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 scorpion_yoest.gif

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.

Without closure.

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.

USS Scorpion (SSN 589)

Spectre of the Scorpion

Local author exposes Cold War cover-up And see the correction.

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

John Howland

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.

Ron Thunman


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7 Responses

  1. Pat Patterson says:

    I had paid attention to this story in 1968, though little information became public at that time, because I thought a surfing friend had been assigned to the Scorpion. It was a guilty relief to find out his transfer had not come through and he was at Groton waiting for another assignment.

    There was a book, published in 1998, Blind Man’s Bluff, which covered the spying missions of the Navy’s submarines. There is a whole chapter devoted to the Scorpion and the various theories on its loss.

    It’s too bad that the senior chief wasn’t able to sacrifice a ram and be forgiven by Poisedon and return safely to that windy pier.

  2. LA says:

    (Sir, sorry to intrude. Saw your blog. Thought this might interest you. I am a retired navy nuc of 20+ years. lee)

    May 7, 2007

    Local author exposes Cold War cover-up

    By David Angier

    Twenty-five years ago, Ed Offley stumbled into a story that ultimately could rewrite the way history views the Cold War.

    The USS Scorpion nuclear submarine sank in the Atlantic in May 1968 with the loss of all 99 men on board. For decades, the sinking was considered to be one of the great unsolved naval mysteries of all time.

    On May 27, 1968, the Scorpion failed to arrive in port at Norfolk, Va., at its scheduled time. The Pentagon immediately launched a massive search operation, which concluded a week later with the presumption that the submarine was lost with all hands.

    “When I tripped over the topic 15 years later that’s what I thought,” Offley, a Panama City Beach resident and News Herald reporter, said Thursday. “At that time, it was an all but forgotten story about 99 sailors that had died mysteriously.”

    The Scorpion’s wreckage was found months later in the Mediterranean Sea. A board of inquiry reviewed available information and concluded that it didn’t know what caused the sinking.

    In 1983, Offley was preparing an anniversary retrospective of the Scorpion for the Norfolk Ledger Star when he lined up an interview with retired Vice Adm. Arnold Schade, who gave him his first clue that this was a much bigger story.

    “I set up this telephone interview and I went into it with not a suspicion,” Offley said. “Because I believed it was an accident, I wasn’t trying to trip him up into telling me a lie. It was very nonconfrontational. He warmed up to me and walked me through this horrible week that happened in May 1968.”

    But during the interview, Schade let on that the search for the Scorpion was under way five days before the official search began. Five days before the government set in motion a very public search, a very private one had been on for some time.

    Before Offley wrote his retrospective, he got confirmation of Schade’s account and broke that in his story.

    A year later, after gaining access to declassified documents, Offley broke another story saying the Scorpion was sunk by its own malfunctioning torpedo.

    “We published this major story and I was feeling pretty good about myself,” he said. “The next day, the newspaper’s production supervisor came up to me with this malicious grin on his face. He told me it was a great story, but too bad I got the wrong cause for the sinking.”

    The production manager was in his second career at that point, after spending 20 years in the Navy. In 1968 he was the admiral’s flag yeoman with access to all the top-secret documents at that time.

    “He told me the Russians sank the Scorpion,” Offley said. The sinking was in retaliation, Offley said, for a mid-sea collision between U.S. and Soviet subs that resulted in the sinking of a Russian submarine.

    Offley wasn’t able to confirm that for another 14 years. He’d always thought he would put this information together for a book and was meticulous in keeping his records. Last year, a publisher agreed to the project and Offley spent nine months writing the book.

    He didn’t have the final piece in place, however, until February, when he got confirmation of the most significant evidence of the sinking so far. Since the 1950s, Offley learned, the government has had underwater tracking stations set up around the world. The technicians who monitor these recordings not only can distinguish submarine sounds, but pinpoint the exact submarine they’re listening to.

    The Scorpion’s last minutes were recorded and Offley got access to two people who had analyzed the recordings. They told him the recordings showed an underwater confrontation between the Scorpion and a Soviet sub that ended with the Russians firing a torpedo. For five minutes, the Scorpion dodged the torpedo, but couldn’t escape.

    Offley said the government can, and probably will, refute his findings.

    “I don’t care. I don’t care,” he said. “I have dozens of sailors — people who were there for key moments in that story — and supportive proof that makes up a counter narrative that I am more confident in as the truth than the ‘we don’t know what happened’ that is the official government position.”

  3. Jim Brodhead says:

    My question would be why do you feel that Scorpion Down is so inaccurate? Can you provide some specifics as to where he is in error?

    Did the above post really say that the Scorpion was found in the Med?

  4. Jim Bryant says:

    Captain Jim Bryant, USN (Retired)– Ed Offley, author of Scorpion Down: Sunk by the Soviets, Buried by the Pentagon: The Untold Story of the USS Scorpion, vigorously protests my negative review of his book in the August 2007 issue of Proceedings. Offley attempts to reiterate that the U.S. Navy orchestrated a grand conspiracy then cynically concealed the whole affair. Since a torpedo did not sink the Scorpion as claimed in Offley’s book there could be no conspiracy.

    The book claims that a Soviet torpedo breached the hull on the port side of the Control Room. The boat rapidly filled with seawater, smashing the internal bulkheads and then the boat imploded as it sank to the bottom. Offley can’t claim to have both an implosion and an explosion because you can’t have an implosion if the pressure hull was equalized with sea pressure. It would sink to the bottom intact with a hole in it. The pictures taken of the wreckage show that the Operation’s Compartment, that contains the Control Room, imploded at about the same time as the Engine Room did. There is little of the Operation’s Compartment’s hull left, the Engine Room was forced forward 50 feet into the Machinery Space and the Sail was ripped off. There is no visual evidence of a torpedo explosion as stated in a declassified secret Navy report and by many experts that have looked at the pictures. The declassified secret Navy analysis of the acoustic recordings reports that it was an implosion and not an explosion that crushed the boat. The whole premise of the book is false.

    The official evidence, revealed in great detail by author Stephen Johnson in his 2006 book Silent Steel, indicates conclusively that Scorpion’s hull was crushed by implosion as the submarine sank below crush depth.

    If there was no explosion there was no Soviet torpedo. The claim in Offley’s book that an ECHO II class Soviet Nuclear Powered Cruise missile submarine could outrun, target and kill Scorpion borders on the ludicrous.

    Please ask any Cold War ASW experts. There was no secret search for Scorpion directed by Vice Admiral Arnold Schade prior to the day it failed to return to Norfolk, as alleged by Offley.

    I recently spoke again with Captain Joseph Bonds, USN (Retired) who commanded the USS Compass Island that mapped the seafloor prior to the search for the wreckage. He confronted the author at a book signing in Florida and told him there was no secret search involving his ship and that his ship did not find the Scorpion in early June 1968 as reported in the book. All the author could say in response was that he thought he was dead. Mr. Offley called Captain Bonds later and said that could not locate him for an interview, it took less than a five-minute Internet search to find him.

    Bonds told me he met with the sailor who was Offley’s source. The sailor, a Boiler Tender, explained to Bonds that he wanted his former ship to “get credit” for what it did.

    As I said in my review of this book it is pure fiction.

  5. John T. Hardy says:

    I find all of this discussion amusing at best. I served in the USN Submarine Service for 8 1/2 years on Boomers. I pay close attention to what our government does and no matter who you are, one has to read between the lines. That is our right and responsibility to ensure that we protect our rights and the constitution against all enemies both foriegn and domestic. Think about the domestic part of that pledge!!

    The truth about what happened will always be classified due to National Security and the government will only declassify what they want you to see and nothing else. That is the reason that so much detail is blacked out when you recieve information released through the FOI act.

    In response to the posting of Jim Bryant, I must agree with alot of detail he brings up except one point and I really cannot get into it here because I believe the info is still classified and has to do with the Mk 37 Torpedo!

    With that said, I would like all the relatives of the personnel lost on the Scorpion to know that not only does the stealth of a well built submarine (not all are well built) protect submariners through its silence but the silence of those who serve in the service does as well even more so. You must understand that secrecy is of the utmost importance for our brothers and shipmates safety. Remember the saying (“Loose lips, sinks ships.), a couple of boats were lost after a certain Senator made a statement in Hawaii. He should have been shot, instead he was protected by his fellow do gooders. Those that break that trust of silence are treasoness individuals as guilty as Walker and the Senator, only at a lesser extent.

    It is also true that the submarine service did suffer by the lack of proper maintenance due to budget constraints. The system to evaluate what would be repaired and what priority would be set is today called Calculated Risk Assessment. Does that sound familiar to any of the overeducated idiots that put the blue collar worker at risk for the company’s financial gain in todays day and age. Stop and think about the era of time and what was going on. One must remember that serving on a vessel such as a submarine is dangerous no matter how you look at it. No individual knows that better than those that served on them.

    How the Navy brass handled the way they informed the families directly involved is dispicable, but if you served in the military you know how inconsiderate and abusive some of them can be, except to fellow Officers, maybe some of them too (yes, I was an enlisted man).

    I have great remorse for those lost and the only closure needed in my opinion is the fact that it was lost at sea with all hands, the remnance of the boat was found and that should close the chapter. However be rest assured that I do not and cannot dictate what will bring closure for any individual, it is a vast abyss of variables between humans. Knowing exactly what occurred will not change anything that matters and could only cause harm (possibly). As long as the right people know what happened, they can assess the situation and correct any faults, whether it be security related or machinery related if they desire to do so. Some level of trust must be granted but they must still be watched and held accountable for their errors in thought and execution of plan.

    The souls lost on that boat and all others are my shipmates and brothers at arms. They will always be remembered and kept alive in memory that they truly served to protect. I deeply respect them for that.

    I will end this with I am proud to have served with such a high caliber group of individuals and would do it again in less than a heartbeats time for thought.


    Boomer Puke


  6. Yolanda Mazzuchi says:


    I was visiting with my youngest sister, Angela, this evening and she gave me an article she found on the internet during Christmas.

    I was pleased to see that you wrote the article.

    Angela was leary about giving me the article during the holidays because she was not sure that I knew you and also, because of the content. She was afraid I would be sadden by it.

    I thought you were right on target. I enjoyed reading the article and was worried at first because of the personal comments (forgot that I was writing to a reporter) but I realized this is a life experience and unpleasantness is in all of our lives. We can accept it for what it is and learn or remain captured in the moment.

    Thank you for the article.

    Wish you the best in life.

    Yolanda M. Thompson

  7. Vince Collier says:

    I saw the recordings from Station Bermuda. I saw the signature from the Russian torpedo. I saw the explosion, and the further explosions/implosions connected with the sinking of the Scorpion. (see chapter 11, Burn before you Read)I have first hand knowledge, not something I overheard, or read about. You will never convince me of any other scenario.

    I’ve read the reviews from people who are “experts” claiming that there is no damage to the hull to indicate a torpedo hit. Funny, these “experts” would know that at the depth that an American sub captain might take his boat to get below the operating depth of notoriously faulty enemy torpedoes, and be turning at the same time to activate the enemy’s 180 degree fail safe settings, the torpedo probably detonated close enough to the hull to do just enough damage to cause internal failures that resulted in a loss of control and/or hull failure. Not all torpedoes have to make contact with the hull to kill a sub. A near miss at depth can send a shockwave to a hull already stressed to the limit by hydrostatic pressure, and is just as deadly. It doesn’t leave a “gaping hole” or readily apparent blast damage. Funny, how expert these guy are, but the never mention this.

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