© May 18, 2008
Three-year-old Chere Amtower huddled with her mother on a pier at Norfolk Naval Station in a driving rain, waiting excitedly for her father to come home.
It was May 27, 1968, and dozens of families braved foul weather to welcome the crew of the Scorpion, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, back from a three-month deployment. Chere wore a new spring dress and clutched a white straw purse purchased just for the occasion.
Both would look their best when Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas E. Amtower spotted them in the crowd on Pier 22. The 1 p.m. arrival time came and went. Eventually, the commander of a sub tender moored nearby invited the cold, wet families to wait aboard his ship.
Hours later, with no sign of the submarine, the worried families headed home.
Later that night, televisions across the U.S. broke news that broke hearts in Norfolk: The Scorpion was missing.
At crew members’ homes, phones soon rang with the official word from the Navy.
Next came telegrams.
“The Navy Department has, for administrative purposes, placed the personnel on board the overdue submarine USS Scorpion in a missing status,” read the message, signed by Vice Adm. C.K. Duncan, the chief of naval personnel. “I share your deep concern and want to assure you that everything possible is being done and the search is being continued.”
Some three dozen ships, including a dozen subs, hunted for the Scorpion. Long-range patrol aircraft conducted 27 flights a day over the sub’s last known position in the eastern Atlantic, and along its projected course to Norfolk.
Nine days later, another telegram arrived at the Johnson family farmhouse in Monona, Iowa.
The family’s oldest son, Steven, was a petty officer aboard the Scorpion. Until his ship went missing, it had been a joyous time for the family – Steven and his new wife were expecting their first child.
Though he now had a spouse to correspond with during the deployment, Steven continued writing letters to his 17-year-old sister, Suzanne, and his three other siblings, inquiring about their grades and sharing snippets of his life aboard the sub. For Mother’s Day, he’d asked his wife to send his mother flowers.
The pink phlox was still blooming when the second telegram arrived.
“It is with utmost regret I confirm that your son, IC3 Steven Leroy Johnson, USN, a crew member of the USS Scorpion, which has been overdue since 27 May 1968, has been determined to have died. I further regret to inform you that extensive searches for the Scorpion have brought negative results. Therefore your son’s remains have not been recovered. Your son died while serving his country. My sincerest sympathy is extended to you in your great loss.”
Suzanne wasn’t ready to accept the news. Things had moved so quickly, from “the sub’s due in” to “it’s not here” to “missing and presumed dead.” She wanted the Navy to look longer. The ocean is so huge. Surely they’d look a long time, she thought. She couldn’t have imagined that years later, her family and dozens of others would still be searching for answers about the Scorpion.
Two deep-water submersibles have journeyed two miles below the Atlantic’s surface to investigate the wreckage. But 40 years after the sub’s disappearance at the height of the Cold War, it is still not clear what happened.
The Navy’s official inquiry reached no conclusion about what sank the ship. Much of the Navy’s Scorpion file remains classified. Two recent books accuse the Soviet Union of sinking the Scorpion, supposedly in retaliation for the loss of one of its own subs in the Pacific.
Some dismiss the theory outright as fiction worthy of Hollywood. But the fact is, with the help of an American spy who had yet to be caught, the Soviets had a direct line into the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet submarine headquarters.
How do you figure out what happened to a submarine lost in thousands of square miles of ocean?
If you’re looking for clues underwater, it’s easier to use your ears than your eyes.
In the early 1950s, the Navy started installing hydrophone cables on the ocean floor. The underwater microphones pick up sounds that are transmitted back to shore and converted into a visual display.
Because low-frequency sounds travel great distances in water, hydrophones can pick up noise generated by faraway underwater explosions.
Trained technicians can identify the sounds, determine whether a passing sub was diesel- or nuclear-powered, and to whom it likely belonged .
The technology, developed to help the Navy establish an unfriendly submarine’s position, allowed the service to piece together the Scorpion’s final minutes even before the wreckage was located.
On May 22, 1968, as the sub was heading back to Norfolk, it received last-minute orders to investigate a group of Soviet ships near the Canary Islands. According to one researcher, Cmdr. Francis Slattery sent a final message: “We are about to begin our surveillance of the Soviets.”
Just hours after that broadcast, military hydrophones thousands of miles apart – in Newfoundland, the Canary Islands and the Bahamas – recorded strings of similar sounds.
In June, with the sub’s whereabouts still unknown, the Navy convened a court of inquiry, made up of seven officers, to investigate the sinking. The court found that the sounds picked up by the hydrophones – 15 pulses of sound over three minutes and 10 seconds – were similar to those from the sinking of the submarine Thresher in 1963 .
An expert listened to the recordings and studied a visual depiction of the noises. “It sounds like an explosion, it looks like an explosion,” he testified.
The head of the Atlantic Fleet’s submarine force disagreed. He concluded that the Scorpion sank as a result of a “flooding type casualty.”
There were several theories about what could have caused the flooding or the explosion.
One involved a malfunction in the boat’s trash disposal unit, which compacts garbage and ejects it from the sub while underwater. Another pointed to a torpedo battery that may have overheated and activated one of its own torpedoes. The weapon could have exploded in its tube or been fired – only to have its homing device direct it back to Scorpion.
Months later, in late October, the Navy announced that a ship towing photographic equipment along the sea floor had finally pinpointed the Scorpion’s wreckage, two miles deep, west of the Azores and Canary Islands, a few degrees off from its projected course.
The final report, submitted in January 1969, did not settle on a specific theory about what doomed the submarine; nor did it rule out possible causes.
It played down the prospect that the sub had been attacked.
“There were no known Soviet or bloc surface warships, merchant ships, submarines or aircraft within 200 miles of the Scorpion’s last reported position,” the court said in its findings of fact. There was “no evidence” that the loss of Scorpion was the result of “an unfriendly act.”
In the late 1960s, the U.S. Navy was clearly superior to the Soviet fleet.
U.S. ballistic missile submarines regularly nosed around the Soviet Union’s coastal waters. Nuclear attack submarines such as the Scorpion were technologically more advanced than Soviet boats and freely roamed the seas gathering intelligence.
Occasionally they came within a few dozen feet of Russian boats, and cat-and-mouse games – made famous by Tom Clancy novels – played out.
With its network of hydrophones up and down both coasts, the U.S. undeniably had a defensive edge. Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker Jr. rendered much of that advantage irrelevant.
Walker had clearance to handle top-secret materials. He started off selling the Russians key codes and technical manuals to an American encryption device.
At the end of 1967, he was assigned to the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet submarine headquarters in Norfolk, where he handled classified message traffic sent to and from seagoing submarines.
Walker soon offered the Soviets a much bigger prize: the current and future codes to the military’s newest encryption machine, the KW-7.
Those changing codes, paired with an actual KW-7 encryption machine taken from the U.S. Navy ship Pueblo after the North Koreans seized it in February 1968, enabled the Soviets to decode messages between all branches of the U.S. military.
Walker passed lists known as “reserve on board”– codes that the military intended to use in the following weeks. The codes changed daily, so security analysts believed that even if enemies cracked the code for a day, it would soon be obsolete. Walker’s espionage, though, allowed the Russians to translate, in real time, messages from military commanders to operational units – such as the one directing Scorpion to check out the Soviet ships.
In exchange for the information, Walker asked the Soviet Union to pay him up to $1,000 a week. By the mid-1980s, John Walker had become one of the Soviet Union’s most valuable spies.
Chere Amtower never again wore the spring dress she had on the day her daddy was supposed to come back. Her mother tried repeatedly to get her to wear it; there was no reason not to. But the toddler would have nothing to do with it. She shunned the little straw purse, too.
Her mother eventually packed them away in a cedar chest, along with her father’s high school letter jacket, service medals and childhood Bibles.
Pulling out the purse and dress always evoked the same reaction in Chere, one that’s hard to put into words – “an empty, kind of let-down, lost kind of feeling.”
For a long time, into her teenage years, Chere didn’t really believe her father was dead.
The family had never received a clear explanation of what had happened to the Scorpion.
She fantasized that maybe he had been captured, or managed to swim away. Maybe the sub had made it to a different country. The fantasies always ended the same way: with her father finding his way back to her on her 18th birthday.
In time, she came to realize that instead of the stabbing pain her mother felt, her own grief was unspooling gradually, with each milestone in her life that her father missed.
Bob Hunter, an FBI counterintelligence agent, helped arrest John Walker in May 1985, inside a Ramada hotel in suburban Maryland.
Hours earlier, Walker had made a drop of 129 highly classified documents, alerting his handlers the way he always did – with a 7UP can placed on the side of a rural road.
Hunter spent hundreds of hours interviewing Walker.
Once Hunter learned that Walker had turned over the key codes, he realized the Soviets would have been able to read messages at the same time that captains aboard ships such as the Scorpion were receiving them.
When the Scorpion was lost, Walker had been working as the communications watch officer for the Atlantic submarine fleet in Norfolk.
Hunter wondered whether Walker could be to blame for the ship’s loss. But whenever he asked Walker about the consequences of his espionage, the spy clammed up.
Months after his arrest, Walker pleaded guilty to three charges of espionage and was sentenced to multiple life terms, with no parole.
Eight years later, in 1993, the Navy declassified some of its files on the Scorpion in response to Freedom of Information Act requests. At about the same time, following the break-up of the Soviet Union, information began to flow out of Russia. Thanks to those new sources of information, authors Ed Offley and Kenneth Sewell now believe they know what sank the Scorpion: a Russian torpedo.
Both men have published books – Offley in 2007, Sewell and co-author Jerome Preisler this year – contending the sub was attacked by the Soviet Union in retaliation for the downing of one of its subs.
In March 1968, a Soviet sub – K-129 – sank in the Pacific, near Hawaii. American military experts say the sub crashed into an undersea mountain and sank. Communist leaders in Moscow apparently believed the Americans had downed it.
Offley’s “Scorpion Down” and Sewell’s “All Hands Down” both theorize that after the Scorpion was ordered to observe the group of Soviet navy vessels near the Canary Islands, Walker’s information allowed the Soviets to intercept the message and set a trap for the sub.
Offley interviewed sailors who said that they’d been informed even before May 22 that a Soviet boat was tailing the Scorpion, and that their ships and planes had been sent to assist the sub.
A retired rear admiral later told Offley that some communications analyses showed the Scorpion had been detected by the group it was shadowing and was being trailed, and that top leaders feared the worst.
Offley thinks a Soviet sub downed the Scorpion with a torpedo.
Sewell believes it was a Soviet anti-submarine warfare helicopter. A retired Russian admiral, whom Sewell doesn’t name, told Sewell’s Russian researcher the attack came in retaliation for the sinking of the K-129.
Both men also contend that at least some in the Navy knew the Scorpion was in trouble well before the crew’s families gathered at the pier.
The Atlantic Fleet submarine force sent nine messages to the Scorpion between May 22 and May 27. Three requested a reply. None ever came.
The head of the Atlantic Fleet submarine force, Vice Adm. Arnold F. Schade, told the Navy’s board of inquiry he wasn’t perturbed about the five-day gap in communications and issued the “submarine missing” alert only after the Scorpion failed to show up at the pier.
But in 1983, when Offley interviewed Schade and former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, both men told him an unpublicized search for the Scorpion began May 23, after officials lost contact and four days before the homecoming.
Bob Hunter still thinks about what it must have been like for the Scorpion families standing on the pier that Memorial Day so long ago.
He wonders if Walker ever thinks about the scene – then dismisses the idea. “He’s a psychopath, so he probably did not give it a whole lot of thought.”
Hunter is curious enough about Walker’s possible role that he asked his Soviet counterpart about it over lunch a few years ago. Oleg Kalugin was Walker’s KGB handler during his early years, and his work with the valuable spy helped him become the youngest man ever promoted to general in the Soviet security agency.
The end of the Cold War provided a chance for Hunter and Kalugin to meet and share stories.
Sitting in a restaurant high above the Washington skyline, Hunter posed the question: Had the Russians used Walker’s leaks to take out the Scorpion?
Kalugin said he didn’t think so. Walker started spying in the fall of 1967. At the time the Scorpion went down the following spring, Kalugin said, he was getting so much information from Walker, he’s not sure he had all of it translated and passed to Moscow in time for it to be used against the sub.
Hunter can’t know whether Kalugin was telling the truth. He is resigned to not knowing definitively whether Walker’s actions led to the deaths of 99 sailors aboard the Scorpion.
“I think it’s certainly possible, but it’s very hard to say,” he said. “I still wonder about it.”
Retired Adm. Carlisle Trost has no such suspicions.
“I think it’s totally unlikely. Nonsense. Scorpion is hardly a ship that would have been outrun by a Soviet missile submarine.” Trost was the executive officer of the Scorpion in the early 1960s. He has good memories of the sub. “She was state of the art, second of the Skipjack class. She was highly maneuverable. Drove like a sports car.”
Trost went on to serve as chief of naval operations from 1986 to 1990 and made a historic visit to the Soviet Union in 1989 – the first senior U.S. Navy officer to do so.
Trost said it’s time to move on.
“Let the families have some peace, instead of dragging it out with new speculation and books and queries of the families.”
For some Scorpion families, though, peace won’t come without answers.
Holli Foli has spent 40 years wondering not just what happened to her dad, but who her dad was. Her first birthday fell just days before the Scorpion was due back.
She describes the mystery of what sank the Scorpion as a hole that survivors have to step around, something that makes it harder to concentrate on the memories they have.
The tragedy, she said, didn’t end with Petty Officer 3rd Class Vernon Foli’s death. “The ripple effect was enough to knock over most of us surrounding him, as well.”
If it was a casualty of the Cold War, she wonders, then why keep everything classified?
“It’s not that the Navy is a big, evil machine. It’s just not acted appropriately in this situation,” she said. “To be disappointed in your country, while trying to take honor or pride in the sacrifices your family made, is hard.”
At a ceremony several years ago marking an anniversary of the Scorpion’s loss, Foli talked to a group of sailors who had served with her father on the submarine but weren’t aboard when it sank.
She ran through some of the theories. In each case, she asked the men, “How long was my father in fear? What went through his head? How long did he suffer?”
To Foli, the Navy has a responsibility to share what it knows with the families of the crew. To do otherwise, she said, cheapens their service.
“It’s not how you would treat someone that made such a sacrifice. It’s not how you would honor them, by keeping them in the dark.” Suzanne Johnson Kuhl and her siblings also want to know what happened to their brother Steven, but the government may have its reasons for keeping the matter closed, she said.
“Some things need to be classified for a long time, and I’m really not qualified to know how long that would need to be.” More significant is that people remember – and honor – the service of her brother and the crew.
“They definitely were in a very dangerous position, and they served our country, and they died with honor.”
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story was written based on interviews with Chere (Amtower) Cheney, Holli Foli, Patrice (Johnson) Hartman, Bob Hunter, Suzanne (Johnson) Kuhl, Ed Offley, Kenneth Sewell and Carlisle Trost. It also relied on declassified portions of the Court of Inquiry’s report and the books “All Hands Down,” by Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler, and “Scorpion Down,” by Ed Offley.
Monday, May 19, 2008
New evidence suggests Soviets may have sunk the sub Scorpion 40 years ago
By Kate Wiltrout