Five Days in May: USS Scorpion Lost — National Review Online
Five Days in May: The loss of the USS Scorpion.
By Jack Yoest
Yolanda Mazzuchi was about the prettiest girl in our school class. Our dads were in the Navy, often gone for months at a time. And they would be welcomed home at dockside with cheers and homemade signs. These
USS Scorpion gatherings at the D&S Piers at the Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia, were a regular part of our lives growing up. Families often took children out of school to celebrate a ship’s homecoming.
At 1 in the afternoon on Monday, May 27, 1968, at the height of the Cold War the USS Scorpion was due in port.
Yolanda didn’t know it then, but her dad was already dead.
The families gathered on Pier 22 and huddled together in the wind and rain. And looked out over the storm, over white-capped waves.
They waited for the USS Scorpion without any word for five days.
Women for millennia have waited by the sea for their men to return. In bygone eras, a hand-railed walkway was built along the rooftop of sailors’ homes. So that the wives and mothers, and daughters and sons could look out for returning ships. Sometimes the boats didn’t come back. But the women and children would still watch and pray and hope.
In those days, like Penelope, they often waited for months, even decades.
Frank Patsy Mazzuchi, QMSC, a senior chief quartermaster, was looking for a berth teaching at nearby Fort Eustis. The chief and his Navy wife traveled to the Pentagon to work out a deal on his next duty station. The Navy assignment desk persuaded Chief Mazzuchi to take a last submarine tour in the Mediterranean.
The senior, experienced chief was needed on the USS Scorpion: A capstone to his career before retiring. He would make the last voyage. Then shore duty with normal hours, normal life. Instead, the capstone became a headstone.
The submarine “silent service” is an elite, intimate sea-duty. The Scorpion was not a big vessel for her day with 99 men in tight quarters. She was 31-feet wide, powered by a nuclear reactor and armed with two nuclear-tipped torpedoes.
The Scorpion carried Russian-speaking experts for espionage to fight Soviet subs in the Cold War. The Scorpion had just finished its three-month deployment in the Med and was headed home when new orders arrived. The nuclear sub was diverted from its trip home to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa for a spying mission on Soviet ships.
A high-speed run to the Soviet fleet. Then silence. It is believed that an accidental internal explosion doomed the boat. Questions remain on maintenance.
She was overdue in Norfolk on 27 May and probably sank on 22 May. The Navy declared the sub “presumed lost” on 2 June, 1968.
Finally, in October of that year, the Scorpion’s final resting place was discovered some two miles beneath the surface, west of the Azores. The sub became a coffin to the 99. She will not be raised.
Yolanda says, “Before he left, we had a big argument and I told him that I wished he would go to sea and never come back.”
And he never did. Those departing words haunted her for years. “It took a very long time to get over that remark,” she says.
Her son, the grandson Chief Mazzuchi never saw, joined the Navy. He serves now on the USS Washington in the Caribbean. And doesn’t write as often as he should.
But Yolanda has already forgiven him. As she is sure her father had forgiven her for a little girl’s thoughtless final words.
She says, “In fact, it was not until my children became teenagers that I understood that my father forgave me as quickly as I said it.”
Forgiveness and loss; sorrow and hope and sacrifice. Even today, the Cold War long past, the warriors remain on eternal patrol and the Widow’s Walk continues on Navy Pier. Tracing the steps of those who waited in vain for five days in May, so many years ago.
Penelope and Telemachus, awaiting the return of Odysseus.
Jack Yoest, is president of Management Training of DC, LLC and a former Army Captain. His father served on the submarine Bonefish in WWII and in the Navy for 30 years.
Thank you (foot)notes:
The article originally appeared in National Review Online.
See USS Bonefish, Lost June 18, 1945 originally published in the Virginian Pilot.
Spectre of the Scorpion
John Howland has advice at the jump.
Memorial Day is a good time to remember the crew of 99 SCORPION submariners that never showed at the submarine piers in Norfolk in May 1968 (almost 40 years ago).
I wrote an article for the Proceedings last August warning of the dangers of leaving such a massive information void as the Navy Dept is doing. One specific worst case scenario would be the expectation of periodic articles and books that will try to pass themselves off as truth in order to generate big reputations and big bucks for the authors, inter alia, by coming up with “fantastic” scenarios. This will take place on a regular basis far into the future.
Precisely that has now happened with the SCORPION. The title of the book is Scorpion Down and it is linked [here]… For a whole bunch of reasons, most legitimate students of the SCORPION loss state that the probability of the Scorpion Down scenario (the Soviets were responsible) is about as close to zero as it gets.
But, why won’t the Navy Dept, the one true authoritative source re the SCORPION, come out and say so? And, while they are at it, eliminate the other low probability scenarios as well.
The Navy Dept could fill a big chunk of the information void and thereby accord the appropriate forever honor the SCORPION 99 deserve. And, btw, as a side benefit show today’s and tomorrow’s submariners that the Navy Dept gives a you-know-what about their safety in an ALWAYS HAZARDOUS ENVIRONMENT.
You can encourage them to do so in any number of ways.
Here are just a couple of specific actions you can do personally. DO NOT buy Scorpion Down. But, DO BUY — SILENT STEEL, the book that came out early last year that lays out much of what we laymen know about the tragedy and carries a lot of the load that the Navy Dept needs to be picking up.
SILENT STEEL by Stephen Johnson. Acquire it for your personal library on this Memorial Day.
UPDATED 30 July 2008 Alert Reader John Howland sends this,
VADM Thunman: Debrief of National Geographic Special
SCORPION 99 Extended Family,
Following the National Geographic Special of a few weeks ago that devoted quite a bit of time to SCORPION, I asked VADM Ron Thunman, who was portrayed in the telecast, if he would have any extra thoughts to pass along to the SCORPION 99 Extended Family.
Admiral Thunman has very graciously provided these recollections and considerations.
For the SCORPION 99, John Howland
This is how we planned the mission that resulted in finding Titanic.
In 1982, as DCNO for Submarine Warfare, I met with Bob Ballard to discuss using his deep-water robotic search technology to investigate the debris fields of of USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. Their locations are top-secret.
Ballard asked if he could also search for the Titanic, located between the two wrecks, as part of the operation.
I was a little annoyed. I told him that the Navy did not have funding to search for Titanic. I emphasized that the purpose of the classified mission was to examine the debris fields for radiation from the reactors and to view Scorpion’s wreckage to determine the cause of her sinking if possible. We thought we knew what caused th e loss of Thresher – piping failure. Scorpion’s loss was a mystery.
I was skeptical about Ballard’s chances of finding Titanic. However, I finally agreed that once Ballard completed his submarine mission, if there was time left, he could do what he wanted. I never gave him direct permission to search for Titanic.
When Ballard called me from sea and told me that he found Titanic, I was shocked. I was nervous about the ensuing publicity and congressional reaction – I did not have funding authorization for such a search!
I reported to Admiral Jim Watkins, Chief of Naval Operations, and John Lehman, Secretary of the Navy, that Ballard found the Titanic. Neither asked why we were searching for her. I’ve recently been told that John Lehman secretly knew Ballard’s search plans. Admiral Watkins may have known as well.
Ballard brought back important information from his search of the submarine debris fields.
The nuclear reactors were safe on the ocean bottom. There was no impact on the environment.
Ballard’s survey of Scorpion showed that her forward compartments flooded and the engine room (the after compartment) imploded as the ship went down. We don’t know why the forward compartments flooded. The torpedo room was pretty much intact on the ocean bottom. The engine room was blown apart from the implosion. There was no indication that a torpedo struck the ship from outside the hu ll causing flooding in the forward compartments.
Since the forward compartments flooded and did not implode, there had to be catastrophic flooding inside the ship. A torpedo could explode inside the torpedo room blowing open a hatch; the ship’s battery (beneath the operations compartment) might explode breaching the hull; or the garbage ejector’s interlocks might fail permitting the inner and outer doors to be open at the same time. A sea water system rupture could cause uncontrollable flooding in the forward compartments. I remember my experience as executive officer of Scorpion’s sister ship, Snook – those ships were ‘sports cars’ that could easily exceed test depth at high speed especially if there was a control planes failure.
Ballard noted that some masts and periscopes were extended outside the sail possibly indicating the ship reached periscope depth before sinking. Scorpion could have tried to get to the surface before the weight of the flooding took her down.
Ballard did a good job in his survey of the Scorpion site. Much of the ship’s debris is partially buried in silt, and it’s not easy to get to ground truth at a depth of 10,000 feet.
Finally, I know of no information (classified or unclassified) indicating Scorpion was sunk by an enemy action. Scorpion’s Commanding Officer, Cdr. Frank Slattery, was my good friend and USNA classmate. He was one of the best in ’54 and a highly20regarded submariner. If I thought there was any conspiracy, I’d personally investigate it.
Please pass my sympathy and respect to Scorpion’s extended family.