USS Scorpion

Four Submarines All Vanished in the Early Months of 1968. The Story Behind Their Disappearances Remains a Cold War Mystery.

Questions linger over a bizarre series of Cold War incidents involving submarines that left few clues about what caused their destruction.

In late October 1967, the Halloween season wasn’t all that had been spooky for the crew serving aboard the USS Scorpion.

A U.S. Navy Skipjack-class nuclear-powered submarine, the Scorpion (SSN-589) had undergone weapons systems tests and type training at her port in Norfolk, Virginia just weeks earlier, although not without incident. In addition to an electrical fire that erupted in one of the submarine’s escape hatches, the vessel had also experienced a Freon leak in its refrigeration systems, problems which might have contributed to the Scorpion observing a depth limitation of no more than 500 feet as she went underway the following February.

The Scorpion goes underway during one of its inaugural launch in 1959 (U.S. Navy/Public Domain).

Later that spring, the Scorpion and her crew were received in May at Naval Station Rota in Spain, where she made an emergency stop to release two men for issues involving family and health-related concerns. Throughout the Cold War years, U.S. and Soviet vessels routinely observed one another, and this had been no exception as the Scorpion made her departure from Rota. The U.S. had been aware that Soviet hunter-killer submarines were monitoring traffic exiting the Naval base, and part of the detail Scorpion was assigned involved observation of Soviet activity in the Atlantic.

Upon leaving Spain, Scorpion successfully detected and surveilled a Soviet Echo II-class submarine, along with an accompanying guided-missile destroyer while operating near the Azores, after which the U.S. Navy crew departed on a northbound course back toward Norfolk.

On May 20, 1967, a U.S. Naval communications station located at Nea Makri, Greece, began receiving an unusual amount of radio traffic from the Scorpion. The submarine, which had been unable to reach their most recent departure point at Naval Station Rota, had been attempting to dispatch radio traffic for more than 24 hours, and the messages received at Nea Makri were forwarded on to Submarine Force, Atlantic (COMSUBLANT). A final radio dispatch on May 21 indicated the submarine was pursuing a Soviet submarine and research group, with the aim of initiating “surveillance of the Soviets,” according to the message.

It was the last contact the U.S. Navy would have the Scorpion and her crew.


Searches, Secrecy, and Missing Submarines

The following week, American newspapers reported that Scorpion had failed to return to Norfolk by its expected arrival date. Because of the electrical problems the ship had experienced the previous year, the Navy worried that an onboard failure might have occurred, prompting in an initial search effort that would ultimately prove unsuccessful.

The USS Scorpion was declared “presumed lost” in early June, although search efforts expanded to include a group led by the chief scientist of the Navy’s Special Projects Division, Dr. John Craven. Famous for his scientific approaches to the location of objects lost at sea, Craven and his team of mathematicians employed Bayesian search techniques to aid in finding the missing submarine.

U.S. Navy photos from 1968 at the time of the discovery of the USS Scorpion, depicting the bow of the sunken vessel (U.S. Navy/public domain).

By late October, the search effort finally began to see results. The Mizar, a Navy research ship operating southwest of the Azores succeeded in locating the hull of the Scorpion on the seabed at a depth exceeding 9,800 feet. Part of what led to the discovery had been additional sound data obtained by acoustics expert Gordon Hamilton, whose listening station in the Canary Islands had recorded what appeared to be the implosion of the Scorpion’s pressure hull as it sank. Based on this data, Hamilton established a region where it would be likely that the wreckage would be found, within which the Mizar made the first confirmed detection.


Theories Break the Surface

Throughout the ensuing decades, several theories have been proposed for what might have caused the destruction of the USS Scorpion. Among these are the idea that a battery on board the submarine might have exploded, as well as the notion that a series of rubber bearings on the ship’s propeller shaft might have been compromised. A more popular theory involves a torpedo which may have misfired, causing damage to the ship.

A U.S. Navy court of inquiry in 1968 and a subsequent Naval Ordinance Laboratory study two years thereafter presented conflicting views on what had caused the incident, which remains unexplained to this day.

“The Navy has extensively investigated the loss of Scorpion through the initial court of inquiry and the 1970 and 1987 reviews by the Structural Analysis Group,” reads a Navy statement from 2003.

“Nothing in those investigations caused the Navy to change its conclusion that an unexplained catastrophic event occurred,” the Navy statement said. In 2012, a request to reinvestigate the incident was made by the U.S. Submarine Veterans, a group of more than 13,000 former Navy servicemen and other members. However, the Navy denied the proposal.

USS Scorpion
Memoriam to the sailors lost in 1968 when the USS Scorpion went down (Credit: Michael Rivera).

Today, questions remain about the fate of the Scorpion, which represents one of the greatest Naval mysteries of the Cold War era. However, contributing to the troubling nature of the incident is that it was not the only one of its kind to have occurred around that time: all within the early months of 1968, a rash of similar losses of submarines included the disappearances of an Israeli submarine, the INS Dakar, the French submarine Minerve, and the Soviet K-129, a Project 629A ballistic-missile submarine whose wreckage was ultimately located by the U.S. Navy in August that year.

Much like the fate of the Scorpion, the other three nations who lost submarines in 1968 had been unable to determine the exact circumstances behind those incidents, although theories similar to those proposed as explanations for the fate of the Scorpion have been offered. Such ideas range from fatal equipment failures, to unavoidable acts of nature; an October 5, 1980 Baltimore Sun headline read “Underwater Waves Held a Possible Clue to Disappearances of U.S. Submarines,” which put forward the idea that violent undersea weather might even be an explanation.

The bow section of the USS Scorpion photographed in 1986 (U.S. Navy/public domain).

That’s not the case according to some experts, however, who claim knowledge of something far more ominous that actually took place; something the United States military didn’t want the public to ever learn about.


The Navy’s Secret Search for the USS Scorpion

“To this day, the Navy will not acknowledge that [a] secret search occurred,” said Ed Offley during a CSPAN appearance in 2007. Offley learned about the existence of a possible “secret search” for the Scorpion that had been launched days prior when the official search effort began. So early, in fact, that the alleged “secret” search effort was already underway even before the Scorpion had failed to appear back at Norfolk by its expected arrival date.

According to Offley, he learned about the earlier search effort while interviewing Lt. Cmdr. Arnold F. Schade in 1983. “I stumbled upon it because when I was interviewing admiral Schade from this innocent 15-year retrospective of this article, I disarmed him,” Offley says.

“He told me something had happened to cause them to go looking for this submarine five days earlier.” – Ed Offley, author of Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon – The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion.

Part of Offley’s success had been contingent on the fact that, at the time, he had no idea about the secret search, nor any reason to think that there would have been one.

“Since I didn’t have a suspicion in the world as to the loss of the Scorpion, when I contacted the retired admiral in 1983, I was sincerely just asking him to fill in his memory on the loss of the Scorpion with some good sound bites,” Offley recalled.

Unclassified sketch of the USS Scorpion as it appeared at the time of its discovery on the sea bed in 1968 (U.S. Navy/Public Domain).

“I just said, ‘what I would like you to do is recount your memories. What do you remember about the loss of the Scorpion?’”

Offley got more than he bargained for.

“The human memory is like the back of a giant envelope,” Offley said. “It’s all in one folder, and when I asked the admiral to tell me what happened, he made a very, very big mistake. He told me what actually happened.”

Armed with the information from his interview with Schade, Offley later was able to corroborate Schade’s story by obtaining additional confirmation about the secret search effort from Admiral Thomas H. Moorer.

“I tracked down Tom Moore at a think tank in Washington, and I drove up to interview him and turned on the recorder and he confirmed the secret search had happened. He was very uncomfortable doing so, but I think he realized that I was on to it and he could not be caught in a lie.”

Thomas Moorer
Thomas Moorer (third from left) posing with U.S. Navy commanders in 1968, the year of the USS Scorpion incident (public domain).

“The reason neither Schade nor Moore would tell me [the Navy] went looking for the submarine,” according to a retired vice admiral who later gave Offley further details about the circumstances, “was that they had an immediate concern that something hostile—sinister—had happened to it.”

While conducting research at the National Archives, Offley later uncovered a document related to the USS Joseph Danielsat the Naval Historical Center that provided the first documentation in support of the Navy’s secret search for the Scorpion. According to the unclassified document, on May 18, 1968, the Joseph Daniels was alerted to dispatch to sea to aid in the search for the USS Scorpion.

“I thought, okay, reality check. This is a typo,” Offley recalls. “I turned the page and there’s this five-page narrative of history for the ship for the year and it repeated it. May 18th. She’s out to sea looking for the USS Scorpion.”

The problem with this version of the narrative is that it conveys that the Joseph Daniels had been involved in search efforts for the Scorpion not just prior to its expected return to Norfolk, but four whole days before the submarine is believed to have sank, according to the Navy’s official version of the story.

Offley’s pursuit of answers to why there had been an earlier secret search for the Scorpion led him to potentially even darker realities about the situation: namely, that the loss of the Scorpion might have been in retaliation for the Soviet belief at the time that the U.S. had played a role in the loss of the Soviet submarine K-129.

The Soviet Submarine K-129, one of the four submarines that went missing in 1968 (public domain).

“There have been a number of books written about [K-129],” Offley said in 2007. “I will not vouch for their accuracy but what I do know and can tell you is that to this day, the former Soviet admirals and sailors who were in that force in 1968 honestly believed that we played a hand in the destruction of their submarine.”

“It may not be based in fact but it is their belief, and by May of ’68, they had a motive for revenge.” In short, if the narrative Offley learned about throughout his decades of research is correct, the sinking of the USS Scorpion might have been seen as a retaliation against the perceived involvement of the American Navy in the loss of K-129.

As to why there had been such secrecy about the two incidents, one proposed scenario involves the idea that while the real circumstances surrounding the submarine losses were recognized at the time by the U.S. and the Soviets, neither wanted to see public knowledge of the matters lead to further escalation, or even the possibility of war.

Through his inquiries, Offley also learned about what Peter Huchthausen, a former captain with the U.S. Navy, said he was told by Admiral Peter Navojtsev during a conversation in 1987 while serving as a naval attaché in Moscow.

“Captain, you are very young and inexperienced,” Navojtsev said. “But you will learn that there were some matters that both nations have agreed to not discuss, and one of these is the reasons we lost K-129.”

Later, while compiling resources for a book he intended to write Huchthausen spoke with Admiral Viktor Dygalo, a Rear Admiral with the Russian Navy who claimed there had been agreement at the time between the Soviets and the United States that the circumstances that resulted in the loss of not only K-129, but also the USS Scorpion, would be better if they weren’t publicly known.

“[O]verlook this matter,” Dygalo reportedly told Huchthausen, “and hope that the time will come when the truth will be told to the families of the victims.”

CIA footage later declassified depicting the burials at sea of the Soviet K-129 sailors (Central Intelligence Agency/Public Domain).

Despite corroborating evidence found in unclassified files at the Naval Historical Center, as well as the testimony of several former high-ranking U.S. and Russian officials who have spoken on the matter. To date, the United States Navy has never acknowledged whether it had advance knowledge of an attack against the USS Scorpion in 1968, nor have they ever confirmed that a secret search effort had been preemptively launched days before the submarine is believed to have gone down.

“I came up with a scenario that challenges the official Navy scenario,” Offley concludes. “In the year 1968, the undersea confrontation between the Scorpion and the U.S. submarine service and their Soviet adversaries reached a point where it boiled over into overt violence.”

This article is dedicated to the memory of the 99 U.S. Navy servicemen who died aboard the USS Scorpion in May, 1968, as well as the 98 men who died with the loss of the Soviet K-129 and other submarines that were destroyed the same year.