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Scorpion Down by Ed Offley

The attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was due to return to the Norfolk base, Virginia, on Monday 27 May 1968, Memorial Day, after spending time in the Mediterranean. At its failure to show up as scheduled, an extensive search was carried out in the Atlantic Ocean. On June 5, the US Navy formally declared the Scorpion as “presumed lost”.

Scorpion Down by Ed Offley

There were subsequent investigations and hearings. Given the secretive nature of submarine technology and its missions, these hearings were understandably closed. In January 1969, after having concluded the hearings, the US Navy publicly stated that the cause of the loss of the Scorpion with all hands was unknown. To this day, many of the documents remain classified.

Organized into 13 chapters, Offley narrates the events as seen at the time in the first few chapters, which obviously provides the background that also acts as a helpful comparison to his subsequent research and findings.

In 1983, the author merely wanted to write an article as a military journalist about the loss of the Scorpion for its fifteenth anniversary—to provide an overview of the events and perhaps reveal any new information. The author obtained some heavily redacted documents via FOIA from the US Navy.

As the author dug deeper into the available material, read between the lines and interviewed key individuals, including some of the flag officers involved, he uncovered more information that contradict the official narrative. Amongst other things:

  • There was a secret search for the Scorpion ordered prior to 27 May 1968 when she failed to return to port as scheduled, indicating that at least some high-level US Navy officials already suspected that the Scorpion was in trouble.

  • The Scorpion wreckage was found in early June and not in October as announced.

  • The Scorpion was ordered to investigate Soviet naval activity before resuming its homeward track in the Atlantic.

  • The Scorpion sent a message indicating that it was being shadowed and its efforts to elude the pursuer so far had failed.

  • US Naval Intelligence confiscated data recorded by SOSUS (Sound Surveillance System) soon after the sinking of the Scorpion on 22 May 1968, some 700 nautical miles southwest of Azores. Apparently, the recording reveals an engagement between the Scorpion and a Soviet submarine, the latter firing a torpedo that ultimately sank the US boat.

  • Added to the intrigue were two other security issues. First, the capture of the electronic intelligence ship USS Pueblo (AGER-2) by North Korea in January 1968 with at least some of its encryption-decryption equipment. It is known the Soviets subsequently had access to said equipment. Second, a spy ring led by US naval officer John A. Walker gave details of US Navy communication encryption-decryption to the Soviets. It is possible that all this enabled the Soviets to read encrypted US naval communications and track their assets.

  • There seems to be an agreement at the time between the US and Soviet navies to not bring up the subject of the Scorpion and the K-129; in other words, an active cover-up.

The Soviet K-129 sank with all hands in the Pacific in March 1968. Ten days later, the attack submarine USS Swordfish (SSN-579) entered Yokosuka, Japan, with extensive damage to its sail. Soviet naval officials have always suspected that the K-129 sank due to a collision with the US attack submarine. During those years of the Cold War, it was the norm for US attack submarines—given their superior capabilities and quietness—to be used for spying missions, to track and closely monitor Soviet ships. Collisions and close calls were not uncommon.

In short, although many details remain classified and the motivations of the parties involved remain a mystery, the sinking of the Scorpion was most likely a retaliatory move by the Soviets (without excluding the possibility of more specific reasons given the circumstances at the time).

With the main text at around 390 pages, this is a detailed treatment of the subject. The author writes well and has a real gift for narrating his findings, exploring different angles and reconstructing events without taking a novelistic approach. Although he refrains from heavy use of jargon, there is a glossary. Also helpful are the comprehensive endnotes, an 11-page chronology of events and a subject index.

Scorpion (SSN-589) alongside USS Tallahatchie County (AVB-2) outside Claywall Harbor, Naples, Italy (Photo: US Navy, 10 April 1968)
Scorpion (SSN-589) alongside USS Tallahatchie County (AVB-2) outside Claywall Harbor, Naples, Italy (Photo: US Navy, 10 April 1968)

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