The Mysterious Loss of a U.S. Submarine on a Spy Mission

US Naval History and Heritage Command

Considering the hazardous depths that submarines regularly operate in, the United States’ submarine fleet has an astonishing safety record. Since the end of World War II, the United States Navy has lost two submarines, an admirable feat given the number of boats in USN service over the past seventy-two years. The two boats the USN lost, however, claimed every life aboard each submarine.

The first submarine, the USS Thresher, sank in 1963 when a deep diving test went horribly wrong. The second boat, the USS Scorpion, well, funny thing about the Scorpion’s loss. No one seems to know why the submarine sank, and the United States government has yet to declassify the nature of the Scorpion’s mission. There’s several theories, including at least two of the nefarious conspiracy variety, but when all the evidence is beneath 9,800 feet of water; it’s difficult to prove much of anything.

Commissioned in 1960, the Skipjack-class submarine was part the USN’s conversion to nuclear power, and featured a number of innovative design and technical advances. First tested in the USN’s final class of diesel-electric submarines, the Barbel-class, the Skipjack’s combined the control room, conning tower, and attack center in one place, thereby reducing redundancy and miscommunication.

The boats also featured a teardrop shaped hull design, and single propulsion screw, which maximized the boat’s underwater speed. The blimp shaped hull streamlined the Skipjack’s submerged performance, and remained the fastest submarines in the USN until the introduction of the Los Angeles class in 1974.

Insignia of the USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Wikipedia

Armed primarily with electrically propelled Mark 37 conventional torpedoes and the Mark 45 ASTOR nuclear torpedoes, the class was cutting-edge when introduced in 1960. The Soviet’s comparable submarines, the NATO designated November class, were slower, louder, and less technically advanced than the new Skipjack’s, which made the American boats a premier underwater threat to the Russian Navy. Unfortunately for the USS Scorpion, however, at least one of the boat’s innovations may have been the culprit for its destruction.

Unlike the other five Skipjack class submarines, the Scorpion was anything but a testament to construction quality. When the boat was lost in 1968, the Scorpion was only eight years old, yet the submarine had a litany of problems. The tradition of crews nicknaming their ships/boats is an ancient one in maritime history, but when your sailors dub a craft named Scorpion the USS Scrapiron, it’s a solid indication that something is seriously wrong.