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Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the…

Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion

by Stephen Johnson

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1968 was not a good year: riots in the cities, multiple assassinations, and perhaps coincidentally four submarines were lost that year: one French, one Israeli, one Russian (K-129 see Project Azorian), and the USS Scorpion. The year's only redeeming feature was that I got married in August.

The USS Scorpion, an attack sub, had just been in dry-dock for several months while they refueled the nuclear reactor a complicated process that requires cutting a hole in the sub and then welding it shut. It passed all the requisite tests afterwards (the whole refit process was to come under review following the disaster,) and so was released for active duty where it was to act first as the "rabbit" for surface ships and other attack subs, i.e. the target during exercises. That was not its original mission, but it was replacing the USS Seawolf that had been severely damaged, almost sunk, after a collision with an underwater obstacle. If you remember The Hunt For Red October, you will remember the scene where they are steering through a large deep basin near Maine that required numerous turns that had to be done exactly in order to avoid a collision. The assumption was they had great charts. Nice fiction. The deep basin the Navy was using was very poorly charted as the USS Seawolf discovered, smashing the bow and stern. It was very lucky and survived only by emergency blowing the tanks. It needed to be towed back to base. (Something that surprised me was the number of underwater collisions suffered by U.S. nuclear subs. Of course, after recent events, we now know that Navy ships collide with things on the surface, too.)

Arriving in Rota, Spain, the Scorpion had a substantial list of work that needed to be done, not including huge hydraulic leaks they had managed to fix while in transit. The private contractor which had done the refit in Norfolk refused to cover any of them under warranty so all the fixes had to be done by the sub tender at Rota. They had a long list of problems that needed fixing. One serious one required the sailors to scrounge Freon from as many other ships as possible. Their own antiquated refrigeration systems was leaking substantial amounts. Freon by itself isn't particularly hazardous, but in a closed environment it displaces the air and if it accumulates in a small space it can cause asphyxiation. Normally they would expect to los about 75 lbs per month. They were losing ten times that and would ask for some from every ship they encountered. They were also having considerable communications equipment problems. On the way back it sank without a trace.

The search for the sub is described in detail (John Craven who was also involved in the search for K-129, developer of the Bayesian Search Theory and the super secret spy submarine the Halibut played a prominent role.) After discovery of the location and with analysis of thousand of photographs, the reasons were almost as numerous as those doing the analysis. The major ones seemed to be blown up by one of its own torpedoes (lots of things to go wrong), defective battery causing a fire (the batteries used in the torpedo were often defective), a stuck plane forcing the boat down faster than they could recover before hitting crush depth and others. (Interestingly, you'll learn that submariners don't drown when a submarine reaches crush depth, to put it bluntly, they are squashed instantly.) One peculiarity was that the periscope and communications antennas were in the upright position as if they were close to the surface when something happened. Another possibility was that the TDI, trash disposal unit, ball valve had failed leading to catastrophic water intake.

Whether the fast refit had left some lingering problems was another concern. Following the loss of the Thresher, which had sunk because of a bad weld that broke letting in high pressure sea water, the Navy embarked on an ambitious program to make subs safer. The problem was that for a variety of reasons, refits were dragging on for as long as 36 months. At one point 40% of the nuclear attack subs were in drydock. That was unacceptable. So they were going to try and speed things up, going to sea with known issues, limiting maximum submerged, and ignoring problems that could be fixed later.

No spoilers here. A terrific read.
( )
1 vote ecw0647 | Aug 30, 2017 |
An incredibly well researched history of the Scorpion disaster. A necessity for any naval historian's library. ( )
  Sturgeon | Apr 30, 2007 |
For a fairly short book, Johnson makes very good use of his space. Not only does he consider the events leading up to the loss of the "Scorpion," but he also gives the reader a portrait of the extended family of the boat, an analysis of technical and resource shortfalls that afflicted the Navy nuclear submarine force in the Sixties, and a survey of relevant submarine casualties at the time and after. This is important in providing a context to Johnson's arguement that we still do not really know what did in the "Scorpion," though it's likely to have been the conjunction of several mechanical faults interacting; not an ordnance failure. Anyone who enjoyed "Blind Man's Bluff" ought to be interested in this work. ( )
  Shrike58 | Feb 14, 2007 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0471267376, Hardcover)

Praise for Silent Steel

"The magnitude of the tragedy of the USS Scorpion is matched only by the depth of the mystery surrounding her loss. Stephen Johnson has done a remarkable job of shining new light on this dark moment in U.S. submarine history."
--Sherry Sontag, coauthor of Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage

"What happened to the USS Scorpion? The question has vexed submariners for almost four decades. Now, with meticulous research and incredible attention to detail, Stephen Johnson examines and dissects one of the most tragic and mysterious submarine accidents in U.S. Navy history."
--Douglas Waller, author of Big Red: Inside the Secret World of a Trident Nuclear Submarine

"Stephen Johnson has crafted a forensic masterpiece that leads the reader back through time to unravel the gnawing enigma of the tragic 1968 loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion. Sifting through a maze of conflicting theories, he meticulously lays out a tale of undersea detectives searching for conclusive evidence to one of the most baffling mysteries of the cruel sea."
--Rear Admiral Thomas Evans, author, analyst specializing in submarine history and operations, and former officer on the Scorpion

"The manuscript arrived with yesterday's afternoon mail. I finished reading it by nightfall. It's that good! Thoroughly researched, impeccably documented, with an appealing and literate style, Silent Steel should become essential reading for submarine enthusiasts and for anyone else who enjoys an engaging and informative yarn."
--A. J. Hill, author of Under Pressure: The Final Voyage of Submarine S-Five

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:45 -0400)

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