50 Years Ago, Navy Sub USS Scorpion Sank with 99 Crewmen

The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589), photographed in June 1960 off New London, Connecticut, during builder's trials. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover stands on the sub's sailplane with an unidentified officer. (US Navy photo,courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)
The nuclear-powered submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589), photographed in June 1960 off New London, Connecticut, during builder's trials. Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover stands on the sub's sailplane with an unidentified officer. (US Navy photo,courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

NORFOLK, Va. -- For years, Russ Fennick was wracked with guilt when people would apologize to him for the loss of a father he never knew.

Fennick was just 3 months old when Navy Seaman William R. Fennick left Norfolk on a routine deployment to the Mediterranean. He has seen his father only in photos since.

The elder Fennick was a fire control technician on board the Skipjack-class nuclear submarine USS Scorpion (SSN 589). Russ Fennick was 6 months old on May 27, 1968, when his mother, Eileen Bentle, held him on a pier at Naval Station Norfolk and waited, along with a couple of dozen other families, in driving rain for their sailor to return. Hours passed. Families were sent home.

News broke on television that night: The Scorpion was missing.

No one truly knows what happened, but the families of the crew are acutely aware of the outcome: 99 members of the Navy's silent service never returned. A massive search along the sub's projected course in the eastern Atlantic ensued. On Oct. 31, 1968, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas Moorer announced that the Scorpion had been found more than 400 miles southwest of the Azores in more than 10,000 feet of water.

In a private memorial Saturday at Naval Station Norfolk, families marked the anniversary of the submarine's disappearance. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson served as the keynote speaker. His father, Capt. William Richardson, who served in the Scorpion from 1962 through 1965, also attended.

This much is certain: The Scorpion was heard from on May 21, 1968, when Cmdr. Frances Slattery, the sub's skipper, sent a message indicating the boat's position south of the Azores and giving an anticipated return time of around 1 p.m. six days later. The Scorpion had been sent on a classified mission around the same time, according to news reports.

A seven-panel naval board of inquiry was convened to investigate. It pored over thousands of photos looking for clues, but could not come up with a definitive answer.

"The certain cause of the loss of the Scorpion cannot be ascertained," the court's final report read, according to a Feb. 1, 1969, story in The Virginian-Pilot.

Documents declassified in 1984 after a request by The Pilot and the now-defunct Ledger-Star suggested that an accidental torpedo explosion may have caused the sub to sink, crushing its hull.

"The disappearance of USS Scorpion is one of the greatest non-wartime tragedies in our Navy's history," Navy spokeswoman Lt. Lauren Chatmas said in a statement earlier this week. "We remain deeply saddened by the loss of the 99 sailors, and we honor their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families. We remember and pay tribute to their courage, their service to our country and their commitment to duty."

The lack of an absolute reason for Scorpion's sinking gave way to theorists who have suggested a variety of explanations, including that it was sunk by Russians in retaliation for the loss of one of its subs in the Pacific. Others have alleged Navy cover-ups.

MaryEtta Nolan has been organizing the Scorpion memorials for decades. Her father, Chief Petty Officer Wally Bishop, was the chief of the boat on the sub. She has heard the stories and dismisses them.

"Nothing's going to change the circumstances," said Nolan, a captain in the Navy reserves' nurse corps.

For her, the memorials are a chance to learn about the sailors who served with her father, who is forever etched in her memory as a hero.

"I love to hear the stories," she said.

_______

This article is written by Courtney Mabeus from The Virginian-Pilot and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Show Full Article