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.
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.