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Wed May 22, 2019, 05:55 AM

51 Years Ago Today; The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion sinks with 99 men aboard [View all]


USS Scorpion, 22 August 1960, off New London, Connecticut

USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was a Skipjack-class nuclear submarine of the United States Navy and the sixth vessel of the U.S. Navy to carry that name. Scorpion was lost on 22 May 1968, with 99 crewmen dying in the incident. USS Scorpion is one of two nuclear submarines the U.S. Navy has lost, the other being USS Thresher. It was one of four mysterious submarine disappearances in 1968, the others being the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, the French submarine Minerve and the Soviet submarine K-129.


Disappearance: May 1968
For an unusually long period, beginning shortly before midnight on 20 May and ending after midnight 21 May, Scorpion attempted to send radio traffic to Naval Station Rota, but was only able to reach a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, which forwarded Scorpion's messages to COMSUBLANT. Lt. John Roberts was handed Commander Slattery's last message, that he was closing on the Soviet submarine and research group, running at a steady 15 kn (17 mph; 28 km/h) at a depth of 350 ft (110 m) "to begin surveillance of the Soviets". Six days later the media reported she was overdue at Norfolk.

Search: 1968

U.S. Navy photo 1968 of the bow section of Scorpion, by the crew of bathyscaphe Trieste II

The Navy suspected possible failure and launched a public search. Scorpion and her crew were declared "presumed lost" on 5 June. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June. The public search continued with a team of mathematical consultants led by Dr. John Piña Craven, the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy's Special Projects Division. They employed the 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.

Some reports 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 to speculation that the U.S. Navy knew of Scorpion's destruction before the public search was launched.

At the end of October 1968, the Navy's oceanographic research ship Mizar located sections of the hull of Scorpion on the seabed, about 400 nmi (740 km) southwest of the Azores, under more than 9,800 ft (3,000 m) of water. This was after the Navy had released sound tapes from its underwater "SOSUS" listening system, which contained the sounds of the destruction of Scorpion. The court of inquiry was subsequently reconvened, and other vessels, including the bathyscaphe Trieste II, were dispatched to the scene, collecting many pictures and other data.

Although Craven 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 in defining a compact "search box" wherein the wreck was ultimately found. Hamilton had established a listening station in the Canary Islands that obtained a clear signal of what some scientists believe was the noise of the vessel's pressure hull imploding as she passed crush depth. A Naval Research Laboratory scientist named Chester "Buck" Buchanan, using a towed camera sled of his own design aboard Mizar, finally located Scorpion. The towed camera sled, which was fabricated by J. L. "Jac" Hamm of Naval Research Laboratory's Engineering Services Division, is housed in the National Museum of the United States Navy. Buchanan had located the wrecked hull of Thresher in 1964 using this technique.

Observed damage

Skipjack-class submarine drawing:
1. Sonar arrays
2. Torpedo room
3. Operations compartment
4. Reactor compartment
5. Auxiliary machinery space
6. Engine room

The bow of Scorpion appears to have skidded upon impact with the globigerina ooze on the sea floor, digging a sizable trench. The sail had been dislodged, as the hull of the operations compartment upon which it perched disintegrated, and was lying on its port side. One of Scorpion's running lights was in the open position, as if it had been on the surface at the time of the mishap, although it may have been left in the open position during the vessel's recent nighttime stop at Rota. One Trieste II pilot who dived on Scorpion said that the shock of the implosion may have knocked the light into the open position.

The secondary Navy investigation – using extensive photographic, video, and eyewitness inspections of the wreckage in 1969 – suggested that Scorpion's hull was crushed by implosion forces as it sank below crush depth. The Structural Analysis Group, which included Naval Ship Systems Command's Submarine Structures director Peter Palermo, plainly saw that the torpedo room was intact, though it had been pinched by excessive sea pressure. The operations compartment collapsed at frame 33, this being the king frame of the hull, reaching its structural limit first. The conical/cylindrical transition piece at frame 67 followed instantly. The boat was broken in two by massive hydrostatic pressure at an estimated depth of 1,530 feet (470 m). The operations compartment was largely obliterated by sea pressure, and the engine room had telescoped 50 ft (15 m) forward into the hull due to collapse pressure, when the cone-to-cylinder transition junction failed between the auxiliary machine space and the engine room.

The only damage to the torpedo room compartment appeared to be a hatch missing from the forward escape trunk. Palermo pointed out that this would have occurred when water pressure entered the torpedo room at the moment of implosion.

The sail was ripped off, as the hull beneath it folded inward. The propulsion shaft came out of the boat; the engineering section had collapsed inward in a telescoping fashion. The broken boat fell another 9,000 feet (2,700 m) to the ocean floor.

Photos taken in 1986 by Woods Hole Alvin, released by Navy in 2012, shows the broken inboard end of the propulsion shaft.


U.S. Navy conclusions
The results of the U.S. Navy's various investigations into the loss of Scorpion are inconclusive. While the court of inquiry never endorsed Dr. Craven's torpedo theory regarding the loss of Scorpion, its "findings of facts" released in 1993 carried Craven's torpedo theory at the head of a list of possible causes of Scorpion's loss.

The first cataclysmic event was of such magnitude that the only possible conclusion is that a cataclysmic event (explosion) occurred resulting in uncontrolled flooding (most likely the forward compartments).


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Reply 51 Years Ago Today; The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion sinks with 99 men aboard [View all]
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