John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2006
292 pp-$25.95, IBSN 10 0-471-26737-6
Reviewed by RADM Ray Jones, USN(Ret)
Rear Admiral Tom Evans provides a great insight to this book in his remarks contained on the book’s jacket: “Stephen Johnson has crafted a forensic masterpiece that leads the reader back through time to unravel the gnawing enigma of the tragic loss of the nuclear attack submarine USS SCORPION. Sifting through a maze of conflicting theories, he meticulously lays out a tale of undersea detectives searching for conclusive evidence to one of the most baffling mysteries of the cruel sea.”
The book provides a very interesting in-depth review of the loss of SCORPION and the results of the investigations that followed the ship’s loss. It includes personal looks at many of the key people serving on the ship and those that conducted the many investigations held after the accident. Through all this the author weaves a good story, and keeps the reader’s interest.
I was unable to find any unturned stones in the book as to what may have caused or contributed to the ship’s demise. I would recommend this book to all submariners, especially those now serving on submarines. Having served in the Submarine Force during the tragedy, and implemented the many safety related changes that occurred after the incident, there are lessons still to be learned or understood through reading this comprehensive review of the accident.
The book was a quick and intriguing read. I am at a disadvantage in that I never served on a SKIPJACK class submarine. Therefore there may be technical errors about the ship of which I am unfamiliar. I must admit that I was unaware of a lot of information presented in the book. I was most concerned to learn about the continued postponement of repairs to SCORPION’s emergency blow system. A fact I find most disturbing.
The author attempts to be unbiased, and usually portrays both sides of the issues. The bias appears to me in the amount of space the author gives to the various points of view. Submariners may be disturbed by how the author chooses to describe events or situations. However to readers not part of our service, most remarks probably will seem reasonable statements based on what is presented in the book.
The inclusion of personalities and their stories adds a good dimension to the book. In my judgment those who are most critical of the ship are overplayed. The insights of a few young, inexperienced, disenchanted crew members are not balanced by other very experienced submariners who were interviewed by the author.
What is not accurately portrayed is the fact that the SUBSAFE program, despite its difficulties in full implementation, immediately and significantly increased submarine safety. Operational necessities of the Cold War did place tremendous demands on the Submarine Force. During this period difficult decisions regarding the implementation of the SUB SAFE program had to made. The reader is left with the feeling that the leaders of the Submarine Force relegated safety to a low priority, and allowed unsafe changes to the program. The SUBSAFE program was changed to allow submarines to operate under very specific operational limits. These strict limits were carefully developed by NA VSEA, and were to ensure ships remained in a safe operating envelope. The Submarine Force is a can do service, and takes extraordinary measures to meet commitments, but never to the point that overall ship safety was placed in jeopardy.
The author’s conclusion that “the SUBSAFE program became its own worst enemy” leaves the reader with the wrong impression of this highly successful program. Certainly those that managed the SUBSAFE program had a difficult job in determining when and where these modifications would occur. However, the operational restrictions imposed were aimed at providing the necessary margins of safety for those ships without the full SUBSAFE installations. The overall safety of the Force was greatly improved by this program, which included a wide range of safety improvements to both equipment and operating procedures. The fact that, in hindsight, more could have been done on SCORPION should not be taken that the program was seriously flawed, and perhaps, as implied by the author, actually reduced submarine safety.
The book fails to reflect the strong safety culture of the entire Submarine Force, but rather implies that crew members were totally safety minded, and those in responsible leadership perhaps were suspect. The author made the statement: “Any dissent was muted by the culture of audaciousness that permeated the Submarine Force.” In my 34-year naval career in submarines I never once experienced such a culture. My experience found that a profound safety culture permeates all that design, manufacture, maintain, schedule, command, and operate these ships.
In the end the reader is left with unfulfilled expectations. The Navy’s formal court of inquiry found no conclusive evidence for the loss of SCORPION, and respectfully neither does the author. No postulated scenario or incident provides the complete answer. Readers are left to make their own conclusions. I am sure most readers will develop their favorite theory.
The book weaves a complex story, and keeps the readers interest throughout. Unfortunately, the reader is left with the notion that this tragic loss has served no purpose, and is soon to be totally forgotten. What is missing is that the not knowing why contributed significantly to increased submarine safety in that her loss caused every aspect of submarines and their operations to be closely re-examined and improved.
The lessons learned from this tragic event are still taught to every submariner, both officer and enlisted. The fact that the absolute reason for her loss is unknown provides a continuing reminder that submarine safety requires constant vigilance by all of those who serve on or support these ships. This enigma is SCORPION’s legacy.
The author leaves us with the most appropriate monuments to SCORPION’s crew as being” their shattered ship and the memories of those that knew them,” and does not include a legacy for the ship. As devastating as this terrible accident was, its impact has produced a better Submarine Force. In many ways USS SCORPION’s legacy has ensured that today’s submarines are not only the most capable in the world, but also the safest.