22 May 1968, Loss of USS Scorpion SSN-589


On 27 May 1968, for the second time in just over five years, the United States Navy announced the disappearance of a modern nuclear attack submarine.  The Skipjack-class SSN, USS Scorpion, disappeared on 22 May as she transited near the Azores.

589 sail

The cause of the loss of Scorpion continues to be a subject of fierce debate.  The recorded acoustic signature of the event has been analyzed extensively, and expert opinion is divided regarding what the SOSUS data points to.  Several recent books have addressed the subject, positing that the Soviets had targeted Scorpion and sank her with assistance from ASW helicopters, and intelligence gained from the capture of USS Pueblo (AGER-2) and the John Walker spy ring.  Other theories included a battery fire which caused a Mk 37 torpedo to detonate in the tube in the torpedo room, or an inadvertent launch of a Mk 37 which came back and struck Scorpion.  Other analysis points to a possible explosion of hydrogen gas, built up to unsafe levels during a charge of batteries, that doomed Scorpion.

Much has been made of the abbreviation of her overhaul and the postponement of the SUBSAFE work (initiated in the wake of the loss of Thresher, SSN-593, in April of 1963) by the CNO, and the tagging out of the Emergency Main Ballast Tank system.   However, there seems little that points to any neglected maintenance or repair being responsible for the loss of the boat.

Regardless of the cause of the loss of Scorpion, the submarine carried 99 US Navy sailors to their deaths.  Her loss should stand as a reminder that plying the sea is a dangerous occupation, and that there is a a cost in lives for vigilance and readiness for war, even a Cold War.   It should also serve as a warning, that a Navy without sufficient ships and sailors to meet mission requirements in peace must compromise that readiness and vigilance, which has a far higher price in the unforgiving occupation of war at sea.

8 thoughts on “22 May 1968, Loss of USS Scorpion SSN-589”

  1. Sometimes training becomes live fire. RIP Scorpion and all who sailed on her.

  2. I spent a couple of years working on the Electronic Court of Inquiry for this mishap (http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/USS_Scorpion_SSN-589/).

    The evidence is convincing and very clear. It’s not that hard to understand. It does take a bit of time and effort and a willingness to limit oneself to the realm of physical reality.

    The sacrifice of those men should be honored with honesty and integrity.

    1. The most likely proximate cause of the mishap leading to the loss of the Scorpion was a hydrogen explosion. As you may recall, the wreck was discovered by triangulating from underwater sound sensor stations which picked up the sound of the initial hull failure event as well as about a dozen subsequent breaking up/crushing events (judged to be air flasks, torpedo tubes, etc.). Those sensors also detected a smaller acoustic event preceding the hull failure event by about 9 minutes (iirc, going by memory, notes are on my computer at home).

      The initial event was characteristic of a hydrogen fuel air explosion with an energy pulse of 10-20 lbs. TNT. Part of the debris recovered by Trieste back in 1969 included ruptured battery cells embedded with high velocity fragments of adjacent battery cells.

      The hydrogen explosion most likely occurred in the battery compartment directly below the operations compartment (control room) and the force of the blast is thought to have killed/incapacitated the ops compartment crew.

      The time between the initial small acoustic event and the hull failure event is pretty well exactly the time required for the boat to sink to crush depth in it’s most likely power, trim and balance configuration subsequent to the initial explosion.

      Hull damage is consistent with failure due to external pressure only and there is no evidence that any compartment was flooded prior to hull failure.

      None of the evidence is consistent with the other popular theories such as soviet attack/MK 37 cookoff/ shaft seal failure, etc.

      Bruce Rule wrote a book about the ECOI and his research.


    2. Shaun, thank you. I have Bruce’s book, and it is fascinating if tragic reading. Sorry your comment got hung up in moderation for some reason.

    3. No problem, I probably shouldn’t have attached the hyperlink.

      Two things that made the loss of Scorpion a larger tragedy than it had to be, internal navy politics and conspiracy theories.

      A good deal of the navy political maneuvering was prompted by genuine cold-war security concerns, however, personalities also played a role, with “larger than life” characters wreaking much havoc upon the investigation. These things happen. In general the truth tends to come out eventually.

      Conspiracy theories happen as well and are always unfortunate. But what can you do?

      Your comment about the danger of plying the sea is spot on. Had one tiny link in the mishap chain been broken, this tragic accident wouldn’t have happened. Something small — a failed monitor, blown fuse, malfunctioning fan, a simple human error — allowed an event which killed a boat and crew. The sea is unforgiving.

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