BACKGROUND: One of the most terrible things the crew of any Navy ship can hear is that a sister ship is lost at sea. Based solely on her operating configuration as an undersea vessel, the situation may be the worst for a submarine. Since the exact number and location of American submarines worldwide is secret, the actual code for a lost sub is classified. However, in the 1970s, the phrase "Gray Lady Down" was used as the title of a movie about efforts to rescue a nuclear submarine that was down or unable to return to the surface.
The movie was fiction, but there are two tragic instances of submarine losses under unknown circumstances. In separate incidents, Thresher and Scorpion went down with no survivors. The hulls were later discovered at depths far beyond those the boats and crew could survive.
There is a certain romance to life at sea and an element of danger in every sea voyage. To preserve and protect crew and material, all Navy vessels must be in close-to-perfect operating condition before they are cleared to get underway. But even then there are no guarantees. Two of the saddest chapters in the history of the U.S. Navy chronicle the unexplained loss of Thresher and Scorpion, two nuclear submarines on routine assignments.
The mission began as a routine deep-dive test, but the crew of the USS Skylark knew something was wrong. Their test submarine had barely reached her assigned test depth when static-filled underwater telephone transmissions from far below told them things were going wrong, very wrong.
On April 10, 1963, the nuclear submarine USS Thresher (SSN-593) and submarine rescue ship USS Skylark (ASR-20) journeyed to the cold waters 200 miles east of Massachusetts for deep-diving testing. Only fifteen minutes after reaching her test depth, Thresher notified Skylark that she was "experiencing difficulties." Within moments, Skylark's crew heard a noise "like air rushing into a tank" and then there was silence. Frantic efforts to reestablish contact with the sub failed. Thresher was down with all hands, which included a crew of 112 and 17 civilian technicians on board to observe the testing. A hastily arranged search group found only bits of debris and a pair of gloves. After four months of searching, the bathyscaph Trieste located broken parts of the sub in over 8,000 feet of water. The photos taken by Trieste in August of 1963 are all that is known of Thresher's fatal accident.
The story of USS Scorpion (SSN-589) is a little different, because no observers witnessed this loss. Scorpion played a vital role in the development of nuclear submarine warfare tactics by participating in different testing exercises in the 1960's. She was operating with the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea in May 1968. On May 21, 1968, Scorpion with her crew of 99 last reported their position about 50 miles south of the Azores. The sub was reported overdue at Norfolk, VA six days later. In October 1968, the research ship Mizar, located Scorpion's splintered hull in 10,000 feet of water 400 miles southwest of the Azores. Although information and pictures collected by the Navy and Trieste record the site and wreckage, no reason for the loss has been recorded. There were no survivors.
- How are the two submarine tragedies different? the same?
- Explain the role of Trieste. Why was it important for the Navy to photograph the wreck sites?
- Think about why the sinking of a nuclear submarine might be particularly dangerous.
- What other ship wrecks do you know about and how are they different from Thresher and Scorpion?