Wednesday, June 12, 2024

A Tragic Anniversary: The Loss of USS Scorpion (SSN 589)

By Zach Smyers and Mark Freeman
HRNM Staff

In May 1968, the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589) was 350 feet below the surface of the Mediterranean Sea traveling at a speed of 15 knots. Commander Francis A. Slattery, commanding officer of Scorpion, sent a message to COMSUBLANT (Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic). In the message, Slattery said that Scorpion was closing in on a Soviet submarine and research group “to begin surveillance of the Soviets.” This would be the last message ever sent by Scorpion.

Commander Francis Slattery, CO of the Scorpion (NHHC)

Ten years earlier, in August 1958, the keel was laid for Scorpion, which was built at the Electric Boat Division, General Dynamics Corporation, Groton, Connecticut. Scorpion was the second submarine to be built as part of the U.S. Navy’s Skipjack-class. The Skipjacks had the latest in technology in terms of armament, sonar, and nuclear propulsion. Capable of speeds in excess of 30 knots while submerged, Scorpion would be ideal for covert observations of Soviet naval activity during the busy years of the Cold War.

Launching of the Scorpion (Navsource.org)

Commissioned on July 29, 1960, USS Scorpion (SSN 589) would be the sixth U.S. Navy vessel of that name. The previous USS Scorpion (SS 278) was a Gato-class diesel submarine that served during World War II and was lost with all hands in 1944. First assigned to Submarine Squadron 6, Division 62 out of New London, Connecticut, Scorpion’s first deployment was participating in exercises in Europe working with units from the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet and other NATO allies. In September 1961, it changed homeports, moving to Norfolk, Virginia, where Scorpion operated for the rest of its short career.

Sailors disembark from USS Scorpion in Norfolk (NavSource.org)

In February 1967, Scorpion went to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a scheduled overhaul. At the time, the Navy required a 36-month overhaul period to determine that the submarine maintained all safety standards, including watertight integrity of the hull. However, during Scorpion’s time at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, the 36-month period was reduced to one year, and Scorpion received only emergency repairs in order to return to sea faster.

On February 15, 1968, Scorpion left Norfolk for what would be its final deployment. Working with the Sixth Fleet, Scorpion headed west, making the return trip for home in May. However, on May 20, 1968, Vice Admiral Arnold Schade issued orders for Scorpion to make its way toward the Canary Islands.[i] Scorpion’s tasking was to observe and track Soviet warships operating in the area, which included an Echo II Class submarine, a submarine, rescue vessel, and two hydrographic survey ships. A Soviet guided-missile destroyer and an oiler joined the group three days later. On May 21, 1968, Scorpion was 250 miles south of the Azores, and was making its way back to Norfolk with an estimated time of arrival of 1pm on May 27. That day, Scorpion was reported as overdue for returning to Norfolk. Scorpion had failed to respond to a series of classified message traffic. The Navy made multiple attempts to communicate with Scorpion, but the crew never responded. Scorpion was declared missing, and the U.S. Navy began searching for the lost sub using aircraft, ships, submarines, and aircraft from the Coast Guard and U.S. Air Force. The size of the search area was 2,100 miles, which is almost equivalent to all seven cities that make up the region referred to as Hampton Roads.

On June 5, 1968, the U.S. Navy officially declared Scorpion lost and the crew dead. The Navy established a formal Court of Inquiry regarding the loss of Scorpion. The court convened from June 1968 through most of July 1968. During this time, the court learned that in December 1967, Scorpion did have an unarmed MK-37 training torpedo start up accidentally while still inside the tube. During this particular incident, the crew was able to jettison the torpedo. The court considered that the activation of the torpedo’s battery while the torpedo was still in the tube could have sunk the Scorpion. On July 25, 1968, the court reached the conclusion that there was no proof of the exact cause of the boat’s loss.

The last known picture of Scorpion (NHHC)

In October 1968, the oceanographic research ship Mizar (T AGOR 11) located Scorpion. Sections of its hull were found 400 miles southwest of the Azores in water deeper than 10,000 feet. Pictures and data were collected from the wreck site, but the question remained: what caused the submarine to sink? In 1969, the deep surveillance vessel Trieste II made nine dives surveying the wreckage of Scorpion. These dives confirmed that the Scorpion had broken into three separate sections.

Map showing location of USS Scorpion's wreck (Wikimedia)

While we may never know the precise reason Scorpion sank, there are several theories about this event. In the 1998 issue of Proceedings, author Mark A. Bradley concluded that Scorpion sank due to lack of necessary safety improvements. In the 1998 book Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, the authors conclude that the battery used to power the MK-37 torpedo aboard Scorpion could have caught on fire, which in turn would cause the torpedo’s warhead section to explode and sink the submarine. Another popular theory is that Scorpion was attacked and sunk by the Russian navy. While this theory may seem far-fetched, there is some evidence to support it in a letter Scorpion crewmember MMC Robert Bryan wrote to his son, Samual Bryan, about the Scorpion’s final mission. Bryan wrote, “Russians followed us with guns down the entire time.” Regardless of the cause, Scorpion went down with all of its crew and will forever remain on eternal patrol.

This year marks the 56th anniversary of the loss of USS Scorpion (SSN 589). To this day, any submarine entering Naval Station Norfolk will pause to render honors to Scorpion and the boat’s fallen Sailors. Current submariners do this by sounding the ship’s whistle as submarines pull into port from a long deployment. It is a somber yet respectful way to keep the memory of that crew alive. Along with the tribute from current active submarine Sailors, there are several monuments throughout the country commemorating the loss of USS Scorpion, one of which is pictured below. We may never know with total certainty why Scorpion sank. We should, however, stop to remember the crew’s sacrifice over fifty years later.

USS Scorpion monument in Newport News, VA (hmdb.org)








[i] The Admiral’s orders for Scorpion remain classified to this day.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Book Review: America’s First Aircraft Carrier: USS Langley and the Dawn of U.S. Naval Aviation

By David F. Winkler
Reviewed by David J. Scherer, HRNM Volunteer


America's First Aircraft Carrier is an account of the Navy's leap into air combat. It is an incisive report that pinpoints the obstructions faced entering into a new faction of sea warfare, chronicling its costs, both financial and personal. This book was written by David F. Winkler, a retired surface warfare officer, naval historian, and adjunct professor at the Naval War College.

Major changes in military aviation took place in the early 1920s, after the First World War. It was then that costs became a giant concern, and seemingly everyone in a uniform and in an office chair had suggestions but without offering sensible answers. Opposition to sending colliers to sea was loud and long until someone stunned the naysayers with this idea: convert the old collier Jupiter into a prototype aircraft carrier and make aviation an adjunct to the fleet. Two colliers, Jupiter and Jason, were given the honor.

Jupiter at Mare Island in 1913 (Wikipedia)

The hearings about the Navy’s foray into aviation were legendary. Even Army Air Service Maj. Gen. William (Billy) Mitchell asserted sternly that the Navy needed to stay on the water and allow the newly-formed U.S. Army Air Service handle airborne threats. On the arguments went, with Mitchell finally going overboard. He talked himself into a court martial as he hammered home the point that surface vessels were highly susceptible to air attacks (as if airborne vessels were not). His claim was that the Army Air Corps was designed and manned specially to meet that particular threat. An illustrious military aviation career ended for Mitchell all because the Navy promoted an independent naval air arm, and he could not accept that proposal.

The first aircraft carrier certainly was a sight to see, but not in terms of beauty. It began life as a collier, destined to become the first United States aircraft carrier USS Langley (CV 1), named for a Naval Academy assistant professor. This former coal collier underwent a major restoration to become the first aircraft carrier. Workmen peeled back several levels of the collier's superstructure and laid down a wooden deck in its place, bow to stern. A few steel cables were stretched crosswise and anchored in place with heavy bags near the stern—arresting gear, they called it.

USS Langley underway in 1927 (NHHC)

One can imagine what went through the mind of the first “visiting” aviator, flying an Aeromarine 39B bi-wing aircraft, and looking down on what he thought was an American aircraft carrier. He was right. It was USS Langley (CV 1), collier-turned-carrier with a bit of genius woven throughout. What that aviator would have seen from a few thousand feet above was a long, flat deck and trailing wake. The ship had no superstructure. Most of what made the wake was under the deck, where the business of flying over water begins. Lined atop the deck and near the rear were several thick adjustable cables lined perpendicular to the flying deck edges. Their job was to snag a hook dangling from the aircraft's tail section, thus bringing the plane and pilot to a jolting stop. Ultimately, Langley was in service into the Second World War.

America’s First Aircraft Carrier is a detailed and deeply researched demonstration of the myriad snags and drags at the beginning of naval aviation. The cost was more about the loss of life of those early carrier pilots than about monetary concerns. USS Langley faces up to and fends off an enemy striving to sap its fuel and blood.

Winkler interprets the evolution of naval aviation as only an acclaimed writer and historian can. He is studied and thorough. His descriptions are extensive, as Langley confronts numerous Japanese vessels in the sea battle for Java. It does not end well for an old coal hauler turned fighting ship. Langley met its end in 1942 off the coast of Java when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The crew was rescued, and Langley was scuttled.

As a World War Two history junkie and one who lived two years aboard an aircraft carrier in the late 1950s, I found America's First Aircraft Carrier to be incisive and replete with people and places that recounted America's war in the Pacific Ocean.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Story So Far: Civil War Naval Events Leading Up to John William Denny’s Diary

By Nick Wieman
HRNM Educator

John William Denny at age 84 (Descendants of Henry Denny)

John William Denny (May 16, 1840 – September 15, 1930), a native of Newark, New Jersey, moved to Jacksonville, Florida for work when he was 17. In April 1862, he enlisted in the Union Navy (likely through nearby Fort Clinch, which had been abandoned by the Confederates the previous March) and was appointed as a Captain’s Clerk to Lieutenant Daniel Ammen, captain of USS Seneca. He followed Lieutenant Ammen to USS Sebago and USS Patapsco, transferred briefly to USS Wabash to serve under Commander Christopher Rodgers, then finished his naval career (as far as we know) as clerk to Major Anthony Ten Eyck at Hilton Head, South Carolina.

According to family history, after the war, he found work as a county treasurer in Columbia, South Carolina, before returning to Newark in 1872. After years of working as a bookkeeper for the family coal and wood business, he would be hired by the James A. Bannister Shoe Manufacturing Company in 1890, serving as the company’s Vice President and Treasurer, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1924. This blog will cover the events leading up to June 12, 1862, the day that Denny began keeping a diary, with successive blogs covering topics that Denny mentions in the diary proper.

Following the bombardment of Fort Sumter, marking the official beginning of the Civil War, General Winfield Scott proposed a total naval blockade of southern ports, cutting off the Confederacy from foreign trade and the South’s ability to sustain the war economically. It was dubbed the “Anaconda Plan” by critics for the imagery of the blockade encircling the South as the anaconda constricts its prey. The Blockade Strategy Board, led by Flag Officer Samuel Francis DuPont, was in charge of translating this lofty goal into action.

Anaconda Plan cartoon (Wikipedia)

Blockading almost 3,000 miles of coastline called for a fleet of small, light-drafted gunboats that were also fully seaworthy, and there was nothing currently in the Union Navy that was capable of fulfilling this task. Modifying a design he had made for the Imperial Russian Navy, Chief Engineer Benjamin F. Isherwood oversaw the construction of the Unadilla-class gunboat, also known as the “90-day gunboat” for how quickly the first four boats were completed from the contract being signed to the first ship, Unadilla, commissioned 93 days later. USS Seneca was one of 23 Unadilla-class gunboats, commissioned on October 14, 1861.

USS Seneca (Wikipedia)

Even if the Union Navy had enough ships to enforce the blockade, it could not feasibly maintain the blockade relying on northern ports for resupply, maintenance, and refueling. For that reason, one of the first offensives that the Union Navy took was the seizure of southern ports to act as reliable bases for the blockade squadrons. Port Royal Sound, part of the Sea Islands between Charleston and Savannah, was chosen for its geographic proximity to the two major Confederate cities and marshy waters hampering any Confederate counterattack. The Sound was protected by Confederate forces at Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island, Fort Beauregard across the Sound on Phillips Island, and a squadron of four small gunboats under Josiah Tatnall (future commander of CSS Virginia). General Thomas Drayton and Colonel Stephen Elliot Jr. commanded forces at Fort Walker and Fort Beauregard respectively.

On November 7, 1861, around 9:30 A.M., a fleet under Flag Officer Samuel DuPont (including USS Seneca) moved into action. The plan was for the fleet to steam right down the middle of the channel, staying in motion while firing on both forts. Turning in succession about midway through the channel, one column of ships led by DuPont aboard USS Wabash would double back along the shore of Hilton Head Island, laying further fire on the more heavily defended Fort Walker, while the other ships would provide cover against the Confederate gunboats.

Port Royal plan of attack (NHHC)

When it came time for the ships to execute the turn-in-succession, however, Sylvanus Godon of USS Mohican took the initiative to break away from the line and enfilade Fort Walker, confusing others in the line into breaking off from Wabash and taking position in the fort’s “blind spot.” While most of the ships continued to concentrate their fire on either fort, USS Seneca charged directly at the Confederate gunboat squadron, which had thus far been prevented from joining the battle by the ships providing cover. Seneca pursued Tattnall’s squadron for over two miles up Skull Creek before the Confederates managed to escape.

Bombardment and Capture of Forts Walker and Beauregard (Mariners' Museum)

General Drayton gave the order to evacuate around 2:00 P.M., the gunners at Fort Walker having depleted almost all of their gunpowder, and having had many of their guns disabled. To add insult to Drayton’s injury specifically, the late-arriving USS Pocahontas had joined the bombardment, a ship commanded by his own brother, Percival Drayton. Captain John Rodgers of Wabash led a landing party ashore under a flag of truce only to find the fort abandoned, and he raised the Stars and Stripes over the fort. The Confederates abandoned Fort Beauregard when Colonel Elliot heard Walker’s guns fall silent and cheers erupt from the Union fleet; John Ammen of USS Seneca had the honors of raising the flag.

Raising the flag over Port Royal (Wikipedia)

The capture of Port Royal allowed the Union to seize control of the rest of the Sea Islands, providing the Atlantic Blockading Squadron a forward operating base in the heart of the Confederacy for all blockade operations from Hampton Roads to Key West. The capture of these islands would also become the site of the “Port Royal Experiment,” a prelude to Reconstruction where former enslaved people received education and worked the land abandoned by their former enslavers.

While Denny enlisted after the Battle of Port Royal, his naval career was shaped by its consequences. Rather than naval warfare defined by opposing warships fighting each other head on, this naval campaign would be characterized by Union ships standing watch, on the lookout for Confederate cargo vessels whose greatest weapon was their speed and stealth. Future entries in this series will examine the life of John William Denny, Captain’s Clerk, as his diary provides a glimpse into not only blockade duty, but other aspects of the Civil War that intersected with his professional and personal life.

Thursday, May 2, 2024

What’s down there? Part I: USS Jacob Jones

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

In the 21st century, the technology used in underwater archaeology and deep sea diving has advanced significantly. Historic ships are being discovered in their final resting place regularly. This is the first in a series of blogs about recent underwater discoveries.

On August 11, 2022, a team of British divers from the vessel Darkstar discovered USS Jacob Jones (DD 61). The ship is 60 miles south of Newlyn (in the Cornwall region) and lies 400 feet below the ocean’s surface. The expedition’s divers were able to confirm that what they found was indeed the Jacob Jones when they discovered the ship’s bell. During the expedition, the divers also inspected one of the ship’s boilers along with the steam turbines.

Diver Dom Robinson investigates the wreck of Jacob Jones (dailymail.co.uk)

The Tucker-class destroyer Jacob Jones was built in Camden, New Jersey. Named after Commodore Jacob Jones, who served during the War of 1812, the ship was commissioned on February 10, 1916. Under the command of Lieutenant Commander David Bagley and with a crew of seven officers and 103 enlisted Sailors, Jacob Jones sailed for Ireland in April 1917 as the United States officially entered World War I.

USS Jacob Jones underway (Navsource)

When Jacob Jones arrived in theater in May 1917, its primary task was to escort Allied convoys and pick up survivors from British merchant ships that had been attacked by German U-boats. Jacob Jones picked up almost 400 survivors from three British ships: Orama, Valetta, and Dalfia. On December 6, 1917, Jacob Jones left Brest, France, bound for Queenstown, Ireland, which was being used by the U.S. Navy as a base during the war. While underway, the ship was hit by a German torpedo twenty miles off the coast of southern England. The torpedo ruptured the ship’s fuel tank, and the ship’s depth charges exploded as it was sinking. Commander Bagley ordered the crew to abandon ship. Jacob Jones sank in eight minutes, taking with it 64 Sailors.

Jacob Jones sinks after being torpedoed (NHHC)

Lieutenant (j.g.) Stanton F. Kalk was officer of the deck when Jacob Jones was hit. He worked tirelessly while in the frigid water to ensure that Sailors were on life rafts or lifeboats, and he eventually died from a combination of exhaustion and exposure to the cold. For his efforts that day, Kalk was awarded the Dinstinguished Service Medal posthumously. U-53, the German U-boat that sank Jacob Jones, radioed the Queenstown base, passing along the final position of the ship. In addition to sending the radio message, U-53 took on two wounded survivors from Jacob Jones: Seaman Second Class Albert De Mello and the ship’s cook, Petty Officer Second Class John Francis Murphy. The actions of Lt. (j.g.) Kalk, and the decision to call in the ship’s location by U-53's commanding officer, helped save the survivors.

Stanton F. Kalk as a midshipman in 1916 (NHHC)

Due to the Sunken Military Craft Act, which was enacted October 28, 2004, Jacob Jones is protected from potential looting and mistreatment. The ship is also still owned by the United States Navy. Therefore, the divers from the vessel Darkstar are working in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy in London and the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). Fulfilling the request of NHHC, the ship’s bell was recovered in 2024 by a salvage unit that is part of the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense. Due to the ship’s status as a war grave, the salvage unit surveyed the site using remotely operated equipment, making sure not to disturb anything on the ship. Prior to leaving the wreck site, the salvage team placed a wreath with an American flag to honor the Sailors who were lost with Jacob Jones.


At this time, the ship’s bell is with Wessex Archaeology in England. There are plans for a formal ceremony to hand over the bell to NHHC later this year. Upon completion of the ceremony, NHHC’s Underwater Archaeology Branch will take custody of the bell for further conservation. The discovery of Jacob Jones helps bring closure regarding the story of the ship, and the recovery of the bell enables the public to pay tribute to the Sailors lost on that fateful day.

USS Jacob Jones's bell (USNI)

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Navy Brings Back the Tiara

By Mark Freeman
HRNM Events Coordinator

Nine years ago, the United States Navy released NAVADMIN 208/15, which, among other uniform changes, discontinued tiaras as of October 1, 2016. Please visit our In Memoriam: The Navy Tiara blog for details. In 2018, the Navy discontinued the female combination cover commonly referred to as the “bucket” cover. On Valentine’s Day of this year, the Navy released NAVADMIN 031/24, which brought back some beloved uniform items and made a big change.

Detail on the Navy tiara of Captain Ruth Moeller, USN (Ret), part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection. (HRNM)

Tiaras in the Navy have always been worn with formal ceremonial wear. Although it was not worn often, the tiara was a beloved piece of regalia that made those events a bit more special to those who chose to wear it. Because it was not a high profile uniform item, the Navy decided to do away with the tiara in 2016. That, however, did not deter Sailors from creating their own versions to wear for events. This time-honored headdress was finally recognized as a beloved uniform item and officially brought back just two months ago.

Homemade Tiara made for BMCS Nicole Serben by HMC Kelly Keilty

Chief tiara (mynavyexchange.com)


The second most popular change with NAVADMIN 031/24 is the return of the female combination cover known as the “bucket” cover. This item was removed from official wear in 2018. The bucket cover not only sets females apart, but is much more comfortable to fit required female hairstyles. Within days of the return of the bucket cover, female Sailors across the globe were trying to find this cover for events.

Bucket covers (Navytimes.com)

The biggest change from NAVADMIN 031/24 set the old school Sailors ablaze. The NAVADMIN states, “The restriction on placing hands in pockets while in uniform is rescinded. Sailors are authorized to have hands in their pockets when doing so does not compromise safety nor prohibit the proper rendering of honors and courtesies.” You read that right! Sailors can now warm their hands in their pockets while they walk, as long as it does not impede the rendering of honors.

Admiral "Bull" Halsey in World War II with his hand in his pocket (NHHC)

Uniform changes in the United States Navy happen yearly, if not multiple times a year, to change with the times. The return of the tiara and bucket cover have been well received throughout the fleet thus far. Allowing Sailors’ hands in their pockets is controversial among the more seasoned Sailors and junior enlisted. Most Sailors were doing this anyway without the rule being enforced, so that seems an easy rule to change. Now male Sailors want beards—maybe we’ll see that change in the next uniform NAVADMIN!

CNO ADM Franchetti with Sailors in San Diego (navy.mil)

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Bill Withers: Singer, Songwriter, and Sailor

By Zach Smyers
HRNM Educator

Before he became a Grammy winning songwriter, singer, and producer, Bill Withers served his country in the U.S. Navy.


William Harrison Withers Jr., the youngest of six children, was born on July 4, 1938, in Slab Fork, West Virginia. His father was a coal miner and died when Withers was 13 years old.

In 1956, at age 17, Withers enlisted in the Navy. After boot camp, Withers went to Pensacola, Florida, for training as an aviation mechanic. During his time in the Navy, Withers overcame an issue with stuttering, and during liberty with his fellow Sailors he became increasingly interested in writing and performing songs. From 1962 to 1965, Withers served at NAS Agana in Guam. During this time, he had to decide whether to reenlist or to leave the Navy. Withers chose to be discharged.

With his honorable discharge in hand, Withers relocated to Los Angeles, California. He got a job working at a factory manufacturing aircraft parts, and he bought a guitar at a pawnshop and started to write songs. He worked during the day at the factory and performed at night.


Withers recorded his first album, Just as I Am, for Sussex Records in 1971. The album included the hit single “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Produced by Booker T. Jones, Just as I Am was a huge success, and Withers went on to win a Grammy for “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Withers was officially a star, and his sophomore album, Still Bill, released a year later, received rave reviews from music critics and fans. The songs “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” were hit singles from the album, with “Lean on Me” reaching number one on the Billboard pop chart. The album sold 500,000 copies and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

In 1973, Withers wrote one of his most powerful songs, “I Can’t Write Left-Handed,” which dealt with the Vietnam War. The song, written from the perspective of a wounded veteran, was Withers’ take on Vietnam veterans’ experiences at war and then as they returned to life in the United States. The song opens with Withers reflecting on the war and meeting the veteran who inspired the song. Withers says, “And I can remember not too long ago seeing a young guy with his right arm gone. Just got back. And I asked him how he was doing. He said he was doing all right now but he had thought he was gonna die. He said getting shot at didn’t bother him, it was getting shot that shook him up. And I tried to put myself in his position.”

Bill Withers at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (Wikipedia)

Withers stepped away from the music business in 1985. Despite his departure, the awards and accolades continued to come his way. He was inducted into the Soul Train Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and again in 2007 for “Lean on Me.” In 2005, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and in 2015 the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Bill Withers passed away on March 30, 2020. In April 2020, he was selected to receive the Lone Sailor Award posthumously by the United States Navy Memorial. Speaking about Withers’ career, Rear Admiral Frank Thorp, President and CEO of the Navy Memorial, said, “Bill Withers has literally touched every American’s life over the last fifty years, and through his music and his example, has made our world a better place.”

Bill Withers accepts his honorary doctorate from West Virginia University (Billwithers.com)