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May 22, 1968: USS Scorpion Mysteriously Sinks

Image: AP Photo

The year 1968 was tumultuous both on land and deep below the water’s surface. The war in Vietnam was raging. Riots, protests and assassinations were commonplace and submarines were disappearing without a trace.

By June, at least four high-powered subs had vanished. The Israeli submarine INS Dakar, a French vessel called the Minerve, and the Soviet K-129 all sunk under mysterious circumstances. Then in May, United States citizens were told that one of their own had gone missing below the waves, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

It was on May 21, the American nuclear submarine USS Scorpion was heading home after a three month deployment. The sub radioed her position to a U.S. Navy communications station in Greece; she was about 50 miles south of the Azores, an archipelago in the mid-Atlantic. That was the last anyone had heard from the Scorpion. It mysteriously sank the next day, with 99 men aboard.

A search and rescue mission was launched on May 27, when the submarine failed to arrive at port in Virginia. However nothing was found and the ship was presumed lost on June 5. The search did continue, though. At the end of October a Navy research vessel finally located the wreckage of the USS Scorpion 400 miles southwest of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water. All 99 sailors went down with the sub, along with two nuclear missiles. 

A Navy Court of Inquiry found that “the cause of the loss cannot be definitively ascertained,” and still, five decades later, the cause of the sinking remains a mystery. Theories range from a torpedo malfunction to a battery explosion. One theory even suggests a Soviet vessel destroyed the Scorpion during a confrontation. And people are still trying to find out what really happened. In 2012, the 13,000-member U.S. Submarine Veterans organization called on the Navy to reopen the investigation on the sinking of the USS Scorpion.  

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