Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Attack on the Submarine Scorpion, 1968

I was born in the early years of the Cold War, and was very mindful, as a child, of the risk that at any given moment an unfortunate series of communications between America and Russia could cause a very terrible weapon to rain out of the skies above our heads.

As a nine year old during the Cuban Missile Crisis I was literally worried sick. I remember lying in bed, crying, and my parents laughing at my explantion that "World War III could start any minute." Revelations decades later confirmed that my fears were well-founded. Soviet torpedo and missile boat commanders had in fact received orders permitting them to launch in the event of any aggressive acts by the United States. Two American spy planes had been fired upon by Soviet forces and struck. One was downed. The other made it back to base. Had we retaliated, World War III would have been the result. A Soviet attack submarine, B-59, was cornered by American forces. The crew was running out of air. The angry, tired Soviet submarine captain ordered that his nuclear torpedoes be loaded into torpedo tubes for firing. Destroying several American ships with one blow surely would have started World War III. Deputy Submarine Commander Vasiliy Arkhipov, well-comprehending that firing the torpedo would be the shot that ended the world, talked the tired captain out of firing.

I think that all of this occurred on the day I was worried sick in bed, crying.

I have heard that a Soviet nuclear missile boat off the American coast actually disobeyed an affirmative launch order, during the Missile Crisis.

In any event, this post is about another incident involving Soviet and American military forces -- not the Missile Crisis. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis was just background.

Many of us recall the loss of the USS Scorpion, one of our newest attack submarines. It failed to return to base in the end of May, 1968, and was presumed lost with all on board. Somehow, we located it, in 11,000 feet of water, and the bathyscaph Trieste II took several thousand photos of the wreckage.

What very few know is that there was a handshake agreement between the Soviet Union and America pursuant to which America would not ask about what happened to the Scorpion in May, 1968, if the Soviet Union did not ask about what happened to a Soviet Nuclear Missile Submarine K-129 in January, 1968.

And very few are aware that the Soviet Union finally told us precisely where the Scorpion wreckage was located -- because they sank it -- just as we knew pretty much precisely where K-129 was located, so that the U.S. ship Glomar Explorer was later able to raise all or a part of it -- perhaps because we sank it.

In other words, in 1968 the United States and Soviet Union had reached the point, in the middle of the Vietnam War, where we were sinking each other's submarines.

The public, in each country, was told that their country's submarine's loss and deaths of the sailors were accidental.

In fact, they were casualties of war.

Several attempts have been made to pierce the impenetrable curtain of secrecy surrounding each incident.

One interpretation of the evidence connected with K-129 is quite frightening, and far too controversial to ever be the subject of a movie -- Soviet Missile Submarine K-129 Commander, Rear Admiral Rudolf A. Golosov, "went renegade" and was caught by the United States positioning his boat for a nuclear attack on Pearl Harbor. We gave chase, and sank his submarine.

The Soviet submarine forces, outraged at the loss of what they believed to be innocent comrades on board K-129 in January, 1968, sank the Scorpion in May, 1968.

Lo and behold, as though perfectly aware of the nature of such a sinking -- a misguided-but-understandable limited retaliation for our justified sinking of K-129 -- on May 22, 1968, only a few hours after the sinking of the Scorpion, Naval Intelligence Agents seized all recordings of the sounds of the attack on the Scorpion and sinking, recorded by United States underwater Sound Surveillance System, SOSUS.

Rather than go to war over the attack, American officials decided to bury the Scorpion incident as an accident.

Thank God.


  1. You are almost right. There was a handshake deal not to reveal the reason both submarines went down. But is was not because we sank to Soviet boat and they sank ours; it was because the same phenomenon sank both. It was not in the best interest of either navy to reveal this vulnerability so they both agreed to mutual secrecy.

    You'll hear more on this topic soon.


  2. Hi, Dave. I'll be interested in what you post.

    The thing which convinced me that each sank the other's boat is that while the Russian navy did not know where the Russian boat was, and the US navy did not know where the US boat was, the Russians knew exactly where the US boat was and the US knew exactly where the Russian boat was.