The Mysterious Disappearance of Scorpion

U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589) was a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine of the United States Navy, and the sixth ship of the U.S. Navy to carry that name. The U.S. Navy nuclear submarine Scorpion, (3,000 tons), Commander Francis Slattery, and nearly a hundred men disappeared some four hundred miles west of the Azores in the North Atlantic in May 1968; three months later her wreckage was discovered on the seabed and photographed by the research ship Mizar. She was lying at a depth of some 10,000 feet, her hull evidently crushed (technically, imploded) as a result of overwhelming external water pressure. Scorpion was declared lost on 5 June 1968, one of the few U.S. Navy submarines to be lost at sea while not at war and is one of only two nuclear submarines the U.S. Navy has ever lost, the other being U.S.S. Thresher (SSN-593), which sank on 10 April 1963 off the coast of New England.

The Scorpion, launched in 1959, had a year earlier undergone an extensive overhaul in the naval shipyard at Norfolk, Virginia, and then successfully completed a number of sea trials. In late October 1967, Scorpion started refresher training and weapons system acceptance tests, and was given a new Commanding Officer, Francis Slattery. Following type training out of Norfolk, Virginia, she got underway on 15 February 1968 for a Mediterranean Sea deployment. She operated with the Sixth Fleet into May and then headed west for home. Scorpion suffered several mechanical malfunctions including a chronic problem with Freon leakage from refrigeration systems. An electrical fire occurred in an escape trunk when a water leak shorted out a shore power connection.

In March 1968 she was attached to the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean and two months later set out to return to Norfolk. Upon departing the Mediterranean on 16 May, two men departed Scorpion at Rota, Spain. One man left due to emergency leave and the other enlisted man departed for health reasons. Scorpion was then detailed to observe Soviet naval activities in the Atlantic in the vicinity of the Azores. With this completed, Scorpion prepared to head back to Naval Base Norfolk. For an unusually long period of time, beginning shortly before midnight on 20 May and ending after midnight 21 May, Scorpion was attempting to send radio traffic to Naval Station Rota in Spain but was only able to reach a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, which forwarded Scorpion's messages to SUBLANT.

On May 21, when she was about 250 miles west of the Azores, she transmitted a routine progress signal and that was the last message the world had from her. Six days later, she was reported overdue at Norfolk. Navy personnel suspected possible failure and launched a search. In due course a search was put into operation, but of course nothing was found, except that her top-secret code name, Brandywine, was intercepted on May 29, with hasty radio intercepts putting her some 100 miles off the Norfolk coast. Eventually this was treated as a hoax, although it is curious that anyone outside naval operations should have access to the code name of an American warship, and a nuclear submarine at that.

A public search was initiated, but without immediate success and on 5 June, Scorpion and her crew were declared "presumed lost." Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June. Some recent reports now indicate that a large and secret search was launched three days before Scorpion was expected back from patrol; this combined with other declassified information led many to speculate the US Navy knew of the Scorpion's destruction before the public search was launched. The public search continued, with a team of mathematical consultants led by Dr. John Craven, the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy's Special Projects Division, employing the novel methods of Bayesian search theory, initially developed during the search for a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain in January, 1966 in the Palomares B-52 crash.

At the end of October, the Navy's oceanographic research ship, U.S.N.S. Mizar (T-AGOR-11), located sections of the hull of Scorpion in more than 3000 meters (10,000 ft) of water about 740 kilometers (400 nautical miles) southwest of the Azores. This was after the navy had released sound tapes from its underwater "SOSUS" listening system which contained the sounds of the destruction of Scorpion. Subsequently, the Court of Inquiry was reconvened, and other vessels, including the bathyscaphe Trieste, were dispatched to the scene, collecting myriad pictures and other data. Although Dr. Craven has received much credit for locating the wreckage of Scorpion, Gordon Hamilton - an acoustics expert who pioneered the use of hydroacoustics to pinpoint Polaris missile splashdown locations - was instrumental not only in acquiring the acoustic signals that were used in locating the vessel, but also in analyzing those signals to provide a concise "search box" wherein the wreck of the Scorpion was finally located. Hamilton had established a listening station in the Canary Islands, which obtained a clear signal of what some scientists believe was the noise of the vessel's pressure hull imploding as she passed below crush depth.

A little-known Naval Research Laboratory scientist named Chester "Buck" Buchanan, using a towed camera sled of his own design aboard the USNS Mizar, finally located Scorpion after nearly six months of searching. The towed camera sled, which was fabricated by J.L. "Jac" Hamm of Naval Research Laboratory's Engineering Services Division, is currently housed in the Navy Museum, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, DC. (Buchanan had located the wrecked hull of the USS Thresher in 1964 using this same technique.)

At the time of her sinking, there were 99 crewmen aboard USS Scorpion. The boat contained a treasure-trove of highly sophisticated spy gear and spy manuals, two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and a nuclear propulsion system. The best available evidence indicates that Scorpion sank in the Atlantic Ocean on 22 May 1968 at approximately 1844Z after an explosion of some type, while in transit across the Atlantic Ocean from Gibraltar to her home port at Norfolk, Virginia.

What brought about the demise of the Scorpion? No one can know for sure. It was likely the usual combination, in varying degrees, of bad weather, human error, and structural or mechanical failure, events that have accounted for lost ships and planes ever since people began building them. Several hypotheses about the cause of the loss have been advanced. Some have suggested that hostile action by a Soviet submarine caused Scorpion's loss. Shortly after her sinking, the Navy assembled a Court of Inquiry to investigate the incident and to publish a report about the likely causes for the sinking. The court was presided over by VADM Bernard Austin who presided over the inquiry into the loss of the USS Thresher.

The panel's conclusions, first printed in 1968, were largely classified. At the time, the Navy quoted frequently from a portion of the 1968 report that said no one is likely ever to "conclusively" determine the cause of the loss. The Clinton Administration declassified most of this report in 1993, and it was then that the public first learned that the panel considered that a possible cause of the malfunction was one of Scorpion's own torpedoes. (The panel qualified its opinion saying the evidence it had available could not lead to a conclusive finding about the cause of her sinking.) However, the Court of Inquiry did not reconvene after the 1969 Phase II investigation, and did not take testimony from a group of submarine designers, engineers and physicists who spent nearly a year evaluating the data.

But this has not deterred The Bermuda Triangle adherents, who have advanced the following certainties to account for the loss of this vessel:
> the Scorpion’s company was probably abducted by a UFO, with the submarine left behind as not worth anything, even as scrap metal.
> an Atlantean crystal-laser ray gave her a fatal zapping from a bunker deep in the seabed of the Atlantic.
> the Scorpion stumbled into a parallel universe and, coupled with the antimatter that as everyone knows infests these places and the nuclear forces she was running on anyway, she simply atomized (as, unhappily, did the men in her); this is a theory favored by a subgroup of these otherworld enthusiasts (the wreckage that the Mizar photographed remains unexplained in this theory).

Today, the wreck of the Scorpion is reported to be resting on a sandy seabed at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean in approximately 3000 m of water. The site is reported to be approximately 400 miles (740 km) southwest of the Azores Islands, on the eastern edge of the Sargasso Sea. The U.S. Navy has acknowledged that it periodically visits the site to conduct testing for the release of nuclear materials from the nuclear reactor or the two nuclear weapons aboard her, and to determine whether the wreckage has been disturbed. The Navy has not released any information about the status of the wreckage, except for a few photographs taken of the wreckage in 1968, and again in 1985 by deep water submersibles.

(Sources : Seafaring, Lore & Legend by Peter D.Jeans ; and Wikipedia)

(Pics sources :


iasa said...

The Navy apparently sent Dr. Ballard to study the Scorpion wreck as well as the Thrasher under the guise of searching for the Titanic. Was information gathered at that time declassified with the original report?

Meryl (proud pinay) said...

very interesting. thank you so much for sharing.

tripzibit said...

(iasa) Well, i'm not sure either. But maybe there was some information that keep classified from public.

(Meryl) You're welcome.

Anonymous said...

In the early 70's as a HS kid, I worked part time at the SOFAR station (they did SMILS work) in Bermuda where Gordon Hamilton ("Ham" as they called him) was director. It was a cool place to work. Didn't have a clue about the Scorpion incident!

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