H-019-3: U.S. Navy Non-Combat Submarine Losses and Major Accidents
H-Gram 019, Attachment 3
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
Any compilation of losses and accidents will skew perception, so it is important to note that the list below must be compared against several thousand successful and safe submarine patrols, often completed despite the most arduous and dangerous conditions demanding an extraordinary degree of professionalism by their crews to operate safely.
Determining how many U.S. Navy submarines have been lost to accident is a challenge and depends on how they are counted. Some submarines were lost before being commissioned, some were lost after being decommissioned, some were lost in shipyard accidents, some were lost but raised and returned to service, some were not lost but were so severely damaged that they were not returned to service, and some were lost by accident in a combat environment. The following is list of all significant accidents involving U.S. submarines that are in the public domain.
Losses and Accidents Prior to World War II
On 2 April 1863, USS Alligator broke loose from her tow in a storm off Cape Hatteras and foundered. No one was aboard. Alligator is the first known U.S. Navy submarine and was an extraordinarily sophisticated piece of machinery for her day (with a diver lock-out chamber, for example.) Alligator was designed as a counter (along with the ironclad USS Monitor) to the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack), which Union Intelligence reports indicated was under construction. Alligator conducted one reconnaissance mission up the James River as far as City Point, Virginia. The Union naval commander in the area determined that any Confederate targets were in water too shallow for Alligator to attack, and should the vessel run aground and fall into Confederate hands, his own ships would be defenseless against her. So, she was returned to the Washington Navy Yard for further tests and was en route to participate in the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina, when she sank. (As an aside, the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley was sunk while attacking, and sinking, the Union frigate USS Housatonic off Charleston on 17 February 1864. Even though Hunley has been raised, the exact cause of her sinking is still unknown, and none of the theories seem to fit the observed evidence.)
On 10 December 1910, in the first known significant U.S. submarine accident, the USS Grampus (SS-4—later re-named A-3) suffered an explosion in her main engine (which was gasoline-powered), which killed one crewman. The dangers of gasoline engines on submarines were becoming increasingly apparent, and then-Lieutenant Chester Nimitz was a leader in the effort to transition submarine power plants to diesel engines.
In late 1912, the USS F-1 (SS-20) slipped from her mooring in Monterey Bay, California, and was driven aground. Two of her crewmen were killed and 17 were rescued. F-1 was recovered, repaired, and returned to commission (only to be sunk several years later).
On 25 March 1915, USS F-4 (SS-23) sank near Hawaii in 300 feet of water due to an acid leak that caused corrosion of the lead lining of the battery, resulting in hull compromise and battery failure. All 21 of her crew were lost. This was the first loss of a manned, commissioned U.S. Navy sub at sea. The submarine was subsequently raised on 29 August 1915. One of the divers involved was John Henry Turpin, probably the first African-American to qualify as a U.S. Navy master diver.
On 15 January 1916, USS E-2 (SS-25) suffered a battery explosion at the New York Navy Yard that killed four crewmen and injured seven. The subsequent investigation was led by Lieutenant Chester Nimitz. The commanding officer, Lieutenant Charles M. Cooke, Jr., was not blamed for the accident (more on him later).
On 24 July 1917, USS A-7 (SS-8) suffered a gasoline explosion in Manila Bay that killed seven crewmen, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Junior Grade Arnold Marcus, who despite his burns remained aboard attempting to beach the boat, and refused medical treatment until all his crew had been attended to first. Although A-7 did not sink, she was not returned to service. The destroyer USS Marcus (DD-321) was named in honor of the commanding officer, the first ship named for a submarine officer.
On 17 December 1917, USS F-1 (SS-20) sank off San Diego after colliding with submarine USS F-3; five crewmen who were topside were rescued, but 19 were lost.
On 7 March 1918, a U.S. Navy liaison officer on board HMS H-5 was killed (along with the entire British crew) when H-5 was mistaken for U-boat, rammed, and sunk.
On 30 July 1919, USS G-2 (SS-27), which had been decommissioned and was being readied for use as a depth-charge test target in Niantic Bay near New London, sank at her mooring. Three members of a six- man inspection party were lost with the submarine, which was not salvaged.
On the evening of 12 March 1920, USS H-1 (SS-28) ran aground in Magdalena Bay (Baja), Mexico, while transiting from the U.S. east coast to the west coast. The crew had to swim for shore and three drowned while the commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander James R. Webb, was washed off the bridge by a large wave and lost. The repair ship USS Vestal (AR-4), of later Pearl Harbor fame, pulled H-1 off the rocks, but the sub sank shortly thereafter in 50 feet of water.
On 1 September 1920, USS S-5 (SS-110) flooded and sank during full power trials off the Delaware Capes, resulting in one of the most remarkable cases of submarine crew survival. Under command of Lieutenant Commander Charles M. “Savvy” Cooke, Jr., S-5 took in water via the main air induction system and sank to the bottom in 180 feet of water. Unable to pump water from the forward torpedo room, the crew was able to blow the aft tanks causing the stern to rise above the surface. The crew then attempted to cut a hole through the hull, but after 36 hours the hole was still only several inches wide. On 3 September, the wooden steamship Alanthus sighted the S-5’s stern above water, and was able to determine via Morse code hull taps that S-5’s crew was still alive. In one of the most famous submarine signals, in response to “Where bound?” the S-5 replied “Hell by compass.” Alanthus had no radio, but was able to signal via flag hoist another steamer, SS General G. W. Goetha, which had the necessary tools to enlarge the hole enough to enable S-5’s entire crew to escape. Lieutenant Commander Cooke was the last of 38 men out. Cooke went on the be commanding officer of the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) at Pearl Harbor, and then served throughout World War II as Admiral King’s lead planner and strategist (Cooke was actually one of the most brilliant and influential, but unheralded, senior officers in the war) and retired as a vice admiral in command of the U.S. Seventh Fleet after World War II.
On 7 December 1921, S-48 (SS-159) took in water via an unsecured manhole plate in the aft ballast tank during a pre-commissioning dive off Long Island, and the stern sank in 80 feet of water. The entire crew, contractors, and observers were able to escape via a forward torpedo tube, which was above water. S-48 was raised, repaired, and commissioned, serving as a training submarine during World War II before being scrapped in 1946.
On 10 October 1923, USS S-37 (SS-142) suffered a battery explosion at San Pedro, California, which killed three crewmen. S-37 was repaired and conducted several war patrols in the Pacific during World War II.
On 28 October 1923, the steamer SS Abangarez collided with the USS O-5 (SS-66) on the surface in Limon Bay off Panama. Three crewmen died, but 16 were able to escape before O-5 sank in 42 feet of water. Torpedoman Second Class Henry Breault could have escaped, but went back below to retrieve Chief Electrician’s Mate Lawrence T. Brown, who had been sleeping. Unable to escape, Breault was able to dog the compartment hatch and the two were trapped in the sunken submarine, but were alive. Multiple unsuccessful attempts were made to raise the submarine with crane-equipped salvage barges, before finally succeeding after 31 hours. Breault and Brown both survived, and Breault was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery; he was the first submarine crewman awarded the Medal of Honor and the only enlisted submarine sailor to be so recognized.
On the night of 25 September 1925, USS S-51 (SS-162) sank off Block Island, Rhode Island, after a collision with SS City of Rome. Thirty-three of 36 crewmen were lost. S-51 was raised, but not returned to service.
On 20 April 1926, USS S-49 (SS-160) suffered a battery explosion at New London, which killed four crewmen and injured nine. S-49 was repaired and returned to service, but was sold in 1931 to a private entity and used as a floating tourist attraction. She was re-acquired by the Navy in 1941 for use in mine warfare experiments, but she foundered in the Patuxent River in 102 feet of water on 16 December 1942.
On 17 December 1927, USS S-4 (SS-109) sank after being rammed by USCGC Paulding off Provincetown, Massachusetts. All 40 crewmen were lost. Six crewmen survived the initial sinking, but were trapped aboard the sunken submarine. Although divers were able to determine the six were still alive and were able to communicate with them via tap Morse code, adverse weather thwarted all attempts to rescue them. Navy diver Chief Gunner’s Mate Thomas Eadie was awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing, at great risk, another diver who had become entangled while trying to attach an air supply to the sub. The S-4 was subsequently raised in 1928 in a salvage effort commanded by Captain Earnest J. King (future CNO). S-4 was recommissioned in October 1928, used as a test platform for submarine rescue, decommissioned in 1936, and deliberately sunk on 15 May 1936.
On 11 January 1934, a signal cartridge accidentally exploded on board USS S-34 (SS-139,) killing one crewman.
On 26 February 1936, the USS R-8 (SS-85), which had been decommissioned in May 1931, sank at her mooring in Philadelphia. She was subsequently raised and used as a bomb target off Cape Henry, Virginia, where she sank.
On 23 May 1939, USS Squalus (SS-192) sank off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 243 feet of water during a post-overhaul test dive due to failure of the main induction valve. Flooding in the aft compartments of Squalus drowned 26 sailors immediately, but 33 sailors in the forward compartments remained alive. A rescue effort was mounted under the command of Lieutenant Commander Charles B. “Swede” Momsen (who had received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal in 1929 for inventing the Momsen lung underwater escape device) using the new McCann rescue chamber. This saved the 33 crewmen, including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Oliver Naquin (who would later play a role in the decisions ashore that led to the loss of the cruiser USS Indianapolis—CA-35—at the end of World War II). Four Navy divers would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the rescue operation. After several failed attempts, Squalus was raised, repaired, and renamed Sailfish, which went on to a distinguished combat record during World War II (see overview).
On 19 June 1941, USS O-9 (SS-70) sank off Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 450 feet of water during a deep submergence test (her test depth was 212 feet). All 33 crewmen were lost. Divers set depth and endurance records locating the submarine before further efforts were deemed too dangerous. The sub was raised, repaired, and used as a training submarine during World War II.
Accidental U.S. Submarine Losses During World War II
During World War II, 52 U.S. submarines were lost, along with 375 officers and 3,131 enlisted sailors, a loss rate of about one in five of those who served in the submarine force during the conflict. At least six of the 52 submarines were lost to accident or grounding.
On 20 January 1942, S-36 (SS-141) ran aground in Makassar Strait, Dutch East Indies. All crewmen survived and were rescued by a Dutch launch.
On 24 January 1942, S-27 (SS-132) ran aground off Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. All crewmen were able to reach the shore and survived several days before rescue.
On 14 August 1942, S-39 (SS-144) ran aground on Rossel Island in the Coral Sea. All crewmen were rescued.
On 12 June 1943, R-12 (SS-89) was lost due to unknown cause during a training exercise off Key West. Five crewmen on the bridge were rescued, but 42 others were lost.
On 4 July 1944, S-28 (SS-133) was lost due to unknown cause during an ASW exercise off Oahu with all 42 hands. Her wreck was only recently discovered.
On 24 October 1944, USS Darter (SS-227) ran aground while pursuing the Japanese heavy cruiser Takao in Palawan Passage, Philippines. Darter’s entire crew was rescued by the USS Dace (SS-247).
On 15 March 1945, USS Lancefish (SS-296), commissioned that February, flooded via an aft torpedo tube and sank at her pier in Boston with no loss of life. She was raised, but never completely repaired, and never went to sea before being scrapped in 1959. She is not counted in the 52 submarines lost in World War II.
Of the 52 submarines lost, eight are assessed as being sunk by Japanese mines, as there were no recorded Japanese ASW attacks in their operating areas at the time of loss. However, the exact cause of loss of these submarines remains unknown. Only their general operating area is known and, as there were no survivors from any of the subs, accidental causes cannot be completely ruled out.
U.S. Submarines Lost in World War II Due to Defective Torpedoes
On 26 March 1944, USS Tullibee (SS-284) fired two torpedoes at a large Japanese freighter in a convoy near the Palau Islands. One of the torpedoes circled back and hit and sank the submarine. Only one crewman survived; he was picked up by a Japanese destroyer and became a POW.
On 25 October 1944, for the second night in a row, USS Tang (SS-306) got into the middle of a large Japanese convoy for a night surface attack in the Formosa Strait, torpedoing multiple cargo ships and a destroyer. Under the command of Commander Richard O’Kane, Tang fired her 24th (and last) torpedo (a new Mark 18 electric torpedo), which broached and ran circular. Tang took evasive action, but was hit and sunk by the torpedo in 180 feet of water. Four of the nine crewmen topside survived. Of 30 crewmen still alive in the forward part of the boat, 13 escaped via the forward escape trunk using Momsen lungs (the only known instance of this escape device actually being used), five of the 13 were rescued. Of Tang’s crew, 78 perished. Nine survivors, including O’Kane, were picked up by a Japanese frigate, which was also carrying survivors of the ships Tang had sunk the night before. These then severely beat the Tang crewmembers, who, however, survived the war as POWs. O’Kane was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the two nights of attacks.
U.S. Submarines Possibly Lost to “Friendly Fire” During World War II
On 24 January 1942, USS S-26 (SS-131) was mistaken for a German U-boat in the darkness and was rammed and sunk by USS Sturdy (PC-460) at night in the Gulf of Panama. The commanding officer, executive officer, and a lookout, who were all topside, survived, but 46 crewmen were killed.
On 15 October 1943, the new submarine USS Dorado (SS-248) was en route to the Pacific when she was possibly attacked and sunk by a U.S. Navy PBM patrol aircraft while approaching the Panama Canal. The crew of the aircraft had been given incorrect coordinates of the moving restricted area for Dorado and attacked a submarine identified as a U-boat in what was actually the restricted area. Postwar records showed that a U-boat was in the same area, but did not record being attacked. It is also possible that Dorado struck a mine laid by another U-boat (U-214) that was also operating in the approaches to the Panama Canal. Regardless, there were no survivors from the submarine.
On 4 October 1944, USS Seawolf (SS-197), on her 15th war patrol, en route Samar, Philippines, with U.S. Army troops embarked, was possibly attacked and sunk by mistake by the USS Richard M. Rowell (DE-403) near Morotai. No Japanese subs were in the area. It is possible Seawolf was sunk as a result of an unrecorded attack or an accident, but the evidence suggests “friendly fire” is the most likely cause. There were no survivors among 83 crew plus 17 Army passengers.
Former U.S. Submarines Lost in Foreign Service During World War II
Former R-19 (SS-96) was transferred to the Royal Navy on 9 March 1942. As RMS P.514 she was mistaken for a German U-boat, and rammed and sunk by HMCS Georgian and lost with all hands.
Former S-25 (SS-130) was transferred to the Royal Navy on 4 November 1941 as RMS P.551. She was then transferred to the Free Polish Navy as ORP Jastrzab and was sunk by “friendly fire” on 2 May 1942 by a Royal Navy minesweeper and a destroyer; she was lost with all hands.
Post–World War II U.S. Submarine Losses and Major Accidents
On 21 February 1946, the decommissioned submarine R-1 (SS-78) sank at her moorings at Key West. Originally commissioned in 1918 and decommissioned 12 years later, she was returned to commission in 1941. In February 1942, R-1 fired four torpedoes at a surfaced German U-boat (U-582) that either missed or failed to detonate. R-1 was raised and then scrapped.
On 25 August 1949, USS Cochino (SS-345), operating in the Norwegian Sea, suffered an electrical fire and subsequent battery explosion, which released chlorine and hydrogen gas. Cochino’s crew fought for 14 hours to save the boat before a second battery explosion doomed their efforts. USS Tusk (SS-426) came close aboard and succeeded in rescuing all of Cochino’s crew except for one civilian “engineer” who was washed overboard along with six of Tusk’s crew, who all perished in the heavy, cold seas.
On 20 February 1945, USS Pomodon (SS-486) suffered a battery explosion at San Francisco Navy Yard, which killed five crewmen and injured six. Pomodon was repaired and returned to service.
On 8 June 1957, USS Tarpon (SS-175), decommissioned on 15 November 1945, foundered off Cape Hatteras while under tow to the scrap yard.
On 23 April 1958, USS Cutlass (SS-478) encountered a severe Atlantic storm and one officer was washed overboard and was lost.
On 28 May 1959, USS Stickleback (SS-415) lost power and broached just ahead of USS Silverstein (DE-534) off Pearl Harbor. Silverstein was unable to back down in time and rammed the submarine, which resulted in slow, but uncontrollable flooding. None of Stickleback’s crew were lost.
On 14 June 1960, while in Pearl Harbor after completing her North Pole operations, USS Sargo (SSN-583), suffered an oxygen feed-line fire that resulted in a low-order detonation of two torpedoes, which killed one crewman. This was the first significant accident involving a U.S. nuclear submarine. Machinist’s Mate Third Class James E. Smallwood was posthumously awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism, and the Pearl Harbor BEQ was named for him.
On 23 June 1962, USS Tiru (SS-416) suffered a fire in the forward torpedo room, which injured 18 crewmen due to toxic gas.
On 10 April 63, USS Thresher (SSN-593) sank while conducting post-overhaul deep-dive trials east of Boston, and 112 Navy crewmen and 17 civilian shipyard technicians were lost. The exact sequence of events that led to her loss is still debated today, although the court of inquiry reached the conclusion that Thresher probably suffered a weld failure in a salt water piping system, leading to flooding and the reactor shutdown (“scram”), which then resulted in an inability to control depth and prevented her from “driving” to the surface (normal procedure). This may have been compounded by possible ice in the valves to blow the main ballast tanks, which prevented her from reaching the surface by an emergency de-ballasting blow (not normal procedure at depth). However, acoustic experts have argued that at maximum depth at which Thresher was operating, the pressure is so great that any leak would have resulted in a major acoustic event, which was not detected on acoustic recordings of the sinking. This would suggest something other than flooding led to the reactor shut down. Regardless, the loss of the lead boat of the most advanced class of submarine designed and built to that date was a significant traumatic event, and the fact that it was a nuclear submarine only added to the shock. The result, however, was an extensive top-to-bottom review of all aspects of submarine design, construction, training, and operation. Key aspects of this were codified as the “SUBSAFE” program. SUBSAFE provides a maximum reasonable assurance of the integrity of submarine design, systems, and materials via design review, shipboard system testing, and objective quality evidence that all materials and components meet drawing and specification requirements. Since the implementation of SUBSAFE, no U.S. submarine having all of the program’s upgrades and certifications has been lost.
On 30 January 1968, USS Seawolf (SSN-575) grounded off the coast of Maine, suffering considerable damage but no serious casualties. She was towed back to New London, repaired, and put back to sea on 20 March 1969.
On 22 May 1968, USS Scorpion (SSN-589) was lost due to accident while returning to the United States from a successful Mediterranean deployment. All 99 aboard were lost. Numerous theories have been postulated to explain her loss; everything from a defective trash compactor to a Soviet attack. The original court of inquiry (concluded before the wreckage was subsequently located) examined numerous possible causes, but was unable to reach a definitive conclusion, although a torpedo accident was listed first. The subsequent structural analysis group (SAG), convened after the wreckage had been located and photographed, also did not reach a definitive judgment. As should be obvious from the first 60 years of U.S. submarine operations, there are numerous things that can sink a submarine, even in peacetime. The SAG carefully analyzed all possible causes for loss of a submarine; some scenarios were certainly far more plausible than others. Some scenarios were highly unlikely, but due to their being no survivors, the extreme depth, and condition of the wreck made it impossible to conclusively rule some of them out. Based on the evidence, however, the likelihood that Scorpion was sunk by a surprise attack (or any attack) by a Soviet submarine is about zero.
On 11 September 1969, USS Chopper (SS-342) lost electrical power while conducting an ASW exercise off Cuba. In a cascading series of events, Chopper wound up nearly vertical, with her bow at a depth of 1,011 feet and stern at 720 feet (her test depth was 400 feet.) Counteractions resulted in the bow making a rapid ascent, and the sub was again nearly vertical in the opposite direction as her bow broke the surface all the way to the aft edge of the sail. When the sub fell back into the water, she submerged to 200 feet before stability was regained. Although Chopper returned to port under her own power, the stress damage to her hull was deemed excessive and she was decommissioned on 15 September 1969. I couldn’t find any information on injuries, but there appeared to be no deaths.
On 15 May 69, USS Guitarro (SSN-665) flooded and sank pierside at Mare Island Shipyard before she was completed. She was raised, but completion was delayed almost three years and she was commissioned on 9 September 1972. There were no casualties.
On 1 June 1971, USS Bugara (SS-331,) which had been decommissioned on 1 October 1970, sank off Cape Flattery, Washington, while under tow.
On 2 December 1973, the commanding officer of USS Plunger (SSN-595), Commander A. L. Wilderman, was washed overboard and lost during a storm off San Francisco.
On 24 April 1988, a fire on board USS Bonefish (SS-582) off the coast of Florida killed three crewmen. The damage was extensive enough that repair was not attempted. Bonefish was decommissioned in September 1988.
On 1 May 1989, heavy seas off Kyushu, Japan, washed three crewmen of USS Barbel (SS-580) overboard; one was rescued and two drowned.
On 9 February 2001, the USS Greeneville (SSN-772) struck and sank the Japanese fishery high school training ship Ehime Maru while conducting a demonstration emergency main ballast tank blow off Oahu. Although damage to Greeneville was relatively minor, the Ehime Maru sank in ten minutes, killing nine crewmembers, including four high school students. Greeneville was somewhat star-crossed, later running aground while entering port on Saipan, and then even later colliding with USS Ogden (LPD-5) during a personnel transfer. However, she did however the Battle E in 2016.
On 21 May 2002, a fire aboard USS Dolphin (AGSS-555) resulted in partial flooding off San Diego. All 43 crewmen aboard were safe and the damaged sub was towed to port.
On 8 January 2005, USS San Francisco (SSN-711) hit a seamount south of Guam at high speed. One crewman was killed in the impact and 25 were injured. Damage to the sub’s bow was severe, but she was able to surface. San Francisco was subsequently repaired using major components from the decommissioned USS Honolulu (SSN-718).
On 23 May 2012, USS Miami (SSN-755) suffered a fire during overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Virginia. A civilian shipyard worker later confessed to arson. There was no loss of life, but repairs were estimated to cost over $700 million, which was deemed not economical, and Miami was decommissioned on 28 March 2014.
Other Submarines Lost in 1968
On 25 January 1968, the Israeli submarine INS Dakar was lost with all 69 of her crew. Dakar was a modified World War II British T-class submarine that had been purchased by Israel, completed two years of testing and training in the UK, and was transiting to Israel when she disappeared. Her wreckage was found in 1999 at depth of 9,000 feet between Crete and Cyprus. Although the exact cause of her loss is still undetermined, Egyptian propaganda claims to have sunk Dakar with depth charges, denied by Israel at the time, were proven to be false.
On 27 January 1968, the French submarine Minerve (S647) disappeared south of Toulon, France, in heavy weather after radioing that she would be at her berth in an hour. No trace of Minerve or her 46 crewmen has ever been found.
On 8 March 1968, the Soviet Golf II–class SSG ballistic missile submarine K-129 sank in the northern Pacific with all hands. Soviet search efforts were unsuccessful. In 1974, the CIA led a partially successful top secret (at the time) effort (Project Azorian) to raise the submarine from a depth of 16,000 feet (the deepest salvage recovery ever to that point) using a specially built ship, the Glomar Explorer, which operated under the cover of one of billionaire Howard Hughes’s manganese nodule mining operations. The cover was quickly blown by U.S. media. The return of the USS Swordfish (SSN-579) to Yokusuka, Japan, on 17 March 1968 with a bent periscope (due to ice) not long after the loss of K-129 fueled conspiracy theories that Swordfish was involved in the loss of the Soviet sub, although no U.S. vessels of any kind were within 300 miles of K-129. Some have gone so far as to claim that Scorpion was sunk by the Soviets in retaliation for the loss of K-129, for which there is much speculation but little actual evidence.
Soviet/Russian Federation Submarine Losses Since 1968
On 24 May 1968, a radiation leak from the experimental liquid metal reactor aboard the modified November-class SSN K-27 resulted in the death of nine crewmen and contamination of the submarine, which was ultimately scuttled in the Kara Sea on 6 September 1982.
On 23 June 1968, the Whiskey twin cylinder–class SSG S-80 was found in the Barents Sea, having been missing with her crew of 68 since 27 January 1961.
On 8 April 1970, November-class SSN K-8 suffered a fire in the Bay of Biscay during the major Soviet Okean exercise. Eight crewmen died in the initial fire and the submarine was subsequently abandoned. In an attempt to save the sub, 52 crewmen re-boarded the vessel only to all be overcome by toxic gas. K-8 subsequently sank, but 73 of her crew were rescued. This was the first loss of a Soviet nuclear submarine, although other November-class subs had suffered serious radiation leaks and contamination accidents previously.
On 13 June 1973, Echo II-class SSGN K-56 was seriously damaged in a collision off Vladivostok, resulting in the deaths of 27 crewmen. The commanding officer was able to run the sub aground on a sand bar before she could sink, thus saving the rest of his crew (and numerous senior observers on board to observe a missile shoot). The submarine was raised and towed to port, where it became a pier queen.
On 21 October 1981, Whiskey-class SS S-178 sank off Vladivostok as a result of a collision, resulting in the immediate deaths of 18 crewmen. Seven of the 11 crewmen who were topside during the collision were rescued. Those still on board attempted free ascent from about 100 feet; three of those died and three disappeared, but others succeeded. In the end, 31 of 52 crewmen perished.
On 23 June 1983, Charlie-class nuclear guided missile submarine K-429 sank during a test dive off Petropavlovsk, killing 14 crewmembers immediately. Two volunteers then made a free ascent from 128 feet, were able to swim to shore (where they were arrested by military police), and were able to get word to headquarters to mount a rescue operation. The remainder of the crew of about 100 made free ascent to the rescue ships, with only two being lost in the process. K-429 was subsequently raised before sinking again at her mooring on 13 September 1985. She was raised again and decommissioned.
On 3 October 1986, Yankee-class nuclear ballistic missile submarine K-219 suffered a fire and explosion in a ballistic missile tube while the boat was on ballistic missile patrol in the western Atlantic. Four crewmen were killed initially and two died later. The submarine was able to surface, but attempts to tow her were unsuccessful and she sank. This is the only loss of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine by any navy.
On 25 June 1989, Echo II–class nuclear guided missile submarine K-131 suffered a fire in the Barents Sea that killed 13 crewmen. The sub was towed to shore, but radiation contamination was so severe that the reactors remain on board to this day.
On 7 April 1989, Mike-class SSN K-278 suffered an electrical fire that resulted in her sinking in the Norwegian Sea. The commanding officer was able to bring the boat to the surface, where most of the crew was able to abandon ship—although many perished of hypothermia before rescue could arrive. The submarine sank with the CO and four others still aboard, who then attempted to ascend in an escape pod; however, only one man got out before the pod sank in the heavy seas with the CO. All told, 42 of the crew of 69 perished.
On 12 August 2000, Oscar-class nuclear guided missile submarine K-141 “Kursk” suffered a torpedo explosion while operating in the Barents Sea. The explosion killed all but 23 of the crew of 118; the survivors were trapped in an aft compartment as the submarine sank in 108 feet of water. A chemical oxygen generator had been contaminated with seawater and, when activated, instead of generating oxygen, caused a flash fire that used up the remaining oxygen, suffocating those who weren’t burned to death.
On 30 August 2003, the November-class SSN K-129, which had been contaminated in a radioactive discharge event on 2 March 1965, was lost in the Barents Sea while under tow to a scrap yard, killing nine aboard.
(Sources include: Naval History and Heritage Command archived document “Casualties: U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Personnel Killed and Injured in Selected Accidents and Other Incidents Not Directly the Result of Enemy Action,” and NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships entries for individual submarines.)