Key point: The main problem the Navy faced was expediency versus caution.
Even in the age of ultra-sophisticated nuclear submarines, with their advanced computers, sonar, navigation, and communication systems, the hard truth is inescapable: the sea is the most hostile environment on Earth. It is totally unforgiving of human error or overconfidence. The pressures below 2,000 feet can crush a submarine like an aluminum can in seconds. For reasons that even now are a closely guarded secret, that happened in late May 1968 when the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) sank in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as she was returning from a long deployment. Ninety-nine officers and men were on board the Scorpion.
The Scorpion was third in the revolutionary new Skipjack class of nuclear fast-attack subs. She was commissioned at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, Connecticut, on July 29, 1960. The rapidly changing Cold War arena demanded that each one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear submarines be on continual service for the purpose of locating and tracking Soviet attack and missile submarines. But time and constant service took their toll. The Navy was pushing the Scorpion to its limits; as a result, systems began to break down. There were serious oil leaks in the machinery, and sea water seeped in from the propeller shaft seal. Her depth was restricted to 300 feet, well above the 900-foot test depth. In 1967 she experienced vibration so severe it seemed that the entire boat was literally corkscrewing through the water. The cause was never determined. The crew had taken to calling their boat the “Scrapiron.”
By 1968 it was obvious to the Navy’s Bureau of Ships that the submarine was badly in need of major overhaul. Yet the demands of the Cold War made it necessary to send Scorpion and her officers and crew on one more deployment to the Mediterranean Sea to participate in joint NATO operations. She would, however, sail with one less man. Electrician’s Mate Dan Rogers, who refused to go on the cruise, flatly stated to Lt. Cmdr. Francis Slattery that every man on Scorpion was in danger.