In our last episode, we discussed the sinking of the USS Scorpion. The focus of the first episode was the facts of the case. In this second half of our story, we will spend time on some of the theories that have been put forth to explain the sinking of Scorpion, which occurred on May 22nd, 1968.
The loss of the USS Scorpion occurred between two momentous events in US history: the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4th, 1968 and the assassination of Presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy on June 5th. As a result, coverage of the loss of Scorpion quickly moved from the front page of most American newspapers. This was in stark contrast to the loss of the USS Thresher in 1963, which occurred during a comparatively quiet time in the nation. This may have been to the Pentagon's liking, because even a cursory investigation of the time line of the last cruise of Scorpion would have led to a discussion of the boat's last set of orders, something that was classified at the time.
Originally, Scorpion was due to arrive at Naval Station Norfolk at 9:30AM, May 24th. However, after she left the Mediterranean and was on her way home, she received a message from COMSUBLANT, the Navy abbreviation for Commander Submarines Atlantic, ordering her to divert to a location southwest of the Canary Islands, were a group of Soviet Navy warships were operating. This would push back Scorpion's homecoming to May 27th. In his book 'Scorpion Down', author Ed Offley states that these orders, the last Scorpion would ever receive, were sent on May 16th.
Initially, the Navy stated that the search for Scorpion began on May 27th, the day she failed to arrive back at Norfolk. Years later, documents released by the Department of the Defense showed that at least one ship, the USS Josephus Daniels, put to sea on May 18th to search for Scorpion. The same group of documents show that some time between May 18th and May 22nd, Scorpion sent a message stating that she was being followed by a Soviet submarine and could not evade the Russian boat. These two facts taken together tell us that the Navy knew as early as May 18th that Scorpion was potentially in trouble, although she did supposedly transmit her position as late as May 21st. Regardless, it is clear that the Navy knew of the loss of Scorpion at least six days before May 27th.
According to Offley, this omission on the part of the Navy was intentional for one reason: the top admirals in the Pentagon suspected that Scorpion had been sunk by a Soviet warship. Years later, after the fall of the Soviet Union, some retired Russian admirals claimed that this was, in fact, the case. They stated that Scorpion was attacked as retaliation for the loss of the K-129, a Soviet diesel submarine which sank off the north coast of Hawaii in early 1968. Soviet naval leaders believed the K-129 had been sunk by a group of US destroyers while they were attempting to force the sub to surface. Sinking the USS Scorpion was seen as a means of evening the score without starting World War III.
A board of inquiry concluded in 1969 that Scorpion was destroyed by a torpedo, likely one of her own. This conclusion was later rejected in favor of a hardware failure, a more generic assumption. There is actually evidence that Scorpion was not a healthy sub at the time of her deployment in February, 1968. Her recent overhaul had been rushed and was done at the naval base in Charleston, SC which at that time had never done an overhaul and a re-fueling on a nuclear-powered submarine. But the wreck found off the Azores gave no clear indication of anything other than a large explosion.
Many other theories exist as to what happened to the USS Scorpion, including the idea that US Navy Warrant Officer John Walker, a Soviet spy who was not caught until 1986, gave Moscow enough detailed information about secret submarine communications that the Russians knew exactly where the Scorpion was most of the time, allowing them to hunt her with ease. It is not known if the information Walker gave the Soviets beginning in 1967 was being used in early 1968, but it is certainly possible.
We will never know what happened in the Atlantic Ocean 400 miles from the Azores in May, 1968. If the USS Scorpion was deliberately attacked by the Soviet Navy, then the cover-up necessary to keep such a fact hidden for more than 40 years is nearly unprecedented in American history. If some hardware failure caused her sinking, then those responsible for her lack of readiness were never brought to task. Either way, an injustice was done.
99 men died on board the USS Scorpion. It is my belief that their families have never been told the truth. For a nation that honors those who died in service to their country, this is unacceptable.