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The Scorpion Mystery

 by Matt Dattilo

We're very pleased to present an episode from Matt Dattilo's excellent blog Today in History Please note that the opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).

Author says: 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.

On May 22nd 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.

Part One, The USS Scorpion SinksThe 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 Scorpionís 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 shipís 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 torpedoís 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.

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.

Part Two, The Mystery of the ScorpionThe 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.

Matt Dattilo, Guest Historian of Today in Alternate History, a Daily Updating Blog of Important Events In History That Never Occurred Today. Follow us on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter.

Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items explore that possibility. Possibilities such as America becoming a Marxist superpower, aliens influencing human history in the 18th century and Teddy Roosevelt winning his 3rd term as president abound in this interesting fictional blog.


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