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

Author: Stephen Paul Johnson
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Year: 2006
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

On May 22nd 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion disappeared without a trace somewhere in the North Atlantic. After the Scorpion failed to arrive in Norfolk on the morning of the 27th, the Navy undertook the largest search operation in it's history.

The wreck of the Scorpion was finally discovered in November 1968, 450 miles southwest of the Azores Islands. The hull had been shorn into three sections - the last third shoved 50 feet forward into the auxiliary machinery space - the sail had been torn off, and the escape hatches in the bow and stern were missing, as if theyíd been blown off in an internal explosion. 99 men went down with the Scorpion, and to this day, no one really understands why.

In Silent Steel: The Mysterious Death of the Nuclear Attack Sub USS Scorpion, journalist Stephen Johnson attempts to bring some clarity and understanding to this most mysterious submarine disaster. Although a definitive explanation for Scorpionís loss is obviously impossible, Johnson thoroughly debunks the theory that she was sunk by one of her own torpedoes, internally or externally. In his forensic deconstruction of the Scorpionís final 18 months, Johnson also provides a look inside the 60s nuclear submarine fleet thatís as troubling as it is fascinating.

In April 1963, the USS Thresher sank after suffering an electrical failure, probably the result of a failure in a seawater piping joint. The reactor shut down, and the Thresher lost forward momentum. Unable to blow itís main ballast tanks against immense water pressure, the Thresher slid below it's crush depth, killing all 129 aboard.

Shortly afterward, the Navy implemented the SUBSAFE plan that would reduce the number of potential failure points in a submarineís piping system, and would install an EMBT (Emergency Main Ballast Tank) blowing system in all submarines. Easier said than done. The average time to SUBSAFE a boat was an unacceptably long 30 months. Scorpionís sisters proved especially troublesome, and Scorpion was the only nuclear sub in the entire Atlantic Fleet without an EMBT blowing system at the time of her loss.

In his extensive research and interviews for Silent Steel, Johnson reveals that while capably commanded, Scorpion was far from being a "happy boat." In his correspondence with former crewmembers and dockyard workers, and in letters written before her loss, he learned that the Scorpion was a maintenance nightmare by 1968, and the morale off her crew had hit rock bottom. During her final deployment, Scorpion leaked copious quantities of hydraulic and lubricating oil, her radio and navigation equipment were in shambles, numerous small equipment fires occurred, and at one point, one of the air conditioning compressors "exploded."

While none of this information seems to outwardly explain Scorpionís loss, it does raise some interesting points. A submarine is not a simple "people tube" that travels underwater. Much like a manned spacecraft, a nuclear submarine is an extremely complicated assembly of interlocking systems that have to work perfectly, and if they donít work perfectly, disaster will occur at some point. A small failure could cause numerous unrelated failures, with fatal results. Johnson explores this fact in unexpected detail, and Iíd advise anyone interested in submarine safety to study those parts closely.

Most material on submarine disasters is rather sterile and distanced, and lacking in human element. Silent Steel stands out from the crowd in that the officers and crew of the Scorpion are actually allowed some development. These character building moments usually amount to two or three paragraph vignettes, and photographs of the crew are scattered throughout the book. Itís not exactly the stuff thatíll endear it to Hollywood, but itís enough to remind the reader that more than just steel and hardware went down with the Scorpion.

The weakest part of Silent Steel (besides the clichť title) revolves around the search for and discovery of the wreck. While an essential part of the Scorpion story, those sections of the book plod along rather unnecessarily and donít contribute much to the central narrative. Itís also somewhat inevitable that anyone expecting answers is going to be frustrated by the number of potential disaster scenarios presented within.

While Stephen Johnsonís writing style is surprisingly literate and easy-going, he describes the inner workings of the boatís propulsion systems, batteries, Mk 37 torpedoes, and Trash Disposal Unit in in-depth technical terms. I find this sort of information fascinating, and itís important to understand how it relates to the Scorpion disaster, but I have a feeling itíll drive submarine newbies up a wall.

Except for a few small recovered artifacts, the broken hulk of the Scorpion remains at the bottom of the Atlantic, itís location a national secret. Even after 38 years, the cause of her demise remains unknown. Itís safe to write off a torpedo explosion - her hull is still mostly intact. But why are two of her antenna and one of the periscopes raised? What became of the intact body discovered near the wreck, wearing a bright orange lifejacket? Why are the escape hatches missing? Itís entirely likely we may never know.

Silent Steel is a fitting tribute to the 99 men who died on Scorpion. Itís perhaps to closest thing to closure the families of the sailors will ever see, though it's sad to say still far from being definitive. Conspiracy theorists will be disappointed - the notion that Scorpion was sunk by the Russians is glossed over in a single paragraph. For everyone else (i.e., normal people), this book will provide a fascinating look at one of the most inexplicable naval disasters of the 20th century.

 


 

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