The Final Secret of the USS Scorpion http://www.historynet.com/final-secret-uss-scorpion.htm In 1968 one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines went missing in the Atlantic. Now, 50 years later, the full story of its disappearance can finally be told. RADIOMEN 2ND CLASS MIKE HANNON WALKED TO WORK WITH A PALPABLE SENSE OF UNEASE on the morning of May 23, 1968. As a communications specialist at Submarine Force Atlantic Headquarters, he was responsible for processing dozens of messages each day from submarines at sea, ranging from routine announcements to top-secret operational dispatches. But hours earlier, when his eight-hour shift had ended at midnight, Hannon feared that one of the submarines on his watch might be in trouble—or worse. The Norfolk-based USS Scorpion, one of the Atlantic Fleet’s 19 nuclear attack submarines, had been scheduled to transmit a four-word “Check Report”—encrypted to prevent the Soviets from intercepting it—that meant, in essence, “Situation normal, proceeding as planned.” In this instance, the Skipjack-class submarine was returning to Norfolk after a three-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea. Its standing orders called for a burst transmission every 24 hours that, when decrypted, read: “Check 24. Submarine Scorpion.” But the previous day no message had come clattering out of the secure teletypewriter that Hannon used. As he prepared to leave for the night, Hannon had briefed Radioman 2nd Class Ken Larbes, the petty officer coming on duty, about the overdue message. He then tapped on his supervisor’s office door and asked whether any late word had come in from the Scorpion. Warrant Officer John A. Walker Jr. silently shook his head no. Was this the first hint of an emergency, Hannon wondered, or merely a delayed transmission caused by mechanical problems or stormy weather conditions? Assigned to the message center at Submarine Force Atlantic (COMSUBLANT) headquarters in Norfolk, Hannon and a handful of other young sailors were responsible for processing all incoming and outgoing messages for submarines then operating with the Atlantic Fleet. They worked in a large room full of top-secret encryption machines that took clear-text messages, scrambled them into impenetrable gibberish, and then dispatched the blocks of seemingly random text in Morse code via high-frequency radio to submarines at sea. The radiomen reversed the process for incoming messages, taking encrypted transmissions from the submarines and “breaking” them back into clear text by using the same encryption gear. “All messages, incoming or outgoing, were routed through my desk,” Hannon recalled years later. “Nothing came in or went out that didn’t go through that desk.” During the five-minute walk from his barracks to the COMSUBLANT message center that Thursday, May 23, Hannon was unsure what he would find. As usual, he thought about the abrupt change in atmosphere he and his coworkers encountered each time they went on duty. Walking up to the unassuming brick building, they would show their ID cards to the armed marine guards, then step up to the door at the ground-floor entrance to punch in the code to release the cipher lock. Inside, they would take the stairway up to the second-floor message center. Manned around-the-clock seven days a week, Hannon’s workspace was the solitary link between the three-star admiral commanding the Submarine Force Atlantic and the scores of nuclear- and diesel-electric-powered submarines that, on any given day, were engaged in operations ranging from routine training to top-secret reconnaissance missions at the edge of—and often inside—Soviet territorial waters. Six to eight junior officers and radiomen typically tended various encryption machines under the supervision of a warrant officer ensconced in an office separated from the main work area by glass windows. On one wall, a large board tracked the current operational status of each of the 104 submarines assigned to Submarine Force Atlantic. Despite the hushed ambiance, the message center was the nerve center of the U.S. Navy’s submarine operations during the Cold War. “These regular radiomen were privy to a lot of highly classified information that passed through their hands,” Harold Meeker, who was second in command at the message center, recalled. “They were all cleared for top secret.” Yet some messages were so sensitive that not even Hannon or his coworkers were allowed to process them. In one corner of the room stood a pair of encryption machines with a thick curtain that could be pulled for total privacy. Only three men—Meeker; Lieutenant John Rogers, the director of the message center; or his boss, Commander Charles H. Garrison Jr.—were authorized to process the orders to, say, an attack submarine shadowing a Soviet missile submarine or conducting surveillance on a Soviet naval exercise. The launching at Groton, Connecticut, in 1959. (U.S. Navy/Naval Historical Center) As he approached the marine guards, Hannon was still replaying in his head what he had told Ken Larbes the night before. “She was on a 24-hour Check Report,” Hannon recalled, but both petty officers thought there must be an innocuous reason for the silence. “It was no big deal because boats were always late for any number of legitimate reasons ranging from equipment malfunctions to ‘the radioman just forgot,’ ” Hannon said. Still, the two radiomen were aware of a top-secret situation involving the Scorpion that suggested potential danger. The submarine had originally been scheduled to sail straight home from the Mediterranean to Norfolk, but on Friday, May 17, it had been ordered more than 1,000 miles southwest, down toward the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. A group of Soviet navy warships, including at least one nuclear submarine, were operating in the area, and the U.S. Navy wanted to check them out.