This Day in History: The nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, missing in action
On this day in 1968, a nuclear submarine in the United States Navy is missing in action—except no one seemed to realize it. Instead, family and friends of USS Scorpion’s crew would cheerfully gather at a dock in Norfolk, Virginia, on May 27. They were thrilled and excited to welcome their fathers, husbands, and brothers back home.
Except the homecoming didn’t happen. The submarine never showed up.
Scorpion had then been in service for nearly a decade. She was supposed to get a complete overhaul in 1967, but she ended up getting only emergency repairs. The United States was dealing with both the Cold War and Vietnam at the time. The Navy simply couldn’t afford to be without one of its nuclear submarines.
Some have wondered if the failure to complete this maintenance ended up being Scorpion’s undoing. Just a few years earlier, the Navy had lost another nuclear submarine, USS Thresher. In the wake of that loss, all submarines were supposed to be getting certain types of repairs and maintenance, known as SUBSAFE.
Scorpion never received all of its SUBSAFE work.
Indeed, one of Scorpion’s crew asked for a transfer off the submarine at about this time. “I didn’t know it was going to sink,” he later told a reporter. “But I was absolutely uptight after having been on there and seeing the things I had seen. I was just unable to deal with going to sea again on the Scorpion.”
The crew, he said, had taken to calling the submarine “USS Scrap Iron” because so much of her equipment had become so worn down over time.
Scorpion departed from Norfolk in February 1968. She completed her tour in the Mediterranean Sea, then began a return trip to Norfolk in mid-May. Two men left the ship just as she was about to leave on this final journey: One had a family emergency and another had a health issue.
They were the only two men to survive what came next.
Scorpion’s trip home was temporarily sidetracked: She was supposed to conduct surveillance on some Russian vessels in the area. Scorpion’s last radio contact with an American base was on May 21. Much of what happened after that is shrouded in mystery.
Some people claim that Scorpion was torpedoed by one of the Russian vessels. Did the American government cover it up, hoping to avert a new World War? Others believe that Scorpion had already finished its surveillance and was headed home. They are sure that a “hot-run” torpedo detonated inside one of Scorpion’s torpedo tubes. Still others hold that a malfunctioning battery exploded or caused a fire.
Whatever the cause, parents, wives, and children found themselves waiting on a Norfolk pier for a submarine that would never come. The 99 men aboard that submarine were already in a watery grave at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
One of these men never met his 2-month-old baby girl. She was waiting on the pier wearing a pink-checkered dress with simple embroidery across it: “My heart belongs to daddy.” Another woman was waiting for her boyfriend. He’d recently bought her an engagement ring, but he wouldn’t live long enough to give it to her.
The families were eventually told to return home, although they weren’t given much of an explanation for the absence of the submarine. Later, they heard what had happened to their loved ones via the evening news: The submarine was officially missing.
Several months later, Scorpion would be found at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, broken into pieces.
Her final moments remain a mystery.
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Disasters and Tragic Events: An Encyclopedia of Catastrophes in American History (Mitchell Newton-Matza ed., 2014) (volume 1)
Kenneth Sewell & Jerome Preisler, All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion (2009)
Sherry Sontag & Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story Of American Submarine Espionage (1998)
Stephen Johnson, Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion (2006)
Tom Keyser, After 25 years of loss, families resent Navy’s silence about sub (Baltimore Sun; Nov. 21, 1993)