Disasters that occur on submarines can be terrifying. One military specialist chose the five worst occurrences that occurred during times of relative calm.
Image of Kursk submarine after accident. Image Credit: Russian Government.
If you have to give submarine disasters a name, it would be better to say that they happen when there is peace or at least not when there is active combat. Since the CSS H. L. Hunley sank shortly after becoming the first submarine to sink an enemy warship, she doesn’t qualify, even though her descendants may feel otherwise. To that end, let’s look at the five worst submarine accidents that didn’t involve war.
As her case is fresh in the public’s mind and I have written about her tragic life since 1995, it seems like a good place to start providing examples. During a large fleet exercise in the Barents Sea on August 15, 2000, one of her torpedoes sunk this Oscar II-class submarine, killing all 118 officers and enlisted personnel aboard. The tragedy is that 23 of her crew miraculously survived the initial blow and might have been saved. After six hours, Putin and his supporters lost all hope.
The world needs another (not very successful) Russian submarine accident, which occurred on March 8, 1968, during the Cold War/Soviet era. On that day, 83 officers and sailors were lost when the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129 sank 1,500 miles northwest of Hawaii at a depth of 16,500 feet.
Even though there were many theories, the most likely cause was a mechanical problem, like a missile’s motor firing by accident.No matter what happened, the bad luck of the Soviet Union helped the CIA of the United States. To collect the sunken debris, “The Corporation” began Project AZORIAN in 1974 under the guise of a deep-sea mining operation utilising a specially constructed vessel, the USNS Glomar Explorer (T-AG-193), funded by the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. Washington, DC’s International Spy Museum features a display devoted to this daring mission.
Both the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion (lost with all 99 crew members on June 30, 1968) are frequently referenced together because they were nuclear-powered submarines that sank in the 1960s.
The Thresher was an easy case to understand. According to History.com, the short circuit that shut down the ship’s critical electrical systems was ultimately determined to result from a leak in a silver-brazed joint in the engine room. Problems rapidly multiplied, rendering the machinery essential for bringing the Thresher to the surface unusable.
On the other hand, the Scorpion sinking was hushed up for years. To add a personal touch, I became friends with former submariner Chuck Micele in 2003, 25 years after the boat sank, when I was stationed at Tyndall AFB in Panama City, Florida, in the United States Air Force (LCDR, USN, Ret.). Chuck said, rather cryptically, “I can’t talk to you about that one; that’s still secret!” when I asked him about the Scorpion submarine.
In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the sinking, author Ed Offley revealed the truth: “In the heart of the Submarine Force Atlantic, top officials knew nearly from the moment of its loss that the Scorpion went down during a combat with a Soviet submarine. They “buried the truth deeper than the scorpion’s skeleton” immediately.
The Russian “Ks” should not be confused with this. Instead of suggesting a single candidate, I’ve suggested a whole category of candidates: subs. For the simple reason that the Royal Navy’s K-boats were a collective failure. MilitaryFactory.com states, “The K-class group of British submarines is regarded as one of the worst (if not the worst) military submersibles in the proud history of the Royal Navy.”
Only six of the seventeen similar warships constructed during World War I were lost, and enemy forces destroyed none. The K-boats gained the morbid nickname “Kalamity-class” and the dubious distinction of receiving a full-page write-up by the famous British journalist Sir David Frost in his 1983 Book of the World’s Worst Choices.
The largest and most notorious submarine accident in American Navy history occurred before the nuclear age, though it wasn’t the first.
The U.S. Coast Guard destroyer USS Paulding (DD-22) hit the S-4 on December 17, 1927, killing all 39 crew members and a civilian observer. Jon Hoppe, Naval History Magazine columnist, wrote this short account. Six soldiers were still alive but confined inside the torpedo compartment, and it was too late for rescue.
Not only was the S-4 eventually raised, but her loss also led to significant advancements in equipment, strategy, and training for Navy submariners, the most noteworthy of which was the Momsen Lung.
Disastrous submarine voyages and miraculous escapes have been the subjects of many riveting books. I also recommend Hell at 50 Fathoms by Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, who served as Commander of the Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC), for a full description of these pre-WWII USN submarine occurrences in particular.
Hai Shih-class submarines. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
DF-ST-89-02248 A mooring party stands by on the deck of the damaged submarine USS BONEFISH (SS 582) as tug boats assist the ship into a berth. The BONEFISH became disabled when it experienced a mid-ocean engine problem. Location: NAVAL STATION, CHARLESTON
The USS Nautilus permanently docked at the US Submarine Force Museum and Library, Groton, CT.
Japan’s submarine force is one of the best on Earth.
Sturgeon-Class submarine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.