Another Theory On The Loss Of USS Scorpion

Back in May, we discussed some of the theories about what caused the loss of USS Scorpion (SSN 589) in 1968. Several readers have sent me E-mail about a theory that's making the rounds of the Submarine Community that focuses on a straight hydrogen explosion in the battery being the proximate cause of the boat's loss. I'm trying to get permission to post the whole thing, so hopefully I'll have it up as an update to this post soon. In the meantime, here's a post from Strategy Page from last month that discusses the problems of ship maintenance during times of budget pressures.

Update 0945 19 August: Having gotten permission from the author, here's what has been going around:

[Begin quoted material]
6 August 2010

From: B. Rule, [address redacted]
To: VADM David J. Dorsett, Director of Naval Intelligence, Office of Naval Intelligence,
4251 Suitland Road, Washington, DC 20395-5720

Subj: Why the USS SCORPION (SSN-589) Was Lost on 22 May 1968

Ref: (a) Originator’s ltr of 14 Mar 2009
RELATED TO THE USS SCORPION (SSN-589) (U)" of 29 June 1970,
prepared for presentation to the CNO SCORPION Technical Advisory Group by
the Structural Analysis Group: Peter Palermo, CAPT Harry Jackson, Robert
Price, et al.
(c) Originator’s ltr of 28 Oct 2009

Encl: (1) Enclosure (1) to Originator’s ltr of 14 March 2009


The USS SCORPION was lost because hydrogen produced by the 65-ton, 126-cell TLX-53-A main storage battery exploded in two-stages one-half second apart at 18:20:44Z on 22 May 1968. These events, which did not breach the pressure-hull, prevented the crew from maintaining depth-control. As discussed by reference (a), the SCORPION pressure-hull collapsed at 18:42:34Z at a depth of 1530-feet. Noted times are actual event times on board SCORPION.

This assessment is NOT the generic attribution of the loss of a submarine to a battery-explosion advanced as a default explanation in the absence of any more likely construct. This assessment is based on (1), the results of examination and microscopic, spectrographic and X-ray diffraction analyses of recovered SCORPION battery material that confirm an explosion occurred, and (2), the July 2008 reanalysis of the SCORPION “precursor” acoustic signals that identified these signals as explosions contained within the SCORPION pressure-hull. Collectively, these findings indicate battery explosions were the initiating events responsible for the loss of SCORPION on 22 May 1968.


Section 7.1.3, page 7.2 of reference (b) states: (quote) ....the general battery damage is violent. The high velocity intrusion of pieces of the flash arrestor into both inside and outside surfaces of the retrieved plastisol cover attest to violence in the battery well. The damage to the terminal battery post coupled with the violent tearing of the plastisol covers indicates the possibility of a battery explosion. While it is possible that this damage could have been an after-effect of hull implosion, the SAG (Structural Analysis Group) feels that the intrusion of particles into the plastisol cover would have been much less severe had water been in the battery well at the time. (end quote)

Section 5.3.6, page 5.17 of reference (b) states: (quote) The battery installed in SCORPION was a TLX-53-A, manufactured by Gould-National Battery, Inc. Battery cell debris is in evidence over the entire debris field. Table 5-2, page 5.38 provides a list of the battery debris identified by the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard analysis team. (end quote) Comment: Table 5-2 notes damage from heat and melting. The presence of melting eliminates the possibility that such damage occurred as a result of pressure-hull collapse (implosion) because analysis of acoustic data discussed by Section IV of reference (c), confirms SCORPION was fully-flooded within 0.112-seconds of pressure-hull and bulkhead collapse; hence, the melting damage (and the battery explosion) had to have occurred within the still-intact SCORPION pressure-hull.

In consonance with this conclusion, Section 5.3.6, page 5.17 of reference (b) also states: (quote) the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Analysis Group reports that the available evidence indicates the battery probably exploded at some time before flooding of the battery well occurred. Review of Figure 5-13 indicates that the threads on the terminal posts were sheared off and there are no cover seal nuts remaining. This indicates that an explosion took place on the inside of the cells. The covers were completely blown off. Had the pressure been applied on the outside of the covers, the cover support flange on the terminal posts would have held pieces of the covers and it is expected that the cover seal nuts would have remained in place in at least some instances. ( end quote)

Further, Section 5.3.6c, page 5.18 of reference (b) states: (quote) The (battery cover) sample from SCORPION had been violently, but locally, torn, particularly at the location of the bus connection bolts and nuts. The deformation in this region appears to have started on the inside, or battery side of the cover. (end quote)

And finally, Section 5.3.6e, page 5.18 of reference (b) states: (quote) Some 20 equally small (nearly sub-visible) fragments of material were imbedded at high velocity in both the inside and outside of the sample. The trajectories of the fragments were essentially random, ranging from grazing to vertical incidence. Microscopic, spectrographic and X-ray diffraction analyses reveal that these fragments are identical in composition and structure to the alumina flasharrestors used on the batteries in SCORPION. (end quote)


Enclosure (1) to reference (a), forwarded as enclosure (1) to this
letter, provides detailed discussions of four independent lines of
evidence that, collectively, established, for the first time, that the
two precursor acoustic events that occurred at 18:20:44Z, 21-minutes and
50-seconds before hull-collapse, were explosions from then unidentified
sources that werecontained within the SCORPION pressure-hull. The
energy yield of theseexplosive events, now assessed to have been
battery-associated, is estimated tohave been no more than about 20-lbs
of TNT each.

The July 2008 identification of the precursor acoustic events as
explosions contained within the SCORPION pressure-hull strongly supports
the battery explosion conclusion advanced by reference (b), i.e., the
acoustic data identifies the actual explosive events previously assumed
by the authors of reference (b), the SAG Report, to have occurred based
on the observed damage to a recovered battery component discussed above.


Collectively, the above information indicates the two acoustic events
thatoccurred 0.5-seconds apart at 18:20:44Z were produced by explosions
associated with the SCORPION TLX-53-A battery, and were the initiating
events responsible for the loss of SCORPION on 22 May 1968. Additional
information will be provided as developed.

B. Rule
Copy to (w/ encl):

[End quoted material]
It's an interesting theory, with some evidence to back it up. Personally, I still go with the "TDU flooding caused a battery explosion" theory, based on no real data other than it makes sense that some evolution performed at PD could have been the cause -- why would the battery blow up then instead of any other time?

Mr. Rule also suggests that people interested in exploring further should look at his "1 star" reviews of SCORPION DOWN and RED NOVEMBER.