Scorpion: sommergibile nucleare partito da Taranto e affondato nell'Atlantico
- Subject: Scorpion: sommergibile nucleare partito da Taranto e affondato nell'Atlantico
- From: Alessandro Marescotti <kfqma at tin.it>
- Date: Tue, 29 Feb 2000 15:01:54 +0100
USS SCORPION NEWS COVERAGE
The HOUSTON CHRONICLE of Houston, Texas has given permission to post the
following stories about the sinking of the USS Scorpion. My sincere thanks
goes to the Chronicle Staff members that assisted in my having these articles.
The articles are as received from the Chronicle with certain html code
added to make them more readable. Only the text has been received and not
the photo's mentioned. We will attempt in the future to add these photo's
as they become available.
The articles are in reverse order as to their publication date.
NOTE !!! if there is anyone who reads these articles and was on the
Scorpion during the Inserve Inspection please contact me at your eariliest
txoilgas at ix.netcom.com
Copyright 1993 and 1995 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. Posted on
this web site with permission. All rights reserved. May not be copied,
forwarded, reproduced or republished.
NEWSPAPER HOUSTON CHRONICLE
EDITION 2 STAR
PUBLICATION DATE 05/21/95
LENGTH 34 INCHES
HEADLINE Sub sank in 1968 after skimpy last overhaul/USS Scorpion was lost
with all on board
BYLINE STEPHEN JOHNSON
PHOTOS, GRAPHICS Photo: The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion, shown
during launching ceremonies in 1959
ART CREDIT Houston Chronicle file
NOTES Copyright 1995, Houston Chronicle.
Unable to maintain its nuclear submarines during Cold War-era Soviet naval
expansion, the U.S. Navy drastically reduced the USS Scorpion's overhaul
work before the submarine's mysterious sinking with 99 crewmen.
At the time, Navy officers were concerned about ````acute political
embarrassment'' over the Navy's serious difficulties in keeping its
submarine force at sea, according to documents declassified at the Houston
Armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, the Scorpion sank in the mid-Atlantic
on May 22, 1968, six months after it received the briefest and cheapest
nuclear submarine overhaul in Navy history.
The Scorpion departed Norfolk, Va., on Feb. 15, 1968, and was lost at sea
97 days later. Its destruction occurred only five days before its scheduled
return to Norfolk.
Though the Navy announced at the time that the submarine had a regular
overhaul, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal
the Navy's troubled maintenance system was incapable of providing work
needed by the submarine.
Navy correspondence shows: Because the Navy was concerned that 1960s
nuclear submarines spent nearly half their service life being repaired, the
Scorpion was picked to become the subject of a reduced overhaul experiment.
Eliminated as part of the experimental program was the long-overdue
installation of submarine safety systems deemed essential five years before
the Scorpion went down.
The Navy's repair system was so overloaded the Scorpion's reduced overhaul
was eventually slashed to no more than emergency work necessary to get it
back to sea.
The cost of the Scorpion's last ````overhaul'' was nearly seven times less
than those given other nuclear submarines at the same time.
After two investigations, the U.S. Navy says it still does not know what
led to the Scorpion's destruction. A mid-1980s study showed no radiation is
leaking from the submarine's nuclear reactor or its two nuclear-tipped
torpedoes, now 11,000 feet deep in the Atlantic.
The Chronicle reported in May 1993 that one former crewman saved his life
by refusing to sail aboard the Scorpion after complaining to superiors
about its poor condition.
Navy researchers initially speculated that the Scorpion was destroyed by
one of its own torpedoes, but that theory was rejected after a second
investigation of the wreckage, which found no torpedo damage, the Chronicle
reported in December 1993.
Navy teletype messages, memos and letters reveal in minute detail how the
Navy found itself incapable of repairing and building its fleet of
submarines on schedule during the 1960s. At the same time, the Soviets were
stepping up their construction of nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarines
and ballistic missile submarines.
A major factor hampering the Navy's ability to repair its undersea warships
was a massive and costly retrofit of safety systems begun five years before
the Scorpion was lost, Navy documents reveal. This ````Submarine Safety
Program'' was deemed necessary after the April 10, 1963, sinking of the
nuclear attack submarine USS Thresher with 129 aboard.
The Scorpion and the Thresher are the only two American nuclear submarines
lost in 40 years of nuclear submarine operations and the only submarine
mishaps since World War II that caused the loss of all hands. Heavily
publicized by the Navy when the sleek warships were built at the end of the
1950s, the two were launched within seven months of each other.
Forgotten documents, discovered in the archives of the commander of the
submarine force of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, reveal a day-by-day history of
how and why the Scorpion was picked for the one-of-a-kind experimental
overhaul reduction program.
Among these memos was one encapsulating the concerns of Navy officers
desperately trying to keep nuclear submarines on patrol as the Soviets
began to challenge American seapower: ````The inordinate amount of time
currently involved in the routine overhauls of nuclear-powered submarines
is a recognized source of major concern to the Navy as a whole and the
Submarine Force in particular and stands as a potential source of acute
political embarrassment,'' says a March 24, 1966, letter from the
headquarters of Submarine Squadron Six, the Scorpion's command at Norfolk
The memo warned Navy brass, already concerned about the duration of
submarine repairs, that the Scorpion's planned 1967 overhaul would
````establish a new record in overhaul duration.'' This message and dozens
of others were exchanged between various commands in response to a March 2,
1966, request by the Atlantic Submarine Force seeking ways to reduce
````the high percentage of (nuclear attack submarine) time off line.''
The magnitude of the problem was highlighted in an undated 1968 letter from
Submarine Squadron Six's headquarters saying that ````40% of total
available SSN (nuclear attack submarine) time was being spent in shipyards.''
Under mounting maintenance pressures and with new submarine construction
taxing Navy resources, this reduced overhaul concept moved through the Navy
bureaucracy until approved by the office of the Chief of Naval Operations
on June 17, 1966.
On July 20, 1966, the CNO also allowed deferral of Submarine Safety Program
work that would have provided the Scorpion with an enhanced ability to
survive a mishap while submerged. Eliminating the safety work would greatly
shorten the time the Scorpion spent in the shipyard, Navy memos repeatedly
Letters written before and after the Scorpion's loss report that the
Submarine Safety or ````SubSafe'' program actually overloaded Navy and
civilian industrial capacity. It became impossible to complete submarine
repairs on schedule, and new submarine construction was hampered.
In addition to detailed inspections of piping and the submarine's hull, the
specialized program provided for the installation of various emergency
systems to allow crew members to blow water from submarine ballast tanks at
A Navy inquiry into the Thresher disaster found that faulty piping probably
spewed salt water onto the nuclear reactor controls, shutting down its
power. Unable to propel herself to the surface, the vessel lacked the air
pressure necessary to expel water from its ballast tanks for buoyancy. When
the Thresher descended below its crush depth, her hull imploded.
By May 1968, the Navy had spent a half-billion dollars -- equal to the cost
of an aircraft carrier of the period -- to implement the Submarine Safety
Program, according to a report prepared by the Naval Sea Systems Command.
This report was sent to the Court of Inquiry explaining why the Scorpion
was one of a handful of submarines that had not received ````SubSafe''
It stated: ````The deferral of this (work) during certain submarine
overhauls was necessitated by the need to reduce submarine off-line time by
minimizing the time spent in overhaul and to achieve a more timely delivery
of submarines under construction by making more of the industrial capacity
available for new construction.''
Before the Scorpion's abbreviated overhaul period began, it was slashed
further because of growing pressures upon the Norfolk Navy Shipyard's
overtaxed repair capacity.
According to a November 1966 memo from Submarine Force headquarters: ````To
minimize time off the line in view (of the) shipyard workload . . . request
best estimates (of the) total time (of) duration to accomplish specific
alternate work (packages) . . . ,'' said the memo sent to the commander in
chief of the Atlantic Fleet. This message advised that only refueling of
the reactor (an absolute necessity) and emergency repairs necessary to get
the Scorpion back to sea would be performed.
A 1992 study obtained from the Naval Sea Systems Command shows the Scorpion
receiving only $3.32 million in repair work during the 8-month overhaul,
with more than 70 percent of the money spent on nuclear refueling, the
least expensive ````overhaul'' given a nuclear submarine.
During the same period, the study says, the Scorpion's sister ship USS
Snook received a 24-month overhaul at a cost of $22.5 million, while
another sister ship, the USS Sculpin, underwent an 18-month, $24 million
The USS Shark, another of the Scorpion's sister ships, also received a
greatly reduced overhaul getting only nine months of work at a cost of $4.3
million between June 1967 and March 1968. It was the second-cheapest
overhaul performed on an American nuclear submarine, according to the Naval
Sea Systems Command analysis.
The Shark's next refit period occurred a mere eight months later, lasting
22 months and costing nearly $24 million. Had the Scorpion survived her
final voyage, she, too, was scheduled to receive a full overhaul along with
her submarine safety systems retrofit at the same time, according to Navy
Officials with Naval Sea Systems Command today say they have no record of
any maintenance program known as a ````planned availability'' experiment
for American nuclear submarines. The reason for this may be in a
30-year-old memo discussing the Scorpion's selection for the abbreviated
The ````Confidential'' Submarine Force memo written on March 25, 1966,
predicted that the ````success of this ``major-minor' overhaul concept
depends essentially on the results of our first case at hand: Scorpion.''
After a massive six-month search following its disappearance, the
Scorpion's wreckage was located 400 miles southwest of the Azores. Though
the precise cause of its loss remains unknown, enemy action and sabotage
were ruled out by Navy investigators.
NEWSPAPER HOUSTON CHRONICLE
EDITION 2 STAR
PUBLICATION DATE 12/27/93
LENGTH 26 INCHES
HEADLINE Report heightens nuclear sub mystery/Torpedo theory contradicts
findings of USS Scorpion's wreckage in 1968
BYLINE STEPHEN JOHNSON
PHOTOS, GRAPHICS Photos: 1. Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ross Saxon of Houston
displays the flag that blew aboard the research submersible Trieste II
(color); The USS Scorpion submarine (b/w, p. 8.)
ART CREDIT 1. Carlos Antonio Rios/Chronicle, 2. Chronicle file photo
A recently unveiled report suggesting that the nuclear submarine USS
Scorpion may have been destroyed by one of its own torpedoes has only
heightened the mystery surrounding the loss of the sub and 99 crewmen in
Examination of the wreckage revealed no torpedo damage, and many
investigators and others familiar with the disaster, including the
commander-in-chief of the Atlantic fleet at the time, have rejected the
But it received renewed publicity after it appeared in documents released
by the Navy in October under the federal Freedom of Information Act.
One of the documents summarized the testimony and findings of a 1968 Navy
Court of Inquiry into the disaster.
The court's ````Finding of Facts'' determined the ````most probable cause''
of the tragedy was the launch of an inadvertently activated torpedo, which
turned and struck the 252-foot submarine on May 22, 1968, five days before
it was due at its home port of Norfolk, Va.
Since no one survived and since no distress signals were received from the
Scorpion, the Court of Inquiry's only direct evidence was the submarine's
wreckage 400 miles south of the Azores and an audio recording of the
Scorpion's death throes recorded by a secret submarine tracking system.
The wreckage and recording provided enough tantalizing information to
generate theories, but not enough to support any one.
The recordings were made by the Sound Surveillance System, which consists
of hydrophones connected by cables to various stations around the Atlantic.
The system's real capability is in the computer analysis of sounds that
reveals the presence and locations of enemy submarines.
The system revealed a series of 15 eerie sounds beginning at 6:59 p.m.
Greenwich Mean Time on May 22 and continuing for 190 seconds. Navy research
scientist John Craven, who heard the recording and saw graphic depictions
of the low frequency sounds, told the Court of Inquiry, ````It sounds like
an explosion, it looks like an explosion.''
But when the Scorpion's wreckage was discovered and examined five months
after the disaster, investigators could not find damage consistent with a
torpedo explosion inside or outside its hull.
Because no ````classic'' torpedo damage could be seen on the wreckage,
which lies 11,000 feet beneath the Atlantic, the commander-in-chief of the
Atlantic Fleet did not accept the torpedo theory. The commander, Adm.
Ephraim P. Holmes, was ````of the opinion that the conclusions of the Court
. . . cannot be confirmed and therefore, the cause of the loss cannot be
definitely ascertained,'' according to a letter from his office to the
Court of Inquiry. The letter, known as an endorsement, was obtained by the
Chronicle in 1992. The Navy was so stymied in its search for the cause of
the tragedy that a second investigation was launched a year later,
according to letters released along with the inquiry transcript in October.
Former submarine Lt. Cmdr. Ross Saxon, now of Houston, participated in that
investigation, inspecting the wreckage aboard the deep diving research
submersible Trieste II. He said the six-month expedition, which included
Craven and other research scientists as well as high-ranking Navy officers,
found nothing to support the theory that the Scorpion was destroyed by a
While the Navy has not released the findings of that secondary
investigation, Saxon rejects the possibility that a torpedo sank the
Scorpion. No torpedo damage can be seen on the submarine's hull, he said,
and the torpedo doors on the bow are tightly shuttered, indicating that no
torpedo had been fired moments before the submarine was destroyed.
Saxon and his colleagues continued their investigation May through October
of 1969, making nine dives at the wreck site. ````The findings of everyone
there were consistent across the board, that the Scorpion went down for an
unknown reason,'' he said. ````Personally, I discount any theory that
claims a torpedo struck the Scorpion or exploded inside the ship.'' ````We
were given about 21 scenarios to examine and we discounted either 20 or 21
of them, including the possibility of a torpedo explosion,'' Saxon said.
````However, during our last dive we saw some things that suggested several
more scenarios but I can't talk about those,'' he said, refusing to divulge
During the original inquiry, a parade of officers and scientific experts
appeared before the court offering differing and ultimately unsubstantiated
theories about the Scorpion's loss.
Some suggested a trash disposal unit failed, flooding the submarine with
seawater. Others theorized that the vessel was sent to crushing depth by a
failure of the stern planes -- winglike structures that guide a submarine's
Last May, the Chronicle reported that the Scorpion had been denied
scheduled work before its last mission and was one of only a handful of
submarines not equipped with a submarine safety system developed after the
loss of another nuclear submarine, the USS Thresher, in 1963. The Navy
maintained that the Scorpion was in excellent condition.
But one sailor told the Chronicle he refused to sail aboard the Scorpion
because he so mistrusted its mechanical condition. Other crew members who
died on the Scorpion had expressed similar concerns in letters to family.
Rumors spread in the absence of an official explanation for the sinking,
and families agonized over whether their loved ones were killed or captured
during a Soviet attack or were the victims of sabotage.
A Soviet attack seems unlikely. The original inquiry found that no Soviet
warships were closer than 200 miles to the Scorpion at the time of its
destruction, and those forces were under U.S. surveillance.
The families of lost crewmen remain dissatisfied with what they believe is
unreasonable secrecy about an event so far in the past. They want all the
documents related to the Scorpion declassified so they can see what steps
were taken to investigate the disaster. ````After all these years this is
what comes out?'' said Theresa Bishop, widow of Chief of the Boat Wally
Bishop, the most senior enlisted man aboard and a torpedo expert. ````We
all want to know what happened. None of us buy the torpedo (theory) because
we know that didn't happen.''
Retired Navy Capt. Zeb Alford of Houston, who commanded the Scorpion's
sister ship USS Shark in 1963, reviewed the recently released documents and
noted that for the Scorpion to be killed by its own torpedo, the weapon
would have to have been activated accidentally, launched unnecessarily and
then turned on its own ship. ````If you did have a ``hot-run' (accidental
activation of a live torpedo), what you would do would be to let the
torpedo's battery power run down and to then remove it from the torpedo
tube and disarm it,'' Alford said. This is the same textbook solution the
Navy mentions in the Findings of Fact.
Alford left the Shark in 1963 to help prepare Navy testimony before
Congress about the sinking of the Thresher, lost with 129 men in April
1963. Because the commander of the Thresher was in communication with a
vessel above at the time of its fatal dive, enough information was
available for the Navy to conclude that a pipe weld failed, causing the
ship's reactor to shut down. The Thresher then sank below its crush depth.
NEWSPAPER HOUSTON CHRONICLE
EDITION 2 STAR
PUBLICATION DATE 05/23/93
LENGTH 24 INCHES
HEADLINE The Scorpion: a long and deep mystery/The explanation that never
came/Navy's silence on Scorpion adds bitterness to families' grief
BYLINE STEPHEN JOHNSON
DATELINE HIGHLAND SPRINGS, Va.
PHOTOS, GRAPHICS Photo: An aging photograph is a painful reminder for
Barbara Baar Gillum of the brother she still mourns.
Joseph Anthony Baar Jr., 21 died when the USS Scorpion was lost 25 years ago.
ART CREDIT Stephen Johnson/Chronicle
NOTES Copyright, 1993 Houston Chronicle
HIGHLAND SPRINGS, Va. -- Youthful and handsome, submariner Joseph Anthony
Baar smiles from a photograph in his sister's living room, a reminder of
the brother who will never return from the sea.
The black and white image also reminds Barbara Baar Gillum and her mother
that they still have no idea how or why Baar and his 98 shipmates died.
````All we really ever wanted was an explanation,'' Gillum lamented,
looking at the image of the brother who will always be 21. ````After the
disaster everything was covered up.''
The same questions torment others whose loved ones were aboard the nuclear
submarine USS Scorpion when it was lost with all hands on May 22, 1968.
These survivors remain angry and hurt that the U.S. Navy either would not
or could not tell what happened.
A memorial service scheduled for Saturday at Norfolk Naval Base's Submarine
Pier 22 will recognize the 25th anniversary of the Scorpion's loss.
The crew left behind 64 widows and 99 children. Some wives, pregnant at the
time, later gave birth, adding to the number of children who lost fathers.
The sailors represented 25 states, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Of the
12 officers and 87 enlisted men who perished, most, like Baar, were younger
A sea-blue memorial book was given to the families containing photos of
each crewman and information about their lives. The biographies for the
younger crewmen are painfully brief.
The agony of the families began on May 27, 1968, as they waited dockside in
Norfolk, Va., for the Scorpion's scheduled return. When it didn't arrive
the families were sent home, only to learn from inquiring news reporters
that the sub was missing.
Many families began distrusting the Navy that day, when officers told the
media the sub was missing without telling the families who had waited most
of the day. ````None of us took what the Navy said seriously after that,''
said Allie Sueflow, whose husband was Machinist's Mate James Kenneth
Brueggeman. ````The Navy told us all day it would be coming in,'' said
Julie Ballou, who gave birth to a daughter two days before the Scorpion's
expected arrival. ````I thought it cruel that the Navy didn't tell us
anything. It was like they were saying, ``Well, 99 men are gone but don't
worry about it.' '' Ballou, of Rigsby, Idaho, was the wife of Machinist's
Mate Robert Bernard Smith.
Vernon and Sybil Stone of Ames, Iowa, have been haunted for two decades by
a letter from their son, Machinist's Mate Second Class David Burton Stone,
complaining about the Scorpion's condition on its final voyage. ````This
concerned us, and after the Scorpion was lost we wrote Adm. (Hyman)
Rickover who we thought was in charge of all the nuclear submarines and
sent him a copy of David's letter. He sent us a nice reply but that was
Probably because of his high profile as the father of the American nuclear
submarine program, several crew members' parents wrote Rickover following
But he was only in charge of the Navy's nuclear propulsion systems and he
refused to testify at the Norfolk inquiry.
No record could be found indicating Rickover forwarded crew members'
letters or parental concerns to the court. Court members contacted by the
Chronicle don't recall receiving such letters to review.
Famous for being a harsh, unyielding perfectionist, Rickover replied to
Mrs. Stone with a gentle note thanking her and her husband for forwarding
their son's letter. ````Although there is nothing one can do at a time like
this,'' Rickover wrote, ````I hope you will find some comfort in the
knowledge that he served his country well.''
Five years earlier, Rickover issued an ominous warning to a Congressional
hearing investigating the loss of the nuclear submarine Thresher, according
to David Bentley's book, ````The Thresher Disaster.'' ````We must correct
the conditions that permitted the inadequate design, poor fabrication
methods and incomplete inspection to exist, if we are not to have another
Thresher,'' Rickover said.
Surviving families still struggle with the lack of finality in the Scorpion
disaster, which yielded neither answers nor bodies for burial. ````The
difficult thing was this tragedy never had an ending,'' said David Stone's
sister, Laura. ````Everyone had to find their own personal moment in which
they finally said it was over. ````Sometimes I believe that I'll look up
and see those guys coming back.''
Luella Violetti still sobbed last August when she talked about her son,
Torpedoman Robert Paul Violetti. In poor health at the time, Mrs. Violetti
died a month later ````still expecting Robert to come through the door,''
said her daughter, Anne Pierce of Broomall, Pa. ````My mother always
believed my brother would come home.'' The son's life intertwined with the
As an 11-year-old Boy Scout, Violetti went with his troop to watch the
launching of the Scorpion Dec. 29, 1959. He later joined the Navy and was
assigned to the Scorpion July 31, 1967.
The father of a Scorpion officer still embraces the belief that the Soviets
forced the submarine to the surface and took the crew prisoner. ````If you
want to find them, look in Siberia,'' demands the elderly man. There is no
evidence that the Soviets had any role in the Scorpion's destruction.
Others recount their difficulty in accepting the unseen and seemingly
unreal deaths of their loved ones. ````There's a marker in West Islip,
N.Y., that was erected in memory of my husband but it's tough because you
don't know what happened,'' said Mary Brodersen of Bellmore, N.Y., the
widow of Machinist's Mate Mark Christiansen.
Laura Stone was 14 when the brother she idolized died aboard the Scorpion,
and she is only now beginning to consciously cope with the event.
````Several years ago Laura started asking us questions about David and
then she just cried and cried and cried,'' said Sybil Stone. ````It's still
very hard for her.'' Recalls Laura Stone, ````My parents fell apart at the
time of David's death and they tried to isolate me from it. You can't
understand what it's like to be asked about this after so long. ````Because
my brother was older, I thought he was perfect in every way. He was very
cool. He played the guitar and was a great artist. I admired him. ````It
seemed like we sat in front of the television for weeks waiting to hear the
news. We were hanging on to that.'' Laura Stone also has had to deal with
the lack of public familiarity with the disaster that killed her brother.
````When my brother's death comes up in a conversation people say they
never heard about that submarine. I just say, ``Well, 1968 had a lot of
misery in it for everyone.' ''
The misery lasted almost 25 years for Mary Lou Clifton of Lewisville,
Texas, mother of Machinist's Mate James Mitchell Wells. ````I look at his
picture every day and shed a few tears,'' she said last year. The tears
stopped April 27, when Clifton died at age 86.
NEWSPAPER HOUSTON CHRONICLE
EDITION 2 STAR
PUBLICATION DATE 05/23/93
LENGTH 88 INCHES
HEADLINE A long and deep mystery/Scorpion crewman says sub's '68 sinking
BYLINE STEPHEN JOHNSON
DATELINE NORFOLK, Va.
PHOTOS, GRAPHICS Map: 1. Route of the final voyage of the Scorpion (color)
Graph: 2. The final voyage of the Scorpion
(color), (TEXT) Photos: 3. USS Scorpion (b/w, p. 16); 4. Dan Rogers (b/w,
p. 16); 5. A view of the bow section of the USS Scorpion where it rests on
the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. (b/w, p. 16)
ART CREDIT 1. Chronicle, 2. Chronicle, Sources: U.S. Navy documents, Jane's
Fighting Ships, 3. Associated Press, 4. U.S. Navy; 5. Steve Ueckert/Chronicle
NOTES Copyright, 1993 Houston Chronicle.
NORFOLK, Va. -- In a farewell gesture, Electrician's Mate Dan Rogers
splashed the USS Scorpion's bone-white mooring line into Chesapeake Bay as
the nuclear attack submarine edged away from its pier.
He exchanged shouts with former shipmates as they coiled the wet line into
a compartment atop the submarine's smooth snout. Dying afternoon sunlight
glimmered off the warship's wake as a winter breeze chilled the submarine
piers of the Norfolk Naval Base on Feb. 15, 1968.
Six weeks before, Rogers had jeopardized his career in the Navy's submarine
elite by quitting the Scorpion because he considered it unsafe. He worried
about his career as he watched the sub accelerate toward the Atlantic,
where it submerged for a high-speed dash to a Mediterranean mission. And he
feared for his former shipmates. His concerns were well-founded: In 97 days
the Scorpion was lost -- a disaster far less noted than the sinking five
years before of the only other U.S. nuclear sub lost at sea, the USS
Thresher. To the surviving family and former crew members, though, the lack
of public notice didn't ease the private grief and bitterness over a loss
that might have been prevented.
Almost 25 years later, Dan Rogers perched on the edge of a chair in his
north Harris County home, chain-smoking cigarettes while reading for the
first time the summary of the Navy's inquiry into the sinking. The document
extols the Scorpion's virtues and exonerates the Navy of responsibility for
To the U.S. Navy brass, it was a superbly maintained ````showboat'' that
did double duty as a stalker of Soviet submarines and as a symbol of
American technological prowess.
Rogers, 51, exhaled a plume of smoke and growled: ````If it was so great
why didn't it come back? I can tell you why. It needed an overhaul and it
didn't get one. ````If that was an ``excellent' submarine, then I'm glad I
never served on a bad one.''
During the 12 months he served aboard it, Rogers had been appalled at the
Scorpion's poor condition, lack of maintenance and bizarre malfunctions.
And his decision not to sail with it on that winter day in Virginia saved
Foreboding about the submarine was not restricted to Rogers. Machinist's
Mate Max Franklin Lanier turned to his wife Ladell shortly before the
Scorpion's final mission and lamented, ````This thing ought to be going in
for maintenance instead of out for a long mission.''
Just before midnight on May 21, 1968, the Scorpion communicated with the
outside world for the last time. Running a few feet below the windswept
surface of the heaving North Atlantic, the 252-foot attack submarine
extended its radio antenna into the night air for a routine call to a Navy
communications station in Greece.
The sub's radioman reported the Scorpion was traveling at 18 knots and was
250 miles south of the Portuguese Azores islands. After the transmission,
the Scorpion's crew guided the submarine downward for the nuclear-powered
race home to Norfolk after three months at sea.
The fair winter weather that marked the Scorpion's departure from Norfolk
had been replaced by spring storms on May 27, when the warship was due to
return. Winds churned the slate-gray bay waters and rain pelted the
families waiting dockside that day for their husbands and fathers.
Children in new clothes stood by their anxious mothers for one of the
infrequent reunions that punctuate the long separations of submarine
families. ````I remember that day,'' said Allie Sueflow, who awaited her
husband's return with their twin boys and daughter. ````It rained hard
enough to knock down a small tree. She recalled a nightmare she'd had, a
panorama of terror in which she saw the faces of her husband and his
shipmates illuminated by flames as they struggled inside their submarine.
````We were told the submarine was delayed so we passed coffee around until
they told us all to go home. When we got home, a newscaster called and
asked me if I knew the Scorpion was missing. The Navy hadn't told me
Other families, told the warship was merely delayed, were shocked when they
arrived home to hear radio and television reports that said the submarine
had been officially declared missing.
The family of Machinist Mate Second Class David Burton Stone was at the
dinner table. ````I was in the middle of telling some dumb joke when the
call came,'' recalled Laura Stone, who was 14 when her brother died. ````My
uncle had seen the news on TV and called. The joke was left hanging
The Navy launched a massive search, but it was five months before the
Scorpion's shattered wreckage was found two miles beneath the Central North
Atlantic, 400 miles southwest of the Azores.
Because of Cold War tensions and the deep secrecy surrounding submarine
operations, mystery soon enveloped the Scorpion's disappearance. The
tragedy became even more enigmatic when the Navy's inquiry, conducted in
secret, failed to pinpoint what killed the submarine and her crew.
All that was certain was that on approximately May 22, 1968, the Scorpion
and its 99 men died in a disaster witnessed only by other creatures of the
Various theories blamed the Soviets, an explosion of the Scorpion's own
torpedoes, and a collision with an undersea mountain. The Navy rejected
those theories, according to inquiry transcripts declassified 21 years
after the disaster and obtained by the Chronicle under the federal Freedom
of Information Act.
And though the Navy couldn't determine what doomed the Scorpion, it was
confident in concluding what didn't: the disaster was not caused ````by the
intent, fault, negligence or inefficiency of any person or persons in the
naval service,'' and the ````overall material condition'' of the Scorpion
A nation overwhelmed by the Vietnam War and the other cataclysmic events of
1968 soon forgot the Scorpion. Fate had wedged the tragedy between the
April assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the June murder of Robert
As a result, the Scorpion disaster remains virtually unknown when compared
to the April 10, 1963, sinking of the Thresher. When that submarine sank
with 129 men off the New England coast -- during a more placid American
period -- news coverage and congressional interest in the matter were
But Rogers and hundreds of families remember. Rogers sees no mystery in the
loss of the Scorpion. He believes its poor condition led to its demise. The
view is supported by information obtained from Navy documents, interviews
with former crewmen and letters from sailors written before their deaths on
the final voyage.
Far from being a gleaming and well-maintained warship, the submarine had a
history of confounding maintenance problems, was equipped with a safety
system that never worked, and was denied massive reconditioning before its
The Scorpion's history of problems began early. Scorpion was built by
Electric Boat Division, at Groton, Conn., and launched Dec. 29, 1959. It
suffered chronic problems in its hydraulic system, which among other things
operates the stern planes and sail planes -- winglike surfaces that control
a submarine's movement. The submarine's hydraulic problems continued into
its final mission.
After four years of service, Scorpion received its first and only full
overhaul at Charleston Naval Shipyard, which had never before done such
work on a nuclear submarine. Workers discovered numerous faulty piping
welds that had to be redone. Similar inadequate welds were blamed for the
loss of the Thresher, whose destruction encouraged the Navy to fit
submarines with a safety system that would allow crewmen throughout their
ships to blow ballast and make the vessels buoyant in an emergency.
The Scorpion's system never worked properly and was disconnected at the
time it sank. In 1968 it was one of only four vessels out of 60 in the
Atlantic Fleet submarine force not certified as having all the required
As Cold War pressures mounted and the Soviets began launching a vast
submarine fleet, the U.S. Navy by 1966 realized it lacked the capacity to
perform all the overhaul work needed by its own growing nuclear submarine
This problem was so serious that the Scorpion didn't get scheduled
reconditioning. Nearing another full overhaul that could take more than a
year to accomplish, the Scorpion was selected in 1966 as the first to take
part in a ````new overhaul concept,'' an experimental program that would
provide abbreviated but more frequent reconditioning.
In place of a full overhaul, the experimental program was to provide
reconditioning totaling 85,000 man-days -- a form of labor measurement used
by the Navy in the context of shipyard work. But only 48,407 man-days were
performed during the reconditioning between February and July, 1967.
And less than a third of that work went into the Scorpion's mechanical,
electrical and hydraulic systems. Most went into refueling and other
maintenance of the sub's nuclear reactor.
Dan Rogers reported for duty aboard the Scorpion on Jan. 29, 1967, having
enthusiastically volunteered for the elite nuclear submarine service after
serving aboard the nuclear-powered surface ship USS Bainbridge. He expected
to find the Scorpion being rebuilt by the Norfolk Naval Shipyard's civilian
workers. Instead, he walked into a maelstrom of activity as the Scorpion's
sailors worked two grueling six-hour shifts every 24 hours to recondition
the submarine with little shipyard help.
Machinist's mates had to fabricate their own spare parts because of
shortages; work was slipshod. Rogers once was ordered to weld a bookcase
onto the submarine's hull -- the crew's protection from the crushing depths
-- without proper authorization.
Rogers didn't realize the pressures his officers were under to keep the
submarine combat-ready with limited resources. ````We called the Scorpion
the ``USS Scrapiron,' '' he said. ````You'd spend the entire day working on
equipment, and it was still in bad shape. We were giving the thing an
overhaul without spare parts.''
Rogers' dream of being on a nuclear submariner gnarled into a nightmare of
disappointment when he complained to superiors about maintenance problems.
His warnings were ignored and his concerns grew.
Another former Scorpion crewman who doubts the Navy's claim about the
submarine's ````excellent'' condition is retired Master Chief Electrician
Andy Elnicki, 51, who spent nearly four years aboard the warship. Rogers
and Elnicki were shipmates for 12 months.
Elnicki left the Scorpion 13 days before its final departure to help build
another nuclear submarine. The 30-year veteran served aboard nine
submarines, including four he helped build. He now lives in Jewett City,
Elnicki was stunned when told the Navy had declared the Scorpion in
````excellent'' condition at the time of its loss. ````I don't think I
would agree 100 percent with that assessment,'' he said sardonically.
````We always had problems. We were always making adjustments you normally
wouldn't have to make on equipment. ````I was confident in the (nuclear)
reactor systems where most of the work was done but not in the other
systems. The shipyard didn't hardly touch the rest of the submarine.''
Elnicki recalled that difficult work usually done by the shipyard was
instead accomplished by the crew and a submarine tender, a maintenance ship.
Following the shorter-than-planned refurbishing, the Scorpion returned to
sea only to be stricken by more problems, the first being a seawater leak
through its propeller shaft seal.
Navy officers said the leak was soon fixed but another more serious problem
that defied explanation occurred during a high-speed run to the Caribbean
in November 1967. ````The boat began to corkscrew through the water,''
recalls Rogers. ````It was bad. The guys raised their eyebrows at each
other like submariners do when something's wrong. Huge pieces of equipment
were swaying on their rubber mountings.''
The incident came up during the inquiry into the sinking, with conflicting
explanations. One theory blamed a torpedo guidance wire, even though the
Scorpion had not fired torpedoes.
An officer on board at the time, who said he had never experienced such a
malfunction before, claimed that air-contamination of the hydraulic system
affected the submarine's control surfaces. ````We put the thing in dry dock
and we never could figure out what was wrong with it,'' said Rogers, who by
then distrusted the submarine.
On Dec. 29, 1967, Rogers wrote a letter to Cmdr. Francis A. Slattery, who
had assumed command of the Scorpion three months before. Rogers was seeking
disqualification from submarine duty. ````To get off the Scorpion, I had to
disqualify myself from submarine duty entirely and I was willing to say
whatever I had to,'' said Rogers. ````I actually wanted to stay in
submarines and eventually was able to.'' In the letter, Rogers
characterized himself as a sailor who could not ````adapt'' to submarine
duty because of poor relations between the Scorpion's officers and enlisted
Rogers wrote that enlisted men like him were not heeded when they raised
maintenance concerns: ````Nor does any facet of duty aboard the Scorpion
compensate for the personal humiliation experienced as a result of not
being trusted by certain officers on board. These same officers have no
respect for professional pride which is found in almost every petty officer
and disregard their petty officers' opinions even when solicited. ````My
personal opinion is that such a lack of leadership on a vessel such as a
submarine places all personnel in danger, but even disregarding that, it is
still necessary for the crew to work and live together under closer than
normal conditions and a lack of morale makes this extremely difficult.''
Slattery ordered it retyped deleting Rogers' warning about ````danger.''
Slattery endorsed Rogers' request to disqualify in a Jan. 2, 1968, letter
that recognized Rogers' ````clear record.'' He recommended against Rogers
being given future submarine duty.
Rogers left the Scorpion and awaited reassignment. Soon after, the Scorpion
was selected as a last-minute replacement for a Mediterranean mission
because of accident damage to the nuclear attack submarine USS Seawolf.
Scorpion officer Lt. Robert Walter Flesch of St. Charles, Mo., asked Rogers
to return to the crew, holding out the promise of a visit to Mediterranean
ports. Rogers' sense of foreboding steeled his decision despite the
prospect of exotic sightseeing.
The crew was told of the mission as they struggled to make repairs on the
Scorpion, recalls Elnicki, who had only a few days left aboard the
submarine. ````On my way out I remember handing ````Popsicle''
(Electrician's Mate Gerald Pospisil of Wilber, Neb.) a stack of 15 or 20
work requests for electrical work alone,'' he said. ````Because the
Scorpion was replacing the Seawolf I told him, ``These jobs will have to be
done in two weeks instead of four, now.' There was a lot of work left to
do.'' On Feb. 16, 1968, the day after the Scorpion left Norfolk, the
submarine's crew was already struggling with repairs. A leaking hydraulic
system in the submarine's conning tower or ````sail'' stained the Atlantic
with 1,500 gallons of oil.
Letters written during the voyage by Scorpion crewmen and mailed during
port visits revealed a submarine plagued with problems. Communications
Electronics Technician James Frank Tindol III wrote of the hydraulic leak
to his wife Ingrid Ann Tindol:
````7:30 p.m., Feb. 16, 1968: Rumor going around that if the hydraulic leak
isn't found soon we'll have to pull into Bermuda to fix it. Good.''
````3:30 a.m., Feb. 17: Hydraulic leak is losing 50 gallons per hour --
bad. Auxiliary men (machinist's mates) think it is from the sailplanes.''
````9:50 a.m., Feb. 17: (Machinist's Mate First Class Robert James) Cowan
(is) in the sail looking for the leak, can't find it.''
````4 p.m., Feb. 17th: hyd. leak seems to have stopped -- looks like no
About the time Tindol began chronicling the hydraulic problems, Rogers
found himself explaining to Submarine Squadron Six commander Capt. Jared E.
Clarke III his reasons for disqualifying from submarine duty. ````I told
Clarke I had concerns about the Scorpion's condition but I let him know it
was the only submarine I didn't want to serve on.''
Clarke said little, but surprised the enlisted man by asking him which
submarine he'd like to serve on. ````I told him he was holding my
disqualification request in his hand. He threw it in the trash and put me
on the USS Lapon, another nuclear attack submarine.'' Rogers' Navy records
reflect the transfer.
As Rogers settled into that assignment, troubles continued aboard the
Scorpion. On April 12, Machinist's Mate Second Class David Burton Stone,
24, wrote his parents a letter embellished with a drawing of Sicily's
Augusta Bay, one of the Scorpion's ports of call. ````We have repaired,
replaced, or jury-rigged every piece of equipment . . . at one time or
another and the boat hasn't been overhauled in 4 1/2 years,'' he wrote.
````The officers get in and do a lot of arm waving and jaw working, we do
the work and they take the credit if anyone gets any, but we grin a little
at each other 'cause we know better.''
Scorpion commander Slattery also realized the submarine was in need of
repairs, and wrote to his superiors about it. Because important
reconditioning needed by the Scorpion was not scheduled until the following
year, Slattery wrote a March 23, 1968, request for emergency repairs and
warned: ````Delay of the work an additional year could seriously jeopardize
Scorpion's material readiness.''
Its once-sleek hull was so encrusted with barnacles the warship's speed was
reduced 1 1/2 knots, complained Slattery, who also sought replacement of
the submarine's propeller and its torpedo tube drain valves. Additionally,
he wrote that some of the valves that opened to allow the pumping of
seawater out of the submarine were leaking, forcing water pressure directly
against a drain pump inside the hull.
Because of various leaking valves, the Scorpion had been restricted to an
operating depth of 300 feet, though Skipjack-class submarines were designed
to descend to more than 2,000 feet.
Another letter contradicting the Navy's claim that the Scorpion was in
superb shape was written by a sailor flown to meet the submarine in Rota,
Spain, after it crossed the Atlantic.
When Senior Chief Radioman Robert Johnson joined the Scorpion he wrote his
wife Doris a letter dated March 2, 1968, raising doubts about the condition
of the Scorpion's communication's equipment. Johnson wrote: ````I reported
aboard and found all the radiomen working. Would you believe that every
piece of electronic equipment including antennas was inoperative?''
The deficiencies that were so obvious to the Scorpion crew somehow escaped
the notice of Navy higher-ups, many of whom testified at the inquiry that
they knew of no problems with the Scorpion.
One was Capt. Jared Clarke, the squadron commander who allowed Rogers to
return to submarine duty after he left the Scorpion. Clarke did not mention
to the inquiry board the conversation Rogers claims the two had about the
Now retired, Clarke has declined interviews, telling Navy officials too
much time has passed for him to recall the events of 1968. During his
inquiry testimony, Clarke said he certified the Scorpion as ````combat
Rogers, who was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1971, never was
called to testify despite his complaints about the warship. Three members
of the inquiry board contacted by the Chronicle said they were not familiar
with Rogers or his complaints and would have welcomed his testimony.
Rogers knows no better than any other living person exactly what happened
beneath the north Atlantic on that May day 25 years ago. But one theory he
finds plausible blames a mundane kitchen function -- trash disposal -- for
setting off a chain of events that led to the horrific disaster.
In testimony during the 1968 inquiry, classified until recently, Vice
Admiral Arnold F. Schade pointed to the trash disposal unit or ````TDU,'' a
simple device compared to other complex submarine systems.
After reviewing studies that remain classified, Schade told the inquiry
board a number of reasons led him to believe the trash disposal unit
precipitated the disaster.
Rogers and a former Scorpion officer have suspected the TDU ever since they
learned other nuclear submarines almost sank when malfunctioning TDUs
allowed high-pressure seawater into submarines. ````I don't know what work
was done on the TDU but if we'd had a full overhaul it would probably have
been rebuilt and checked out,'' Rogers said. ````Replacing a 10-cent part
may have saved the submarine.''
But even if it is on target, the TDU theory doesn't answer every question.
The Scorpion's nuclear power coupled with crew procedures should have
allowed the submarine to recover from a failure of its trash disposal unit.
Speculated Schade: ````Since it did not recover, we can only assume there
were some sequential failures associated with this . . . There might have
been additional material failures, flooding that caused fires, loss of
propulsion, or . . . personnel failures, lack of appreciation of what was
going on, and a (lack of) ability to counter it in time, but I think it
would have to have been something else at the same time.''
Deceptively simple, the TDU consists of an inner door in the submarine's
galley separated from sea pressure by a basketball-sized valve containing a
10-inch tunnel. A mechanism prevents the inner door from being opened while
the valve is open to the sea.
Rather than blindly trust that mechanism, crewmen are trained to check for
pressurized water against the inner door using a bleed valve before opening
it for trash insertion.
Should the system be broken, as it was on several submarines, according to
Schade, then opening the inner door without first checking for water on the
other side could send a torrent into the submarine.
It was apparent to Schade that the Scorpion had taken on water while
submerged at ````periscope depth,'' a shallow level where the careful trash
dumping procedure occurs.
The testimony of Schade and others indicated the Scorpion had filled with
water prior to sinking 10,000 feet beneath the Atlantic. There was no
evidence its torpedoes exploded, but a huge hole blown from the side of the
Scorpion's midsection indicated the possibility that seawater had reached
the huge batteries several decks below the galley where the TDU was located.
````Explosive hydrogen gas and poisonous chlorine gas are produced when
salt water hits battery acid,'' said Rogers. ````The crew could have been
incapacitated by the chlorine or the hydrogen gas produced could have
exploded, causing that hole.''
The elusiveness of a definite answer was illustrated by inquiry testimony
from former Scorpion Torpedoman James M. Peercy. When asked if he had any
guess about what caused the loss of the Scorpion, Peercy replied: ````I
don't know sir. There are a lot of things that can sink a submarine.''
Rogers was aboard the Lapon when it was dispatched with many other vessels
May 27, 1968, to search for the Scorpion. ````We didn't find them but I
realized while we searched that I could have been down there with them if I
hadn't done what I did.''
Had it not been for Rogers' foreboding about the submarine's condition, his
complaints would today be silenced beneath two miles of cold Atlantic water.
The final voyage of the Scorpion
The last mission of the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion included various
ports of call and maneuvers in the Mediterranean Sea before its ill-fated
return voyage across the Atlantic.
Feb. 15, 1968: Scorpion departed Norfolk, Va.
March 1: Rota, Spain
March 10: Taranto, Italy
March 23: Augusta Bay, Sicily
April 10: Naples, Italy
May 16: Rota, Spain
May 21: Final radio contact
May 22: Scorpion sank with 99 crew members.
The USS Scorpion
Crew: 12 officers and 87 enlisted men
Launched: Dec. 29, 1959
Length: 252 feet
Displacement (weight): 3,513 tons
Speed: 36 knots submerged
Copyright 1993 and 1995 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company. Posted on
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