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USS Scorpion (SSN-589)

Nuclear Attack Submarine

United States | 1960

"The USS Scorpion was lost with all 99 hands aboard on May 22nd, 1968 - the cause still remains unknown to this day."

Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited: 04/25/2018 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
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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In a more recent similar incident occurring on March 11th, 2009, media reports stated that North Korea had suspended the "red phone" direct line with South Korea and put their 1-million man army on a war footing due to a joint U.S. and South Korea military exercise. Twenty-six Thousand U.S. troops, along with the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and her battle group plus an unknown number of South Korean troops were involved (North Korea and South Korea have never signed a peace treaty officially ending the Korean War).

These types of tension-raising "incidents" were all-too common throughout the 19060s between the Soviet Warsaw Pact nations and the West to which some felt was the true cause - or contributed to - the sinking of the USS Scorpion.

Following training out of Norfolk, Virginia, Scorpion got underway on February 15th, 1968 for a Mediterranean Sea deployment with a new Commanding Officer - Commander Francis Slattery. She operated in the Med with the Sixth Fleet into May and then headed west for home after a two-month long cruise. Scorpion continued to suffer numerous mechanical malfunctions during this time that included leaking Freon from the refrigeration system. An electrical fire also occurred in the garbage extraction unit. Before departing the Mediterranean on May16, two crewmembers departed the Scorpion at Rota, Spain - EM2 Daniel Rogers and Radioman Chief Daniel Pettey - both requesting transfers due to poor health and moral problems.

On her return trip from the Med, Scorpion Captain Slattery received a secret message on May 17th to change course from Norfolk and proceed to a point 1700 miles of the coast of Portugal to observe Soviet Naval activities in and around the vicinity of the Azores. Scorpion did so and observed the Soviet fleet along with their new "Echo 2" submarine. Upon completion of the assignment she headed back to Naval Base Norfolk. She began sending messages before midnight on May 20th through just after midnight on May 21st, attempting to make contact with the Naval Station Rota in Spain. She was unable to reach SUBLANT though she was picked up by the Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece. Upon receiving the coded messages, Nea Makri forwarded Scorpion's code onto SUBLANT.

Scorpion was due to arrive in Norfolk at 1pm on May 27. US Navy tradition had it that the families of the crew would gather at the dock on the scheduled morning, keeping watch out as loved ones have done for centuries for sailors coming home from the sea. Norfolk sub base had not received a message from Scorpion for six days though this was not unusual for subs that normally continued radio silence even on the voyage home. Headquarters began to wonder when she did not radio in for tug assistance and the number of her assigned birth. The families stood on the dock and searched the horizon for any sign of Scorpion's sail. By 3pm, the families felt something was terribly wrong. Six days later, Scorpion was officially reported overdue at Norfolk. Navy personnel initiated a search without success and on June 5, Scorpion and her crew were declared "presumed lost." Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on June 30,1968.

The search for the Scorpion included a team of mathematical consultants led by Dr. John Craven, the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Navy's Special Projects Division in charge of the project. Six months later the Navy's oceanographic research ship, USNS Mizar, located the hull of Scorpion in 3000 meters (10,000 ft) of water about 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores. This was accomplished with a towed camera sled (designed by Chester Buchanan) aboard the USNS Mizar. The sled that located Scorpion was the same system that had located the wrecked hull of the USS Thresher in 1964. The Navy then sent the bathyscaphe "Trieste" to the scene to collect pictures and make a close visual inspection of the wreckage. The crew of the Trieste saw that the Scorpion lay in three pieces and it was noticed that much of the operations compartment of the boat was missing and was left scattered in a debris field around the wreck. The sail was completely dislodged as the hull and was lying on its port side along with the aft section of the engine room being compressed into the larger-diameter hull section. The Trieste plainly saw that the torpedo room was intact, though it had been separated from the operations compartment. The only damage to the torpedo room compartment appeared to be a hatch missing from the forward escape trunk.

The absolute reason for the Scorpion sinking, if known, has not been declassified. A number of possibilities have been presented by the Navy and private citizens after reviewing the declassified reports and pictures of Scorpion along the bottom of the ocean floor. Multiple books have been written and many-a-documentary has been produced proposing that the Scorpion was destroyed by the Soviet Navy or that one of her own torpedoes went out of control and sunk her from within. Some concluded a torpedo exploded inside the submarine due to a faulty battery while others proposed sabotage or poor maintenance. The following is an attempt to chronicle the known facts and different theories relating to the cause of Scorpion's loss.

Today the U.S. Navy's historical web site, the DANFS - Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, indicates the probable cause of the sinking as follows: "Although the cause of her loss is still not ascertainable, the most probable event was the inadvertent activation of the battery of a Mark 37 torpedo during a torpedo inspection". The torpedo, in a fully-ready condition and without a propeller guard, then began a live "hot run" within the tube. Alternatively, the torpedo may have exploded in the tube owing to an uncontrollable fire in the torpedo room. The Mark 37 torpedo was developed by the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station, Newport, R.I., and the Vitro Co., Silver Springs, Md. Much blame was directed towards Vitro and the battery manufacturer of building batteries that leaked and caused torpedoes to malfunction. After much testing Vitro was able to prove to the satisfaction of many their batteries were not prone to failure and the bad batteries that were suspected were produced too late to be installed in the torpedoes used in the Scorpion. A 30-minute Documentary series called "Vanishings" produced by the History Channel was dedicated to the loss of the Scorpion. They reviewed the facts (with a notable error that the Scorpion actually had more than one screw) and discussed the bad battery theory, a runaway torpedo, a possible Russian attack and poor maintenance as all possibilities for the sinking.

Peter Palermo, the director of Naval Ships Systems Command's Submarine Structures - a Structural Analysis Group, feels the sinking was due to massive hydrostatic pressure that Scorpion's hull was smashed by implosion forces as it sank below crush depth. Palermo indicated the cause of the sub going below maximum depth could have been a collision with a Soviet vessel or even sabotage. After viewing pictures of the wreckage he surmised that Scorpion was near the surface just before the sinking. Palermo also reviewed the 15 acoustic events may have been internal explosions as she sank or other reasons.

A year-long review of Gordon Hamilton's hydroacoustic signals was completed by the Structural Analysis Group (SAG) by Ermine Christian, Robert Price and Peter Sherman of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory - all three were undersea sound experts. Their opinion, presented to the Navy as part of the Scorpion's Phase II investigation, was that crush noises likely occurred at 2,000 feet (600 m) when her hull failed. This differs with the conclusions drawn by Dr. Craven and Hamilton, who pursued an independent set of experiments in the same Phase II probe. They surmised the hydroacoustic signals were possibly based on the submarine's depth at the time an explosion occurred. The findings of the two teams differ Craven and Hamilton's argue an explosive event is likely, and the SAG team sees the evidence ruled out an explosive event as the cause. The 1970 Naval Ordnance "Letter", on a acoustics study of the Scorpion destruction was a study in agreement with the SAG report. In its conclusions the NOL acoustic study states the following:

"The first SCORPION acoustic event was not caused by a large explosion, either internal or external to the hull. The probable depth of occurrence...and the spectral characteristics of the signal support this. In fact, it is unlikely that any of the Scorpion acoustic events were caused by explosions."

In May of 2003, the USN produced a report - the N77 letter - with regard to the Navy's view of a forward explosion. However, the following statement reverses the NOL theory, and accepts the theory of an explosion in the Scorpion as the cause of the sinking:

"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. Nothing in those investigations caused the Navy to change its conclusion that an unexplained catastrophic event occurred."

Several hypotheses have been proposed by private citizens about the cause of the loss of Scorpion. In the book "Silent Steel", author Stephen Johnson does not believe Scorpion was sunk by her own torpedo and feels the Navy Court of Inquiry was not open to any proposition except the one proposed by Dr. Craven and his "hot-running" torpedo theory. The book "Blind Man's Bluff" by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew documents findings that a likely cause could have been the overheating of a faulty battery. The Mark 46 silver-zinc battery used in the Mark 37 torpedo had a tendency to overheat, and could cause a fire strong enough to cause a detonation of the warhead. While Mark 46 batteries have been known to generate so much heat that the torpedo casings blistered, Navy records have not shown such a battery event to have ever damaged a boat or caused an explosion.

Vice Admiral Arnold F. Shade testified he believed that a malfunction of the trash disposal unit (TDU) was the trigger for the disaster. Scorpion had experienced trouble with the TDU in the past. Shade theorized that the sub flooded when the TDU malfunctioned while garbage was processed at periscope depth and the TDU malfunction induced flooding leading to the sinking. Three books, "Red Star Rogue" by Kenneth Sewell and Clint Richmond , "Scorpion Down" by Ed Offley, and "All Hands Down" written by Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler, propose that Scorpion was sunk by the Soviet Navy in retaliation for the sinking of the Soviet submarine K-129. One suggestion in all three books follow a general theme that a rouge Soviet submarine K-129 positioned itself off Hawaii and was going to launch a nuclear missile at pearl harbor designed to appear as a Chinese submarine. US forces became aware and sunk the K-129 as a result.

When Scorpion sank she contained highly sophisticated spy gear and manuals, two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, and a nuclear propulsion system. The facts and evidence indicate that Scorpion sank in the Atlantic Ocean on May 22, 1968 at approximately 1844Z - after an explosion or a collision, perhaps from sabotage, maintenance failure or an attack while in transit across the Atlantic from Gibraltar to her home port at Norfolk, Virginia. One will have to decide for them self until the United States Navy declassifies all known information of the incident, if any more exists. At the time of her sinking, there were 99 crewmen aboard USS Scorpion - essentially all of them American heroes of the Cold War - may they rest in peace.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one sea-going vessel design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for USS Scorpion (SSN-589).
1 x S5W PWR nuclear reactor developing 15,000 horsepower driving 1 x Shaft.
15.0 kts
17.3 mph
Surface Speed
29.0 kts
33.4 mph
Submerged Speed
Essentially Unlimited
The bow-to-stern, port-to-starboard physical qualities of USS Scorpion (SSN-589).
252.0 ft
76.81 meters
O/A Length
31.9 ft
9.72 meters
29.1 ft
8.87 meters
Displacement (Submerged)
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of USS Scorpion (SSN-589).
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.
Ships-in-Class (6)
Notable series variants as part of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589) family line as relating to the Skipjack-class group.
USS Skipjack (SSN-585); USS Scamp (SSN-588); USS Scorpion (SSN-589); USS Sculpin (SSN-590); USS Shark (SSN-591); USS Snook (SSN-592)
Global operator(s) of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national naval warfare listing.
National flag of the United States

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Image of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589)

Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to seaborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
USS Scorpion (SSN-589) Nuclear Attack Submarine appears in the following collections:
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