Atomic submarine USS Thresher sinks in the Atlantic, killing all on board

Atomic submarine USS Thresher sinks in the Atlantic, killing all on board

On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, an atomic submarine, sinks in the Atlantic Ocean, killing the entire crew. One hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians were lost when the sub unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor roughly 300 miles off the coast of New England.

The Thresher was launched on July 9, 1960, from Portsmouth Naval Yard in New Hampshire. Built with new technology, it was the first submarine assembled as part of a new class that could run more quietly and dive deeper than any that had come before.

On April 10, 1963, at just before 8 a.m., the Thresher was conducting drills off the coast of Cape Cod. At 9:13 a.m., the USS Skylark, another ship participating in the drills, received a communication from the Thresher that the sub was experiencing minor problems.

Other attempted communications failed and, only five minutes later, sonar images showed the Thresher breaking apart as it fell to the bottom of the sea. Sixteen officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians were on board. All were killed.

On April 12, President John F. Kennedy ordered that flags across the country be flown at half-staff to commemorate the lives lost in this disaster. A subsequent investigation revealed that a leak in a silver-brazed joint in the engine room had caused a short circuit in critical electrical systems. The problems quickly spread, making the equipment needed to bring the Thresher to the surface inoperable.

The disaster forced improvements in the design and quality control of submarines. Twenty-five years later, in 1988, Vice Admiral Bruce DeMars, the Navy’s chief submarine officer, said “The loss of Thresher initiated fundamental changes in the way we do business—changes in design, construction, inspections, safety checks, tests, and more. We have not forgotten the lessons learned. It’s a much safer submarine force today.”


The Wretched Fate of The USS Thresher

The submarine Thresher looped lower into the deep Atlantic waters. There is little doubt that commanding officer Lieutenant Commander John Wesley Harvey had no inkling of the tragedy that was to come.

It was April 10, 1963, and USS Thresher (SSN-593) had just come out of a nine-month refit from the Portsmouth Navy Yard. Launched on July 9, 1960, she was the first in her class and state-of-the art in Cold War submarine technology.

At 278.5 feet in length she was reinforced into a cigar shape weighing some 3,500 tons, built of strong HY-80 type steel that allowed her to withstand pressure of 80,000 pounds per square inch. She was built to go deep.

This and especially her nuclear power plant gave her the perfect traits necessary to act with the surprise and stealth that the American Navy demanded. Thresher’s job was to hunt and kill enemy submarines. She was to lurk silently in the deeps until she came to a shipping lane or some port, waiting for an enemy sub.

USS Thresher (SSN-593)- Bow view of the submarine on the greased building ways, as workmen prepare for her launching at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Kittery, Maine, 9 July 1960.

Then Thresher would strike, either through her four torpedo tubes which could carry conventional or nuclear weapons, or, as of the last refit, submarine rockets.

Now Thresher was to undergo deep water testing as part of the post-refit shakedowns. Lieutenant Commander Harvey set a course some 220 nautical miles east of Cape Cod to the waters off the continental shelf. This depth would allow Thresher to descend to her test depth of 1,300 feet, which is to say the maximum depth at which she was designed to operate and fight.

John Wesley Harvey

With Thresher was the Skylark, a submarine rescue ship which was to monitor and communicate with the submarine using the UQC, an underwater acoustic telephone that operated via soundwaves. Skylark could in no way effect a rescue if anything were to go wrong. The bottom was some 8,400 feet below. The rescue chamber aboard Skylark was designed to operate at only a theoretical 850 feet.

All had been tested. All was prepared. Lieutenant Commander Harvey was ready to dive. He informed Skylark that he was taking the submarine down to her test depth. It was 7:47 a.m.

U.S. Navy submarine rescue ship USS Skylark (ASR-20).

Thresher descended rapidly. Within five minutes, Harvey reported over the telephone that they were at 400 feet and checking for leaks. At 8:05 a.m. the submarine was at 650 feet.

Then at 8:35 a.m. they were at “minus 300 feet.” Harvey had switched to this more cryptic description of depth relative to the secret test depth just in case the Soviets were listening. Thus he was 1,000 feet deep, that is 300 feet above test depth – 1,300 feet. Telephone checks with Skylark were good. At 9:12 a.m. all seemed well in a routine communications check.

USS Thresher (SSN-593). Port broadside view, taken while the submarine was underway.

Then perhaps a minute later Thresher issued a new report. The crew of Skylark remembered it differently, but it was in essence the same: “Experiencing minor difficulty…Have positive up angle…Attempting to blow…Will keep you informed.”

The operators of Skylark’s UQC then heard the sound of whooshing – air under high pressure. Thresher, for whatever reason, was attempting to blow its ballast tanks and rise to the surface. The skipper of Skylark ordered the telephone operator to ask, “Are you in control?” When no answer came, the skipper took the microphone himself and repeated the question three times.

Commissioning Bottle for the USS Thresher.Photo: Victor-ny CC BY-SA 3.0

There was silence until 9:17 a.m. when a garbled message came from Thresher. The only words that could be made out were “test depth,” and one crewmember of Skylark said he thought he also heard “exceeding.” The ship picked up a transmission, transcribed as “900 N.”

This may have referred to the submarine’s depth (900 feet below test depth) and the “N” as a negative to the question which asked if they were in control. Whatever the meaning, this was followed by horrible sounds.

USS Thresher (SSN-593) stern

One of the submarine vets aboard Skylark would state, “We heard sounds that are familiar to me, from having seen ships blown up by torpedoes in World War II—the sound of a ship breaking up—like a compartment collapsing…a muted, dull thud.”

Skylark continued to wait – praying for contact with Thresher. Then at 10:58 a.m. Skylark started dropping signal grenades into the water. This was protocol that told the submarine to surface in the event of lost communications.

USS Tresher (SSN-593) underway on the surface

But Thresher and all 129 men aboard did not surface. At about 2,400 feet, the submarine imploded from sea pressure with the force of what one estimate calculated to be 22,000 pounds of TNT. The collapse occurred in one-twentieth of a second.

While the final death blow to Thresher would have been virtually instantaneous to the crew, it is hard to imagine that for at least the five minutes between the first report of trouble and the final transmissions that the crew was not aware of the boat’s death spiral.

After a fruitless search, President John F. Kennedy ordered flags at half staff across the country. The tragedy was international news. Songs were crafted by musicians such as Pete Seeger to memorialize the disaster. Monuments were erected across the country with the latest to be erected in Arlington National Cemetery, having received approval in 2019.

USS Thresher (SSN-593) underway, 30 April 1961.

Thus the loss of Thresher became the deadliest submarine disaster in history. But its story does not end there. Immediately after the loss, a search for the submarine was conducted. After a tedious search a debris field of wreckage, likely from Thresher, was located using underwater cameras. It included piping, an air bottle, and a large spoon.

US Navy ships circle in the vicinity of the site of Thresher’s sinking on 15 April 1963

In order to make a closer examination, the Navy used the bathyscaphe Trieste. This submersible was designed for deep water diving and had made the first descent ever to the deepest part of the Marianas Trench, the Challenger Deep, at nearly 36,000 feet. It found Thresher’s scattered remains at approximately 8,400 feet.

Overhead view of Thresher’s upper rudder, photographed in October 1964 from a deep-sea vehicle deployed from USNS Mizar

An autopsy of sorts was performed by the Navy as well as a lengthy inquiry. It reached the conclusion that the probable cause of the disaster was massive flooding in the engine room, blaming the silver-braised joints of the piping system. The water then impacted the boat’s electrical systems which shut down the nuclear reactor in what was called a “scram.”

USS Thresher (SSN-593) O-rings

With a loss of propulsion, Thresher attempted to blow to the surface, but investigative testing showed that ice built up on a strainer in a valve at that depth, thus blocking the flow of air. Therefore, without the ability to surface and propulsion lost, Thresher sank until she reached a depth where the pressure crushed the submarine to death.

USS Thresher (SSN-593) brass pipe

Still, even at the time of the inquiry it was admitted that the exact cause of the Thresher disaster may never be known. Recent analysis of the cause, based on the release of classified materials, has led to another theory.

The most compelling piece of evidence is that the Navy’s seafloor sound surveillance system (SOSUS), which was so highly classified that it was not openly discussed at the inquiry, detected a failure of an electrical bus which caused the coolant pumps to Thresher’s reactor to stop working.

USS Thresher (SSN-593) sonar dome

This resulted in a scram and thus the boat lost propulsion. When Thresher tried to blow its ballast tanks could not due to the iced up valves.

Why did the Court of Inquiry offer a different opinion? Some sources contend that Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the head of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion wing, had a hand since it would be better for his program to blame faulty piping rather than the nuclear plant. Not all testimony for witnesses from the Court of Inquiry has been released, and there have been calls, even within the last year, to release the remaining testimony.

Memorial stone for a lost USS Thresher sailor, Arlington National Cemetery, July 1967.Photo: EditorASC CC BY-SA 3.0

The Thresher incident, like most undersea tragedies, resulted with improvements to safety. The Navy in 1963 launched the Submarine Safety Program (SUBSAFE) which is an inspection program to assure the quality of the submarine.

If actual results are meaningful, there has been only one American submarine loss since SUBSAFE started, and that boat, the Scorpion which was lost in 1968, was not-SUBSAFE certified.


10/04/1963: Tàu ngầm hạt nhâm USS Thresher bị chìm

Vào ngày này năm 1963, tàu ngầm hạt nhân USS Thresher đã bị chìm ở Đại Tây Dương, khiến toàn bộ 129 thủy thủ và nhân viên dân sự có mặt trên tàu thiệt mạng. Con tàu khi đó bất ngờ chìm sâu xuống đáy biển, khoảng 300 dặm ngoài khơi bờ biển New England.

Tàu Thresher hạ thủy vào ngày 09/07/1960, tại Cảng Hải quân Portsmouth ở New Hampshire. Được chế tạo theo công nghệ tiên tiến, nó là chiếc tàu ngầm đầu tiên thuộc lớp tàu mới, có thể chạy êm hơn và lặn sâu hơn bất kỳ loại tàu ngầm nào trước đó.

Ngày 10/04, ngay trước 8 giờ sáng, Thresher đang tiến hành các cuộc tập trận ngoài khơi bờ biển Cape Cod. Lúc 9:13 sáng, USS Skylark, một tàu khác tham gia cuộc tập trận, nhận được thông báo từ Thresher rằng con tàu này đang gặp sự cố kỹ thuật nhỏ.

Các nỗ lực liên lạc với Thresher đã không thành công và chỉ 5 phút sau, hình ảnh sóng âm (sonar) cho thấy con tàu vỡ tan tành khi nó rơi xuống đáy biển. 16 sĩ quan, 96 thủy thủ và 17 nhân viên dân sự có mặt trên tàu – không có ai sống sót.

Ngày 12/04, Tổng thống John F. Kennedy đã ra lệnh treo cờ rủ trên khắp đất nước để tưởng nhớ những sinh mạng đã ra đi trong thảm họa này. Một cuộc điều tra sau đó cho thấy rò rỉ tại một khớp nối bạc trong buồng máy đã gây ra đoản mạch trong hệ thống điện. Sự cố nhanh chóng lan rộng, khiến các thiết bị cần thiết để đưa Thresher nổi lên mặt nước không thể hoạt động.

Thảm họa đã khiến người ta phải cải tiến thiết kế và kiểm soát chất lượng tàu ngầm. 25 năm sau, vào năm 1988, Phó Đô đốc Bruce DeMars, Chỉ huy Đơn vị Tàu ngầm của Hải quân Mỹ, cho biết “Tai nạn tàu ngầm Thresher đã tạo ra những thay đổi cơ bản trong cách chúng tôi vận hành – những thay đổi trong thiết kế, xây dựng, kiểm tra, kiểm định, thử nghiệm và những vấn đề khác. Chúng tôi sẽ không quên những bài học kinh nghiệm ấy. Ngày nay, lực lượng tàu ngầm đã an toàn hơn trước rất nhiều.”


Why Did the USS Thresher Sink? Finally, the Navy Is Being Forced to Tell Us

The submarine mysteriously went down in 1963, killing everyone on board. Thanks to a lawsuit, we're about to learn why.

  • A retired U.S. Navy submarine commander sued the Navy to release an official report on the sinking of the USS Thresher&mdashand won.
  • Thresher sank in April 1963, lost with all hands, but there has never been an official explanation as to why.
  • The loss of Thresher lead to an improved culture of safety in the Navy, and since 1968, the service hasn&rsquot lost a single submarine.

A retired U.S. Navy submarine commander has won a lawsuit forcing the Navy to release its report on what happened to the USS Thresher, a nuclear-powered attack submarine that sank during diving tests in 1963. The loss of the submarine has never been fully explained, and the Navy has never released the report on the sub&rsquos sinking.

USS Thresher was the first of its class, a new type of fast, deep diving attack submarine. The Thresher-class subs used a streamlined hull designed for fast underwater travel. With a torpedo-like hull design and a S5W nuclear reactor, the Thresher class could make 20 knots on the surface and 30 knots underwater&mdashthe reverse of World War II-era submarines designed to spend most of their time on the surface. The submarines were 278 feet long, 31 feet wide, and carried Mk. 37 homing torpedoes for use against surface and subsurface targets, SUBROC anti-submarine torpedoes, and sea mines.

On April 9, 1963, the Thresher was 220 miles east of Cape Cod, conducting diving tests. It was the first submarine to use the new HY-80 steel alloy, and the Navy was eager to determine how deep the new design could safely dive. At 9:13 a.m., while at a depth of 1,300 feet, the submarine radioed the submarine rescue ship USS Skylark, waiting above:

But Thresher never surfaced, and the Navy later found the sub in six pieces on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. All 129 personnel on board were killed. People have come up with many theories about how the sub sank, including blaming the faulty welds that failed during the tests, shorting out the sub's critical electrical systems and sapping its power.

Capt. Jim Bryant, a retired Navy submarine officer, wanted to see the Navy&rsquos 1,700-page report on the Thresher&rsquos sinking, but the Navy refused to release it. So Bryant, Stars and Stripes reports, sued the Navy, and last month a federal judge ordered the service to release it in 300-page chunks.

The Navy has long been extremely protective of the report. The Navy submarine force is notoriously tight-lipped submariners say the nickname &ldquothe silent service&rdquo not only applies to the quiet nature of subs, but the secretive nature of the sub community as a whole.

The service first said it would release the Thresher report in 1998, but released only 19 of 1,700 pages, claiming that keeping it classified was to protect serving submarine crews. The problem with that explanation? The accident happened during normal dive tests. More than 50 years have passed since the sinking, and the submarine&rsquos technology is obsolete.

The loss of the Thresher led to a sea change in the Navy submarine force. After the sinking, the service instituted SUBSAFE, a program that ensures the safe operation of submarines. SUBSAFE monitors the design and construction of new subs to ensure ships can remain watertight and survive accidents at sea. (The Navy lost another submarine, the USS Scorpion, in 1968, but it wasn't built to SUBSAFE standards.)

In 2005, the attack submarine USS San Francisco collided with an underwater seamount at the equivalent of 30 miles an hour&mdashand was still able to sail to Guam for repairs. The culture of safety spawned by SUBSAFE&mdashand indirectly Thresher&mdashis credited for ensuring the San Francisco&rsquos survival.

The Navy will begin releasing the Thresher report in segments on May 15 and will continue until Oct. 15.


By giving us your email, you are opting in to the Navy Times Daily News Roundup.

The Navy inquiry found weaknesses in the design and construction of the first-in-class nuclear-powered submarine, which had been built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and based in Groton, Connecticut.

The documents released Wednesday included the timeline of the sinking, evidence lists, reports, testimony and correspondence. But there were some redactions. Even more than 50 years later, technical details including the test depth were redacted.

In the documents, the Navy said it believes an interior pipe burst and caused electrical problems that caused an emergency shutdown of the nuclear reactor.

The documents noted that the commanding officer’s evaluation of the first year of operations — before additional work was conducted at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard — included praise for the submarine. But he also said the submarine was overly complex in many areas and he noted a vulnerability of the auxiliary salt water system.

“He stated, ‘In my opinion, the most dangerous condition that exists in Thresher is the danger of salt water flooding while at or near test depth,’” the report said.

The brazed joints in pipes were a special concern, and many electrical panels were not adequately protected from sea water in the event of a leak, the report said.

Resting on the ocean floor at a depth of 8,500 feet, the Thresher looks as though it went through a “shredding machine” and is spread out over a mile, University of Rhode Island oceanographer Robert Ballard told The Associated Press in 2013. Ballard used his 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic as a Cold War cover for surveying the Thresher.

Not everyone was satisfied with the Navy’s conclusions.

Retired Capt. James Bryant, commander of a Thresher-class submarine, requested the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act and ultimately went to court to demand the documents' release. He thinks there’s more to be learned from the documents, most of them classified.

Michael Shafer, whose father and uncle both died on the Thresher, said some of the families need to review the documents to see for themselves and fully understand what happened. His suspicion is that the Navy was pushing the limits and placing personnel at risk during the Cold War.

“I want to know the truth, the whole truth. Not some smoke screen from the Navy,” he said Wednesday from St. Petersburg, Florida.

A judge in February ordered the Navy to release the documents. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the review of the documents. Eventually, more than 1,000 pages of documents will be released.

If there was a silver lining, it was that the tragedy so shook the Navy that it accelerated safety improvements and created a program called SUBSAFE, an extensive series of design modifications, training and other improvements.

One submarine has sunk since then, the USS Scorpion in 1968, and it was not SUBSAFE-certified, the Navy said.

Some of the improvements included better welding techniques, and the main ballast tank blow system that helps a submarine reach the surface was made more effective.

Joy MacMillan, one of four siblings who lost their father, the submarine’s chief radioman, said it’s helpful to know the tragedy spurred safety improvements. But it’s still important for the families to have the documents, and some closure.

“After being 57 years in the dark, it’s time for the families to know any and all information so that we can put it away. We can say, ‘Mistakes were made. Let’s move on,’” MacMillan, of Brentwood, New Hampshire, said Wednesday.

The sinking was the first of a string of calamities in 1963.

The March on Washington was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, but the Vietnam conflict grew, white supremacists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.


Atomic submarine USS Thresher sinks in the Atlantic, killing all on board

Lt Col Charlie Brown

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/atomic-submarine-sinks-in-atlantic?cmpid=email-hist-tdih-2021-0 [login to see] 1&om_rid=
On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, an atomic submarine, sinks in the Atlantic Ocean, killing the entire crew. One hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians were lost when the sub unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor roughly 300 miles off the coast of New England.

The Thresher was launched on July 9, 1960, from Portsmouth Naval Yard in New Hampshire. Built with new technology, it was the first submarine assembled as part of a new class that could run more quietly and dive deeper than any that had come before.

On April 10, 1963, at just before 8 a.m., the Thresher was conducting drills off the coast of Cape Cod. At 9:13 a.m., the USS Skylark, another ship participating in the drills, received a communication from the Thresher that the sub was experiencing minor problems.

Other attempted communications failed and, only five minutes later, sonar images showed the Thresher breaking apart as it fell to the bottom of the sea. Sixteen officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians were on board. All were killed.

On April 12, President John F. Kennedy ordered that flags across the country be flown at half-staff to commemorate the lives lost in this disaster. A subsequent investigation revealed that a leak in a silver-brazed joint in the engine room had caused a short circuit in critical electrical systems. The problems quickly spread, making the equipment needed to bring the Thresher to the surface inoperable.

The disaster forced improvements in the design and quality control of submarines. Twenty-five years later, in 1988, Vice Admiral Bruce DeMars, the Navy’s chief submarine officer, said “The loss of Thresher initiated fundamental changes in the way we do business—changes in design, construction, inspections, safety checks, tests, and more. We have not forgotten the lessons learned. It’s a much safer submarine force today.”


Atomic submarine USS Thresher sinks in the Atlantic, killing all on board

SGT (Join to see)

On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, a nuclear powered submarine, sunk 220 miles east of Boston killing 129 men, including 21 civilians. From the article:

"Atomic submarine USS Thresher sinks in the Atlantic, killing all on board
On April 10, 1963, the USS Thresher, an atomic submarine, sinks in the Atlantic Ocean, killing the entire crew. One hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians were lost when the sub unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor roughly 300 miles off the coast of New England.

The Thresher was launched on July 9, 1960, from Portsmouth Naval Yard in New Hampshire. Built with new technology, it was the first submarine assembled as part of a new class that could run more quietly and dive deeper than any that had come before.

On April 10, 1963, at just before 8 a.m., the Thresher was conducting drills off the coast of Cape Cod. At 9:13 a.m., the USS Skylark, another ship participating in the drills, received a communication from the Thresher that the sub was experiencing minor problems.

Other attempted communications failed and, only five minutes later, sonar images showed the Thresher breaking apart as it fell to the bottom of the sea. Sixteen officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians were on board. All were killed.

On April 12, President John F. Kennedy ordered that flags across the country be flown at half-staff to commemorate the lives lost in this disaster. A subsequent investigation revealed that a leak in a silver-brazed joint in the engine room had caused a short circuit in critical electrical systems. The problems quickly spread, making the equipment needed to bring the Thresher to the surface inoperable.

The disaster forced improvements in the design and quality control of submarines. Twenty-five years later, in 1988, Vice Admiral Bruce DeMars, the Navy’s chief submarine officer, said 'The loss of Thresher initiated fundamental changes in the way we do business—changes in design, construction, inspections, safety checks, tests, and more. We have not forgotten the lessons learned. It’s a much safer submarine force today.'”


Navy documents reveal officer flagged "dangerous condition" before deadliest submarine disaster in U.S. history

The Navy began releasing documents from the investigation into the deadliest submarine disaster in U.S. history this week, revealing that the ship's commanding officer noted a "dangerous condition" on the vessel before it was lost. The first of the documents released were 300 pages from the official inquiry into the sinking of the USS Thresher in 1963.

The loss of the nuclear-powered submarine and all 129 men aboard during a test dive in the Atlantic Ocean delivered a blow to national pride during the Cold War and became the impetus for safety improvements.

Yellowed newspapers from April of 1963 declare the tragedy of the USS Thresher. Photographed Tuesday, March 26, 2013. / Getty Images

"The loss of Thresher was a defining event for the submarine service," said Rear Adm. William Houston, director of the undersea warfare division in the office of the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon.

The documents noted that the commanding officer's evaluation of the first year of operations &ndash before additional work was conducted -- included praise for the submarine. But he also said the submarine was overly complex in many areas and he noted a vulnerability of the auxiliary salt water system.

"He stated, 'In my opinion, the most dangerous condition that exists in Thresher is the danger of salt water flooding while at or near test depth,'" the report said.

On April 10, 1963, the Thresher had undergone sea trials and was back in the ocean for deep-dive testing about 220 miles off Massachusetts' Cape Cod. The first sign of trouble was a garbled message about a "minor difficulty" after the 279-foot submarine descended to more than 800 feet.

Trending News

The crew indicated it was attempting to empty ballast tanks in an effort to surface. The crew of an accompanying rescue ship heard something about the "test depth." Then the sailors listened as the sub disintegrated under the crushing pressure of the sea.

Underwater photograph shows a portion of the sunken nuclear-powered submarine 'USS Thresher,' September 1963. / Getty Images

The Navy inquiry found weaknesses in the design and construction of the first-in-class nuclear-powered submarine, which had been built at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, and based in Groton, Connecticut.

On March 4, 1964, nearly a year after the disaster, CBS aired a segment on the Thresher, which was reported by Dan Rather. "All the events of that morning may never be known," Rather said. "Complete answers as to why they happened may never come."

The documents released Wednesday included the timeline of the sinking, evidence lists, reports, testimony and correspondence. But there were some redactions. Even more than 50 years later, technical details including the test depth were redacted.

In the documents, the Navy said it believes an interior pipe burst and caused electrical problems that caused an emergency shutdown of the nuclear reactor.

The brazed joints in pipes were a special concern, and many electrical panels were not adequately protected from sea water in the event of a leak, the report said.

Resting on the ocean floor at a depth of 8,500 feet, the Thresher looks as though it went through a "shredding machine" and is spread out over a mile, University of Rhode Island oceanographer Robert Ballard told The Associated Press in 2013. Ballard used his 1985 discovery of the RMS Titanic as a Cold War cover for surveying the Thresher.

Not everyone was satisfied with the Navy's conclusions.

Retired Capt. James Bryant, commander of a Thresher-class submarine, requested the documents under the federal Freedom of Information Act and ultimately went to court to demand the documents' release. He thinks there's more to be learned from the documents, most of them classified.

Michael Shafer, whose father and uncle both died on the Thresher, said some of the families need to review the documents to see for themselves and fully understand what happened. His suspicion is that the Navy was pushing the limits and placing personnel at risk during the Cold War.

"I want to know the truth, the whole truth. Not some smoke screen from the Navy," he said Wednesday from St. Petersburg, Florida.

Nuclear-powered submarine the 'USS Thresher' steers through the sea, early 1960s. The sub sank in April of 1963, killing the entire crew. / Getty Images

A judge in February ordered the Navy to release the documents. The coronavirus pandemic delayed the review of the documents. Eventually, more than 1,000 pages of documents will be released.

If there was a silver lining, it was that the tragedy so shook the Navy that it accelerated safety improvements and created a program called SUBSAFE, an extensive series of design modifications, training and other improvements.

One submarine has sunk since then, the USS Scorpion in 1968, and it was not SUBSAFE-certified, the Navy said.

Some of the improvements included better welding techniques, and the main ballast tank blow system that helps a submarine reach the surface was made more effective.

Joy MacMillan, one of four siblings who lost their father, the submarine's chief radioman, said it's helpful to know the tragedy spurred safety improvements. But it's still important for the families to have the documents, and some closure.

"After being 57 years in the dark, it's time for the families to know any and all information so that we can put it away," MacMillan said.

A 2019 dedication of a new memorial at Arlington Memorial cemetery to the officers and crew of the USS Thresher, a nuclear submarine that sank in 1963, in Arlington, VA. Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

First published on September 26, 2020 / 11:38 AM

© 2020 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Atomic submarine sinks in Atlantic - Apr 10, 1963 - HISTORY.com

TSgt Joe C.

On this day in 1963, the USS Thresher, an atomic submarine, sinks in the Atlantic Ocean, killing the entire crew. One hundred and twenty-nine sailors and civilians were lost when the sub unexpectedly plunged to the sea floor 300 miles off the coast of New England.

The Thresher was launched on July 9, 1960, from Portsmouth Naval Yard in New Hampshire. Built with new technology, it was the first submarine assembled as part of a new class that could run more quietly and dive deeper than any that had come before.

On April 10, 1963, at just before 8 a.m., the Thresher was conducting drills off the coast of Cape Cod. At 9:13 a.m., the USS Skylark, another ship participating in the drills, received a communication from the Thresher that the sub was experiencing minor problems.

Other attempted communications failed and, only five minutes later, sonar images showed the Thresher breaking apart as it fell to the bottom of the sea. Sixteen officers, 96 sailors and 17 civilians were on board. All were killed.

On April 12, President John F. Kennedy ordered that flags across the country be flown at half-staff to commemorate the lives lost in this disaster. A subsequent investigation revealed that a leak in a silver-brazed joint in the engine room had caused a short circuit in critical electrical systems. The problems quickly spread, making the equipment needed to bring the Thresher to the surface inoperable.

The disaster forced improvements in the design and quality control of submarines. Twenty-five years later, in 1988, Vice Admiral Bruce Demars, the Navy’s chief submarine officer, said “The loss of Thresher initiated fundamental changes in the way we do business–changes in design, construction, inspections, safety checks, tests, and more. We have not forgotten the lessons learned. It’s a much safer submarine force today.”


Contents

Scorpion ' s keel was laid down 20 August 1958 by General Dynamics Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut. She was launched 19 December 1959, sponsored by Elizabeth S. Morrison, the daughter of the last commander of the World War II-era USS Scorpion (SS-278) , Lt. Cdr. Maximilian Gmelich Schmidt (that ship was also lost with all hands, in 1944). Scorpion was commissioned 29 July 1960, with Commander Norman B. Bessac in command. (See USS George Washington for information on how that submarine had originally been laid down with the name and hull number, USS Scorpion SSN-589, intended to be an attack submarine.) [ citation needed ]

Service: 1960–1967 Edit

Assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62, Scorpion departed New London, Connecticut, on 24 August for a two-month European deployment. During that time, she participated in exercises with 6th Fleet units and NATO-member navies. After returning to New England in late October, she trained along the eastern seaboard until May 1961. On 9 August 1961, she returned to New London, moving to Norfolk, Virginia, a month later. In 1962, she earned a Navy Unit Commendation. [ citation needed ]

Norfolk was Scorpion ' s port for the remainder of her career, and she specialized in developing nuclear submarine warfare tactics. Varying roles from hunter to hunted, she participated in exercises along the Atlantic coast, and in Bermuda and Puerto Rico operating areas. From June 1963 to May 1964, she underwent an overhaul at Charleston. She resumed duty in late spring, but regular duties were again interrupted from 4 August to 8 October for a transatlantic patrol. In the spring of 1965, she conducted a similar patrol in European waters. [ citation needed ]

In 1966, she deployed for special operations. After completing those assignments, her commanding officer received a Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership, foresight, and professional skill. Other Scorpion officers and crewmen were also cited for meritorious achievement. Scorpion is reputed to have entered an inland Russian sea during a "Northern Run" in 1966, where it filmed a Soviet missile launch through its periscope before fleeing from Soviet Navy ships. [ citation needed ]

Overhaul: 1967 Edit

On 1 February 1967, Scorpion entered Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a refueling overhaul. However, instead of a much-needed complete overhaul, she received only emergency repairs to get quickly back on duty. The preferred SUBSAFE [4] [5] program required increased submarine overhaul times, from 9 to 36 months. Intensive vetting of submarine component quality, SUBSAFE, was required, coupled with various improvements and intensified structural inspections – particularly, of hull-welding using ultrasonic testing – and of reduced availability critical parts such as seawater piping. [ citation needed ]

Cold War pressures had prompted U.S. Submarine Force Atlantic (SUBLANT) officers to cut corners. The last overhaul of the Scorpion cost one-seventh of those performed on other nuclear submarines at the same time. This was the result of concerns about the "high percentage of time offline" for nuclear attack submarines, estimated at about 40% of total available duty time. [ citation needed ]

Scorpion ' s original "full overhaul" was reduced in scope. Long-overdue SUBSAFE work, such as a new central valve control system, was not performed. Crucially, her emergency system was not corrected for the same problems that destroyed Thresher. While Charleston Naval Shipyard claimed the Emergency Main Ballast Tank Blow (EMBT) system worked as-is, SUBLANT claimed it did not, and their EMBT was "tagged out" (listed as unusable). Perceived problems with overhaul duration led to a delay on all SUBSAFE work in 1967. [ citation needed ]

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral David Lamar McDonald approved Scorpion ' s reduced overhaul on 17 June 1966. On 20 July, McDonald deferred SUBSAFE extensions, otherwise deemed essential since 1963. [ verification needed ]

Service: 1967–1968 Edit

In late October 1967, Scorpion started refresher training and weapons system acceptance tests, and was given a new commanding officer, Francis Slattery. Following type training out of Norfolk, Virginia, she got underway on 15 February 1968 for a Mediterranean Sea deployment. She operated with the 6th Fleet into May and then headed west for home. [ citation needed ]

Scorpion suffered several mechanical malfunctions, including a chronic problem with Freon leakage from refrigeration systems. An electrical fire occurred in an escape trunk when a water leak shorted out a shore power connection. No evidence was found that Scorpion ' s speed was restricted in May 1968, although it was conservatively observing a depth limitation of 500 feet (150 m), due to the incomplete implementation of planned post-Thresher safety checks and modifications. [6]

After departing the Mediterranean on 16 May, Scorpion dropped two men at Naval Station Rota in Spain, one for a family emergency (RM2 Eric Reid), and one for health reasons (ICS Joseph Underwood). Some U.S. ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) operated from the U.S. Naval base Rota it is speculated that USS Scorpion provided noise cover for USS John C. Calhoun when they both departed to the Atlantic. Along with Soviet intelligence trawlers, Soviet fast nuclear attack submarines [7] were attempting to detect and follow the U.S. submarines going out of Rota, in this case, two fast 32-knot Soviet November-class hunter-killer subs. [6]

Scorpion was then detailed to observe Soviet naval activities in the Atlantic in the vicinity of the Azores. An Echo II-class submarine was operating with this Soviet task force, as well as a Russian guided-missile destroyer. [8] Having observed and listened to the Soviet units, Scorpion prepared to head back to Naval Station Norfolk. [ citation needed ]

Scorpion attempted to send radio traffic to Naval Station Rota for an unusually long period beginning shortly before midnight on 20 May and ending after midnight on 21 May, but it was only able to reach a Navy communications station in Nea Makri, Greece, which forwarded the messages to COMSUBLANT. [6] Lt. John Roberts was handed Commander Slattery's last message that he was closing on the Soviet submarine and research group, running at a steady 15 kn (28 km/h 17 mph) at a depth of 110 m (350 ft) "to begin surveillance of the Soviets." [6] Six days later, the media reported that she was overdue at Norfolk. [9]

Search: 1968 Edit

The Navy suspected possible failure and launched a search, but Scorpion and her crew were declared "presumed lost" on 5 June. Her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 30 June. The search continued with a team of mathematical consultants led by Dr. John Piña Craven, the chief scientist of the Navy's Special Projects Division. They employed the methods of Bayesian search theory, initially developed during the search for a hydrogen bomb lost off the coast of Palomares, Spain, in January 1966 in the Palomares B-52 crash. [10]

Some reports indicate that a large and secret search was launched three days before Scorpion was expected back from patrol. This and other declassified information led to speculation that the Navy knew of Scorpion ' s destruction before the public search was launched. [11]

At the end of October 1968, the Navy's oceanographic research ship Mizar located sections of the hull of Scorpion on the seabed, about 400 nmi (740 km) southwest of the Azores [12] under more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft) of water. This was after the Navy had released sound tapes from its underwater SOSUS listening system, which contained the sounds of the destruction of Scorpion. [13] The court of inquiry was subsequently reconvened, and other vessels, including the bathyscaphe Trieste II, were dispatched to the scene to collect pictures and other data.

Craven received much credit for locating the wreckage of Scorpion, although Gordon Hamilton was instrumental in defining a compact "search box" wherein the wreck was ultimately found. He was an acoustics expert who pioneered the use of hydroacoustics to pinpoint Polaris missile splashdown locations, and he had established a listening station in the Canary Islands, which obtained a clear signal of the vessel's pressure hull imploding as she passed crush depth. Naval Research Laboratory scientist Chester Buchanan used a towed camera sled of his own design aboard Mizar and finally located Scorpion. [12]

Observed damage Edit

The bow of Scorpion appears to have skidded upon impact with the globigerina ooze on the sea floor, digging a sizable trench. The sail had been dislodged, as the hull of the operations compartment upon which it perched disintegrated, and was lying on its port side. One of Scorpion ' s running lights was in the open position, as if it had been on the surface at the time of the mishap, although it may have been left in the open position during the vessel's recent nighttime stop at Rota. One Trieste II pilot who dived on Scorpion said that the shock of the implosion may have knocked the light into the open position.

The secondary Navy investigation – using extensive photographic, video, and eyewitness inspections of the wreckage in 1969 – suggested that Scorpion ' s hull was crushed by implosion forces as it sank below crush depth. The Structural Analysis Group, which included Naval Ship Systems Command's Submarine Structures director Peter Palermo, plainly saw that the torpedo room was intact, though it had been pinched by excessive sea pressure. The operations compartment collapsed at frame 33, this being the king frame of the hull, reaching its structural limit first. The conical/cylindrical transition piece at frame 67 followed instantly. The boat was broken in two by massive hydrostatic pressure at an estimated depth of 470 m (1,530 ft). The operations compartment was largely obliterated by sea pressure, and the engine room had telescoped 15 m (50 ft) forward into the hull due to collapse pressure, when the cone-to-cylinder transition junction failed between the auxiliary machine space and the engine room.

The only damage to the torpedo room compartment appeared to be a hatch missing from the forward escape trunk. Palermo pointed out that this would have occurred when water pressure entered the torpedo room at the moment of implosion.

The sail was ripped off, as the hull beneath it folded inward. The propulsion shaft came out of the boat the engineering section had collapsed inward in a telescoping fashion. The broken boat fell another 2,700 m (9,000 ft) to the ocean floor.

Photos taken in 1986 by Woods Hole Alvin, released by Navy in 2012, shows the broken inboard end of the propulsion shaft.

Court of Inquiry report: 1968 Edit

Shortly after her sinking, the Navy assembled a court of inquiry to investigate the incident and to publish a report regarding the likely causes for the sinking. The court was presided over by Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, who had presided over the inquiry into the loss of Thresher. The report's findings were first made public on January 31, 1969. While ruling out sabotage, the report said: "The certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion cannot be ascertained from evidence now available." [14]

In 1984, the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star obtained documents related to the inquiry, and reported that the likely cause of the disaster was the detonation of a torpedo while the Scorpion ' s own crew attempted to disarm it. [15] The U.S. Navy declassified many of the inquiry's documents in 1993. [16]

Naval Ordnance Laboratory report: 1970 Edit

An extensive, year-long analysis of Gordon Hamilton's hydroacoustic signals of the submarine's demise was conducted by Robert Price, Ermine (Meri) Christian, and Peter Sherman of the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL). All three physicists were experts on undersea explosions, their sound signatures, and their destructive effects. Price was also an open critic of Craven. Their opinion, presented to the Navy as part of the Phase II investigation, was that the death noises likely occurred at 610 m (2,000 ft) when the hull failed. Fragments then continued in a free fall for another 2,700 m (9,000 ft). This appears to differ from conclusions drawn by Craven and Hamilton, who pursued an independent set of experiments as part of the same Phase II probe, demonstrating that alternate interpretations of the hydroacoustic signals were possibly based on the submarine's depth at the time it was stricken and other operational conditions. [ citation needed ]

The Structural Analysis Group (SAG) concluded that an explosive event was unlikely and was highly dismissive of Craven and Hamilton's tests. The SAG physicists argued that the absence of a bubble pulse, which invariably occurs in an underwater explosion, is absolute evidence that no torpedo explosion occurred outside or inside the hull. Craven had attempted to prove that Scorpion ' s hull could "swallow" the bubble pulse of a torpedo detonation by having Gordon Hamilton detonate small charges next to air-filled steel containers. [ citation needed ]

The 1970 Naval Ordnance Laboratory "Letter", [17] the acoustics study of Scorpion destruction sounds by Price and Christian, was a supporting study within the SAG report. In its conclusions and recommendations section, the NOL acoustic study states: "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." [17]

The Naval Ordnance Laboratory based much of its findings on an extensive acoustic analysis of the torpedoing and sinking of the decommissioned submarine Sterlet in the Pacific in early 1969, seeking to compare its acoustic signals to those generated by Scorpion. Price found the Navy's scheduled sinking of Sterlet fortunate. Nonetheless, Sterlet was a small World War II-era diesel-electric submarine of a vastly different design and construction than Scorpion with regard to its pressure hull and other characteristics. Its sinking resulted in three identifiable acoustic signals, as compared to Scorpion ' s fifteen. [17] [ better source needed ]

The NOL acoustics study provided a highly debated explanation as to how Scorpion may have reached its crush depth by anecdotally referring to the near-loss incident of the diesel submarine Chopper in January 1969, when a power problem caused her to sink almost to crush depth, before surfacing. [ citation needed ]

In the same May 2003 N77 letter excerpted above (see 1. with regard to the Navy's view of a forward explosion), however, the following statement appears to dismiss the NOL theory, and again unequivocally point the finger toward an explosion forward: [ citation needed ]

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.

Wreck site Edit

The U.S. Navy periodically revisits the site to determine whether wreckage has been disturbed and to test for the release of any fissile materials from the submarine's nuclear reactor or two nuclear weapons. Except for a few photographs taken by deep-water submersibles in 1968 and 1985, the U.S. Navy has never made public any physical surveys it has conducted on the wreck. The last photos were taken by Robert Ballard and a team of oceanographers from Woods Hole using the submersible in 1985. The U.S. Navy secretly lent Ballard the submersible to visit the wreck sites of the Thresher and Scorpion. In exchange for his work, the U.S. Navy then allowed Ballard, a USNR officer, to use the same submersible to search for RMS Titanic. [19]

Due to the radioactive nature of the Scorpion wreck site, the U.S. Navy has had to publish what specific environmental sampling it has done of the sediment, water, and marine life around the sunken submarine to establish what impact it has had on the deep-ocean environment. The information is contained within an annual public report on the U.S. Navy's environmental monitoring for all U.S. nuclear-powered ships and boats. The reports explain the methodology for conducting deep-sea monitoring from both surface vessels and submersibles. These reports say the lack of radioactivity outside the wreck shows the nuclear fuel aboard the submarine remains intact and no uranium in excess of levels expected from the fallout from past atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons has been detected during Naval inspections. Likewise, the two nuclear-tipped Mark 45 torpedoes that were lost when the Scorpion sank show no signs of instability. The plutonium and uranium cores of these weapons likely have corroded to a heavy, insoluble material soon after the sinking. The materials remain at or close to their original location inside the boat's torpedo room. If the corroded materials were released outside the submarine, their density and insolubility would cause them to settle into the sediment. [ citation needed ]

Call for inquiry: 2012 Edit

In November 2012, the U.S. Submarine Veterans, an organization with over 13,800 members, asked the U.S. Navy to reopen the investigation on the sinking of USS Scorpion. The Navy rejected the request. A private group including family members of the lost submariners stated they would investigate the wreckage on their own, since it was located in international waters. Tampering with a sunken military vessel is illegal, because they are considered military graveyards. [20]

Hydrogen explosion during battery charge Edit

A hydrogen explosion as the proximal cause for the loss of Scorpion was assessed and analyzed by retired acoustics expert Bruce Rule, a long-time analyst for the Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS), in his IUSS alumni association blog. [21] Based on his own experiences, Rear Admiral Dave Oliver, who served in both diesel boats and nuclear submarines, provides his assessment in his book Against the Tide that Scorpion was lost as a result of hydrogen build-up due to changes in the ventilation lineup while proceeding to periscope depth. Most recently, following analysis of the ship's battery cells, this is the leading theory for the loss of Scorpion. [22] This is consistent with two small explosions aboard the submarine, a half-second apart, that were picked up by hydrophones. [13]

Accidental activation of torpedo Edit

The classified version of the U.S. Navy's court of inquiry's report, finally released in 1993, listed accidents involving the Mark 37 torpedo as the third of the most probable causes for the loss of submarine, [23] including a hot-running torpedo, an accidentally or deliberately launched weapon, or the inadvertent activation of a torpedo by stray voltage. The acoustic homing torpedo, in a fully ready condition and lacking a propeller guard, is theorized by some to have started running within the tube. Released from the tube, the torpedo then somehow became fully armed and successfully engaged its nearest target: Scorpion herself. [24]

Explosion of torpedo inside sub Edit

A later theory was that a torpedo may have exploded in the tube, caused by an uncontrollable fire in the torpedo room. The book Blind Man's Bluff documents findings and investigation by Dr. John Craven, who surmised that a likely cause could have been the overheating of a faulty battery. [3] The Mark 46 silver–zinc battery used in the Mark 37 torpedo had a tendency to overheat, and in extreme cases could cause a fire that was strong enough to cause a low-order detonation of the warhead. If such a detonation had occurred, it might have opened the boat's large torpedo-loading hatch and caused Scorpion to flood and sink. However, while Mark 46 batteries have been known to generate so much heat that the torpedo casings blistered, none is known to have damaged a boat or caused an explosion. [25]

Craven mentions that he did not work on the Mark 37 torpedo's propulsion system and became aware of the possibility of a battery explosion only 20 years after the loss of Scorpion. In his book The Silent War, he recounts running a simulation with former Scorpion executive officer Lieutenant Commander Robert Fountain, Jr. commanding the simulator. Fountain was told he was headed home at 18 knots (33 km/h) at a depth of his choice, then there was an alarm of "hot-running torpedo". Fountain responded with "right full rudder", a quick turn that would activate a safety device and keep the torpedo from arming. Then, an explosion in the torpedo room was introduced into the simulation. Fountain ordered emergency procedures to surface the boat, stated Dr. Craven, "but instead, she continued to plummet, reaching collapse depth and imploding in 90 seconds – one second shy of the acoustic record of the actual event." [ citation needed ]

Craven, who was the chief scientist of the Navy's Special Projects Office, which had management responsibility for the design, development, construction, operational test and evaluation, and maintenance of the UGM-27 Polaris fleet missile system had long believed Scorpion was struck by her own torpedo, but revised his views during the mid-1990s, when he learned that engineers testing Mark 46 batteries at Keyport, Washington, just before the Scorpion's loss, said the batteries leaked electrolyte and sometimes burned while outside their casings during lifetime shock, heat, and cold testing. Although the battery manufacturer was accused of building bad batteries, it was later able to successfully prove its batteries were no more prone to failure than those made by other manufacturers. [ citation needed ]

Intentional firing of defective torpedo Edit

Twenty years later, Craven learned that the boat could have been destroyed by a "hot-running torpedo." Other subs in the fleet had replaced their defective torpedo batteries, but the Navy wanted Scorpion to complete its mission first. If Scorpion had fired a defective torpedo, it could have sought out a target and turned back to strike the sub that launched it. [26]

Structural damage Edit

Photographs of the USS Scorpion wreck show the submarine's detached shaft and propeller, missing a rotor blade. Some experienced U.S. submariners attribute the loss of the submarine to flooding caused by the detached shaft. [27] [28] Given that antisubmarine torpedoes were designed to seek the sound of the cavitation of the target submarine's propeller, this could be damage caused by such a weapon. [29]

Malfunction of trash disposal unit Edit

During the 1968 inquiry, Vice Admiral Arnold F. Shade testified that he believed that a malfunction of the trash disposal unit (TDU) was the trigger for the disaster. Shade theorized that the sub was flooded when the TDU was operated at periscope depth and that other subsequent failures of material or personnel while dealing with the TDU-induced flooding led to the sub's demise. [30]

Soviet attack Edit

The book All Hands Down by Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler (Simon and Schuster, 2008) concludes that Scorpion was destroyed while en route to gather intelligence on a Soviet naval group conducting operations in the Atlantic. [31] While the mission for which the submarine was diverted from her original course back to her home port is a matter of record, its details remain classified. [ citation needed ]

Ed Offley's book Scorpion Down promotes a hypothesis suggesting that Scorpion was sunk by a Soviet submarine during a standoff that started days before 22 May. Offley also cites that it occurred roughly at the time of the submarine's intelligence-gathering mission, from which she was redirected from her original heading for home according to Offley, the flotilla had just been harassed by another U.S. submarine, USS Haddo. [32] W. Craig Reed, who served on Haddo a decade later as a petty officer and diver, and whose father was a U.S. Navy officer responsible in significant electronic support measures, advances in sub detection in the early 1960s, recounted similar scenarios to Offley in Red November, [33] over Soviet torpedoing of Scorpion and details his own service on USS Haddo in 1977 running inside Soviet waters off Vladivostok, when torpedoes appeared to have been fired at Haddo, but were immediately put down by the captain as a Soviet torpedo exercise. [ citation needed ]

Both All Hands Down and Scorpion Down point toward involvement by the KGB spy ring (the so-called Walker spy ring) led by John Anthony Walker, Jr. in the heart of the U.S. Navy's communications, stating that it could have known that Scorpion was coming to investigate the Soviet flotilla. According to this theory, both navies agreed to hide the truth about both USS Scorpion and K-129 incidents. Several USN and RN submarines collided with Soviet Echo-class subs in Russian and British waters in this period, showing greatly enhanced aggression in Soviet Navy sub operations in 1968. The navy Mminister in the British Labour government, noted 11 such deliberate collisions. [34] Commander Roger Lane Nott, Royal Navy commander of HMS Splendid during the 1982 Falklands War, stated that in 1972, during his service as a junior navigation officer on HMS Conqueror, a Soviet submarine entered the Firth of Clyde channel in Scotland and Conqueror was given the order to "chase it out". Having realized it was being pursued, "a very aggressive Soviet captain turned his submarine and drove her straight at HMS Conqueror. It had been an extremely close call." [35]

According to a translated article from Pravda, Moscow never issued a "fire" command during the Cold War. [36] This is disputed by Royal Navy officers, "there had been other occasions when harassed Russians had fired torpedoes to scare off trails". [35] The Navy court of inquiry official statement was that another ship was not within 200 miles of Scorpion at the time of the sinking. [37] Adding to the body of evidence against a Soviet torpedo-attack theory, U.S. Navy submarine Captain Robert LaGassa has flatly stated, "no Soviet submarine in 1968 could detect, track, approach, and attack any Skipjack- or later-class U.S. submarine". [38] During 1967, though, the large Soviet nuclear submarine-building program, and the view of naval officers and in particular Admiral Rickover, that Defense Secretary R. McNamara, Naval Intelligence and CIA assessments underrated the speed of even existing Soviet subs [39] and their threat led to 2 major tests on the request of Rickover. On 3-5 January 1968, the CVN USS Enterprise proved unable to outrun a Soviet November SSN at flank speed of 30/31 knots. This showed the Soviet November SSN, 5 knots faster than 'shatteringly' wrong intelligence estimates and underwater tracking a US CVN on sonar at 30 knots. Sec. McNamara remained opposed to a new fast SSN 688 class leader capable of 30 knots. His deputy and the chief sea warfare advisor to head of USN scientific engineering research James Nunan advised against SSN 688 or the need or reason for an enlarged, fast, 30-knot Sturgeon on 18 December 1967 in favor of long-term research into a new small 'conform' nuclear design. McNamara apparently attempted to have Rickover court-martialed and removed from office at this point. [40]

However, the USN case for SSN 688 after the hijacking of USS Pueblo in January 1968 and the Tet offensive in February 1968, which showed new communist aggression, was resubmitted. The plan and requirement for new fast SSNs was accepted by USN Chief of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer after further inquiry in March 1968, but was not accepted by the US government. Events in May 1968 led to Admiral Rickover and Chief of USN Scientific Research and Engineering, John S Foster, appearing before the US Senate and House armed forces committees in the first week of June 1968, and it was decided to order an immediate test to illustrate to Foster that the tactical advantage of speed in a SSN could outweigh stealth and quietness. The radical test was conducted with a top USN Permit-class SSN crew aboard USS Dace Cpt by Cdr K. McKee and a crew with experience running in Russian waters engaging in a hunt and attempt to simulate a torpedo attack on a fast Skipjack-class, the USS Shark, with a declared speed of 29 knots. [41] While the trial was successful, it showed just how difficult a faster, noisier submarine like Shark was to engage, [42] and by implication that an even faster November-class Soviet sub, while noisy, might well have been able to engage a 29-knot Skipjack.

U.S. Navy conclusions Edit

The results of the U.S. Navy's various investigations into the loss of Scorpion are inconclusive. While the court of inquiry never endorsed Dr. Craven's torpedo theory regarding the loss of Scorpion, its "findings of facts" released in 1993 carried Craven's torpedo theory at the head of a list of possible causes of Scorpion ' s loss. [ citation needed ]

The first cataclysmic event was of such magnitude that the only possible conclusion is that a cataclysmic event (explosion) occurred resulting in uncontrolled flooding (most likely the forward compartments). [ citation needed ]

Silent Steel Edit

Released in 2006, Stephen Johnson's Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion [43] provides a detailed listing of every mechanical problem on the submarine cited by the Navy or mentioned in crewmen's letters, but does not solve the Scorpion ' s sinking. Johnson, a critic of Dr. Craven, agrees with Navy scientists who, in 1970, gave their opinion that the sub's hull was smashed by implosion damage and not a torpedo blast, a finding they support with their interpretation of certain evidence about the condition of the hull and hydroacoustic recordings of the disaster. Silent Steel portrays an overworked submarine denied needed maintenance and manned by a demoralized crew, a depiction contradicted by many former Scorpion enlisted men and officers, and based in part on the testimony of sailors who had applied for transfer from the boat. Johnson also enumerates many of the Navy-wide submarine maintenance issues that denied Scorpion an overhaul and overdue safety improvements, though the Navy would maintain that virtually all necessary and vital improvements and repairs were made on the submarine before her final deployment. The Submarine Safety Program, initiated following the 1963 loss of Thresher, delayed new submarine construction and sub overhauls by monopolizing skilled workers and critical spare parts. Fearing that a normal overhaul and safety work during 1967 might sideline Scorpion for three years, it was selected for a brief experimental overhaul, but this was canceled due to a shortage of workers. Scorpion sank eight months after leaving Norfolk Naval Shipyard. [ citation needed ]

Blind Man's Bluff Edit

In 1998, two New York Times reporters published Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, [44] a book providing a rare look into the world of nuclear submarines and espionage during the Cold War. One lengthy chapter deals extensively with Scorpion and her loss. The book reports that concerns about the Mk 37 conventional torpedo carried aboard Scorpion were raised in 1967 and 1968, before Scorpion left Norfolk for her last mission. The concerns focused on the battery that powered the torpedoes. The battery had a thin metal-foil barrier separating two types of volatile chemicals. When mixed slowly and in a controlled fashion, the chemicals generated heat and electricity, powering the motor that pushed the torpedo through the water, but vibrations normally experienced on a nuclear submarine were found to cause the thin foil barrier to break down, allowing the chemicals to interact intensely. This interaction generated excessive heat, which in tests, could readily have caused an inadvertent torpedo explosion. The authors of Blind Man's Bluff do not directly contradict the official findings, but highlight information discovered during the investigation, which contradicts the investigation's findings, but are not addressed in the report. Notably, the book cites a hot-running torpedo incident on the USS Sargo (SSN-583) prior to the loss of Scorpion, although Sargo was moored at the time and not lost. [45]

Red Star Rogue Edit

In 2005, the book Red Star Rogue: The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine's Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S., [46] by former American submariner Kenneth Sewell in collaboration with journalist Clint Richmond, claimed that Soviet submarine K-129 was sunk 300 nmi (560 km) northwest of Oahu on 7 March 1968 while attempting to launch her three ballistic missiles, in a rogue attempt to destroy Pearl Harbor. [ citation needed ]

Sewell claims that the sinking of Scorpion was caused by a retaliatory strike for the sinking of K-129, which the Soviets had attributed to a collision with USS Swordfish. [ citation needed ]

In 1995, when Peter Huchthausen began work on a book about the Soviet underwater fleet, he interviewed former Soviet Admiral Victor Dygalo, who stated that the true history of K-129 has not been revealed because of the informal agreement between the two countries' senior naval commands. The purpose of that secrecy, he alleged, is to stop any further research into the losses of either Scorpion or K-129. Huchthausen states that Dygalo told him to "forget about ever resolving these sad issues for the surviving families." [47]

All Hands Down Edit

All Hands Down [6] was written by Kenneth R. Sewell, a nuclear engineer and a U.S. Navy veteran who spent five years aboard Parche, a fast attack submarine. It attempts to link the sinking of Scorpion with the Pueblo incident, the John Anthony Walker spy ring, and Cold War Soviet aggression. The thesis of this book is that action off the Canary Islands was the direct cause of the sinking. The author purports that this is supported by motives in the Soviet Navy following the sinking of K-129, which caused the Russian Navy to trap a U.S. submarine. The bait for this trap would be strange military operations and furtive naval manoeuvres in the Atlantic, accompanied by countermeasures that would seemingly be defeated only by the deployment of a nuclear submarine. With information from spying by Walker, the position and arrival time of Scorpion was known by the Russians, and its sinking followed the springing of the trap. The book claims Scorpion was sunk by a Ka-25 helicopter equipped with antisubmarine torpedoes, which took off from one ship and landed on a different one. This was so that no one, other than the aircrew of the helicopter, would notice one torpedo missing. [ citation needed ]

The book then purports a cover-up by American and Soviet officials, to avoid public outrage and an increase in Cold War tension. [ citation needed ]

Scorpion Down Edit

Ed Offley, a reporter on military affairs, has closely followed developments in information concerning the sinking of the Scorpion. His most recent article on the subject is "Buried at Sea" published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Military History. This article summarizes the facts in the case as presented in his 2007 book Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion. [7] In the book, Offley, gathering decades of his own research, hypothesizes that Scorpion was sunk by the Soviets, possibly in retaliation for the loss of K-129 earlier that year. The book paints a picture of increasing Soviet anger at U.S. Navy provocations — specifically, close-in monitoring of Soviet naval operations by almost every U.S. nuclear submarine. Around the same time, the Soviet intelligence community scored a huge boon in receiving the mechanical cryptologic devices from Pueblo. These machines, combined with daily crypto keys from the Walker spy ring, likely allowed the Soviets to monitor U.S. Navy ship dispositions and communications. [ citation needed ]

Offley contends that the Scorpion was tracked by several Soviet Navy assets from the Mediterranean to its final operational area south of the Azores, where it was then sunk by a Soviet torpedo. He claims the U.S. Navy was aware of the loss of the Scorpion on 21 May 1968, and by the night of 22 May 68, deep concern had arisen over the Scorpion after not receivingf the required 24-hr, four-word communication check required on operational duty, in the SUBCOMLANT communication center at Norfolk on the evidence of two 2nd-class radioman on the deck that night among junior USN officers and the unit supervisor, Warrant Officer J. Walker, confirmed to interested staff that no check transmission from Scorpion was received that night, and by the morning of 23 May 1968, the SUBCOMLANT center was full of admirals and a Marine general, and no doubt existed of the loss of Scorpion, [48] and the US government and Navy were engaged in a massive cover-up, within days destroying much of the sound and communication data at SOSUS ground stations in the U.S. and Europe, [49] and delaying any public indication of the loss until its scheduled arrival at Norfolk, Virginia, five days later, partly to disguise the fact that U.S. nuclear subs were in constant or frequent communication with U.S. naval communication bases and that the subsequent search for the Scorpion was a five-month-long deception to pretend they had no idea of the location of the hull. [50]

The oral testimony relied upon by Offley are recollections of surviving SOSUS recordings documenting torpedo sounds, evasion sounds, an explosion, and eventually the sounds of implosions as Scorpion plunged past crush depth. [ citation needed ]

Against the Tide: Rickover's Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy Edit

In a section from this 2014 book titled "The Danger of Culture", retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Dave Oliver offers the theory based on his own experiences that hydrogen explosion, either during or immediately following a battery charge, possibly destroyed USS Scorpion and killed her crew. The proximate cause in that scenario would have been the procedural carryover from diesel-boat days wherein the boat was effectively rigged for collision—with subsequent changes in ventilation flow and watertight condition—before proceeding to periscope depth by way of setting "Condition Baker". Oliver had personally witnessed dangerously high hydrogen level spikes under such conditions aboard a nuclear submarine, specifically while going to periscope depth and setting Condition Baker during a battery charge. Diesel boats, in contrast, were not capable of doing a battery charge while deeply submerged, but were instead dealing with the risk of collision while on antisurface-ship operations when proceeding to periscope depth while in or near shipping lanes. In regard to NAVSEA responsibility, he further states: "I always felt that the investigators closed their eyes to the most likely cause because they did not want to acknowledge their own involvement in this tragedy. I had forwarded my letter about Condition Baker via some of the same people responsible for the Scorpion investigation." [51]

Phil Ochs released a song on his album Rehearsals for Retirement (1969) titled "The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns". [52] [53]


Nuclear Submarine Down!: The Shocking Accident That Sunk a U.S. Navy Attack Sub

The Navy still periodically surveys the Scorpion’s wreck to check for radioactive leakage from her S5W nuclear reactor, and the two ASTOR nuclear-armed torpedoes still residing in her hull. As recently as 2012, the Navy has rejected calls to re-investigate the tragic sinking.

The discovery of wreckage from the Argentine submarine ARA San Juan in November 2018 grimly highlights the dangers inherent to submarine operations even in peacetime. Well over a dozen submarines have been lost catastrophic accidents since the end of World War II. Only stringent safety protocols and rigorous maintenance regimes can minimize the likelihood of such accidents.

(This first appeared last year.)

Fortunately, though U.S. submarines have experienced numerous collisions and groundings, it has been over fifty years since the U.S. Navy lost its last submarine to causes which remain unclear to this day—though lax safety procedures may well have been involved.

The USS Scorpion was one of six Skipjack-class nuclear-powered attack submarines, a class which introduced a tear-drop shaped hull that enabled it to attain high speeds of thirty-four knots (thirty-eight miles per hour) while submerged.

Launched by Electric Boat in Connecticut in 1960, Scorpion operated as part of the Atlantic submarine fleet from her base in Norfolk Virginia. She helped test new nuclear submarine tactics and was also involved in clandestine missions, including reputedly infiltrating Soviet waters to spy on the launch of a new missile type in 1966.

By February 1967, it came time for Scorpion to undergo extensive routine testing and overhaul as part of the Navy’s SUBSAFE safety program. This required thoroughly testing surfaces and components using ultrasounds to certify the vessel’s integrity for continued operations.

SUBSAFE was devised after the loss in 1963 of the USS Thresher, the lead ship of a more advanced successor to the Skipjack class. An apparent rupture in her pipes allowed saltwater to spray into the vessel, causing a chain reaction leading to a reactor shutdown, a failure of the air flasks used to surface, and the progressive flooding of the submarine. The Thresher sank with 129 aboard—amounting to the deadliest submarine accident ever.

However, SUBSAFE quadrupled submarine overhaul times. Because demand for submarine operations was so high, the Chief of Naval Operations authorized Scorpion to receive an “experimental” accelerated overhaul, bypassing required safety checks and installation of improved, safer components. This despite over-worked repair crews relying on jury-rigged spare parts and discovering numerous defectively welded pipes. These shortcomings forced the Scorpion to observe a much shallower-than usual diving limit of 110-meters.

As a result, Scorpion was back in operational status seven months later—one of only four in the Atlantic Fleet not to receive her SUBSAF certification. The poor condition of the Scorpion after the overhaul was described by two Scorpion crew members Andy Elnicki and Dan Rogers—both of whom left the crew before her final voyage.

In February 1968, Scorpion transited to a naval base in Rota, Spain. Crew letters reveal that she suffered mechanical breakdowns including a leaky seal on its propeller shaft, major oil leakage from its hydraulics, unstable control surfaces, leaks of poisonous Freon, and an electrical fire near her Trash Disposal Unit.

Nonetheless, on May 16 Scorpion sortied from Rota, tasked with ferreting out the position of Soviet ships reported near the Azores islands, before returning to homeport at Norfolk. Approaching midnight on May 21, the Scorpion’s captain, thirty-six-year-old Commander Francis Slattery, transmitted that he had located a Soviet submarine at a depth of 110 meters, and was “to begin surveillance of the Soviets.”

This was the last message received from the ninety-men aboard the Scorpion.

After failing to return to port, the U.S. Navy began searching in June for its missing submarine, employing dynamic Bayesian statistical methods to optimize the search pattern. The search area was further narrowed based on an ominous recording obtained by a Navy listening station in the Canaries, which captured fifteen acoustic events over 190 seconds. These seemed to correspond to an apparent underwater explosion or implosion.

After four months, the oceanographic search and rescue vessel USNS Mizar discovered the 77-meter long Scorpion’s wreck 460 miles southwest of the Azores using a jury-rigged underwater towed camera-sled.

Located 3,000 meters deep—well below the Skipjack-class’s test depth of 210 meters—the Scorpion had plowed a deep trench across the ocean floor, imploded by the deep pressure of the surrounding ocean water. The submarine’s operation center had collapsed inward, causing the sail (or conning tower) located above it to tear off.

The mystery of what brought the Scorpion to her terrible fate in May 1968 has never been satisfactorily resolved—inspiring numerous books offering competing explanations.

A naval court of inquiry made public in January 1969 determined that the cause of the Scorpion’s demise could not be ascertained, though decades later it was revealed it had privately concluded detonation of the 330-pound warhead on a defective Mark 37 torpedo was the most likely explanation. Had the stubby, sonar-guided anti-submarine torpedo launched accidentally—or been jettisoned—and then circled around to sink the only target in the area?

The Mark 37 was also infamous for using silver-zinc batteries prone to overheating and even combusting or exploding. A theory later expounded in the book Blind Man’s Buff is that a “hot-running” torpedo battery led to a fire, causing a torpedo explosion which ruptured the hull.

However, another study conducted by naval acoustic specialists rejected the explosion explanation, citing the lack of an evident “bubble pulse” usually produced by an underwater explosion. According to this analysis, the Scorpion had already begun sinking uncontrollably due to other causes prior to the pressure-induced implosion recorded by the acoustic listening station.

One theory advanced by Vice Admiral Arnold Schade and former-Scorpion mechanic Dan Rogers postulates it sank due to a faulty Trash Disposal Unit—a valve on the galley for getting rid of waste. This could have allowed seawater to flood in and contaminate the batteries, producing hydrogen gas that may have incapacitated the crew and eventually led to the apparent explosion in the center of the Scorpion’s hull.

A variation on this explanation is that the Scorpion suffered a hydrogen explosion while charging batteries at periscope depth. Basically, while adhering to safe “total” cell voltages, the charging process sometimes channeled excessive energy into individual cells—which in extremis, could release hydrogen gas sufficient to cause a hull-rupturing explosion. Over-charged individual cells were reportedly a common problem in U.S. submarines at the time.

One sinister theory expounded in several books—All Hands Down, Red Star Rogue and Scorpion Down—maintains the Scorpion was sunk by a Soviet submarine or helicopter-launched torpedo. Two months earlier on March 8, Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 sank mysteriously, taking with her all 98 hands aboard—and many Soviet naval officers were convinced she had been rammed by a trailing U.S. submarine. Might the Soviets have conspired to bushwhack the Scorpion in revenge—or even accidentally collided or torpedoed her while tailing from behind?

According to this theory, the Soviet Navy might have used intelligence transmitted by the infamous John Walker spy ring to determine the Scorpion’s position. Afterward, both navies supposedly colluded to hush up the two incidents to prevent political repercussions. However, these theories rely on conjecture, anonymous sources, and a presumed cover-up rather than concrete evidence. Officially, U.S. Navy maintains no Soviet ships were within 200 miles of the Scorpion when she sank.

The Navy still periodically surveys the Scorpion’s wreck to check for radioactive leakage from her S5W nuclear reactor, and the two ASTOR nuclear-armed torpedoes still residing in her hull. As recently as 2012, the Navy has rejected calls to re-investigate the tragic sinking.

It seems unlikely the exact truth of the Scorpion’s fate will ever be known for certain, but her undersea grave stands in mute testimony to the high price submariners from many nations have paid pursuing their dangerous line of duty.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.


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