Monday, June 26, 2017

USS Scorpion: On Patrol, 49 Years and Counting

HRNM Photo by Diana Gordon.
By Julius Lacano
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Among the many artifacts at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, there are several that are seldom noticed. These artifacts, located in the Cold War Gallery, concern the USS Scorpion (SSN 589), a Skipjack-class nuclear attack submarine that was considered revolutionary in her day. Pieces include a commissioning plaque for the submarine and her Navy Unit Commendation pennant. Also included are two items more personal in nature, a uniform name plate and a set of Scorpion-crested his and hers cigarette lighters. These personal effects were donated by Navy Capt. Mary Etta Nolan, the daughter of Chief Torpedoman’s Mate Walter W. Bishop, Scorpion’s Chief of the Boat (COB). These artifacts seem commonplace and ordinary, but the story of the submarine they are representative of is anything but.

LEFT: At Naval Station Norfolk, Captain Mary Etta Nolan appears at a memorial ceremony held in 2013 honoring the 99 submariners who perished aboard USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1967, one of whom was her father (RIGHT), Chief Torpedoman's Mate Walter Bishop. While still a first class petty officer, Bishop was selected in July 1962 as Scorpion’s Chief of the Boat. This uncommon step was taken in recognition of Bishop’s outstanding and superb leadership characteristics. In 1999, Building 560 at Naval Submarine Base New London (SUBASE) was named and dedicated in his honor.  (Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic Facebook page/ Hampton Roads Naval Museum archive.)   
On May 27, 1968, Scorpion was expected to pull into Naval Station Norfolk at the conclusion of a successful Mediterranean deployment. As was customary, families were there to greet them on the pier. Wives, some with children by their sides, waited with anticipation for their loved ones to return home to them. As Capt. Nolan told The Virginian-Pilot in 2008, she and her two brothers were not with their mother on the pier; instead they were at a friend’s house waiting for their father to return. Time went on and families continued to anxiously wait. By that afternoon, though, it became clear that something was amiss. While it was normal for submarines to cross the Atlantic under orders of electronic and communication silence, upon proximity to shore they would transmit messages requesting berthing assignment and tug assistance from their respective superiors, in the case of Scorpion, Commander Submarine Squadron Six (COMSUBRONSIX). At 12:40 pm, COMSUBRONSIX sent a message to Commander Submarine Forces Atlantic (COMSUBLANT) that they had yet to receive any messages from Scorpion and that she was overdue. Mrs. Bishop returned home without her husband and picked up her children, who assumed that their father was hiding in the house waiting to be found, as was their family custom. While their mother maintained her strength, the children had no idea how serious the situation actually was. To them the sub would be found and everything would be ok. To eight-year-old Mary Etta Bishop, the situation was no different than the show Gilligan’s Island.

During builder's trials, USS Scorpion (SSN-589) steams off New London, Connecticut on June 27, 1960. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, father of the Navy's nuclear program, is standing on her sailplanes with another officer. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
While the families of the Sailors onboard attempted to cope with the unknown, COMSUBLANT tried to re-establish communications with the submarine. At 3:15 that afternoon, after hours of attempts with no success, COMSUBLANT declared her missing and initiated an exhaustive air, sea, and subsurface search along her prearranged westerly track from 73⁰ West (directly south of New York City) to the Azores. This search proved fruitless and on June 5, 1968, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Moorer declared Scorpion lost with all hands. At the end of October 1968, the oceanographic research ship USNS Mizar (T-AGOR-11) located Scorpion’s shattered hull 9800 feet below the surface and about 460 miles southwest of the Azores.
View of the sunken submarine's sail, probably taken when Scorpion was located by USNS Mizar (T-AGOR-11) in October 1968, on the Atlantic Ocean floor 10,000 feet deep, some 400 miles southwest of the Azores. This image shows the starboard side of the sail, with its after end at top left, and the starboard access door in lower left. Debris is on the ocean bottom nearby. The device in top center is part of the equipment used in locating and photographing the wreckage. The original photograph bears the date January 30, 1969. (Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command)
The loss of the Scorpion and the 99 members of her crew remain one of the biggest unsolved mysteries in the history of the United States Navy. Various theories and conspiracies have emerged concerning her sinking, some more plausible than others, but these are little comfort to the family and friends of those who remain “still on patrol."
Detail of USS Scorpion commissioning plaque in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's Cold War Gallery. (HRNM Photo by Diana Gordon)

1 comment:

John Donaldson said...

Thanks for this article. There is a 50th memorial being planned for May 26th, 2018 and additional details will be published once plans are finalized.