Posted by Lex, on May 18, 2008
It is one of the more poignant images from the Silent Service’s Cold War days: Dozens of families huddled on a Norfolk pier in foul weather, waiting for their husbands and fathers to return from patrol aboard the USS Scorpion, a Skipjack-class attack submarine:
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.
The boat would not return, and for forty years the families have wrestled with doubts about the fate of their family members. Two authors have recently added fuel to the speculation that the ship was a targeted by a Soviet submarine in retaliation for their own loss of a boat three months earlier in the Pacific – a loss the US had attributed to the K-129 crashing into an uncharted sea mount, adding that the Soviets had received critical assistance from a detested figure in modern naval history – the notorious spy, John Walker:
Walker… 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.
As a young man, I used to ask submarine officers what they knew of the Scorpion’s loss. Their taut replies always seemed rote and rehearsed, their eyes distant. They seemed eager to change the subject.
After a while I stopped asking.