subsafe program were immediately scheduled to enter the shipyard to undergo Subsafe conversion. (I will add a postscript to this article that explains the Subsafe program as a refresher for those of you who know, and as an introduction for those who do not.)
In previous articles I have published some of the more widespread and popular theories. Also, using unclassified sources, I have tried to give the reader as accurate an understanding of the conditions at the time. Both the conditions of the world and the ship. The climate of 1968 was radically different than 2018, politically, technologically, and for the military in general and the navy specifically. To judge events and people against the 21st century in those and other areas would not only be unfair, but will prevent us from arriving at the true cause and responsibility for the event. I encourage you to do further research on your own into that unique period and event. It is simply not possible for me to cover in detail the time period in which this tragedy took place.
One quick note. A reminder from one of my previous articles on the USS Scorpion. The Scorpion had not yet under gone conversion to the Subsafe program. One of the system changes during Subsafe conversion is to the emergency blow system (EMBT). This system failed on the USS Thresher five years earlier. That left the Scorpion with two other ways of expelling water from the main ballast tanks. The normal blow, which as the name implies, was the normal method for this class of submarine to surface by blowing main ballast tanks. And the low pressure blow. This method involves the submarine driving to the surface and then blowing the ballast tanks dry with low pressure air.
At the time of the loss of the USS Scorpion the EMBT system had not been updated to comply with Subsafe. The shipyard said the system worked effectively and properly and was fit for service. The United States Navy said the system did not work effectively and properly and ordered the system to be danger tagged out of service.
I am not going to cover in this article other ships near the Scorpion or any mission she was on or may have recently completed when this tragic event occurred. I am only going to cover the series of events which caused the USS Scorpion to exceed its maximum diving depth, eventually coming to rest 10,000 feet below on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, where it is today.
At its operating depth for this patrol (300 feet or less, see other articles). The Scorpion began flooding through torpedo tube valves. As I previously wrote about, the Scorpion had already reported, a problem with substantial seawater leaks through these valves. On return to Norfolk at the conclusion of this patrol the Scorpion was to go into the shipyard. These valves were on the work schedule to be repaired or replaced in the shipyard.
As soon as the valves began to allow flood waters to enter the Scorpion the flooding alarm would have been sounded and the nature of the emergency stated. All those personnel who had just gotten off watch would have reported to the torpedo room to combat the casualty. All those personnel preparing to relieve those currently on watch, would have reported to the adjacent watertight compartment as the backup damage control party. The entire ship would have immediately began taking necessary steps to stop the flooding and regain safe operation and control of the ship. Those on watch would have began taking the ship to a shallower depth and began making preparations to surface the ship if necessary.
Due to the water flooding into the ship, Scorpion became heavy and began slowly sinking because of the extra water weight.
As ship’s personnel lost control of the ship’s depth and it began going deeper, those on watch would have attempted all available means to surface the ship.
These actions failed.
As the ship continued its descent passing below 300 feet (its officially reduced safe operating depth) the shaft seals began leaking. This was a recurring problem that had been previously fixed and was also scheduled for work in the shipyard.
As the ship continued to descend the sea pressure outside the hull would have increased causing the flow of water into the torpedo room and engine room to increase.
All hands would have been actively doing all within their power to stop the two flooding casualties and regain control of the ship. The damage control party would have been in the torpedo room and the backup damage control party would have been in the engine room.
At some point, probably at or below the theoretical crush depth of the submarine. The watertight bulkhead (wall) between the axillary machinery space and the engine room collapsed, causing the engine room to “telescope” inside the machinery space (one compartment was shoved inside the other by the sea pressure outside the Scorpion). At or shortly after that event the bulkheads for the operations compartment would have collapsed flooding the last dry compartment of the submarine.
The ship would have continued its descent to the ocean floor carrying its crew on eternal patrol.
The physical condition of the operations compartment as it now rests on the bottom indicates the casualty did not start in the operations compartment. But that the bulkheads collapsed under extreme pressure. Probably below the ship’s designed crush depth.
The physical condition of the torpedo and engine rooms as they are now, resting on the bottom, the bulkheads for these two compartments did not collapse which indicates the area inside these compartments was equal or almost equal to outside sea pressure.
Actually, based on what little photographic evidence the navy has made available, the casualty could have started as I believe in the torpedo room. Or the casualty could have started in the engine room.
What I am certain of is that both compartments had flooding which exceeded the ability of the crew to stop. And, though not the only possible source, the torpedo tube valves and the shaft seals are the most likely candidates for the source of the flooding.
It must be remembered that for any emergency aboard a submerged submarine, the crew only has seconds to regain control if the submarine is going to survive. Sound recordings by the navy of the sinking of the USS Scorpion show that the entire emergency, from start to implosion of the bulkheads, took approximately 90 seconds.
Each member of the crew would have continued to do everything within his power to regain control of the ship until he was permanently incapacitated. Gratefully, this was not a long period of time and the men did not have to endure a long period of suffering.
Were Soviet ships nearby? Was there a fire or electrical problem onboard? Was there a problem with some other system including the weapons? The answer to these questions is maybe, maybe not. But if any of those problems did exist, it is not what took down the Scorpion.
As the Scorpion descended below its actual crush depth the engine room and torpedo room were at or near outside sea pressure inside those compartments. Inside the operations compartment was no where near sea pressure as the ship descended below crush depth.
Based on information currently available from the United States Navy I believe this is the best possible explanation for what happened to the USS Scorpion and the 99 men of her crew.
I believe the crew did everything possible that a highly trained submarine crew could possibly have done. Circumstances simply overwhelmed them.
“Good and faithful job sailor, rest your oars.”
The Subsafe program was instigated after the loss of the USS Thresher on 10 April 1963. A board of inquiry was convened to investigate the loss of the ship. The board went far and beyond its requirement, to determine the loss of the USS Thresher. It looked at every aspect of the design, construction, and operation of nuclear powered submarines.
The board included a recommendation in its final report, large and wide sweeping changes to every aspect of the design, construction, and operation of nuclear powered submarines. These findings became the foundation of a new system – Subsafe. The intent was to stop any future preventable accidents from happening to United States submarines. The navy then required that all submarines go through a conversion in the shipyard to bring all the ship’s equipment and systems up to Subsafe standards.
After the submarines in the Thresher class (the first ship in this class) had gone through Subsafe conversion it was determined that the changes were sufficient from the original design to name it a new class. The USS Permit, formerly the second ship in the Thresher class, was now the first ship in the new class. This new class of submarine was now called the Permit class.
The loss of the USS Thresher sent shockwaves throughout the submarine community worldwide of friend and foe alike. Navies around the world watched the United States Navy and adopted programs similar to Subsafe for their own submarine forces. The loss of the USS Thresher has saved the lives of thousands of men and women who continue to take those damnable ships beneath the ocean. The loss of the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion had effects which continue to impact the safety of submarines around the world to this day.
There are many people, particularly submarine veterans who want the United States Navy to do a proper investigation and come clean with all it has on the loss of the USS Scorpion. The following is just one of many articles that back this up.