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Casualties of the Cold War: in Scorpion Down, veteran correspondent Ed Offley claims the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion was sunk in 1968 by the Soviet Navy.

Casualties of the Cold War In Scorpion Down, veteran correspondent Ed Offley claims the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion was sunk in 1968 by the Soviet Navy.

Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion, by Ed Offley, New York: Basic Books, 2007, 482 pages, hardcover, $27.50.

Monday, May 27, 1968 was to be a day of homecoming in Norfolk, Virginia. Cool temperatures, a lead-gray sky, and occasional torrential rain couldn't dampen the spirits of wives and families gathered near Pier 22 at the Norfolk Naval Station that day. Waiting in cars or in the warmth of a nearby submarine tender, the gathered families waited in anticipation for the low, black shape of the submarine USS Scorpion to come into view. As the rain poured down, minutes turned to hours and still there was no sign of the sleek and deadly nuclear sub.

Finally, word came that the boat and her 99-member crew had been delayed. In the gloom, nervous families left the dockyard to wait for notification that the Scorpion had finally returned. It would never come.

On June 5, Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chief of Naval Operations, confirmed for the families of the crew what many had already learned or feared: the boat was lost. Scorpion and her crew had joined the ranks of those on "eternal patrol."

The loss of Scorpion set in motion one of modern naval history's most enduring mysteries. Officially, the reason for her loss is unknown, though there has been plenty of speculation. Some believe that a torpedo malfunctioned and began to "run hot" in the tube, culminating in disaster. Others point to supposed mechanical failings on board, but no one has been able to tell, for certain, exactly what sent the sub and her crew to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean on her voyage home. Efforts to make sense of her loss have been hampered by official secrecy that, by many accounts, goes unusually far beyond even the normal culture of secrecy that keeps the activities of the Navy's "silent service" behind a protective veil.

What happened to Scorpion? Why the secrecy? If veteran military-affairs reporter Ed Offley is right, there was ample reason for military officials to cover up the loss of Scorpion. Based on over two decades of research and countless interviews with both sailors and top Navy brass alike, Offley asserts in his provocative new book, Scorpion Down, that the sleek, fast-attack sub failed to return as scheduled on May 27, 1968 because she had been attacked and sunk a week earlier by the Soviet Navy in what can only be termed an act of war.

Like No Other

When she was launched in 1959, the USS Scorpion was a representative of the most advanced class of nuclear attack submarines on Earth. Coming only five years after the launch of USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine, the Scorpion and her Skipjack-class counterparts represented a further revolution in submarine technology. Combining the power and flexibility of nuclear propulsion with a revolutionary advanced teardrop hull for maximum hydrodynamic performance, the Skipjack boats, Scorpion included, were at the time of their launch the fastest and most maneuverable submarines ever built.

At 252 feet in length, Scorpion's nuclear-powered steam turbines could propel her through the depths of the ocean at an official speed of 29 knots, though she was probably significantly faster than that. Even today, for obvious reasons, the Navy will not disclose the true performance capabilities of its nuclear submarines.

Her speed and performance were meant for only one purpose: to chase and sink Soviet submarines in the event of war. Like all U.S. attack subs, during the Cold War Scorpion found herself on the front lines in near-combat conditions as the Navy struggled to keep tabs on an ever more aggressive Soviet presence on and under the world's oceans. That was the task that faced Scorpion and her crew, under the leadership of Commander Francis A. Slattery, as the boat deployed to the Mediterranean in February 1968.

The situation was tense as the boat entered the Med, as Offley recalls. "The Sixth Fleet flashed a message to the submarine that the Soviet Navy was confronting U.S. and NATO naval units all over the Mediterranean." The sub's orders, Offley writes, sent "the submarine on a top-secret mission that one crewman later indicated was to spy on Soviet Navy ships near the Straits of Gibraltar." These missions often involved escorting ballistic missile submarines (boomers) in order to help them evade the Soviet subs that tracked them. Sometimes the missions turned dangerous and violent. One sailor who served aboard a submarine tender in the Med told Offley that in 1968 at least two American subs were severely damaged after altercations with Soviet subs. "One included more than half the sail [conning tower] smashed right down to the deck," Navy veteran Tom Carlough, who was stationed in Rota, Spain, aboard the sub tender Canopus, told Offley.

Last Voyage

Despite the danger, Scorpion and her crew finished their Mediterranean cruise without incident and May 17 found the boat and her crew preparing to transit the Atlantic back to Norfolk. Sometime during the early morning hours, though, that plan changed. According to Offley, "the radio teletypewriter in the Scorpion's radio shack came chattering to life" with orders diverting the sub "to a point southwest of the Canary Islands to spy on a group of Soviet Navy ships that included an Echo-II nuclear cruise missile submarine."

Unbeknownst to its crew, Scorpion was sailing into the jaws of death. Two breaches of U.S. security, according to Offley, put the sub and its crew in mortal danger. The first was the capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korea in January 1968. Operating off the Korean coast, the Pueblo's mission was to eavesdrop on communist electronic communications. But the little ship was surrounded by North Korean patrol boats and captured on January 23. The crew made a gallant attempt to destroy all sensitive documents and equipment, but were unable to finish in time and some material, including an important "KW-7 Orestes secure send/receive teletypewriter," fell into communist hands. According to Offley, that "crypto gear had been rushed to Moscow for study and possible exploitation by the KGB" just days after the Pueblo was captured.

The KGB, says Offley, was able to make use of the equipment to intercept U.S. Naval communications that they were then able to decode thanks to the treasonous activity of the notorious Walker spy ring. Unknown to the Navy at the time, "John Walker in early 1968 was already providing the KGB with a constant stream of keylists, repair manuals, and technical documents with design improvements for the Navy's encryption machines." These machines were the same ones used to communicate with Scorpion. According to Offley, having broken the U.S. codes, "the Soviets wielded that weapon to set up an ambush that destroyed the Scorpion and its crew in a secret battle that climaxed beneath the Atlantic on May 22, 1968."

Smoking Gun

That is a provocative conclusion, but Offley seems to have the smoking gun to prove it. During the Cold War the United States operated a secret network of underwater listening posts. Known as the Sound Surveillance System--SOSUS--it gave the U.S. Navy the ability to hear almost everything that happened under the Atlantic. If the Soviets did sink Scorpion, SOSUS would have recorded the battle. According to Offley, that's exactly what happened.

The smoking gun, Offley says, was revealed in a training class for new SOSUS operators in 1982. The story comes from Navy SOSUS operator Vince Collier, who was in the class. According to the story Collier told to Offley, one day the class instructor entered the room with a SOSUS training tape. Collier recounted: "From the beginning of the tape ... we were watching these two submarines. We saw 'sprint and drift,' we saw 'Crazy Ivan,'" he said, referring to submarine combat maneuvers. Then, Offley writes, recounting the story, the SOSUS record "clearly showed a torpedo launch from one of the submarines." According to Collier, the sub dodged the torpedo for a time, but couldn't escape and the SOSUS record ended with a violent explosion. "Are we watching an American submarine biting the bullet?" a student asked, according to Collier. The reply from the instructor, Ocean Systems Technician First Class Richard Falck: "This is the death of the USS Scorpion. That was a Russian torpedo signature. Officially, it's not." When the class was over, Collier recalled for Offley, he got a look at the container that held the incriminating SOSUS record. "I looked straight down on the cover of the tape, and it said 'USS Scorpion.'"

Collier's is an intriguing story and it is contained in an even more intriguing book. But it's not the only evidence that Offley cites pointing to a violent encounter between Scorpion and the Soviet Navy in 1968. The author takes readers on a carefully guided tour through decades of meticulous research containing illuminating interviews with nearly everyone involved in Scorpion's final mission, from sailors like Vince Collier on up through the ranks to top admirals. Along the way Scorpion Down presents an almost airtight case that the men aboard Scorpion died in battle in an undeclared war against a tenacious foe, heroes and victims in a decades-long silent war beneath the sea.
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Author:Behreandt, Dennis
Publication:The New American
Date:Jul 23, 2007
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