All Hands Down

All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion, By Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler. New York: Pocket Star Books, 2008. Reviewed by Ted Odenwald

allhandsdownThe USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine, vanished under mysterious circumstances in May of 1968 off the Azores Islands. For days the American Navy would admit only that contact with the vessel had been lost. But after days of silence, the announcement came of the loss of the ship and its crew of 99 sailors. The presumed cause was a catastrophic event aboard Scorpion. But forty years after the loss, Sewell and Preisler have pieced together for public consumption the events leading up to the ship’s destruction, using countless interviews and records from the inquiry conducted by the Navy. The authors conclude that Scorpion was attacked and destroyed by a Russian missile-bearing helicopter.
This account touches some key factors familiar to the American public. First was the North Korean seizure of the American spy ship, Pueblo. Most Americans at the time knew of the capture of Captain Lloyd Bucher’s ship and crew. Apparently the Koreans confiscated both data and equipment from the Pueblo, turning their gleanings over to Soviet intelligence. Among the items taken was a KW-7 cryptographic box, routinely used by intelligence-gathering ships to relay their positions and findings. This box, according to the authors, was critical to the betrayal of Scorpion’s position and mission.
Treason was another factor. John Walker, an American serviceman, had been selling classified information to the Soviets for years. Among the thousands of documents which he turned over to “the enemy” was material that would enable Soviet intelligence to decipher messages sent using the KW-7 box. In fact, the Soviet attack was launched shortly after Scorpion had sent a message identifying its location and its intention to observe a Soviet naval maneuver. The box had been instrumental in springing a deadly trap.
A third factor was the sinking of a Soviet submarine, K-129, which sank off of Hawaii. The Soviet admiralty believed that the submarine had been destroyed by the Swordfish, an American submarine that had displayed damage when entering a port in Japan. Outraged, Fleet Admiral Gorshkov demanded revenge; the trap which doomed Scorpion, was the result.
As evidence of the nature of Scorpion’s demise, Sewell and Preisler cite the reports and photos from deep sea exploration vessels, including Robert Ballard’s Alvin, which was ostensibly searching for the Titanic, but in actuality was performing a CIA mission. The photos support the contention that the death blow to the submarine was inflicted from the outside (rather than from an internal catastrophe).
To assure that the reader does not lose the impact of this event to abstraction, the authors go to great lengths to introduce the lost crew and their families. Through letters, diaries, and interviews, Captain Francis Slattery and several of his subordinates become real people, not just casualty figures. Their educations, their family lives, their career aspirations, their attitudes towards their specific jobs all are investigated. Particularly moving are the thoughts shared by the wives of several crewmen, recalling the hardships of separation caused by the extended missions of the submarine. The fears of possible disaster always cast a shadow over their lives. Their recollections of the days of anguished waiting after Scorpion had failed to return to base or even to report are exceptionally moving. The authors express their outrage at the fact that the Navy brass failed to tell the families of the crew the truth: that they knew that the ship was lost. Allowing the loved ones to continue to suffer the anguish of the unknown is seen as being a horrible low point in the entire affair.
The fact that this account has not surfaced for decades brings up all kinds of questions concerning our situation at that time. Embroiled in a costly war in Viet Nam, and reeling from dissent within the American community, our leaders could ill-afford another out-and-out confrontation—this time with a world power. Whatever the government’s and the military’s reasons for secrecy, the authors are crying out for the honor of 99 brave, lost souls, and for their devastated families.

tedTed Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 39 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.