The USS Scorpion - Mystery of the Deep

The Navy says the submarine's sinking was an accident; revelations suggest a darker scenario.

Stories by Ed Offley
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Military Reporter
Thursday, May 21, 1998
©Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Posted with expressed permission from Ed Offley
by The Northwest Veterans Newsletter

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USS Scorpion.Gif
The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion circa 1960
U.S. Navy Photo - Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The nuclear submarine USS Scorpion got the top secret message shortly before midnight: Change course and head for the Canary islands, where a mysterious collection of Soviet ships had caught the Navy's eye.

Thirty-three minutes later, the Scorpion surfaced at the U.S. submarine base in Rota, Spain, to transfer two crewmen ashore via a Navy tug. The men had emergency leave orders, one for a family matter, the other for medical reasons.

It was May 17, 1968, and it was the last time anyone saw the Scorpion. The submarine sank five days later.

More than five months later, the Scorpion's wreckage was found on the ocean floor, two miles deep in the Atlantic. All 99 men aboard had died.

Spokesman Cmdr. Frank Thorp on Tuesday repeated the Navy's position the Scorpion sank because of a malfunction while returning to its home port of Norfolk, Va. "While the precise cause of the loss remains undetermined, there is no information to support the theory that the submarine's loss resulted from hostile action or any involvement by a Soviet ship or submarine," Thorp said.

But in fact, the Scorpion at the time it sank was at the center of a web of espionage, high-tech surveillance and a possible Cold War military clash that resulted in an alleged agreement by both the United States and the former Soviet Union to cover up the full accounting of what happened.

A review of hundreds of documents and interviews with dozens of current and former military personnel presents a scenario dramatically different from the official Navy version:

Several Russian admirals say senior Navy officials in both the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to never disclose details of the Scorpion incident and the loss of a Soviet missile sub in the Pacific two months earlier in 1968. To do so, they say, could have seriously damaged U.S. - Soviet relations.

A senior admiral in the Pentagon at the time of the Scorpion sinking said in a recent interview that U.S. intelligence agencies feared the submarine was headed into possible danger, based on intercepted Soviet naval communications in the Atlantic.

"There was some communications analysis....that the Scorpion had been detected by the group she had been shadowing and conceivably they had trailed her," retired Vice Adm. Philip Beshany said. "There were some speculations that not only did they track her but attacked her."

Beshany at the time of the sinking was a rear admiral in charge of the Navy's submarine warfare programs and had access to the most critical intelligence data. However, Beshany said to his recollection the intelligence of Soviet hostility was never confirmed.

There is evidence that indirectly supports Beshany's assertion that the U.S. intelligence community learned of a possible confrontation between the Scorpion and the Soviet warships it had been sent to spy on.

The Navy mounted a secret search for the submarine within 24 hours of its sinking, several retired admirals told the Post-Intelligencer. The search was so highly classified that the rest of the Navy, and even a Navy Court of Inquiry that investigated the sinking later in 1968, were never told about it. Friends and relatives of the Scorpion crew were told nothing; they still assumed the sub was on its way home.

The deepest secret, however, was on the Soviet side.

No one in the U.S. Navy - including the top admirals who sent the Scorpion on its spy mission - knew at the time how deeply the Soviets had penetrated U.S. Navy submarine codes, thanks to Navy Warrant Officer Walker, the man behind the worst espionage scandal in Navy history, one that may have resulted in the sinking of the Scorpion.

Thorp declined comment on the Walker spy connection.

The Mission

Commissioned in 1959, the Scorpion was designed primarily for anti-submarine warfare against the Soviet nuclear sub fleet. It also carried special teams of Russian-speaking linguists to eavesdrop on transmissions by the Soviet Navy and other military units.

Its final mission began on May 17, 1968.

Led by Cmdr. Francis Slattery, the Scorpion had just completed a three-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea with the U.S. 6th Fleet and was on its way home to Norfolk, Va., when an encrypted order clattered out of a teletypewriter in the sub's small radio room.

Vice Adm. Arnold Schade, commander of the Atlantic Submarine Force in Norfolk, had a new mission for the Scorpion.

The sub was ordered to head at high speed toward the Canary Islands, 1,500 miles away off the east coast of Africa, to spy on a group of Soviet ships lurking in the eastern Atlantic southwest of the island chain.

The Soviet ships there included an Echo II-class nuclear submarine designed to attack aircraft carriers but also armed with anti-submarine torpedoes.

For the next five days, the Scorpion sprinted toward its target.

What happened when the Scorpion arrived there remains a Cold War secret.

The Navy has never given an official explanation of its keen interest in the Soviet ship activity, and the Court of Inquiry that investigated the loss of the Scorpion in the summer and fall of 1968 said nothing about the sub's spy mission against the Soviet ships.

The court described the Soviet presence as an undefined "hydro-acoustic" research operation involving two research vessels and a submarine rescue ship among others, implying the Soviets were merely conducting studies of sound effects in the ocean rather than a military mission.

But Beshany, the director of submarine warfare at the time, said in a recent interview that Pentagon officials had been concerned the Soviets were developing a way to support warships and submarines at sea without requiring access to foreign seaports for supplies.

'This was absolutely something totally different (from normal Soviet procedures)," Beshany said. Until that time, the Soviet Navy had rarely conducted prolonged operations at sea far from home ports, he noted.

Beshany's Pentagon assistant time of the sinking, Capt. W.N. "Buck" Dietzen, backed that up in a recent interview.

"We recognized the high desirability of getting....over there and taking a look at them (the Soviets)," Dietzen said. "I was salivating in the (Pentagon) corridors to find out what they doing."

The Navy has yet to declassify details of the Scorpion surveillance mission.

The Navy said in 1968 that Schade sent a message to the Scorpion on May 20 assigning the sub a course and speed for its homeward trip once the surveillance mission ended.

Just after 3 a.m. on May 22 -- the day the Scorpion sank -- Cmdr. Slattery finished transmitting a message to Schade that the Scorpion would arrive in Norfolk on May 27 at 1 p.m., Navy officials said in 1968. Later in 1968 after revealing only that the sub had been on a "mission of higher classification" before it sank, Navy officials Slattery had reported his mission ended and was heading home.

The texts of both messages are classified top secret.

But was the Scorpion's mission actually over?

One Navy officer at a key location in 1968 has contradicted the account the Navy gave that year that the submarine was nowhere near the Soviets at time it was lost.

Lt. John Rogers, a Navy communications officer working at the Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters sage center in Norfolk in 1968, was the duty officer the night Slattery's message arrived.

Rogers said in a 1986 interview author Pete Earley that Slattery had actually announced he was about begin the surveillance of the Soviets, rather than reporting the mission's completion. Rogers died in 1995, but his widow, Bernice Rogers, confirmed in a recent interview that her husband had told her the Scorpion had disappeared while actually carrying out the surveillance mission against the Soviets.

"My husband was at the (submarine force) message center as communications officer the night that message came in," Bernice Rogers said. He would have known what was going on. We had talked about it since then."

Scorpion: Both sides may be burying the facts

What is known is that fifteen hours after sending its final message, the Scorpion exploded at 6:44 p.m. and sank in more than 2 miles of water about 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

What brought the Scorpion down?

For nearly three decades, the Navy said it could not identify the "certain cause" of the loss of the Scorpion and refused to release the conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, citing security concerns and Cold War tensions. The seven-man court of high-ranking naval officers held hearings during the summer and late fall of 1968, and in January 1969 completed its report, which was kept classified for 24 years.

In late 1993, the Navy declassified most of the court's conclusions. Headed by retired Vice Adm. Bernard Austin, the Scorpion court concluded that the best evidence pointed to an errant Scorpion torpedo that circled around and exploded against the hull of the sub. The court's conclusion stemmed in part from records showing the Scorpion had a similar experience in 1967 with an unarmed training torpedo that suddenly started up and had to be jettisoned.

The court in its investigation reviewed photographs of the wreckage, the sound recordings of the sinking, and the detailed paper trail of records, including documents and reports mailed from the sub during the early part of its Mediterranean operation.

In its final 1,354-page report, the Court of Inquiry rejected two alternative theories for the loss of the Scorpion: the contention by Schade and his staff that an unspecified mechanical problem had set off a chain of events leading to massive flooding inside the submarine, and a scenario that an explosion inside the submarine touched off the sinking.

The court also concluded that it was :"improbable" the Scorpion sank as the result of "enemy action."

In 1970, a different Navy panel completed another classified report that disavowed the Court of Inquiry's conclusion. Instead of the accidental torpedo strike, the new group suggested a mechanical failure caused an irreparable leak that flooded the submarine.

That report said the bulk of the evidence suggested an internal explosion in the sub's massive electricaI battery caused the sub to flood and sink.

However, two senior Navy officials involved in the initial Scorpion probe in the summer of 1968 told the Post-Intelligencer that the Court of Inquiry conclusion of an accidental torpedo strike remains the most realistic scenario because of the key acoustic recordings of the sinking.

Underwater recordings retrieved from three locations in the Atlantic - the Canary Islands and two sites near Newfoundland - captured a single sharp noise followed by 91 seconds of silence, then a rapid series of sounds corresponding to the overall collapse of the submarine's various compartments and tanks.

John Craven, then a senior civilian Navy scientist and expert on underwater technology who led the team that found the Scorpion wreckage, said the acoustic evidence all but proves a torpedo explosion - rather than a hull collapse from flooding - sank the Scorpion and killed the 99 men inside.

"Once the hull implodes the other compartments are going to follow right along" in collapsing, Craven said. "There's no way you can have the hull implode and then have 91 seconds of silence while the rest of the hull decides to try and hang itself together."

Retired Adm. Bernard Clarey, who in 1968 was the Navy's senior submariner, also dismissed the battery explosion theory. Such a mishap could not have generated the blast and acoustic energy captured on the hydrophone recordings, he told the Post-Intelligencer. Both Craven and Clarey said in interviews the evidence supports the theory that one of the Scorpion's own torpedoes exploded inside the sub.

While several retired submariners over the years have speculated the Scorpion was ambushed and sunk by a Soviet submarine, no conclusive proof of a deliberate attack has appeared. The Navy concluded in the 1968 investigation there was "no evidence of any Soviet preparations for hostilities or a crisis situation as would be expected in the event of a premeditated attack on Scorpion."

The Court of Inquiry report was silent on whether an inadvertent clash may have resulted in the sinking.

Thorp, the Navy spokesman, said the Court had found the Scorpion was 200 miles away from the Soviet ships at the time it sank.

The loss of the Scorpion 30 years ago remains a mystery to family members and friends of the crew. But it may not have been a mystery to a handful of senior U.S. and Soviet Navy leaders in the late 1960s.

The Post-Intelligencer has learned that the United States and Soviet Union secretly agreed decades ago to bury the facts about the Scorpion loss and a separate Soviet submarine tragedy that also occurred in 1968.

Two months before the Scorpion sank, a Soviet missile sub known as the K-129 sank thousands of miles away, in the Pacific Ocean, also under mysterious conditions. There have been assertions by Russian submarine veterans over the years that the K-129 sank after colliding with a U.S. attack sub that been trailing it. But U.S. military officials insist the Golf-class submarine went down with its 98-man crew after an internal explosion, based on analysis of the sounds of the sinking captured on Navy hydrophones.

Retired Capt. Peter Huchthausen was the U.S. Naval attache in Moscow in the late 1980s, two decades after both incidents.

Breaking his silence for the first time, Huchthausen told the Post-Intelligencer he had several terse but pointed conversations with Soviet admirals about the two sinkings.

One was in June 1987 with Admiral Pitr Navoytsev, first deputy chief for operations of the Soviet Navy. When he asked Navoytsev about the Scorpion, Huchthausen recalls this response:

"Captain, you are very young and inexperienced, but you will learn that there are some things both sides have agreed not to address, and one is that event and our K-129 loss, for similar reasons."

In another discussion in October 1989, Huchthausen said Vice Adm. B.M. Kamarov told him that a secret agreement had been reached between the United States and Soviet Union in which both sides agreed not to press the other government on the loss of their submarines in 1968. The motivation, Huchthausen said, was to preserve the thaw in superpower relations. A full accounting of either submarine loss might create new tensions, he said.

"He (Kamarov) said the submariners involved and those few in the know on both sides were sworn, with the threat of maximum punishment, never to divulge the operational background of either incident," Huchthausen said.

And in 1995, after Huchthausen had retired and was working on a book on Soviet submarines, he interviewed retired Rear Adm. Viktor Dygalo, the former commander of the submarine division to which the K-129 was assigned.

Dygalo told him the true story of the K-129 will never be known because of an unofficial agreement by senior submariners on both sides to freeze any further investigation of involvement of either side in the losses of the Scorpion or the K-129.

And he told Huchthausen this:

"So forget about ever resolving these sad issues for the surviving families."

Scorpion 'Skipjack' Class Nuclear Attack Submarine

    Length: 251 feet 9 inches
    Width: 31 feet 6 inches
    Displacement: 3,500 tons submerged
    Propulsion: S5W pressurized-water reactor
    Speed: 20 knots surface, 35+ submerged
    Torpedoes: 14 Mark 37, 7 Mark 14-5, 2 Mark 45 Astor
    Torpedo tubes: Six 21-inch bow

    Mark 37 torpedo:

      Length: 11 feet 3 inches
      Diameter: 19 inches
      Weight: 1,430 lbs.
      Range: 5 miles

    Scorpion's final seconds (Time based on hydroacoustic events of the Scorpion sinking recorded at the Canary Islands. Source: Supplementary Record of Proceedings of Court of Inquiry by commander-in-chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.)

      1859:35 -- 1. Torpedo warhead explosion on port side of middle of sub causes rapid flooding of control room and other areas amidships.
      2. Water passes through access tunnel to reactor and auxiliary machinery room.

      1901:06 -- 3. Torpedo compartment bulkhead collapses, causing rapid flooding.

      1901:10 -- 4. Engine room bulkhead collapses aft into engine room, causing 85-foot stern section of submarine to telescope forward into auxiliary machinery and reactor compartments.

Spy net may have doomed Scorpion before it set out

Shortly before the submarine USS Scorpion sank on May 22, 1968, killing its 99-man·crew, U.S. intelligence officials learned that a group of Soviet warships operating in the Atlantic possibly knew that the sub was on its way to spy on them.

But the U,S. Navy did not know that the Soviets had the capability to learn in advance details of the Scorpion's top secret mission. How? The Soviets had broken the U.S. Navy communications codes.

That Soviet Cold War victory remained a secret that U.S. intelligence experts would not learn for another 17 years. It has not been revealed publicly until now.

The Scorpion mission was compromised through a KGB intelligence operation that included Navy turncoat John Walker and the seizure of the American spy ship USS Pueblo.

U.S. intelligence officials told the Post-Intelligencer the seizure of the Pueblo was a direct consequence of Walker's espionage. The connection between the Navy spy and the doomed spy ship has been a closely held secret within the Navy and intelligence community in the 13 years since Walker's arrest.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Frank Thorp declined comment on the possible connection between Walker and the Scorpion loss Tuesday, citing the classified nature of the reports.

However, the Navy 12 years ago conceded the severity of Walker's espionage. The KGB-Walker operation was so successful it had the *potential, had conflict erupted between the two superpowers, to have powerful war-winning implications for the Soviet side," said Rear Adm. William Studeman, then the director of naval intelligence, in a 1986 affidavit.

The KGB-Walker espionage network began in March 1967, when Navy Warrant Officer Walker contacted the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., and offered to spy for the Soviets. A career submarine communications expert, Walker had just transferred to Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters in Norfolk, Va. There, he worked as one of four supervisors in the high-security communications center where messages to and from submarines on patrol were processed. That was also the communications center for the Scorpion.

Walker offered to sell the KGB top secret "keylist" cards and maintenance manuals for cryptographic systems used by the Navy, according to his confession, made after his arrest in 1985.

The Navy at the time used a series of encrypting machines to change messages into a garbled set of letters that would be impenetrable to its adversaries. When received in another machine, the message would emerge as clear English.

The insurance system was a different keylist - an additional code - entered into the machine each day.

It was the system used by the Scorpion on its final mission.

Walker's delivery of the keylists provided the Soviets half the materials they would need to break the Navy codes. What was still needed was the encrypting machines.

On Jan. 23, 1968, 10 months after Walker first contacted the Soviets, North Korean military units captured the Pueblo in the Sea of Japan. Seized along-with the ship and its 82-man crew were at least 19 cryptographic communications machines used to encode and decode Navy messages.

The communications gear on the Pueblo provided the Soviets the other half of the material they needed to break the codes. U.S. intelligence officials agree it allowed the Soviets to unlock the top secret messages sent over each communications device.

Four months later, the Scorpion sank during its spy mission in the Atlantic. The three encryption machines installed on the Scorpion were among the systems broken by the Soviets through the Pueblo seizure, according to declassified Navy records and intelligence officials.

In particular, the Soviets had obtained a model of the KW-7 "Orestes" two-way teletypewriter, at that time the most modern encrypted communications machine for the Navy and other military services. More than 80 percent of the Atlantic Fleet ships and all of its submarines - including the Scorpion - relied on the KW-7 for secure messages in 1968, according to declassified Navy reports.

Seizing the machines from the Pueblo intact was relatively easy. A 1970 congressional hearing concluded the ship had failed to destroy much of its communications equipment before the crew was overcome by North Koreans who swarmed the vessel.

Don Bailey, then a 26-year-old communications specialist on the Pueblo, confirmed in a recent interview that the equipment was seized by the North Koreans.

Bailey was operating a KW-7 teletypewriter in the last frantic hour before he and his shipmates were captured, sending messages to a shore station in Japan pleading for air support or other military help. Bailey said he and his shipmates failed to destroy the cryptographic equipment because the ship had not been given emergency-destruct explosives. The machinery was installed in hardened steel cases designed to prevent them from being damaged.

"I was busy trying to destroy everything I could," Bailey recalled. "But you can't beat it up with a sledgehammer; the way it was built, this can't be done." The machine he was operating was "pretty much intact when they got us."

Despite the loss of the equipment from the Pueblo, there was little concern then about the safety of coded communications, intelligence officials said. That was because the keylist system was assumed to be intact.

Only years later when Walker was captured did intelligence officials learn that the keylist system had been compromised by the typewriter, [and the Walker spy ring] at that time the most modern encrypted communications machine for the Navy and other military services. More than 80 percent of the Atlantic Fleet ships and all of its submarines - including the Scorpion relied on the KW-7 for secure messages in 1968, according to declassified Navy reports.

Walker admitted to investigators after his 1985 arrest that he provided keylists for the KW-7 and two other communications coding machines used by the Scorpion during his first deliveries of classified material to the Soviets, according to officials familiar with his account.

And Walker later admitted the Soviets told him they had engineered the Pueblo incident as the result of his espionage, an intelligence official said. "The Russians had given him reason to believe he was responsible (for the Pueblo incident)" because the Russians were looking for the piece of the puzzle Walker had not provided - the precise cryptographic equipment that used the keylists and operating manuals Walker had already begun delivering to them, the intelligence official said.

The KGB concluded the Walker spy ring was the most successful espionage operation in Soviet history, according to Vitaly Yurchenko, a senior KGB agent who defected to the United States in 1985.

Walker always maintained he started spying in 1968, but intelligence experts said they believe he misstated the date he began spying to avoid implicating himself in any Soviet operations that caused the loss of American lives. Experts who grilled Walker and compared supporting evidence of his treason concluded that Walker had actually begun spying for the Soviets immediately after he reported to Norfolk in March 1967.

Until his arrest 18 years later, in 1985, Walker and his accomplices earned several million dollars from the Soviets, U.S. officials have said. It was money that may have sealed the fate of both the Pueblo and the Scorpion.

In 1986, Walker pleaded guilty to espionage and is serving a life sentence in federal prison in Colorado.

Secrecy of disappearance compounded families' pain

Even now they vividly remember that stormy day their lives were forever torn apart.

High winds and sheets of rain lashed the Hampton Roads area that Monday morning on May 27, 1968. Several dozen wives and families of the USS Scorpion crew gathered at Pier 22 at the Norfolk, Va., Naval Station, awaited the sight of the submarine returning from a three-month deployment to the Mediterranean.

Barbara Foli Lake was one of the Scorpion wives who braved the weather on that Memorial Day to watch for the submarine bearing her husband, Vernon Foli, a 3rd class electrician. She recalls the whitecaps on the harbor, and the rain that soaked her clothing and left her shivering under a dark slate sky.

"It was a very cold, very dreary morning," said Lake, who remarried several years after the Scorpion sinking and now lives in Eugene, Ore. "The wind was sucking the umbrellas away."

Lake, then a 23-year-old Navy wife, said she was eager to see the Scorpion return because her daughter, Holli, was approaching her first birthday and had not seen her father for three months.

"It was a terrible, stormy day," recalled Theresa Bishop, wife of Torpedoman Chief Walter Bishop, the Scorpion's senior enlisted man. Years after the event, she still had vivid images of the day, such as the large tree that had fallen at the corner near her Norfolk home, where she lives today. "It had been blown over by the storm and to this day I can still picture it." she said.

The week before, several families had received letters from Scorpion crewmen saying they were scheduled to return on May 24 or 25. But on May 24, Navy officials, using a recorded telephone message, informed the families the submarine would not arrive until May 27.

What the families did not know as they gathered at the pier was that the Navy had launched a secret search for the sub the day before, on May 23, a search involving a dozen ships and submarines aided by land-based patrol planes. The families were not warned that something might be wrong.

About three dozen family members were on the pier as the scheduled arrival time of 1 p.m. approached.

Looming in the foreground was the massive silhouette of the USS Orion, the 530-foot ship that provided maintenance and logistical support to the subs. The only flash of color came from a bright red flotation boom alongside the Orion where the Scorpion would tie up, and a small number of balloons and hand-painted signs from the families to welcome their sailors home.

But the signs would wilt in the rain and the space alongside the ship would remain empty. The Scorpion would never make port

None of the families waiting on the pier knew their loved ones had died five days earlier on May 22, when the Scorpion exploded and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, killing all 99 crew members aboard.

But as the families waited, senior Navy leaders already suspected the Scorpion had been lost with all on board. More than a decade later, three admirals on duty in 1968 confirmed they had mounted a secret search for the submarine.

One admiral said they didn't want to unduly alarm the families without hard facts. Another official 20 years after the sinking privately acknowledged the failure to tell the families was a mistake.

Navy spokesman Cmdr. Frank Thorp Tuesday said a search of the archives revealed "no information of a search mounted prior to the declaration of SUBMISS (missing submarine alert) ... on the evening of May 27, 1968."

The arrival hour of 1 p.m. came and went with no sign of the submarine.

"It was cold for that time of year," recalled Bill Elrod, a sonarman 1st class on the Scorpion who had flown home on emergency leave the week before and now waited at pierside with the family members. "I saw a bunch of the wives standing around in the rain, everybody anxious about when it was coming in."

Julie Smith Ballew (who also remarried several years later) could not be at the submarine piers to greet her 22-year-old husband, Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Robert Smith. She sat with her sister, Dee Am Wright, in a lounge at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital 10 miles away, cradling her infant daughter, Sarah, born two days earlier. They expected Robert to come straight from the base to pick them up.

"If they had been on schedule (arriving May 24 as originally planned), Robert could have been here to see his daughter being born," Ballew recalled in a recent interview from her home in Wayland, Iowa, last week. "I was disappointed in that, but excited that he would be there to pick us up." None of the family members suspected anything was wrong. The Scorpion was simply late, they believed.

But on the Orion, its commanding officer, Capt. James Bellah, was concerned. Serving as acting squadron commander that day, Bellah had expected to receive a routine message from the Scorpion as it surfaced off the Virginia coastline. But nothing had come in.

Bellah called Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters at the fleet compound a mile away to see if anyone had heard from the Scorpion. "We got no indication there was a problem with that submarine at all," Bellah recalled.

He sent an aide down to the pier to invite family members to come out of the rain, and a handful did.

The rest went home to wait. Lake said she stood in the storm for several hours until, "soaked and disappointed," she decided to go home.

Elrod returned to the Orion, keeping himself busy at the squadron office.

Ballew and her sister gave up waiting at the hospital at 3 p.m. and drove home, passing by the submarine piers on the way. She called Jann Christiansen, the wife of Machinist's Mate 2nd Class Mark Christiansen, who told her the word was the submarine would now arrive at 8 p.m. Smith settled in to feed her newborn.

By 5 p.m., Elrod left the Orion to return to his apartment where he told his wife there was no word from the Scorpion. At that point, he said, most people felt the severe weather had hampered radio communications, and the submarine would either radio in or show up anytime.

"There was not a clue (anything was wrong)," Elrod said. "The thing that played in everybody's minds (was) the storm was making them late."

But concern over the submarine was now crackling up and down the Navy chain of command. At 3:15 p.m., the official message had gone out from the Atlantic Submarine Force declaring a "missing submarine" alert that would make banner headlines the following morning. Up and down the East Coast, Navy ships and aircraft squadrons were scrambling to launch a second, highly publicized search.

The families heard of the search when a Norfolk TV station broke with a bulletin shortly after 6 p.m.

"I will never forget that news broadcast," Ballew said. "I had just sat down to feed Sarah and turned on the news. The first words out of the commentator's mouth were, 'Submarine Scorpion missing.' "

"I was in shock" Ballew recalled. "I couldn't believe it! The Navy had been telling us all day that it would be in any time."

Theresa Bishop was washing dishes at home when her 9-year-old son, John, came in from the living room and said, "There's something on TV about the Scorpion missing."

"I went totally numb," she recalled. "Nobody said anything. We just sat around waiting for the telephone to ring" with some Navy official offering an explanation.

Ninety minutes later a Navy official called to confirm what the TV reports had disclosed, she said. Friends and neighbors began arriving at the Bishop home for the first of many·long nights of watching and waiting.

Bishop said her last memory of that Memorial Day evening was the distant sound of sirens and alarms emitted from dozens of Norfolk warships as they began moving out on the open search for the Scorpion.

Even then, some family members described their mood as concerned and anxious but still hopeful, a mood fostered by the ambiguous information they were getting from the Atlantic Submarine Force.

"They were continuing the hope that they (the Scorpion crew) were delayed by the bad weather," Ballew remembers being told. "I went to bed that night praying the morning would bring news that they were back safely."

The news of the search spread rapidly throughout the nation.

In Bellmore, N.Y., Adrian Christiansen, Mark's mother, answered the phone. It was her daughter-in-law Jann Christiansen, informing her that the Scorpion was long overdue.

Vernon and Sybil Stone, parents of Machinist's Mate 2nd Class David Stone, were eating dinner in their Ames, Iowa, home, when his brother called from New Jersey with the news of the Scorpion alert. They called an emergency Navy number where someone confirmed the sub was missing.

Elrod said he knew in his gut the Scorpion had sunk from the ·moment news of the Scorpion search broke. "They (the Navy) never announced anything like that if the boat was merely out of touch," he said. "I knew the boat was gone."

For the next nine days, Bishop recalled, she and the Scorpion families remained "stuck in limbo." Hopes faded as search teams scoured the Atlantic without detecting a clue.

Finally, an June 5, the Navy formally declared the Scorpion and its crew lost at sea and presumed dead.

By then, most of the families had braced for the bad news, several relatives said.

"We were just numb by then." said Dorothy Little, whose younger brother, Richard Summers, was a 3rd class yeoman on the Scorpion. "It was not a complete shock when they announced it," she recalled in an interview from her Statesville, N.C., home.

A memorial service the next day for the crew in Norfolk attracted hundreds of family members and fellow submariners, who heard the Navy's senior chaplain try to console them.

"For the ninety and nine whom we mourn today, there has been no deliverance from the deep," Rear Adm. James Kelly said. "The separation of deployment has lengthened into the separation of death."

On Oct. 31, five months after the sinking, the Navy announced the wreckage of the sub had been found.

Except for several small pieces of metal debris recovered, the Scorpion was left where it rested, its crew entombed inside the steel hull that had been their home at sea.

Most family members interviewed say they are generally satisfied with the way Navy officials kept them informed as a Court of Inquiry held its hearings and concluded that the Scorpion sank because of an unknown mechanical malfunction.

But today, 30 years after the tragedy, many family members - even those who agreed with the secrets inherent in the submarine force and its Cold War operations - say the time is ripe to get the full story of what happened to the Scorpion.

Others prefer to let the matter rest.

Barbara Foli Lake said she never believed the official Navy account that the sinking was because of an unknown mechanical malfunction.

John Bishop, 9 years old in 1968, later joined the Navy and has served a career in the submarine force like his father, Chief Waiter Bishop.

"I've given nearly 20 years of my life to the submarine service, blood and bone marrow," he said. "I want to know what happened to my father. I want closure." -- END --

Ed Offley is continuing to research the USS Scorpion incident and would like to hear from any former U.S. Navy submariners, SOSUS technicians or others who may have participated in or learned about various aspects of the loss. He can be reached at the following e-mail address:


USS Scorpion book published: Apr 07
by Ed Offley

Apr. 30, 2007

Dear Colleague,

After nearly a quarter-century of research, investigation and interviews, my history of the 1968 loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) has been published and began appearing in bookstores nationwide this weekend. I am writing to let you know of the book’s appearance and to encourage you to tell your friends and associates as well.

Scorpion Down – Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: the Untold Story of the USS Scorpion (Basic Books 2007) tells a story that the U.S. Navy, Defense Department and U.S. intelligence community – along with their former Soviet adversaries – tried desperately to bury nearly forty years ago under a blizzard of Top Secret security stamps. The 251-foot-long submarine and its crew of 99 elite volunteers died at the hands of a Soviet submarine in a combat incident in the eastern Atlantic on May 22, 1968, in retaliation for what former Soviet admirals to this day believe was American involvement in the sinking of the Soviet missile submarine K-129 just eleven weeks earlier.

Scorpion Down is not written only for veterans of the Navy and its submarine community, but for all Americans who share an interest in our nation’s history. I am proud to have been able to bring this story forward, and hope that you find the subject as fascinating and eye-opening as I did during my years of research.

If you want to learn more about Scorpion Down, you can visit the book’s official website for additional background material and information. The URL is:

And if you are interested in hosting a possible author appearance or interview, please contact Basic Books’ publicity director:

Ms. Michele Jacob
Director of Publicity
Basic Books
387 Park Ave. South
New York NY 10016

212-340-8161 ofc



Ed Offley


About the Author...

Seattle Post-Intelligencer


Ed Offley has been Military Reporter for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer since 1987, responsible for coverage of military commands, units, operations and training exercises in Washington state and the Pacific Northwest region, and has written on defense and national security topics since 1981. His primary coverage focuses on about 80,000 Defense Department military and civilian employees at 11 major military installations in the state.

The Seattle P-I has a daily circulation of 210,000, and his stories also circulate to a potential readership of 1million through the Hearst News Service, and to over 600 client newspapers in the New York Times News Service.

Mr. Offley left The Seattle Post-Intelligencer in April 2000 to become editor of The Stars and Stripes (civilian edition), and since Sept. 2001 have been editor of DefenseWatch magazine (, an online journal specializing in military and veterans issues.

Recent accomplishments include:

A 1969 graduate of the University of Virginia, he served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam before joining The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, Va., as a reporter in 1972. He worked as an editorial page editor and editorial writer at three newspapers in Virginia (Winchester Star, Charlottesville Daily Progress and Norfolk Ledger-Star) before joining The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial board in 1986. He has specialized in military and defense subjects since 1981.

If others have ANY knowledge - no matter how insignificant it may seem - that has been declassified on the sinking of the USS Scorpion, please contact Ed Offley at:




Comment by The Northwest Veterans Newsletter
Disclaimer: Not necessarily the opinion of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or Mr. Offley

Mr. Offley's article suggests that the USS Scorpion may not have been lost due to mechanical failure which led to massive flooding as has been suggested by the Navy, but MAY have been sunk by a Soviet submarine while on a top-secret mission.

In his report above, Mr. Offley raises the issue of a serious security breach. History shows how the British capture of Germany's "Enigma" decryption equipment during WWII was very instrumental in the Allied victory of Germany during that war. It is possible that the same could have happened to the U.S. during the Vietnam conflict. As reported above, the crypto gear itself was NOT destroyed prior to the Pueblo's capture and that Walker had provided the Soviets vital keylists for at least some, if not all of our crypto gear.

Mr. Offley thus has made a case that the Scorpion's mission and whereabouts were known by the Soviets. And our sub may have been being shadowed by a Soviet submarine and sunk.

Perhaps of even greater significance - not taking away from the tragic loss of the Scorpion crew or Mr. Offley's outstanding article - one must wonder at this point if much of the message traffic flowing between CINCPAC in Hawaii and Vietnam was also being intercepted by the Soviets and being read, possibly almost as it was being transmitted, from CINCPAC? Soviet spy ships were often seen near the Hawaiian Islands.

In my research on Cambodia Incursions it has been reported in a book authored by a former VC enemy that they were given almost 30-minutes notice of our B-52 bombing raids. While advance notice of such bombing raids could be explained by simply watching our B-52's taking off from their bases, the actual specific target areas would be unknown, that is unless enemy SIGNET was very good, and perhaps it was....

Of further interest is the time-line of certain events.

In May of '68 as reported above, the Scorpion was lost. Just a few months earlier, several highly-sensitive sites in Laos, including Lima-Site85 which was a highly-classified TACAN site that reportedly was installed to allow U.S. fighters to bomb Hanoi in bad weather.

U.S. and former North Vietnamese have stated all missing U.S. personnel were killed when Site-85 was overrun on March 11, 1968. Others suggest the possibility that several, including Melvin Holland, were captured and possibly found their way to the Soviet Union for interrogation. It is also noteworthy that the North Vietnamese never made mention of the capture of U.S. personnel or equipment in Laos. Such disclosure could have caused considerable outcry since officially U.S. forces were NOT allowed in Laos.

Of other interest:

In April, 1970, ARVN forces began conducting cross-border raids into the Parrot's Beak area of Cambodia. On May 2nd, U.S. forces crossed into Cambodia in the Fish Hook area. The capture of NVA forces had been prevented because of earlier movement of major NVA forces to the west. While large caches were found, the hoped-for capture of COSVN was averted. Also U.S. bombing strikes the morning of the U.S. incursion did little damage to NVA forces or major caches. It is also now known that American POWs had been held in the Fish Hook area. No American POWs were found during this or other incursions into Cambodia. It has been reported in several historical works written since the war that following the 1970 Incursion, American POWs were moved to or near Kratie to prevent their possible repatriation by U.S. or ARVN forces.

In the summer of 1970, SECDEF Laird proposed to Pres. Nixon a daring raid to rescue American POWs at Son Tay. The raid occurred on the evening of Nov. 21, 1970. We now know that the U.S. POWs had been moved from Son Tay possibly only 48-hours prior to the rescuers arrival!

In early 1971, ARVN forces again crossed into the Fish Hook region of Cambodia supported by American Air Cav units, including my old unit the Silver Spurs (A Trp., 3/17th Air Cav) and Cobra gunships from the 1st Cav's Blue Max. Two large columns of ARVN armor en route to relieve encircled ARVN forces at Snoul were virtually wiped-out by a large NVA ambush.

Also in Feb. 1971, ARVN forces crossed into Laos in attempts to cut the Hoi Chi Minh trail. This was the ultimate test to prove the success of Vietnamization of the war. While initial penetration went moderately well and large caches were found, ARVN forces suffered very HEAVY losses when they attempted to withdraw from Laos. The serious losses to ARVN from these two operations would have significant impact in the fall of South Vietnam.

What all these incidents have in common is the high probability of these missions being compromised at the highest levels. And one must understand that CINCPAC in Hawaii, was the "Pacific Pentagon." Almost all message traffic to and from MACV from the Pentagon and Whitehouse were routed thru CINCPAC.

I can only assume that since the KW-7 crypto machine was the best of its kind available in 1968, that it is very possible that it was also used for message traffic between the Pentagon, CINCPAC and MACV. With the selling of U.S. keylists to the Soviets by Walker and the capture of the KW-7 crypto machine in the Pueblo incident, one might jump to the conclusion that the reason so many of our missions from 1968 on were seemingly compromised might thus be explained. The capture of crypto gear was known. But according to Mr. Offley's report U.S. Intelligence agencies still felt that communications were secure because of the keylists. Unknown at the time was the fact that Walker had furnished the Soviets with the vital keylist information. Thus, the knowledge of 'Orestes' message traffic may have been as damaging to U.S. efforts in Vietnam, just as the capture of 'Enigma' by British Intelligence during WWII was to Germany.

Update: On 9 June 2001, FoxNews ran a special on spies. Oleg Kalugin, a reported former high-level KGB official stated about John Walker:

"His access to cryptographic material, allowed us to read all U.S. secret communications between the United States Naval Headquarters and its Navies across the world."

Since the Seattle P-I did not have the Scorpion article posted on the web at time of publication, my wife Pam has requested, and received, permission from Mr. Offley to post his informative article on the USS Scorpion on our website. I believe many will find his article of great interest.

I want to thank Mr. Offley and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer for allowing me to post the Scorpion article.

For more on the USS Scorpion, see: USS SCORPION (SSN-589) - Fast Attack Nuclear ...

For more on message traffic between MACVSOG and CINCPAC, see: AFFIDAVIT OF BARRY ALLEN TOLL

And may those who perished in the Scorpion rest in peace...




Subj: Scorpion
Date: 99-05-25 09:34:07 EDT


I found your Scorpion page via a Yahoo search. I find many of your conclusions to be in direct conflict with the known events of the time. Scorpion had completed the "high-tech spy mission" and was returning to Norfolk. Also you suggest that the Soviet Navy had the ability to " monitor an electronic transmissions to the Scorpion, including the encrypted orders sending it on its spy mission." 1. This is patently false. 2. If it were true, then the Soviets would have had a tremendous advantage during the cold war, which is not borne out by the results of same.

You also contend that the Soviet battle group which was shadowing had detected her, possibly followed her, and then attacked her with torpedoes. Nonsense. No Soviet captain would ever dare such a thing without orders from CNO Moscow. And such orders would have led to an escalation in the cold war that frankly never happened.

Your sequence of events for the Scorpion;s change of mission is also wrong. She was given the change at Naples before departing. This is a well documented fact. A point of note, the Captain and several of the officers attempted to get the Captain James Bradley to change the orders. They had been at sea for 2 months and wanted to get home. Bradley was sympathetic, but the orders stood. Did you even research any of this?

Next you say that the Soviets were conducting tests of possible acoustic systems and ways to replenish subs at sea without relying on foreign ports? What nonsense is that? There is plenty of documentation readily available to show what they were doing there. In fact, in one of Scorpion's last radio messages, she tells exactly what she observed and her analysis.

Your statements attributed to Lt. Jonh Rodgers are interesting. My only question is what would a mere Lt. be doing with classified information of that magnitude? And what would make him divulge it in an interview years later. Especially if that information had yet to be declassified? Your contention that he was a messenger in the COMMO center is flawed. All that information is encrypted. Then sealed before being handed to a messenger. If he read it, he broke the seal. If he handed it to his boss with a broken seal, he gave the interview from Leavenworth prison.

Now about the torpedo. 1. he previous incident with an "unarmed training torpedo" is just laughable. Why would a US Attack submarine, operating during the cold war, close to Soviet fleets, waste her valuable hull space with something like that?

What you refer to is called a "hot run" It happened frequently with the Mk37 torpedo. There was a problem with the wiring on the test equipment used. The most likely scenario is that there was a test on a torpedo being carried out. This is standard procedure for any US Submarine returning to base after a patrol.

The wires were probably reversed. This caused the fish to "hot run". At that point the Captain would instantly order 'Right full rudder". The reason is that every torpedo has a built in safety device that prevents it from turning and destroying the sub it was fired from. By turning right, and reversing course this device would have been activated and the warhead would not have armed.

This may explain why the wreckage of Scorpion was heading East when in fact her destination was West of her position. I really don't intend to find fault with your page. I do think the background music is a bit annoying. But it seems that you have drawn conclusions from some shakey sources. And I am not sure that you do any service to the families.

There was no cover up. There was no attack by a Soviet vessel. It was simply a case of terribly bad luck striking a boat with a history of bad luck and maintenance problems.

My best to you and yours,

Webmasters note: While the e-mail was addressed to me, as the author, I have contacted and explained that Ed Offley was the author of the original article and that it was posted with Mr. Offley's permission. A copy of's comments has been forwarded to Mr. Offley by this newsletter for his information. -- The Northwest Veterans Newsletter


Subj: USS Scorpion website
Date: 12/25/1999 4:38:21 PM Pacific Standard Time
From: (Don Dew)

Dear Sir,

In concurrance with the information given by, a book I have recently read - entitled "Blind Man's Bluff" by Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew (pp. 124-170) leads to evidence indicating that Navy research labs knew of a design defect in the Mark 37 torpedos. This defect had on documented occasions caused a battery explosion and rendered the torpedo hot. The torpedo was put into service before these discoveries were documented and acted upon.

The information provided by and the book indicate that the Scorpion was found 180 degrees from the course it should have been on, with extensive damage in the torpedo bay area. To test the hot torpedo theory, Craven put former Scorpion XO Robert Fountain aboard a simulator and ran through numerous test scenarios. On the last one, a person from the control room called "Hot running torpedo in the torpedo room" - Fountain's immediate reaction was "right full rudder." Then the computer simulated an explosion in the forward torpedo room, and the computer registered flooding, etc. Fountain followed exact procedure, and the "sub" passed implosion depth exactly 90 seconds later at 2000 feet. The simulation was 1 second off the 91 second explosion to implosion time registered by underwater hydrophones at the time.

It is theorized that the faulty battery setup caused the torpedo to go hot and eventually explode, despite the captain bringing the sub about.

I am no expert, more of a fascinated bystander, however this information is presented in a very plausible manner from interviews with numerous insiders. For full details, I would suggest reading the chapter, it is very informative, and the idea of a Soviet attack seems quite unlikely.


Donald Dew


Subj: uss scorpion/kw7 article/pueblo
Date: 09/21/2000 8:51:05 AM Pacific Daylight Time
From: (Murphy, Michael A.)
To: ('')

Sir, I would like to correspond with the author of the article in question. I was in communications in the Navy from 1970-1976, and while our security was damaged by the pueblo incident the kw7 was a regional high frequency ship to ship crypto equipment. Our main communications were done with the kg13 and the kw26 (between CINCPAC and our carrier) as well as secure voice communications.

Anything of sensitive intelligence was encrypted offline with a machine much like the german enigma box. I believe the overall premise of his story is in error for this reason.

Even in 1970 with the advent of the first "super" computers, encryption breaking became a mere matter of enough time to crunch the numbers. At that time we were "glad" to be able to keep something a secret for this amount of time.

I believe the ability to keep communications secure in this day and age has vanished completely (been reduced to a matter of minutes). Very interesting reading though.

Michael A. Murphy


Subj: Scorpion Date: 02/02/2001 2:33:58 PM Pacific Standard Time From:

Dear Sir:

I only know that I saw the Scorpion before I left Rota in late May 1968. I read the newspaper in Philidelphia and was shocked to here that she had gone down. I thought about some of the young guys that I had seen just a few days ago. This was 32 years ago. I didn't really get interested untill the Russian Sub was lost. I had thought that the Navy knew what had happened to the Scorpion. After reading the Navy findings I could not understand why there was no mention of Rota.

I remember that the Scorpion left two men in Rota for personal reasons. I was not on duty that day but I heard about it. Later she came back in. She was on a pier across from me. I didn't know what she was because all I had ever seen was missile boats. Some one told me that she was the Scorpion. They had a coferdam built around here and they were weilding on the storboard bow.

Maybe they welding hand rails on the side. I don't really know. I was only cleared for confidential messages. I have read the book "Blind mans bluff" and maybe she did have a hot running fish. I just want to know why she was in Rota.