Deep Blue Tomb
The Story of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589)

The sixth submarine to carry the name Scorpion, of the new Skipjack-class, SSN-589’s hull construction was begun on August 20th, 1958.  Built by the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics Corporation of Groton Connecticut, she had a surfaced displacement of 3, 075 tons and 3, 500 submerged.  With a length of 251 feet, 9 inches with a beam of 31 feet, 7 inches and an operational speed of 20 knots.  With a crew complement of 99, she wasn't large for her day.

Launched in December of 1959, she would be captained by Commander Francis Slattery. She would be assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62.  In August of 1960, she departed on her first assignment of two months in waters around Europe. During her two-month assignment, she participated in exercises with the NATO fleet. By late October, she returned to New England for further training exercises along the Eastern seaboard until May of 1961.  Again, she returned across the Atlantic for operations that took her into August at which point she returned to New London and then on to her new permanent home in Norfolk, Virginia.

Being of a new class of what would later be known as “boomers”, she was among the first few nuclear powered submarines the American Navy was developing.  Even her physical design would lead to the eventual development of the Los Angeles and Ohio-class submarines of today. Scorpion was initially designed for antisubmarine warfare against the Soviet fleet and for ‘eavesdropping’ missions against Soviet communications. As with all “hunter/killer” subs, she had her moments of chasing down Soviet subs and on occasion, being ‘hunted’ herself, all without incident.  Most of her patrols focused on the Eastern seaboard down to the tropics in Bermuda and Puerto Rico. By 1963, she was already almost 5 years old and due for an overhaul and so put to port for the work, from June to May of 1964.  For reasons still classified, in late spring of 1965, she crossed the Atlantic again, and resumed a patrol off European waters. During winter and into spring and including the following fall, the Scorpion completed special assignments.  Whatever those assignments may have been, they earned the commander of Scorpion the Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership, foresight, and professional skill.  Other commanding staff of the crew also earned citations for meritorious achievement.

By 1967, it was time for another overhaul. Up to date, Scorpion performed flawlessly and without official incident. By October of 1967, she was back out to sea for refresher training and weapons acceptance tests. After appropriate training with the new systems aboard, she resumed patrols off the Mediterranean, in February of 1968. On May 17, 1968, Scorpion was ordered to head to the Canary Islands where a mysterious collection of Soviet ships and subs had collected for unknown maneuvers. A half-hour later, she surfaced in Rota, Spain to put off two of her crew, for medical and personal reasons, to a tug that would take them to the US submarine base. 

On May 22nd, USS Scorpion sank for reasons unknown.  An immediate search was initiated, but by June 5, Scorpion and her crew were declared, “presumed lost”. The search continued and at the end of October of 1968, the US Navy’s oceanographic research ship Mizar located large pieces of Scorpion’s hull in over 10, 000 feet of water, about 400 miles west of the Azores.  The Navy immediately dispatched other vessels, including the submersible Trieste, (the Trieste made the deepest dive on record to a depth of over 8.5 miles), to collect photographs of the wreckage. Photographs of the wreck were of a poor quality and not very helpful in determining the source of the sinking.  The wreckage consisted of three main pieces, the forward hull; the sail, and the engineering-hull. There are many theories surrounding the sinking of the Scorpion. At only ten years old, she was not considered old by naval standards and her age was never considered a factor in her sinking.  There are primarily two highly favored theories as to why she sank, neither of which is too pleasant to consider.

The first theory is that one of the Mark 37 torpedoes she carried, inadvertently self-activated in one of the tubes, during a routine inspection.  It is believe that the torpedo in a state of readiness, and without a propeller-guard, began a “hot-run” inside the tube.  The torpedo was ejected from the sub, which immediately began emergency maneuvers to evade the torpedo.  It is believed that the torpedo acquired the only target in range, the Scorpion, and impacted amidships, sending the sub and her 99-man crew to the bottom.  This theory is favored because of sonar recordings made in the area at the time clearly discern acoustic events as the following: A single sharp noise was heard, then within 91 seconds after that, a rapid series of sounds corresponding to the collapsing of the hull and the bulkheads inside Scorpion as she went down.  This is a strongly held theory reinforced by the fact that such a scenario nearly played itself out in 1967 when an unarmed training torpedo that suddenly started up and had to be launched before further incident.  The Mark 37 torpedoes were discovered to have a defect regarding the batteries that sometimes caused them to arm by themselves. This was learned after they had been put in service aboard US Navy craft. At the end of the fall of 1968, the official inquiry’s findings supported the errant torpedo theory.

The second theory was that there was an electrical failure of an undisclosed type that caused a shorting-out of the propulsion systems. This theory has never been taken seriously and is in all probability, unlikely. In 1970, a second investigation was completed that concluded the torpedo theory was in error and that it was a leak into the sub’s batteries and creating electrical shorts in the propulsion system, allowing the sub to sink past its crush-depth and being destroyed. To date, the official position and most commonly held belief is that of the torpedo hit.  However, more controversy was to surface upon analysis of facts relating to her last mission. In 1968, radiation analysis tests were done in the waters surrounding the site of the wreckage and all readings bore out that the reactor and its reactive elements were undamaged and not leaking radiation. This zone of comfort allowed the Navy to pursue the investigation of why she went down.

In 1986, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute sent a team to investigate and catalogue the wreck site of the Scorpion. 30 years after her sinking, even more controversy surrounds the events that sent USS Scorpion to the bottom of the ocean.  Supposed pacts of secrecy with the former Soviet Union regarding this event and that of a Russian submarine sinking 2 months before the loss of Scorpion, for example, suggest some Soviet involvement, even though both the official and unofficial inquiries discounted any Soviet involvement in the loss of Scorpion. Some would say that the Soviets were aware of the Scorpion’s observance of their ships and subs in the waters off the Azores, because of Navy Warrant Officer John Walker, who in March of 1967, contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington and offered to spy for the Soviets.  A career submarine communications expert, Walker had just transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, at the Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters.  As one of four supervisors at the high-security communications centre where messages to and from submarines were processed, he was privy to the whereabouts of most of the Atlantic fleet of the US Navy.  Scorpion’s communications went through this centre. Walker had provided the Soviets with a “keylist” of the navy’s cryptographic encryption system, which allowed the Soviet navy to decipher US communications.

At the loss of Scorpion, a search for the submarine was begun unofficially 24 hours after she went missing.  But for some reason, the official declaration of her absence was not made until 4 days later.  Even major officials in the Pentagon were unaware of her loss until 5 days passed. Unfortunately, the families of those lost were not told of their loved ones’ deaths until after Scorpion failed to show up.  They all gathered at her berth, in the cold rain eagerly awaiting her arrival that would not happen. 

The USS Orion served as logistical and maintenance support for subs.  When a sub would be coming into port, it would surface and tie-up alongside the Orion and be brought in to its berth.  Captain James Bellah, commander of the Orion and acting as Squadron Commander then, he was expecting a routine message from Scorpion announcing her arrival just off the Virginia coast. Bellah notified the Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters, and made the following comment:” We got no indication there was a problem with the submarine at all.” For the most part, the families were the last to know anything about the Scorpion and its crew.  Most only found out that the sub was missing when on the day she was due in port, a news broadcast broke the story that the navy had declared the sub missing.  Only after that, did the navy contact the families.  But they were still kept in the dark until the sub was 9 days late to say that the USS Scorpion was lost with all hands. Most of the high-ranking admirals from the time of Scorpion’s loss have said that the decision to withhold the information about her loss from the families was a mistake.

But whatever the reasoning, it seems that there may only be 99 men who know what really happen, and they lie in their deep blue tomb, in 10, 000 feet of water and will never tell their tale.

This page is dedicated to the men and the families of those lost on USS Scorpion (SSN- 589), on March 22, 1968. 

May they sail the seas of tranquility.


Scorpion's Launch

Commander Francis Slattery

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Scorpion SSN-589

Bow section 1968/1986

Conning tower 1968/1986

Escape Hatch 1968

Messenger bouy 1986

Crushed section of hull

Stern section 1986

For Those in Peril on the Sea

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