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USS Scorpion (SSN-589) Nuclear Attack Submarine (1960)

Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Updated: 5/9/2013

The USS Scorpion was lost with all 99 hands aboard on May 22nd, 1968 - the cause is still unknown.

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USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was a United States nuclear submarine of the "Skipjack" Class. Scorpion was made by the Electric Boat Division of the General Dynamics Corporation in Groton, Connecticut at a cost of 40 million dollars and was commissioned on July, 29th 1960. Being bigger than the Barbell class allowed her to have an upgraded and larger power plant with a teardrop hull design with a single screw - not popular with some submariners since twin screws were the norm for the time. This new single hull design was short and fat, allowing for speeds over 29 knots (53.7mph). The Skipjack class was the beginning of the Navy's dream of the true fleet submarine - a boat that could travel long distances submerged and could quite possibly be faster than any of the surface fleet vessels. The nuclear submarine differed from boats of the First and Second World Wars in that vessels of those earlier conflicts were not "true" submarines. Boats of those preceding eras traveled most of the time along the surface of the ocean, submerging only to attack or evade, and many of those attacks were made close to the surface - or on the surface if at night - via periscope. They were essentially surface vessels with the ability to submerge when the need required it. Nuclear subs, on the other hand, can stay submerged for months at a time, fulfilling the role of "true submarines" and changing the outcome of the mission any every way possible.

Unlike World War 2-era submarines, the single screw and her Albacore-type design did not allow for the use of stern-mounted, rear-facing torpedo tubes. The Scorpion was also powered by the new S5W reactor, making her maneuverability unmatched in her day (World War 2-era subs were generally diesel and battery-operated vessels). The sail - or conning tower - on the Scorpion was enormous compared to her predecessors, giving her a large sea outline at periscope depth due to the distance between the top of the sail and the top of the hull. The diving planes were moved from the bow to the sail as this reduced the noise level at the bow so water flow noise was effectively reduced for the forward-mounted sonar arrays. The Scorpion and all the boats in her class were reportedly quite comfortable for their crews, the berthing spaces in the large torpedo room were roomy along with larger mess areas for the officers and sailors. The engineering spaces were superior as well, as were the engine room and the machinery spaces. She was 252 feet long with a beam of 31.9 feet and displaced 3,500 tons when submerged.

When commissioned she was assigned to New London Connecticut's Submarine station with Squadron 6 of Division 62. After test trials she departed on August 24th for a deployment voyage in European waters consisting of an estimated two-month period. Upon arrival she participated in exercises with the Sixth Fleet and NATO navies. In October she returned to New London and trained along the Eastern seaboard until early summer 1961, then, in late summer, she crossed the Atlantic for additional training operations. In August 1961 she returned to New London and was transferred to her new base of operations in Norfolk, Virginia. In her new home, Scorpion settled into performing standard nuclear submarine tactical warfare drills. She patrolled along the Atlantic coast and in the waters surrounding Puerto Rico, honing her skills and role as a hunter-killer.

From June 1963 to May 1964, Scorpion was scheduled for and received an extended overhaul at Charleston, South Carolina. After a much-needed refit of 11 months, Scorpion resumed standard patrol duty off the Eastern seaboard. In the next two years, she made a transatlantic crossing, patrolling in European waters, and was then assigned to perform classified special operations. Her captain and crew were cited for leadership and professional achievement for they were a well trained bunch and quite young - with most aged less than 25 years. In 1966 she was assigned a special operation to enter the Black Sea, home waters for the Warsaw Pack Soviet fleet, to film a missile launch through her periscope. After performing her mission, she was discovered and had to retire at flank speed with the Soviet Navy in hot pursuit. She successfully evaded her pursuers and returned to the safety of her home waters.

In May 1967 she was ready for another major overhaul. She had been experiencing many problems and some of the crew unaffectionately referred to her as the "USS Scrap Iron". Her hydraulic system constantly leaked oil, sea water seeped in from around her propeller shaft and her ballast system did not work as designed, requiring that her operational depth be restricted to about 300 feet with her test depth being just 700 feet. This reduction would have placed her in harm's way if she were ever attacked.

Scorpion arrived at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in October 1967 and stayed through February 1968 while undergoing an emergency five-month repair to get her back on duty as soon as possible. This five-month stint was in place of the standard complete overhaul that traditionally lasted from nine to thirty-six months.

By this time, the extended Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) was implemented by the Navy after the loss of the USS Thresher and her crew on April 10th, 1963. The lost was attributed to a mechanical failure that disallowed the boat to surface. The SUBSAFE program was a dual sword in some respects for the the lengthy overhauls required of the program created a lack of needed parts due to the intensified inspections. U.S. Submarine Fleet Atlantic (or SUBLANT) consistently looked for ways to reduce overhaul time in port because SUBSAFE in port procedures required about 40% of the total duty time when the pressures of the Cold War were an everyday concern for the Navy. The time spent in dock and the cost of parts for Scorpion's last overhaul was the least spent of all other nuclear submarines up to that point. The Navy had reviewed long overhaul SUBSAFE requirements and selected the Scorpion for an experimental "short overhaul" program; all SUBSAFE work on all boats was delayed in 1967 due to operational needs in the Cold War. The Navy weighted safety procedures against the need to have their subs back to sea in time to combat the Soviet menace. As such, safety was delayed.

The reader needs to understand that the Cold War was a tense time for civilians and military forces alike, creating an atmosphere across the globe of constant alert and readiness (not unlike today's "War on Terror" with its rising international tensions). Many-an-example existed of how close all-out war came to the world for these events dotted the critical Cold War years. One such example occurred on October 27th, 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, the US Navy dropped a series of "signaling depth charges" on a Soviet submarine (B-59) at the quarantine line, unaware that the Soviet vessel was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo along with orders for the Soviet crew that allowed it to be used if the submarine was attacked from depth charges or surface fire.


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Picture of USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
Pic of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
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Specifications for the
USS Scorpion (SSN-589)
Nuclear Attack Submarine


Country of Origin: United States
Initial Year of Service: 1960
Operators: United States


Crew: 99


Length: 252ft (76.81m)
Beam: 31.9ft (9.72m)
Draught: 29.1ft (8.87m)
Displacement: 3,070tons
Displacement (Submerged): 3,500tons


Machinery: 1 x S5W PWR nuclear reactor developing 15,000shp and turning 1 x shaft.

Surface Speed: 15kts (17mph)
Submerged Speed: 29kts (33mph)
Range: Essentially Unlimited


Armament:
6 x 533mm Mk 59 21" bow submerged torpedo tubes (23ft long). Tubes and fire control capable of firing various torpedo types.
Mark 14-6 torpedoes - 9,000 tards at 31 kts
Mark 16-6, -8 torpedoes - 9,000 yards at 31 kts
Mark 37-1, -3 torpedoes - 23,000 yards at 17kts, 10,000 yards at 26 kts.
Mark 45 -2, nuclear-tipped warhead torpedoes (ASTOR) containing explosive yield of 11 kilotons with a range between 5 and 8 miles.


Ship Class: Skipjack-class
Number-in-Class: 6
Ships-in-Class: USS Skipjack (SSN-585); USS Scamp (SSN-588); USS Scorpion (SSN-589); USS Sculpin (SSN-590); USS Shark (SSN-591); USS Snook (SSN-592)