Questions still linger over a bizarre series of Cold War incidents involving four submarines that all vanished in the early months of 1968. What is it about these submarines that makes it so hard to solve what happened to them?
The Scorpion, a nuclear-powered submarine had just undergone weapons testing and type training at her port in Norfolk, Virginia only weeks earlier, but not without incident. There had bee an electrical fire that had erupted in one of the submarine’s escape hatches, it also experienced a Freon leak in its refrigeration systems. It is said that this might have contributed to the Scorpion observing a depth limitation of no more than 500 feet that following February.
Throughout the Cold War years, it was not uncommon for US and Soviet vessels to routinely observe one another, the Scorpion had been no exception to this as she made her departure from Rota. The US was aware that Soviet hunter-killer submarines were monitoring traffic exiting from the Naval base, and part of the detail the Scorpion was assigned involved observation of Soviet activity in the Atlantic.
The Scorpion had successfully detected and surveyed a Soviet Echo II-class submarine, along with an accompanying guided missile destroyer. Afterwards, the Scorpion had headed back on a northbound course toward Norfolk, (supposedly).
A US Naval communications station located at Nea Makri, Greece had began receiving an unusual amount of radio traffic from the Scorpion on May 20, 1967. The Scorpion had not been able to reach their most recent departure point and had made several attempts to dispatch radio traffic for more than 24 hours. A final radio dispatch on May 21 indicated that the Scorpion was pursuing a Soviet submarine and research group, with the aim of initiating “surveillance of the Soviets”, according to the last message.
Now only a week later, American newspapers had reported that the Scorpion had failed to return to Norfolk by its expected arrival date. The Navy had worried that an onboard failure, because of the electrical problems the ship had experienced the previous year, might have occurred, and prompted an initial search effort that would prove to be unsuccessful. The USS Scorpion was declared “presumed lost” in early June of 1968.
The Scorpion was only one of four submarines that had gone missing in 1968.
There have been theories about what could have happened to the Scorpion.
- A Hydrogen Explosion- this was the proximal cause for the loss and was assessed and analyzed. It was determined by this analysis that the leading theory for the loss was a result of a hydrogen build-up due to changes in the ventilation line-up while proceeding to periscope depth. This is consistent with two small explosions aboard the Scorpion, only a half-second apart, that were picked up by hydrophones.
- The classified version of the US Navy’s court of inquiries report, finally released in 1993, listed accidents involving the Mark 37 Torpedo as 3 of the most probable causes for the loss of the Submarine, which included a hot-running torpedo, an accidentally or deliberately launched weapon, or that inadvertent activation of a torpedo by stray voltage.
- A later theory was that a torpedo may have exploded in the tube , which could have been caused by an uncontrollable fire in the torpedo room. The Mark 46 silver-zinc battery used in the Mark 37 torpedo had a tendency to overheat, and in extreme cases could cause fire that was strong enough to cause a low-order detonation of the warhead. If the detonation had occured, it might have opened the boat’s large torpedo- loading hatch and caused the Scorpion to flood and sink.
- The submarine could have been destroyed by a “hot-running torpedo”. Other subs in that fleet had replaced their defective torpedo batteries, but the Navy had wanted the Scorpion to complete its mission first. If the Scorpion had fired a defective topedo, it could have sought out a target and turned back to strike the sub that had launched it.
While all of these theories are plausible, might I just reiterate that the Scorpion had been en route to gather intelligence on a Soviet naval group conducting operations in the Atlantic. While the mission for which the submarine was diverted from their original course back to her home port is a matter of record, its detail still remain classified.
There is evidence that points toward involvement by the KGB spy ring led by John Anthony Walker Jr., who was in the heart of the U.S Navy’s communications. It could have known that the Scorpion submarine was coming to investigate the Soviet flotilla. There is a theory that suggests that both navies agreed to hide the truth about both USS Scorpion and K-129 incidents.
While results of the US Navy’ various investigations into the loss of the Scorpion remain inconclusive, if we take the information that we do know, I can only find two theories that make possble sense: the faulty battery and the fact that this submarine was investigating the Soviets at the time of their demise. I can only leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions as to what might have happened to these 99 crew members aboard the submarine that no one has answers for.