USS Scorpion

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USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was a submarine of the United States Navy. She was one of the few American submarines to be lost at sea while not at war.

Tour of duty

Scorpion was a member of the Skipjack class of nuclear-powered submarine. The sixth U.S. ship to bear the name, Scorpion was laid down on August 20, 1958 by the Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corporation, Groton, Connecticut; launched on December 19, 1959; sponsored by Mrs. Elizabeth S. Morrison; and commissioned on July 29, 1960, with Commander Norman B. Bessac in command.

Assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62, Scorpion departed New London, Connecticut, on August 24 for a two-month deployment in European waters. During that period, she participated in exercises with units of the 6th Fleet and of other NATO navies. After returning to New England in late October, she trained along the eastern seaboard until May 1961, then crossed the Atlantic again for operations which took her into the summer. On August 9, she returned to New London and, a month later, shifted to Norfolk, Virginia.

With Norfolk her home port for the remainder of her career, Scorpion specialized in the development of nuclear submarine warfare tactics. Varying her role from hunter to hunted, she participated in exercises which ranged along the Atlantic coast and in the Bermuda and Puerto Rico operating areas; then, from June 1963 to May 1964, she interrupted her operations for an overhaul at Charleston, South Carolina. Resuming duty off the eastern seaboard in late spring, she again interrupted that duty from August 4 to October 8 to make a transatlantic patrol. In the spring of 1965, she conducted a similar patrol in European waters.

During the late winter and early spring of 1966, and again in the fall, she was deployed for special operations. Following the completion of those assignments, her commanding officer received the Navy Commendation Medal for outstanding leadership, foresight, and professional skill. Other Scorpion officers and crewmen were cited for meritorious achievement.

On February 1, 1967, Scorpion entered the Norfolk Naval Shipyard for another extended overhaul. In late October, she commenced refresher training and weapons system acceptance tests. Following type training out of Norfolk, she got underway on February 15, 1968 for a Mediterranean deployment. She operated with the 6th Fleet, into May, and then headed west for home. On May 21, she indicated her position to be about 50 miles south of the Azores. Six days later, she was reported overdue at Norfolk.


A search was initiated, but without immediate success. On June 5, Scorpion and her crew were declared “presumed lost”. Her name was struck from the Navy list on June 30.

The search continued, however; and, at the end of October, the Navy's oceanographic research ship, USS Mizar (T-AGOR-11) located sections of Scorpion's hull in more than 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) of water about 650 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. Subsequently, the Court of Inquiry was reconvened and other vessels, including the submersible Trieste were dispatched to the scene and collected a myriad of pictures and other data.

Although the cause of her loss cannot be ascertained with certainty, the most probable cause is inadvertent activation of the battery of a Mark 37 torpedo during a torpedo inspection. In this scenario, the torpedo, in a fully ready condition and without a propeller guard, began a live “hot run” within the tube. Released from the tube, the torpedo became fully armed and successfully engaged its nearest target, Scorpion. Alternatively, the torpedo may have exploded in the tube owing to an uncontrollable fire in the torpedo room.

The explosion---later correlated to a very loud acoustic event recorded by monitoring stations---broke the boat into two major pieces, with the forward hull section, including the torpedo room and most of the operations compartment, creating one impact trench while the aft section, including the reactor compartment and engine room, created a second impact trench. The aft section of the engine room is inserted forward into a larger diameter hull section in a manner similar to a telescope. The sail is detached and lies nearby in a large debris field.

The Navy has periodically monitored the environmental conditions of the site since the sinking and reported the results in an annual public report on environmental monitoring for U.S. naval nuclear-powered ships. These reports confirm that two nuclear-tipped torpedoes were aboard Scorpion when the ship was lost. The reports provide specifics on the environmental sampling of sediment, water, and marine life that is done to ascertain whether the submarine has significantly affected the deep-ocean environment. The reports also explain the methodology for conducting this deep sea monitoring from both surface vessels and submersibles. The monitoring data confirm that, by the standards of the U.S. Navy, there has been no significant affect on the environment. The nuclear fuel aboard the submarine remains intact and no plutonium in excess of levels expected from fallout from past atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons has been detected by the Navy's inspections.

Ship's specifications

  • displacement: 3,075 tons (surfaced), 3,500 tons (submerged)
  • length: 76.7 meters (251 feet 9 inches)
  • beam: 9.6 meters (31 feet 7 inches)
  • speed: 20+ knots
  • complement: crew of 99
  • armament: 6 torpedo tubes