All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on USS Scorpion

All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on USS Scorpion

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Forty years ago, in May 1968, the submarine USS Scorpion sank in mysterious circumstances with a loss of ninety-nine lives. The tragedy occurred during the height of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it followed by only weeks the sinking of a Soviet sub near Hawaii. Now in All Hands Down, drawing on hundreds of hours of interviews, many with exclusive sources in the naval and intelligence communities, as well as recently declassified United States and Soviet intelligence files, Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler explain what really happened to Scorpion.

In January 1968, a U.S. intelligence ship, USS Pueblo, was seized by North Korea. Among other items, the North Koreans confiscated a valuable cryptographic unit that was capable of deciphering the Navy's top-secret codes. Unknown to the Navy, a traitor named John Walker had begun supplying the Navy's codes to the KGB. Once the KGB acquired the crypto unit from the North Koreans, the Russians were able to read highly classified naval communications.

In March, a Soviet sub, K-129, mysteriously sank near Hawaii, hundreds of miles from its normal station in the Pacific. Soviet naval leaders mistakenly believed that a U.S. submarine was to blame for the loss, and they planned revenge. A trap was set: several Soviet vessels were gathered in the Atlantic, acting suspiciously. It would be only a matter of time before a U.S. sub was sent to investigate. That sub was Scorpion. Using the top-secret codes and the deciphering machine, the Soviets could intercept and decode communication between the Navy and Scorpion, the final element in carrying out the plannedattack.

All Hands Down shows how the Soviet plan was executed and explains why the truth of the attack has been officially denied for forty years. Sewell and Preisler debunk various official explanations for the tragedy and bring to life the personal stories of some of the men who were lost when Scorpion went to the bottom. This true story, finally told after exhaustive research, is more exciting than any novel.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781433246180
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 06/01/2008
Edition description: Unabridged
Pages: 6
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 6.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kenneth R. Sewell is a nuclear engineer and a U.S. Navy veteran who spent five years aboard the USS Parche, a fast attack submarine that was the Navy's most decorated ship. Parche conducted a number of special operations, some of which were revealed in Blind Man's Bluff. Since leaving the Navy, Mr. Sewell has held both Department of Defense and Department of Energy security clearances. In researching Red Star Rogue, Mr. Sewell had access to recently declassified intelligence files in the U.S. and Soviet military archives that were opened after 1991, among other sources. A New York Times bestseller, Red Star Rogue has been optioned for film by Warner Brothers.

Jerome Preisler is the author of more than twenty books, including the bestselling Tom Clancy's Power Plays series. He is also a baseball commentator whose work appears on the New York Yankees' YES Network Online.

Read an Excerpt

All Hands Down
The True Story of the Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion

By Kenneth Sewell
Simon & Schuster
Copyright © 2008 Kenneth Sewell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743297981


"While our civilian population worried about Armageddon, submarine crews at sea did all they could to stave it off, living on the edge constantly. On the strategic level of this epic struggle, no one did more than our submarine force, the submarines and their crews, to win the Cold War."

-- Rear Admiral Robert R. Fountain USN (Ret.)


located in the atlantic ocean off the african coast, the Canary Islands are a familiar sight to seamen plying the ancient maritime trade lanes between Europe, Asia, and North America, routes that are likewise known for their historical importance to naval strategists. In early April 1968, the curiosity of U.S. intelligence experts was aroused when their reconnaissance flights and Keyhole photographic satellites spotted a group of three Russian surface vessels and a NATO-designation Echo II nuclear-powered guided missile submarine conducting mysterious actions in the open sea, about four hundred miles southwest of the volcanic island chain. A month later, the flotilla continued to linger in the area, baffling analysts with its movements.

At the time, Russianexercises were mostly restricted to sheltered inlets, bays, and rivers closer to their homeports and guarded to the best possible extent from the scrutiny of America and its NATO allies. But now the Soviets were floating weather balloons, or what appeared to be weather balloons, in full view of American observers.

The nuclear sub only made things more interesting. With its complement of eight Shaddock antiship missiles, an Echo II -- designed for the sole purpose of attacking American aircraft carrier battle groups -- would be a valued target of surveillance to the Anti-Submarine Warfare Force, Atlantic Fleet (ASWFORLANT), whose air and naval units were already monitoring Russian submarine activities in the wide swath of ocean between the Canaries and the Azores. Code-named Bravo 20, this operation had been underway for a while, often with the participation of SUBLANT's nuclear fleet boats.

Rear Admiral Philip A. Beshany, deputy chief of submarine warfare operations, would later say that the focus of new concern was the possibility of the Soviets developing a way to support their warships and submarines without requiring access to foreign bases for supplies. Most authorities on Soviet marine operations, however, came to dismiss his explanation. Refueling and resupply at sea had been taking place since before World War II. In wartime, a lumbering support ship wouldn't last more than a couple of days before it was discovered and sunk. On its face, it made little or no sense that the ships traveled 1,500 miles out of the Mediterranean to perform experiments that could have been done in friendlier waters. And what of those balloons?

Intelligence experts in Washington were convinced there had to be some other reason for the conspicuous presence of the ships -- and some means of determining what it was. The Special Naval Collection Program (SNCP) oversaw and directed a range of submarine espionage operations under the code name Holystone, and checking out the oddball Soviet flotilla fell under its purview.

In those days, America always kept five to seven submarines in the region of the Mediterranean. Their six-month tours usually overlapped, with one sub transiting the Great Circle Route between the Mediterranean and the continental United States every four weeks. It would be easy enough to divert to the Canaries a submarine on its way home. And the Soviets were aware of this.

The Soviets also held some other critical pieces of information, namely the means and patterns of U.S. aerial reconnaissance in the region. Their radar could detect U.S. spy planes long before they came into visual range. They knew the exact orbital schedule of the KH-8 photo intelligence birds. And, as was often the case in those days of tag-you're-it Cold War intrigue, their American intelligence counterparts knew they knew.

While Soviet vessels normally conducted their experiments at night when observation was most difficult, the maneuvers near the Canaries were peculiar exceptions. The flotilla would launch its balloons in broad daylight and wait until the last minute to bring its movements to a halt, breaking off right before U.S. naval aircraft or satellites approached -- almost as if wanting to be noticed. This behavior added to the questions surrounding the flotilla's presence. Were the ships playing a game? Taunting their observers with false attempts to avoid detection? If so, why? What other activities might the Russians be concealing with their shadow dance?

A former Scorpion sailor who'd been aboard the boat for several Cold War Holystone missions into Soviet territorial waters would compare the tantalizing ship movements to a matador's waving of his red cape in the bull ring: Hey look, here I am, come and get me!

Indeed, Washington's intelligence experts were far more intrigued by the flotilla's peculiar actions than its composition. Of the four vessels only the sub was designed for battle. Two of the others were hydrographic survey ships, the third a rescue and support tug. All three surface craft had acoustical signatures -- distinct sonar voiceprints -- that had been recorded by past spy missions and were easily identifiable to ASWFORLANT's sonobuoys, making them of little or no intrinsic military interest. Moreover, if unusual electronic activity -- radio transmissions from the Soviet vessels, for instance -- had been a major concern to analysts, it would have been standard procedure to dispatch an EC-121 or P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane that could observe the ships from the air.

But a submarine held a significant advantage over the floating buoys and spy planes: it could steal up on the Russian ships for a close-up look at whatever was going on with them. Checking out the Echo II would essentially amount to an added bonus.

Although some Navy officials later insisted that getting a sub out to the area was routine, their assertion was contradicted by one of the principals involved in the intelligence-gathering process, a ranking officer who'd kept an eye on the Russian vessels for weeks.

"We recognized the high desirability of getting over there and taking a look at them," Captain Walter N. "Buck" Dietzen recalled. When the flotilla was spotted, Dietzen was the Pentagon assistant to Rear Admiral Philip Beshany, deputy chief of naval operations for submarine warfare. "I was salivating in the [Pentagon's] corridors to find out what they were doing," he would add.

The desire of which Dietzen spoke would soon translate into a direct, highly classified order that came down to the USS Scorpion from the Navy's top-most echelons. Even today, one can see why she was picked for the mission. With her speed and quiet stealth, the Skipjack-class submarine was ideally suited for snooping on the Soviet vessels. She had done that sort of thing often enough, and would be in their general neighborhood anyway.

Vice Admiral Arnold F. Schade, commander of the Atlantic Fleet's submarine force, would have the communiqué sent out to Scorpion from the message room at operational headquarters in Norfolk.

It isn't known whether John Walker Jr. was on duty at the time. It's also moot. Walker had easy access to the vault where the coded dispatch was filed, and would have been aware of it.

He was always on the furtive lookout for exactly that sort of thing.


Whether aboard a submarine or surface vessel, sailors didn't have many ways to spend their downtime while traversing the high seas. Among Scorpion's crewmen "best beard" contests were a standby, since shaving was not a requirement during patrols. The winners would receive cash prizes, with judging of the contest held toward the end of the deployment. There would be many categories -- bushiest beard, fullest beard, and most artistic beard.

Gregg Pennington, a former Scorpion nuke, remembered some of his shipmates getting creative in their efforts to relieve the monotony. On one patrol, they decided to fashion rings out of English half-crown coins they'd picked up on liberty in Holy Loch, Scotland. This took patience, resourcefulness, and no small measure of clandestine assistance from various quarters throughout the sub. Spoons vanished from the galley and magically reappeared in crewmen's pockets. Using them as makeshift jeweler's hammers, the men would tap the inside curves of the spoons on the edges of the coins until they flattened out to a desired width. Next, machinist's mates were enlisted to drill out the centers of the coins. As a finishing touch, the amateur ringsmiths would impart a sparkling smoothness to their handiwork with small metal files.

Generally, though, the men would find more mundane diversions. When a sailor completed his watch and needed to unwind before turning in, he would grab a bite to eat from the galley and then kill a couple of hours playing card games, checkers, or Acey Deucy with some of the other off-duty crewmen -- either that or catch a movie in the crew's mess. As a rule the interior communications electricians would run the movies. The IC men were responsible for a wide range of equipment, including the ship's projector.

Before going off on deployment, a vessel always loaded up on film reels from a movie exchange on base. Since a nuclear-powered sub would be at sea for two or three months at a time, it brought along between sixty and seventy movies, ensuring that a new film could be screened every night -- at least during those first couple of months. If you got a really good film, it might be shown two or three times a day. As long as the sub wasn't in dangerous waters, and the IC man got permission from Control to burn a flick, it didn't matter how often the movies were shown.

The film exchange process was uncomplicated when ships were in their homeports. After a vessel returned from patrol, a member of its crew would bring the reels in, and someone from a departing ship would promptly check them out again. You couldn't be too choosy if you were assigned to acquire the movies but you'd try to get hold of the latest ones to be had. Victory at Sea, produced for NBC television in the 1950s, was a perennial favorite. Presented in twenty-six half hour installments, its tales of World War II naval battles bore stirring titles like Melanesian Nightmare, Full Fathom Five, and Suicide for Glory. For Navy crewmen the action hit close to home.

Even so, a steady diet of the same films would get miserably boring if a patrol ran longer than expected -- as was frequently the case. Whenever feasible, then, movie swaps would be arranged at the sub's various ports of call, with the reels sometimes changing hands on the ship's tender. Seldom were the times when they were passed on between vessels at sea, a maneuver that was hardly as effortless as requisitioning them from an onshore exchange. If a ship-to-ship transfer did take place, it usually would be the incidental benefit of a relay with a far more serious -- and perhaps even secret -- military purpose.

Scorpion was on a westerly course toward Gibraltar and the Atlantic when her sonar picked up the USS Bigelow (DD-942), a Forrest Sherman-class destroyer out of Naval Station Mayport, Florida. About to begin a Mediterranean deployment, Bigelow was doing fuel-testing with the jet aircraft fuel JP-4, which contained additives the Navy hoped would improve the all-weather efficiency of ships' boilers. But the volatile JP-4 burned at such a rapid rate that the experiment failed, and Bigelow had needed to stop and replenish in Bermuda, and then again in the Azores, where it would spend two days taking on fuel and burning it, as Electrician Third Class Lawrence Brooks said, "almost as fast as they pumped it from the truck."

Riding gently on the clear, calm waters of the Atlantic under a daytime sky, the Bigelow was approaching the Strait of Gibraltar when a call to General Quarters blared out over the 1MC, or shipboard intercom. The GQ kicked the vessel into a state of combat readiness and, suddenly, all hands aboard, on duty or off, were hustling to battle stations. Guns were loaded. Torpedoes and missiles were readied for launch. Only a handful of men on the destroyer besides the officers would have had time to be informed what sort of hostile, or potential hostile, had been encountered. When the alert sounded, no explanations were given. Everyone and everything geared up for action.

Terry R. McCue's duty station during GQ was the radio room. Sitting at his console, his headphones on, he was among those aboard the Bigelow who knew nothing of the reason for the high alert. His job, like that of the other radiomen in the shack with him, was simply to remain at his station, isolated from the rest of the crew, and await whatever orders might come down from his superiors.

He would not remember how long the GQ lasted. But after a while the all-clear sounded and was received with a sigh of relief in the shack, as it was throughout the rest of the ship.

Later, McCue would be told that the GQ sounded due to contact with an American nuclear sub, the USS Scorpion. After she was identified, the alert was called off. According to his information, Scorpion was headed out of the Med for home on a track almost directly opposite that of the destroyer.

Lawrence Brooks, who was stationed in Bigelow's IC room, remembered the sub and the destroyer engaging in some drills -- approaches, evasive maneuvers, and so on. The possibility exists, then, that Bigelow's commanding officer had gotten advance notice that he'd be crossing paths with the submarine and called battle stations so his crew could bone up on antisubmarine warfare tactics. Or it may be that the operations were conducted on the spur of the moment after the submarine was determined to be nonthreatening. Be that as it may, soon after each established its identity using its radio call name -- Bigelow's was "Decipher," and Scorpion's was "Brandywine" -- the two vessels rendezvoused on the surface. Their captains had arranged for a highline transfer.

Yeoman First Class Ed Washburn was the skipper's phone talker on Bigelow's 1JV, a sound-powered phone circuit from a lookout station to the control and command center. That placed him with the captain on the destroyer's bridge, and among the sailors who saw Scorpion make her portside approach, matching speed and direction with Bigelow like a leviathan that had risen from the deep, sheets of foam streaming off her curved black flanks, a small group of men gathered on the narrow bridge atop a sail bearing a light gray Atlantic camouflage scheme. Beneath the men were her diving planes. The distinctive dorsal fin that marked her as a Skipjack nuclear attack sub was behind them, projecting down her spine to the aft section.

Then Washburn heard the call over the ship's intercom. "Scorpion alongside!" And echoing across the water from the sub: "Bigelow alongside!"

With the vessels about a hundred feet apart, their skippers greeted each other using their bullhorns. Then a boatswain's mate on Bigelow attached a large pulley to an anchoring pole on the deck as his counterpart aboard the submarine did the same. Scorpion displaced 3,500 tons of water submerged, and over 3,000 on the surface. The fully loaded destroyer displaced 4,050 tons. That resulted in a massive combined displacement of seawater as the ships moved side by side, much of it squeezed into a pressurized channel between their hulls -- and the longer they stayed close together the more agitated that channel would become.

As Yeoman Washburn watched from the destroyer's bridge, one of Scorpion's crewmen fed a propellant charge into the breech of a line gun -- it resembled an ordinary rifle, but had a metal canister under its barrel, and a large, ball-shaped projectile fitted over the bore. The stock braced against his shoulder, he aimed for the Bigelow and pulled its trigger. There was a loud explosive crack and a belch of smoke from the gun as the ball rocketed from the barrel and the line attached to it came whipping out of its metal canister.

A moment later, the ball landed on the destroyer's deck and was snatched up by one of its crewmen. On Scorpion's bridge, someone tied a rope to the end of the line, and the entire rig was pulled onto the destroyer -- a task that required several sailors, not only because of the rope's added weight, but because that heaviness caused its slack to tumble into the sea as it was paid out and become saturated with water, taking on even greater weight.

But the rope wasn't all that had to be pulled onto the destroyer. Once most of it was across, a steel cable was attached to the line on the submarine, making it still more of a burden as it was hauled aboard Bigelow and then drawn through the big pulleys on both vessels.

The highline now established, a trolley basket was hooked to a third, smaller rolling pulley mechanism, or block, and sent across to the Bigelow with its first load of films in either canvas or plastic sacks. Again, it would take a number of men to pull the basket across from ship to ship.

For a highline transfer to succeed, the cable must remain taut and the vessels on station. But that is far easier said than done. If Scorpion and Bigelow were moving at the recommended speed of 12 knots, a 1 degree course variation by either vessel would have moved them twenty feet sideways per minute. To prevent this listing, they needed to maintain a constant position and engine speed -- something that took careful eyeballing from the conning officers, and a deft, continuous series of adjustments from their steering personnel. Meanwhile, as the trolley rolled from ship to ship, the seawater between them brewed ever more agitatedly around their keels, making the vessels pitch and yaw, tossing cold geysers of spray onto their decks.

From where he stood at the rail of the destroyer, Ed Washburn, who'd never before witnessed a highline transfer, found it a tremendous thrill. Sailors weren't used to seeing another large vessel come that close to them at sea. If even a minor foul-up occurred, he knew the line might sag into the water and dunk the trolley -- films and all -- into the swift, roiling pressure currents between the sub and destroyer. A bigger mistake and they would grind up against each other in what might prove the maritime equivalent of a fender-bender, or worse, a seriously damaging collision.

It was, in fact, an effort that hardly seemed worth its risk if all that was exchanged were some movies for the crews' entertainment. Washburn and his shipmate Phil Pagnoni, who took a snapshot of Scorpion from the bridge, would wonder in later years if some other material accompanied the movies across the line -- and if the Bigelow's rank and file simply weren't made privy to what it was. Could the movie exchange have been an afterthought, or even a clever ruse to obscure the sharing of a very different type of cargo? From his yeoman's experience, Washburn knew of all sorts of intel that Navy vessels would not transmit via radio if there was even a suspicion the Soviets might be able to intercept it. A movie transfer that appeared to be hastily arranged via the ship-to-ship communications could well have been meant to throw potential snoops off the true reason for the highline. Considering the top secret mission that had occupied Scorpion since May 10, it is possible that Washburn guessed correctly, and that the highline transfer was actually carried out to expedite the delivery of intelligence to higher-ups in the Mediterranean.

Whatever its purpose, the exchange went off without a hitch. With the lines disconnected and hauled back aboard Scorpion, the men standing on the bridges of the two vessels gave each other waves of farewell, and then resumed their respective courses.

As he watched the submarine pull away into the distance, and then slide beneath the water until all sight and sound of her was lost, Washburn was figuring he would remember that day for the excitement of the transfer. He could not possibly have guessed at the tragic associations it would soon bring to him and the almost three hundred other sailors onboard the Mediterranean-bound USS Bigelow.


At about 7:30 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time on May 17, six days after detaching from the Sixth Fleet, Scorpion was somewhere near Gibraltar when her radio mast pierced the chop to pick up a continuous, cyclic stream of UHF messages that submariners called the skid -- verbal shorthand for "schedule," as in scheduled transmission.

This coded broadcast loop would be recorded, decrypted, and checked for dispatches that pertained to the receiving vessel. If there were messages on the skid for Scorpion, this would be her last opportunity to check it for a while.

The transmission carried bad news from Norfolk for one of the crewmen: twenty-five-year-old Sonarman First Class Bill Elrod's pregnant wife, Julie, had experienced a miscarriage.

Commander Slattery considered the sonarman's personal situation along with a potentially serious medical issue that had cropped up involving another crew member, Interior Communications Electrician Joseph Underwood. Over the past few days Underwood had developed an upper respiratory infection, and Doc Saville's antibiotics weren't doing anything to knock it out of him. The congestion in his lungs had gotten severe enough that Underwood was hacking blood, and Doc worried he might have contracted tuberculosis. If his ailment proved to be TB, it could become a serious problem, spreading through the sub to take down her entire crew, many of whom were already reporting flulike symptoms.

Slattery had a decision to make. The sub was just hours east of Naval Station Rota, Spain -- a base in the province of Cádiz on Spain's southwestern Atlantic coast, beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Rota had supported U.S. and NATO ships for over a decade, and Scorpion had spent some time there on her way into the Med two months earlier. Transferring Elrod and Underwood off the boat at Rota would solve both the humane problem and the health problem. As importantly for Underwood, Rota's large military hospital had the staff and facilities to test for TB and treat his symptoms.

By 9:00 P.M., Scorpion had made a swift passage from the Med into the Atlantic. In her crew spaces, men bent over sheets of notepaper and dashed off letters to their families, their penmanship scratchy and uneven from their own haste to put down their thoughts and the shaking of the boat as it sliced toward Rota at 18 knots. The crew had been told they would be stopping at Rota to discharge Elrod and Underwood via tugboat, and that a sack of mail would be leaving the sub with them.

What Commander Slattery hadn't announced was the imminent departure of a third man -- one who wasn't even officially ever aboard Scorpion. His mission with the SOSUS project complete, Tony Marquez had been due to report to Norfolk along with the ship's company. The unscheduled stop at Rota gave him another option. Slattery invited him to stay with the boat or leave with the others.

Marquez was a skimmer, someone whose background was as a sonar tech on surface craft. This was his first experience traveling aboard a submarine, and he preferred making his way to the States by more routine means of transport. Also, given his status as a rider, he'd likely have been informed of a development most of the crew did not yet know -- namely that Scorpion would not be heading straight home after departing Rota. Admiral Schade's orders to detour to the Canaries had been transmitted on the skid, and that surveillance was bound to extend the sub's voyage home by several days at the very least.

All that weighed, Marquez decided a short air hop from Rota to the States would suit him fine.

"I've had enough'a you guys," he said with a laugh. "I'm gonna fly -- it'll get me back a lot quicker."

Commander Slattery and his officers couldn't have argued with him. They'd already been handed one last-minute assignment en route to Gibraltar. Now another had come down right on its heels, a second unexpected mission just when they and their tired crew were set to go home. It would surely add to the general discontent onboard the sub, but there was nothing to be done about it. You didn't get to choose your orders, and they were understandable from Schade's perspective. The opportunity to investigate the Soviet flotilla wouldn't last forever, and it was important to send a sub out there right away. Scorpion was close by, her men were top-notch, and that made her the obvious choice.

Sometime between midnight and 1:00 A.M., Scorpion surfaced off Rota outside the breakwater at the harbor entrance. Water streaming from her bridge, she was "on the step," her stern planes in a 10 to 15 degree dive position to stabilize her on the surface. Within minutes she was met by the tug, and the two regular crewmen and Marquez disembarked with the mail sack and a separate bundle of classified communications.

Scorpion was ready to slip underwater and head off toward the Russian grouping.



Before going ashore to Rota, the men discharged from Scorpion would transfer from the tug to the submarine tender USS Canopus out in the harbor. On Canopus, they received temporary berthing and, in Underwood's case, prompt medical attention. Engineman Second Class Tom Carlough, who had completed his service period on Canopus and was preparing to leave for Air Controller School at New London, Connecticut, later that morning, recalled hearing that three sailors had come aboard because they were too sick to make the Atlantic crossing to the States.

Once on the tender, Underwood was examined by Submarine Squadron 16 Medical Officer Andrew Urbanc, who decided to assign the communications man a bed in sick bay and monitor his condition. After a few days of treatment and observation Underwood's health showed great improvement and he was cleared to return to the States. The infection he'd contracted wasn't TB after all.

Finding a flight home for the Scorpion sailors would be no problem. As the gateway between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, Rota was ideally suited for maintenance and resupply of Polaris ballistic missile submarines. Their Blue and Gold crews would often make the change at Rota while a boat was tied up and having work done on her. A regular slate of flights carried the Polaris replacement crews between Rota and the United States.

Soon, Elrod, Marquez, and Underwood were winging home from the Spanish naval base, its palm trees and warmth left behind. Though Marquez may or may not have taken the same flight as the other two men, he would remember a conversation with Elrod in which he learned of Julie's "fetal distress."

The trip from Rota to Norfolk took about nine hours. Before the Navy even announced Scorpion's arrival date, Elrod and Underwood were in Norfolk waiting for their shipmates.


The Soviet embassy in Washington was an old, gated stone mansion on 16th Street, just four blocks north of the White House. The residency doubled as the KGB's Washington station, with over a third of its one hundred staffers serving as spies operating out of offices crammed into its fourth and uppermost story.

Between 1967 and 1970 three agents at the station would spend much of their time with the material obtained from John Walker before it was forwarded overseas to Lubyanka, the KGB's main headquarters in Moscow.

One of the agents was Yuri Linkov, the tall Russian who had met Walker outside the Zayre department store to lay the groundwork for their working relationship, and would remain his handler for years to come. Though Walker during that time didn't know his name, Linkov scouted their dead drop sites, retrieved Walker's packages of classified documents, and drove them back to the embassy for inspection.

The man to whom Linkov directly reported was a Leningrad native named Oleg Kalugin. With his sharp, handsome features, astute blue eyes, and blondish hair swept back from his high forehead in a widow's peak, the thirtyish Kalugin was a linguist and journalist who had spent a year studying at Columbia University in New York, and held diplomatic status as the embassy's "second secretary and press attaché," a cover that aided him in cultivating relationships with many members of the U.S. news media. In his capacity as head of Line PR, the Soviets' political intelligence department, Kalugin managed the cases of some of the KGB's most valuable moles in the American government and military. John Walker was of unrivaled value among them.

Day by day, hour after hour, Kalugin would sit behind the closed door of his office to review the bountiful top secret documents supplied by the industrious Walker, drawing upon his fluency in English to translate, sort, and organize them. Each and every one of the dead drops Linkov mapped out had required Kalugin's authorization, subject only to a final nod of approval from the station chief himself -- the third major KGB figure involved in the Walker operation, Boris Aleksandrovich Solomatin.

Solomatin, who held the official role of counselor at the embassy, was a chain-smoker with a strong taste for alcohol and espionage. Shrewd and untiring, he routinely worked twelve-hour days and had little tolerance for any agent who fell short of his personal example of doggedness. In the two years since Kalugin had been assigned to the Washington station, he had impressed Solomatin with his own diligent work ethic and attention to detail. It was to the gruff, old-guard Communist ideologue that Kalugin largely owed his rise to the top of the political intelligence department.

In reviewing the deluge of Walker material, Kalugin and his boss gave foremost emphasis to the prioritization of individual pieces of intelligence for delivery to Lubyanka. The total of each haul was too voluminous to be sent in its entirety. It only made sense, then, to send the timeliest material first via coded telegraph, and courier the rest to Moscow in sealed diplomatic pouches, which were exempt from international customs inspections. In this facet of the Walker case, Kalugin relied heavily on the senior officer's judgment. Despite his fluency in English, the military jargon and shorthand used in the documents could be confusing to him on occasion. Solomatin, however, possessed an unfailing, even uncanny ability to get to the nub of it, perhaps owing in part to his own background as a soldier.

It was probably Solomatin who, with Kalugin's input, invented Walker's cover story. As imparted to him by Linkov, the story went like this:

Walker would maintain he'd begun his career as a spy in December 1967 -- as long as one year after it really started -- when he took an impulsive cab ride to the Russian embassy in Washington. There was an elaborate part of the account straight out of an espionage novel -- and perhaps of Walker's own invention -- that involved him slipping through the embassy's electronic gate as it was about to close behind an exiting diplomatic car, shouldering past a guard, and walking through the building's front door. He would then say that he'd pushed right up to a female receptionist and insisted on speaking to the man in charge of security.

"I'm a naval officer," Walker would claim to have told the man when he appeared, flashing the KL-47 key lists in his face to establish his credibility. "I'd like to make some money and I'll give you some genuine stuff in return."

Walker fit the KGB's recruitment profile of a spy almost to the letter. He was greedy, in a financial predicament that made him susceptible to being compromised, and egomaniacal. The Russians knew that their cover story portrayal of him as an audacious rogue -- someone who had disregarded Soviet embassy security to assert his presence upon the KGB -- would appeal to his massive ego.

They also would have considered him bright enough to understand that the Russians wouldn't have bothered to cook up their artificial version of events and its accompanying chronology without good cause, and that deniability would be at the heart of their motivation. Just to make sure the point was driven home, Linkov may well have stressed that his adherence to the story would be to the shared benefit of all parties involved in their dealings.

Timing was a critical element. Walker was never to divulge that he'd provided information about the KW-7 Orestes unit before 1968. It is doubtful Linkov would have given Walker specific reasons why, and even unlikelier that the handler was high enough up the Soviet intelligence ladder to know why himself.

And so Solomatin and Kalugin had sifted through Walker's regular intelligence dead drops, immediately flagging the Orestes material for expeditious cable to Moscow. Information on longterm strategic planning would be of secondary import, but there wouldn't have to be much delay getting it to Lubyanka. Envoys constantly shuttled to and from Moscow and the United States. Once the haul of important information from a dead drop was identified, it was possible that no more than a day or two would separate the cabling of a high-priority U.S. key list or deployment order, and the hand delivery of a CIA or NSA white paper on America's long-range geopolitical goals.

The Orestes key lists and technical literature, which included up-to-date instructions for modifying the cipher boxes issued after North Korea seized the USS Pueblo, would have been immediately available to the Soviets. The Orestes employed the most modern technology available to the U.S. code makers, replacing the older encryptor's rotors and wiring with punch cards and transistors. At some point around 1967, it had become the primary encryptor for all four branches of the U.S. armed services -- the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Navy. It was used by America's military forces in Vietnam, by its intelligence community, and by its NATO allies. The Fleet Broadcasting System, which transmitted ship-to-shore operational orders to every Navy vessel at sea, had replaced the KL-47 with Orestes boxes on 80 percent of its surface ships and almost all the vessels in the Atlantic Fleet Submarine Force.

At each dead drop, John Walker would provide the Russians with a copy of a four-page booklet that was distributed to U.S. and NATO communications centers and contained roughly a week's worth of Orestes key codes, with a new code to be input on a daily basis.

As early as February or March of 1967, Walker would pass on the information about fixes being made to the Orestes boxes. Around the same time, he would have turned over all the messages in SUBLANT's vaults regarding the Pentagon's interest in the Soviet flotilla off the Canaries.

Later, he supplied the Russians with Admiral Schade's orders detouring Scorpion to investigate the vessels -- orders that had been sent from his Norfolk headquarters and may well have been placed directly in Walker's hands for transmission to the submarine. He also turned over the decoded printout of a long, patchy situation report Commander Slattery transmitted from aboard Scorpion to confirm he was on track to investigate the Soviet grouping.

In that series of messages was Scorpion's last known position, and the route she was taking to her surveillance station.


The North African nation of Algeria is five hundred miles east of Rota in the Mediterranean passage. Once considered NATO's southern flank, the Mediterranean in the 1960s had come up for grabs in the struggle for Cold War dominance as the Soviets' regional foothold expanded. Only three years after Scorpion's activities with the Sixth Fleet, NATO commander Admiral Horacio Rivero Jr. would declare that "The Mediterranean, which was for NATO part of the zone of the interior, a rear area, is now within the battle zone."

That "battle zone" extended from Egypt in the eastern Mediterranean to the Strait of Gibraltar. In it Soviet-aligned nations had opened their arms to uncounted military and KGB advisors, missile bases, airstrips accommodating a hundred fighter and reconnaissance planes, and coastal naval facilities that berthed between forty and seventy assorted warships. Drawing support from the Black Sea Fleet, the Soviet 5th Eskadra, or Mediterranean Squadron, patrolled the Strait of Gibraltar with a contingent of five hundred black berets -- naval infantry -- and thousands of regular navy personnel. The Eskadra's fluid size depended on operational and logistical requirements, with elements coming and going between major Black Sea Fleet bases in Sevastopol, Balaclava, Poti, and Odessa.

Like American teenagers tricking out their cars with plastic fins and spoilers, the Soviet Navy's ship designers were constantly floating modified versions of older-class warships. U.S. observers found it a headache keeping visual track of their movements -- even close up from aboard submarines, they were able to tell which ship was which by using its sound signature better than they could distinguish them from looking through a periscope. There were, for example, a large number of Kotlin-class destroyers, and these served as test beds for a variety of weapons systems. One variant, the Bravvy, was itself the prototype for eight missile project conversions. Because of the protean size and composition of the Mediterranean squadron, NATO's attempts to tally the vessels in the region at any given time were, at best, inexact.

About when Scorpion left Rota on May 18, a Soviet warship and an oil replenishment vessel embarked on a westward journey from their anchorage in Algiers, roughly following the course of the American sub. According to a Defense Intelligence Agency report on the Soviet Mediterranean Naval Force for the month of February 1968, the combat vessel was a four-thousand-ton Krupny-class destroyer measuring 455 feet from stem to stern. A second unreported warship would either leave Algiers with the Krupny or meet up with it at sea. This ship was a slightly larger Kanin-class vessel. Both vessels carried a full load of supplies, equipment, and armaments.

Finally, the DIA's Mediterranean supplement to its February report lists two oilers: one Uda-class and one Kazbek-class vessel. The Uda-class ship was almost certainly the vessel dispatched with the warships. Ponderous Kazbeks were used for replenishment of battle groups, whereas the Uda had ample room in its storage tanks for the smaller task force it was to service.

The limiting speed of the three ships traveling in formation would have been set by the Uda, which is capable of doing 17 knots with its twin diesels cranked, fast enough for the Soviet group to have reached its destination according to plan.

In 1969, a Navy Court of Inquiry's findings of fact would determine that the Russian destroyers were around two hundred miles from Scorpion as she reached her final position of 35° north, 35° west in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, southwest of the Azores. This would have put the sub far beyond the maximum range of the destroyers' artillery, missile launchers, and torpedoes -- and therefore out of harm's way as far as the findings of fact was concerned. The U.S. and Soviet governments would later find this information to be very convenient.


In the early hours of May 18, 1968, the Polaris ballistic missile submarine USS John C. Calhoun (SSBN-630) was about to leave Rota on covert patrol when several NATO-designation November-class Russian attack submarines were detected in the area.

The presence of the Novembers was no surprise. The easiest place to pick up a vessel's trail was at its start, and Soviet subs would often hide outside naval ports and attempt to shadow U.S. boomers -- ballistic missile submarines -- as they departed on operations. To thwart the pursuers, American attack submarines would be called on to run interference -- make noise to mask the warships' acoustic signatures, get in the way of the enemy boats, anything that might confound them.

The Calhoun, a big, new 425-foot-long Polaris ballistic missile boat, would have been a prime target of Russian surveillance. Thus, with Scorpion already on hand to drop off Elrod, Underwood, and the SOSUS rider Marquez, Commander Slattery was asked to escort the Calhoun out of Rota's harbor as a precaution against the Novembers getting too close. Scorpion would then be free to swing south toward the Canaries.

The escort operation was uneventful as remembered by Bill Hyler, a nuclear engineer aboard the Calhoun. Hyler had known six members of Scorpion's crew from his days at the Navy's Windsor, Connecticut, nuke school in 1965 -- Lieutenant Bill Harwi, and crewmen Richard Curtis Hogeland, Richard Englehart, Thomas Amtower, Steven Gleason, and John Sturgill.

When the two submarines parted ways in the blackness of the hours after midnight, leaving the safe harbor of Rota behind, Hyler didn't have any idea where Scorpion was heading, or even know that all those former classmates were aboard. But he was grateful the crew of another boat had put themselves at risk so that Calhoun could start off on her trip unmolested. He wouldn't forget this, which in a sense said everything about what it was to be in the Dolphin Brotherhood. It formed connections between men -- some who'd met, some who might meet one day, and some who would never set eyes on each other -- that would hold fast across time and distance, even to the furthest reaches of their separate journeys beneath the world's vast waters.


A few moments before 12:00 A.M. Greenwich Mean Time on May 22, 1968, Scorpion's periscope and electronic intelligence mast slipped above the Mid-Atlantic swells to scan for possible threats. All was clear. Soon another antenna broke the surface, and with the boat leveled off at periscope depth, a communications technician down in the radio shack began to transmit her location and headings to Naval Station Rota for relay to SUBLANT headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia.

As of one minute past midnight, the submarine's reported position was about 36° north and 25° west -- coincidentally the same waters where the legendary nineteenth-century ghost ship Mary Celeste was first sighted absent her entire crew. Below her keel was the East Azores Fracture Zone, an active tectonic fault line running from the Strait of Gibraltar to just north of Santa Maria island in the Azores archipelago.

A batch of additional coded messages would quickly follow the radioman's situation report, streaming from his KW-7 Orestes encryption box. But the broadcast was hindered by static interference, and it wasn't until an hour later that Naval Communications Station Nea Makri on the Greek peninsula chanced to acquire the ultra-high-frequency signal. Unable to determine whether the static was a random atmospheric phenomenon or originating from some man-made electronic source in the vicinity of the sub, the personnel at Nea Makri recommended that Scorpion continue sending to them. They would then pass the messages on to their intended recipient.

Meanwhile, Scorpion had picked up a mild southern drift due to the Azores Current, which flows southeastward from the Grand Banks, crosses the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and then lazes east past the African coast toward the Gulf of Cádiz. As the 0.5 knot current nudged the boat's starboard side, her veteran navigator, Lieutenant Commander John Stephens, compensated with a slight northern course adjustment to keep her headed west past Santa Maria toward her destination.

Now well south of the Great Circle track taken by U.S. submarines transiting between their stateside bases and the Mediterranean, Scorpion resumed her clandestine passage with what sailors called a sprint-and-drift, a repetitive pattern of running fast and deep for a while, occasionally stopping to go shallow and carry on transmissions with Greece, then diving and kicking up her speed a few knots again. At 3:03 A.M., Scorpion suddenly broke off communications with Nea Makri and could not reestablish a link -- the radio interference had followed her course and gotten too thick. She was within hours of reaching her operational objective and about to enter an area lined with Soviet diesel subs and surface units.

In Norfolk, Lieutenant John Roberts was at the receiving end of the initial message that Nea Makri forwarded from Scorpion to SUBLANT. Roberts, who would have received the communication from John Walker, always recalled that it included these explicit words from Commander Slattery:

"We are about to begin our surveillance of the Soviets."


Toward dusk on May 22, Scorpion was cruising toward the Russian flotilla now 150 miles distant. After her rendezvous with the Bigelow, Commander Slattery had put the boat on a westerly course toward her target, and she was steadily closing in on it at a depth of 350 feet and a speed of 15 knots. While capable of traveling much faster, Scorpion's present clip represented her tactical speed -- the best time she could make and still retain the ability to detect enemy vessels before she herself was noticed.

Her depth range was also restricted. Prior to her departure for the Mediterranean, extensive work had been completed on Scorpion's high-pressure seawater systems and pressure hull, requirements of the SUBSAFE program, a detailed quality control effort that the Navy had initiated in 1963. But five years later, with the military struggling with the manifold demands of Vietnam and the Cold War, time and money simply ran out before all of the SUBSAFE modifications could be installed. Critical components in the emergency blow system were deferred to a future shipyard visit. To offset the risks this presented, Scorpion would become a LID boat -- one that was limited in depth to a maximum of five hundred feet -- and Slattery complied with these restrictions.

As Scorpion moved along, the sea around her was mildly unsettled, with an overcast sky and winds blowing at 10 to 15 knots. On the Beaufort scale this is a Force 4 open sea state, described as a moderate breeze with "small waves becoming larger, and fairly frequent white horses." Mariners use the term "white horse" when they speak of a fast-moving wave with a crest that is broken and white with foam. On land, Beaufort advises, the wind will make branches tremble, blow dust up into the air, and sweep loose sheets of paper off tabletops.

If the weather held until Scorpion came within sight of the flotilla, Commander Slattery and his navigators knew it would fall well inside the effective parameters for a visual surveillance, though the running whitecaps, swelling to heights of between three and five feet, would make it a little tough for the sub to keep station at periscope depth without broaching -- a sudden change in the boat's angle. Probably Slattery intended to order a slow cruise to within observation distance during the evening hours, and wait there to take advantage of the calmer seas that dawn typically brought before moving in for a closer look.

Still, Scorpion needed to get within about ten miles of the ships, and optimally three or four. Even in broad daylight, the ships wouldn't be discernible to her periscope operators beyond twelve miles, when the curvature of the earth would make sea and sky appear to bleed into a wide, seamless horizon. At that distance, the sub would also be too far away from the Russians for her electronic intelligence, or ELINT, mast to be effective.

Rising to periscope depth, Scorpion would glide up toward the Russians at low speed and take up position on the eastern side of the ships, keeping the sun behind her so it didn't reflect off the raised observation scope's glass or mirrors. The men would shut down all nonessential equipment, and that meant everything possible. They'd go to low power on the reactor pumps and the fan. They'd wear soft-soled shoes, or just their socks. They would move in quiet, the sub's head-on course to the ships giving her the smallest achievable profile in the water and creating the least amount of noise, since most noise emanated from her baffles -- the propellers and machinery at her rear.

In the dimness out beyond the grouping, Scorpion would hover at periscope depth, doing 2 or 3 knots, the men in her conn continuing to observe its vessels through their eyepieces. Though Slattery's main focus would have been watching the maneuvers of the vessels, the sensitive ELINT antenna skimming just above the surface would distinguish any radio traffic or potential radars in use.

"The diving officer was just biting his nails," said a former fire control technician and qualified chief of the watch on a Skipjack. "He didn't want to broach, if you broach you're dead.... It was a very tense watch. I would get off duty and be exhausted. It was not physical. It was the mental strain of holding that boat on depth without showing ourselves."

The trickiest part of the surveillance would come at sunrise. As the sky brightened and rays of light penetrated the clear blue water, Scorpion would slip deeper beneath the surface, move in toward the ships, and then under-run them, photographing their hull bottoms and exterior propulsion mechanisms with the periscope. That accomplished, she would ascend to circle the vessels, raising the scope for short periods to photograph their topsides and whatever personnel might be on their decks. When she'd gotten enough information -- or in the unfortunate event her targets' suspicions were aroused -- Scorpion would dive and race off at maximum speed.

All this, of course, lay ahead. Mazzuchi and his navigators had logged the boat's current position at 35° north, 35° west, about 530 miles south of the city of Horta on the island of Faial, in the Azores archipelago. The African coastline, and the deserts of Morocco and the Spanish Sahara, were many miles west across the Atlantic. Scorpion would need to traverse a considerable stretch of open sea before she came remotely near the grouping.

The sound of an acoustical probe in the surrounding water, then, brought a jolt of shock and confusion to those aboard the sub. Every member of the crew could hear the pinging through her two-inch-thick metal hull. To a man, they grasped their immediate plight.

At their console forward of the control room, the sonar gang reported what Commander Slattery, in essence, already realized. An active sonar contact was close in.

Scorpion was a Skipjack-class submarine. That made her one of the fastest undersea vessels in the world -- and Slattery ordered a retreat at once.

But it was already too late. The Soviet trap had been sprung. There would be no escape.

Copyright © 2008 by Kenneth Sewell and Jerome Preisler


Excerpted from All Hands Down by Kenneth Sewell Copyright © 2008 by Kenneth Sewell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Abyss

1. Gorshkov's Gun

2. Off to Poke the Bear

3. Baited

4. Pier 22

5. Brandywine

6. Lost

7. Trapped and Killed

8. Boat's Wake Epilogue Authors' Note

Acknowledgments Notes


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All Hands Down: The True Story of the Soviet Attack on the USS Scorpion 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
MFowler More than 1 year ago
On or about May 22, 1968, the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion sank about 400 miles southwest of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with the loss of 99 officers and crew. And that is about the only thing about her loss that is not in dispute. In the intervening 40 years a number of theories about what sank the Scorpion have gained a following, each supported to a greater or lesser degree by its own stack of "evidence." Sewell and Preisler have a well-researched stack of evidence that they think makes a compelling case pointing to a single conclusion - in a fit of Cold War rage, the Soviet Union deliberately sank the Scorpion to get even for what the Soviet's mistakenly believed was America's sinking of one of their submarines a few months previously. While Sewell and Preisler do a good job of describing the almost-but-not-quite state of warfare that characterized the Cold War, and bring to life the men on the doomed boat, and their wives and families at home, in the end there is a little too much reliance on leaps of faith to make "the Soviets did it" plot work instead of logic, and sources that want to remain anonymous instead of documented evidence. There is also the level of technical expertise to consider in 1968. When the Scorpion went missing, the US spent six months looking for it - but found it and photographed it with its deep submergence vehicles. When the Soviets lost their nuclear sub in the Pacific (that supposedly sparked the Scorpion's ambush), not only could they not find it, the Americans did find it and brought part of it to the surface. For a different take on what may have happened to the Scorpion, try Death of the Thresher by Norman Polmar, the updated version.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
On several occaisios during my time in the submarine service, I was amazed at stories told by sonarmen and radiomen who took part in the search for USS Scorpion. Some of the stories that I had passed off as scuttlebutt were validated by this book. Well researched and well written, the story line procedes in a coherent and cohesive manner. This book provides a very plausible explanation of the facts and politics surrounding the sinking of the Scorpion. A work worth reading.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you have read 'Scorpion Down', this book is absolutly necessary. The rest of the story about the sinking of Scorpion. Well written. Could not put book down.
pwoodford on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I remember the loss of the Thresher and the Scorpion. And I remember that the Navy said both sank accidentally. The author of this book says the USSR baited the Scorpion into a kill box and torpedoed it. And that could be so. My quibble is that this book is written in such a way that the casual reader will think it's the official word, not one writer's opinion.
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