Scorpion Down

Author: Ed Offley
Publisher: Basic Books (A member of the Perseus Books Group)
Year: 2007
Reviewer: Daryl Carpenter

The May 22, 1968 sinking of the American nuclear-powered attack submarine Scorpion, 450 miles Southwest of the Azores Islands, is one of the most perplexing mysteries of the Cold War. The focus of the largest search operation in American naval history, the Scorpion's wreck wasn't discovered until October, 1968, laying on it's side in 11,000 feet of water. The hull was torn into three sections, the fairwater had been torn off, and the stern was shoved 50 feet forward into the auxiliary machinery space. All of the compartments except for the torpedo room had suffered massive implosion damage, implying that it alone had flooded before Scorpion exceeded crush depth.

No one has ever been able to determine what happened to the Scorpion. Had one of the torpedoes "gone hot" and exploded while still inside it's tube? Could the Trash Disposal Unit have failed? Did the diving planes jam themselves in full down position, sending the submarine into an out of control dive? A small percentage believed that foul play on the part of Soviet Navy had caused the destruction of the Scorpion. Most of these theories have been pretty thoroughly debunked, but that didn't stop Ed Offley from writing Scorpion Down.

Scorpion Down - Sunk By The Soviets, Buried By The Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion is a tough book to review. It's so riddled with logic flaws, second-hand circumstantial evidence posing as "smoking guns," idle speculation regarding conspiracy theories, and convenient side-stepping, that it reads more like a bad spy novel than a "shocking expose." Scorpion Down begins with a quote from George Orwell's 1984, and ends with a statement from the author that responsibility for the book's accuracy is his alone. A fine example of comedic irony, however unintentional it might have been.

Ed Offley wants me to accept a number of questionable assertions that go against much of what I've learned over the years. He wants me to believe that the Soviets, tired of American submarines poking their noses into their naval bases and fleet exercises, sank the Scorpion as a warning to the United States. He wants me to believe that the Soviet submarine that sank the Scorpion (a hot-rod attack submarine presumably capable of speeds of up to 35 knots) was one of the slowest and noisiest boats in their fleet, not to mention ill-equipped to hunt other submarines. He wants me to believe that the Scorpion was destroyed by a torpedo, despite reams of evidence to the contrary. He wants me to believe that the Russians spilled the beans to the Americans just days after the sinking, something he never expands upon, and that a small elite tried to cover up the truth.

Ed Offley began his research for Scorpion Down back in 1983, when he was writing an article for the Norfolk Ledger-Star on the 15th anniversary of the sinking. I imagine he would have simply given up if it weren't for the 2006 release of Stephen Johnson's Silent Steel, a vastly superior book on the same subject. Silent Steel was a calm, in-depth examination of the last 18 months of the Scorpion's life. While Johnson devoted a sizable portion of Silent Steel to describing the large number of mechanical causalities that occurred during the sub's final deployment and how they could have contributed to her loss, Offley sweeps most of it under the rug to further his conspiracy theory.

In fact, Offley sweeps pretty much anything that doesn't jive with his "Soviet torpedo" scenario under the rug. As I mentioned before, the torpedo compartment is the only section of Scorpion to survive mostly intact, and photos taken of the wreck fail to show any torpedo damage. Had the Scorpion been actually torpedoed, the entire submarine would have been flooded, and wouldn't have been crushed (or not crushed to such an extent) by hydrostatic pressure. Except for a single picture of the dismembered fairwater, Offley fails to mention the condition of the wreck anywhere in this book!

Scorpion Down also asserts that the Navy conducted a secret attempt to locate the Scorpion beginning on May 23rd, several days before the sub was officially listed as "overdue." I can buy that - submarine operations at the time were so secret that the Navy frequently had to "fudge the truth" (okay...lie) about the reality of what their submarines were really up to. This doesn't surprise me one bit. It was the height of the Cold War after all, and security was a premium. At the same time I can't find anything terribly insidious about the operation as Offley describes it. In his recounting, it becomes another part of a grand cover-up, another piece in a bodyguard of lies.

Offley's "smoking gun" came from a sonar technician who graduated from the Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center in 1982. The technician came forward and revealed that his instructor had shown his class a drum paper recording (not an audio recording) from a SOSUS sensor that allegedly depicted a battle between the Scorpion and a Russian submarine. The Russians fired a torpedo, the Scorpion took off, and six minutes later was sunk by the Russian torpedo.

Since Offley hinges his entire theory on this little bombshell, it's worth examining in greater detail. Offley states that the submarine on the scene of the Soviet naval exercise that Scorpion had been monitoring, an Echo II-class, a cruise missile carrier with a top speed of about 23 knots, had been stalking the Scorpion for several days. The Scorpion repeatedly failed to elude its Soviet hunter, raising one question - how could the crew of the Scorpion have been so grossly incompetent?

In 1968, the Soviets had three types of submarine-launched anti-submarine torpedoes in use. The first, the SET-53M, had a top speed several knots below that of Scorpion's. The second, the SET-65, had a top speed of 40 knots, but was so new that it probably wasn't used by the Echo class. The third, the SAET-60, was a passive homing torpedo with a speed of 42 knots, and a far more likely candidate for the "Scorpion Killer." If the Scorpion really could make 35 knots, that gave it a 7 knot speed advantage. With a run time of about 6 minutes, the Echo would have had to close to about 1,400 yards from Scorpion before firing. During these six minutes, the Scorpion never returned fire and never launched any countermeasures. The same technician who related this story to Offley also stated that the Echos were so loud that they could be heard from miles away even when running "silent."

Scorpion Down goes on to peddle out more ill-researched innuendo and second and third-hand accusations with each passing chapter. The parts that don't deal directly with the conspiracy are loaded with padding as well, not to mention a number of forehead-slapping historical errors. A full breakdown of Offley's theories would stretch on for thousands of words, something I'll spare the reader. Scorpion Down might have been terribly amusing if it was a PDF file on a conspiracy website. Unfortunately, I'm seeing dozens of copies of it in the Military History section of my local Borders and Barnes and Noble, selling for $27.50.

Scorpion Down isn't just bad or merely incompetent, it's an affront to common sense and an insult to the submariners on both sides of the Cold War who put their lives on the line and perhaps prevented a global catastrophe. When told by a reporter at that the government would refute his findings, he simply said "I don't care. I don't care." Now that so many private citizens and retired submariners are shooting down Scorpion Down left and right, will Mr. Offley reconsider his position on not caring?


Discuss this book and others in the Subsim Review Radio Room forums
Book Reviews: Index

You can purchase this book and other works through the Subsim Amazon Store, just type the name of the book in the search box.



2007 SUBSIM Review