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A LETTER TO U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PROCEEDINGS

Reprinted with permission from the October 1998 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings. (See M. Bradley for the original article, pp. 30-38, July 1998,ยท and other comments by P. Bowman, p. 12, August 1998; and J. Marshall, p.24, September 1998 Proceedings.)

Re: “Why They Called The SCORPION ‘SCRAPIRON'”

I am amazed, dismayed, and disappointed with this article, which relies extensively on questionable secondary sources, trades heavily in speculation, and includes much material of little or no relevance to the subject.

I served two separate tours of duty in SCORPION (SSN 589). During my 54 months as a member of SCORPION’s crew, I served with nearly all of the officers and crew members ever assigned to the ship. I was the last officer transferred from SCORPION, departing in early January 1968, under five months before her loss.

Contrary to the tone of the subject article, SCORPION was highly regarded by her crew and throughout the force. During the prospective commanding officer/prospective executive officer (PCO/PXO) course I attended, along with about 20 others, prior to assuming duty as executive officer of SCORPION, the PCO instructor informally posed the following question: Which submarine of the force, if they had their choice, would the members of the class most desire to command? More than half the class chose SCORPION, despite the fact that newer submarines were then coming on line. Never do I recall a crewman referring to her as “Scrap iron,” even though young sailors Jike to play with words and names. Certainly, that appellation was not so common as implied by the title’s “they”. Were she still with us, I would gladly go to sea with that submarine and crew today.

The author implies all sorts of dark secrets relative to SCORPION’s material condition on the eve of her loss. The author asserts that SCORPION’s safety systems were neither working fully nor certified. This is a canard. When SCORPION deployed, all of her safety systems were operating as designed and as she had operated safely for the previous eight years.

When she completed her last overhaul, the new SubSafe systems had not been fully designed. Consequently, her normal operating depth was restricted as an additional measure of peacetime conservatism. If, as many of us believe, her casualty occurred at periscope depth, even that would not have been germane.

The author states that the Navy instituted the SubSafe Program in the wake of the loss of THRESHER (SSN 593) to combat criticism and regain prestige. To insinuate such crass motivation on the part of the Navy’s senior leadership is typical of the tone of the author’s thought. Although I was a relatively junior officer at the time, there is no doubt on any score that this mammoth and costly redesign, reexamination, and repair effort was undertaken only with the safety of the submarines and their crews centrally in mind. Any concern for criticism or prestige was fifth-order at best.

The author alleges chronic problems with the ship’s hydraulics, and cites an incident in which the ship “corkscrewed violently,” stating that this problem remained unsolved. That is not true. It had nothing to do with hydraulics nor with the ship’s control surfaces, and was fully resolved before I left the ship. In firing a large number of wire-guided exercise torpedoes while undergoing training, a large quantity of expended torpedo-guidance wire became wrapped around the propeller shaft and entangled in the external shaft bearing. The resulting imbalance caused a pronounced “humping” and caused us to limit our speed on the return trip. When divers were unable to clear the wire from the bearing it necessitated the “emergency [i.e., unplanned] dry docking.” A routine inspection of the hull in the course of that short period in dock revealed a rather extensive surface cathodic corrosion of the after hull area, which Commander Slattery correctly requested be attended to upon the ship’s return from the Mediterranean deployment.

The author states that on 16 February 1968, departing from Norfolk for the Med, SCORPION “lost more than 1,500 gallons of oil from her conning tower”. This statement is suspect. Since the only oil in the conning tower (sic) is hydrau1ic oil for the operation of the ship’s periscopes, masts, and fairwater planes, presumably it is hydraulic oil to which he refers. Fifteen hundred gallons approach the ship’s entire storage capacity for hydraulic oil. Still a large number, it sounds as if that may have been the accumulated loss over the four-plus months since the ship had completed a reduced availability (RAV), during which several large hydraulic leaks were repaired.

In supposed evidence of SCORPION’s poor material condition, the author cites “109 work orders still unfilled.” No doubt this number is derived from her routine work order list transmitted to her parent tender in Norfolk on departure from the Mediterranean. This number is by no means excessive for a ship returning from a three-month deployment where limited external support was available. The work orders typically would have run the gamut from replacement of small nameplates to assistance with the repair of a pump, none beyond the ordinary. Despite this, the author casts doubt upon the veracity of the Chief of Naval Operations when he states SCORPION had not reported any [operationally limiting] mechanical problems nor was she headed home for any [nonrou-tine] repairs. The author seems unaware that every ship at any point in time has an accumulation of minor mechanical problems that in no way limit the ship’s capacity to safely operate or perform its mission.

The author totally misunderstands and misconstrues SCOR-PION’s s 1967 RAV. Opinion was widespread in the force that submarines were spending an inordinate amount of time in overhaul, and that the intervals between overhauls were far too short. While in need of a replacement reactor core by 1967, SCORPION’S overall condition was so good that the ship itself proposed deferment of overhaul and accomplishment of the core removal during a restricted shipyard availability. Inasmuch as this proposal fit nicely into the larger matrix of overhaul concerns, it was supported right up the line. Both the ship and the shipyard, in their inexperience with core renewals, underestimated the task and were chagrined when the overall RAV lasted five months rather than the scheduled three, but this was still lightning fast. The ship’s crew worked hard to provide the necessary support for core removal, to complete all the routine tasks required during infrequent dry dockings, and to accomplish the additional repairs and maintenance opportunities afforded. The ship emerged from this RAV without having lost its operational edge-as typically was the case after a long shipyard overhaul-and was ready to resume operations at a high level soon thereafter. Far from discrediting the concept, the interim RAV between extended interval overhauls forms the basis of present-day submarine overhaul policy.

I cite one more example-the December 1967 incident involving an exercise torpedo that had been activated but did not fire. Far from “sidestepping disaster before it could detonate,” the unit was later routinely impulsed from the torpedo tube in a carefully planned evolution while sitting alongside the ship’s parent tender in Norfolk.

The author attempts to raise doubt and create controversy by blurring the timeline between the original Court of Inquiry, Dr. John Craven’s subsequent acoustic and initial debris field analysis, and the still-later Structural Analysis Group (SAG) reviews. He treats the findings of each as competing opinions rather than recognizing that each built upon its predecessor as more information became available to the analysts. I testified before the Court of Inquiry, participated to a degree in Dr. Craven’s assessment, have examined photographs of the debris field, and have read the most recently declassified reports of the SAG. I am quite comfortable with my understanding of the operational parameters surrounding the ship’s loss. I do not hold myself out as the Navy’s authority on this tragedy, but I am content with my own hypothesis, which is fully consistent with the facts as I know them. I agree that, as the Navy has long maintained, the absolute cause and sequence of events will remain unknowable. Above all, I believe in the total veracity and best efforts of the Navy in laying out the facts surrounding SCORPION’s loss as best they are known.

I very much regret the mistrust, inaccuracies, and distortions being given currency by irresponsible conspiracy theorists writing for such journals as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Houston Chronicle, and yes, the Naval Institute Proceedings. You have sullied your reputation by publishing such tripe, and I regret the pain that you and others of similar stripe have undoubtedly caused the families of SCORPION’s crew by raising new questions or suspicions to disturb their already uneasy peace.

Naval Submarine League

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