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Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Mystery of the Scorpion Part One, May 22, 1968

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As you know, Monday, May 25th is Memorial Day in the United States, a day set aside for us to honor those who have died while serving our nation in the military. The holiday began as Decoration Day in Waterloo, New York in 1866. A Decoration Day of sorts occurred in Charleston, South Carolina in May 1865 at the site of a former Confederate prison camp, but Waterloo is given most of the credit for creating the day as we now know it. The village was home to General John Murray, who in turn was a friend of General John Logan, the head of a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic. Logan pushed for a national observance on May 30th, a date on which no battles took place during the Civil War. The day was originally intended to honor those who died during that conflict, but was soon extended to include those who had paid the ultimate price in all the nation’s wars. The term Decoration Day was used because cemeteries were generally adorned with flags and flowers to honor the fallen. Although the name Memorial Day first appeared in print in 1882, it did not come into common use until the time of the Second World War.

In 1968, the US Congress moved Memorial Day from May 30th to the last Monday in May. This created a three-day weekend, something that critics of the change point to as one of the reasons the holiday seems to be losing its meaning to so many Americans.

The past 60 years have seen the general public in the United States become increasingly distant from the military. Even with combat taking place in Iraq and Afghanistan as I write this, many Americans personally know no one serving in the military. Our armed forces are smaller as a percentage of the population than they have been since the end of the Revolutionary War and a draft has not existed for 36 years. Yet the ultimate sacrifice is made almost every day by men and women from every walk of American life whose names will only be remembered by those who loved them. While we can disagree about the merits of any war, those who give their lives during it do so for us and for generations not yet born.

In addition to the Americans who have died in service to our nation over the past 233 years, I ask that you also remember those from around the world who have given all while fighting with us. Most of the nations of Europe and many other countries from around the globe have sacrificed not just to protect their own interests, but to ensure the continuance of our way of life. To them and their fallen go the thanks of a grateful nation. Have a thoughtful and thankful Memorial Day.

I do my best to not ever diverge from known facts when discussing historical events. But the story we revisit tonight, that of the sinking of the USS Scorpion, still contains much in the way of speculation. Since I first podcast about the lost submarine in 2006, I have read two books and many magazine and newspaper articles which cast significant doubt on the official story of the warship's loss. Tonight's episode will concentrate on the known facts of the incident; the next episode will enter into what I call informed conjecture. Let's get started.

Today in 1968, the USS Scorpion, an American nuclear-powered attack 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 submarine; the first had been the USS Thresher in 1963. Even though more than 40 years have passed since the disaster, unanswered questions about the sinking still abound.

Scorpion was a Skipjack-class attack submarine. At 252 feet in length and 3500 tons displacement, she was small compared to the boats that would come after her. But what she lacked in size she more than made up for in speed; though the Navy claimed her top speed was close to 30 knots, she was 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.

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 21st, Scorpion was reported to be 50 miles south of the Azores. After an initial delay, the families of the crewmen were told to expect the sub at 1PM on May 27th at Pier 22 on Norfolk Naval Station.

It was overcast and raining as the families of the crew of Scorpion waited for her return on that Monday. As the 1PM arrival time came and went with no word from the submarine, some of those waiting grew nervous. The older, more experienced family members comforted those for whom this was the first homecoming. There were many things that could delay the arrival of a navy warship: weather, mechanical problems, or a last-minute change of orders. The captain of a sub tender moored next to Pier 22 gave the family members permission to board his ship so they could wait for Scorpion in drier conditions. After several hours of waiting, naval station officials told the worried families to go home and wait for further news. They did not have to wait long: that evening, phones began ringing all over the Norfolk area, telling the next-of-kin of the crew of the USS Scorpion that the ship had been placed in a missing status. Those family members who lived outside the immediate area received telegrams. Soon, all three of the television networks were carrying the same story---the USS Scorpion was not where she was supposed to be.
The search operation that followed was one of the largest ever conducted by the United States Navy. Even though no wreckage was found, it was clear by the first week of June that Scorpion was never coming home again. On the fifth of that month, she and her crew were declared “presumed lost.” On June 30th, her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register.

It was not until the end of October that the remains of Scorpion were found. She was 400 miles southwest of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water. The deep-diving research bathysphere 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. This class of torpedo was 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, because it would have looked for the nearest target---Scorpion herself.

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 tipped with nuclear warheads. These are presumed to still be in the torpedo room and corroded to the point of being insoluble.

The USS Scorpion sank during one of the darkest periods of the Cold War, a time when every act by the United States or the Soviet Union was viewed with deep suspicion by the other side. The US submarine fleet was very effective in both gathering information about the Soviet Navy as well as keeping that force off-balance. What is clear now, despite the US Navy’s initial public theories, is that the Soviet Union could very well have played a role in the loss of Scorpion and the 99 men serving aboard her.

That role, if indeed there was one, will be discussed in the next episode of this podcast.

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