Monday, May 22, 2006
The USS Scorpion Sinks, May 22, 1968
Today in 1968, the USS Scorpion, an American nuclear-powered submarine, sank in the Atlantic Ocean 400 miles southwest of the Azores. This was the second time the US Navy had lost a nuclear-powered attack sub; the first had been the USS Thresher in 1963. Even though almost 40 years has passed since the sinking, mystery still surrounds the story.
The Scorpion was a Skipjack-class attack submarine. She was small and fast; though the Navy released her top speed as being close to 30 knots, she was probably capable of much more. Her teardrop-shaped hull was new to submarine design when she was laid down in 1958 and when she was commissioned in 1960, she had no equals in the foreign navies of the world.
The Scorpion’s last deployment began on February 15, 1968. She operated with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea until May, when she was ordered home. On May 21, Scorpion was reported to be 50 miles south of the Azores. That was the last time she was heard from.
The distance between the Azores and the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia was six days sailing for the Scorpion, so when she did not turn up in a week after her last transmission, a search was initiated. On June 5, the Scorpion and her crew were presumed lost and her name was taken out of the Naval Vessel Register on June 30. Still no wreckage was found.
It was not until the end of October that the remains of the Scorpion were found. She was 400 miles southwest of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water. The deep-diving research bathyscaphe Trieste was sent to the scene to photograph the wreckage in an effort to determine what caused the sinking. The sub was in two main pieces with the sail and other debris littered on the sea floor nearby. The ship’s nuclear reactor was, and still is, intact.
The Navy concluded that the Scorpion was most likely sunk by one of her own torpedoes. At that time, the primary conventional torpedo carried by US subs was the Mk 37. These torpedoes were discovered to contain potentially faulty batteries that could overheat and cause a detonation of the torpedo’s warhead. It is also possible that one of the torpedoes inadvertently went live in its tube. The normal course of action for the crew would have been to fire the torpedo, which could have been fatal if the torpedo was armed and looked for the nearest target---the Scorpion herself.
Other theories have been advanced, from paranormal activity associated with the Bermuda Triangle to an attack by a Soviet sub. All that is known for sure is that underwater listening posts in the Atlantic detected a single, large explosion near the area where the Scorpion sank, taking 99 lives with her.
The US Navy still monitors the area around the Scorpion for signs of increased radioactivity. In addition to a nuclear reactor, the Scorpion also carried two Mark 45 torpedoes topped with nuclear warheads. These are presumed to still be in the torpedo room and corroded to the point of being insoluble.