Scorpion crewmen come topside in April 1968 as the sub nears another American ship.
Did U.S. and Soviet navy officials deep-six the real reason the American nuclear attack submarine Scorpion sank with 99 sailors aboard?
The crisis exploded without warning across the sprawling U.S. Navy community in Norfolk, Virginia: A nuclear submarine and its crew had vanished in the Atlantic. On May 27, 1968, USS Scorpion (SSN 598) failed to return as scheduled to its home port at the destroyer-submarine pier complex at the southern end of the waterfront.Within hours the sub’s failure to arrive escalated into a major military crisis that spread to the Pentagon E-Ring and White House. From Atlantic Fleet headquarters to dozens of homes and apartments across Hampton Roads, a day of anticipation and celebration had suddenly turned into an open-ended vigil of fear and uncertainty.
Scorpion and its 99-man crew had left Norfolk on February 15 for a three-month Mediterranean deployment. The crew participated in several naval exercises with the U.S. Sixth Fleet and NATO, conducted ongoing reconnaissance of Soviet naval units in the Med, and paused to enjoy liberty at ports in Italy and Sicily before reentering the Atlantic for the homeward voyage on May 17. Scorpion‘s skipper, Commander Francis A. Slattery, had radioed Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters early on May 22 that the sub would arrive in Norfolk at 1 p.m. the following Monday, Memorial Day. Officials had released the arrival date 72 hours earlier and, despite a spring nor’easter that had swept the navy base with high winds and heavy rain, family members and Submarine Squadron 6 officials anticipated seeing the low silhouette of the Skipjack-class submarine coming into view on time.
The 1 p.m. arrival time came and went with no sign of Scorpion. Unknown to the families of the crew, the submarine’s failure to break radio silence by late morning had already sparked concern that by early afternoon was swelling into near panic throughout the Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters staff. At 3:15 p.m. the navy made it official, transmitting a flash message over the Fleet Broadcast System to naval bases from Brunswick, Maine, to Jacksonville, Florida, and out to Bermuda, the Azores, and the Mediterranean. Its terse technical phrases meant only one thing: Scorpion was missing:
Executed Event SUBMISS at 271915Z for USS Scorpion ETA NORVA 271700Z….All submarine units surface or remain surfaced until this message cancelled. Units in port prepare to get underway on one hour’s notice….
The curtain opened on what a navy admiral involved in the Scorpion incident would later describe as “one of the greatest unsolved sea mysteries of our era.” The 251-foot-long submarine and its crew had inexplicably disappeared somewhere in the trackless Atlantic Ocean. For four decades, the navy and U.S. intelligence communities have revealed little about the facts of the Scorpion sinking, citing the need to protect military secrets. The full account of its loss has continued to elude and frustrate researchers, journalists, and family members of the 99 sailors who died aboard the sub. But a careful reexamination of the public record—as well as interviews with former U.S. and Soviet military officials, men involved in the search for the sub, and sailors stationed on Polaris missile submarines on patrol in 1968—suggests the sinking may not have been an accident. Instead, it may have been the outcome of a deadly Cold War confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that both sides chose to bury at the bottom of the sea.
As documented in press accounts, U.S. Navy situation reports, and the official court of inquiry convened to probe the incident, by nightfall on that Memorial Day, Atlantic Fleet commander Admiral Ephraim P. Holmes had ordered what would become the largest U.S. naval operation since the Cuban Missile Crisis six years earlier. Officials announced that Vice Admiral Arnold F. Schade, the Atlantic Submarine Force commander, was out at sea in the Atlantic in the Connecticut-based nuclear attack submarine USS Pargo (SSN 650), and had directed it to head south at full speed for the Virginia Capes to organize a search of the shallow waters off the East Coast.
Meanwhile, the first members of what would become a task force of nearly sixty ships and submarines and dozens of land-based patrol aircraft raced into the Atlantic that Monday night to search for the missing sub. For nine days the searchers scoured the ocean from the continental shelf to the Azores, looking for any sign of Scorpion. They failed to find a single clue. Nine days later, on June 5, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, chief of naval operations, declared that both submarine and crew were “presumed lost.”
Throughout June and July 1968, two Scorpion investigations proceeded on parallel paths. A small group of scientific research and support ships headed by the oceanographic research vessel USNS Mizar (T-AGOR 11) scoured an “area of special interest” southwest of the Azores that scientists had identified by examining underwater signals that they believed came from the submarine’s sinking at 1844Z (GMT) on Wednesday, May 22.
In Norfolk a seven-member court of inquiry convened on June 5 to probe Scorpion‘s disappearance. In his message appointing retired Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin president of the Scorpion investigation, Admiral Holmes set out the inquest’s mission: “The Court is directed to inquire into all the facts and circumstances connected with the disappearance of the Scorpion; death of, or injuries to personnel aboard…and to fix responsibility for the incident. After deliberation, the Court shall submit its findings of fact, opinions and recommendations.”
The seven-member panel had legal powers equivalent to those of a civilian grand jury, and the authority to review classified information up to the level of top secret. Its mandate did not include determining criminal guilt or innocence. The court’s chief function was to determine the facts. During eleven weeks of hearings—most of them closed to the press and public due to the classified information under examination—the court took sworn testimony from ninety witnesses and reviewed 232 separate exhibits.
By mid-August, the court had scoured the submarine’s operational and administrative history, reviewed detailed records of its two shipyard overhaul periods since joining the fleet in 1960, examined what records were available on the Mediterranean deployment, and received updates on Mizar‘s ongoing “technical” search in the eastern Atlantic. After huddling for two weeks, the panel completed an initial report of over eighteen hundred pages—classified top secret at the time—that Admiral Austin submitted to the navy’s uniformed leadership for review.
Two months later came stunning news: On October 30, 1968, the navy announced that Mizar had found the wreckage of Scorpion. A towed sled gliding fifteen feet above the ocean floor at the end of a three-mile cable had photographed the sub’s broken hull. Several thousand images of the site were rushed back to the United States, where the hastily reconvened court of inquiry met with navy photo analysts to see if the new evidence might lead them to a firm conclusion as to what had caused Scorpion‘s destruction.
On January 31, 1969, the navy tersely announced an unclassified summary of the court’s findings. In effect, Admiral Austin and his fellow panelists had thrown up their hands. Their conclusion: “The certain cause of the loss of Scorpion cannot be ascertained by any evidence now available.” For the Scorpion families and many navy personnel, the court’s findings were a major disappointment. The court did rule out foul play, an underwater collision with an undersea mountain, and a reactor malfunction, and expressed confidence in the crew’s training, the submarine’s overall material condition, and the safety of its torpedoes. By implication, the court let stand an unstated premise that some unconfirmed mechanical malfunction had sent the submarine plunging to the Atlantic abyssal plain two miles down.
For fifteen years afterward, that was the extent of what the navy, submarine service, Scorpion families, and the public knew about what had happened to the sub and its crew. Citing the operational requirements of the nuclear submarine force and the sensitivity of all information on the Skipjack-class submarine’s capabilities, the navy kept the Scorpion archive locked away in a top-secret vault.