We honor the sacrifice of those who give their lives in service of country, AND that of the loved ones they leave behind.
Author’s note: Most of the readers of this column will not see it until a few days after Memorial Day. That’s OK. Every day in this great country should be Memorial Day.
I am writing this on an unseasonably cold and soggy Memorial Day. The weather today is surely disappointing to those who’d looked forward to our traditional start of summer fun; but I think a quiet grey day is much more in tune with the true nature of this important holiday.
Here at our retirement community, this morning’s beautiful and somber Remembrance Program, in the company of many other veterans, awakened for me memories of a similarly cold and wet Memorial Day 55 years ago.
On a stormy May 27, 1968, a boisterous group huddled together under umbrellas at Pier 22 at the Norfolk Naval Station, watching intently toward the sea. They were the family and friends of those aboard the nuclear attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589), waiting happily to welcome their loved ones home from an arduous three-month deployment.
The 1:00 p.m. scheduled arrival time came and went, with no sign of Scorpion. The weather was awful, and at first, the ship’s late arrival was not particularly alarming — that’s the Navy for you, hurry up and wait. But by mid-afternoon, the mood in the waterlogged crowd had turned from happy to fidgety, to nervous, to seriously worried.
More alarming than the late arrival was the ominous absence of explanation from the Navy personnel at pier side. And in fact, the U.S. Navy had no idea where the ship was. Having had no contact from Scorpion by late afternoon, they told everyone to go home and wait for further information.
The USS Scorpion never came home. After a nightmarish nine days of rumors, false alarms and fading hopes, the horrifying reality was inescapable; the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Thomas Moorer, confirmed as much, issuing a formal statement that the submarine was “presumed lost … in the depths of the Atlantic.”
Lost forever with Scorpion were its 99 crew members. The submarine service is a relatively small, tight-knit organization. One of those crew members, Ltjg. Laughton Smith, was my Naval Academy classmate and good friend.
It was another five months before Scorpion’s remains were found on the ocean floor, about 400 miles south of the Azores, 10,000 feet below the surface. We still don’t know for certain what caused the ship to sink — it could have been an internal equipment failure, fire or explosion, or possibly even hostile action by our Cold War USSR adversary. Even today, the Navy remains tight-lipped.
We can only guess about the final hours and minutes of those who perished — the end was certainly horrific though I hope brief. But there is no question at all about the lifelong pain endured by those left behind — the mothers and fathers, wives and children, extended family and friends. Theirs was a sudden wrenching loss, compounded by unquenchable uncertainty — fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, friends — simply gone, forever.
The Scorpion tragedy is just one stark reminder of the underlying message of Memorial Day, and the reason we hold it so sacred: recognition of the supreme sacrifice of those who’ve given their lives in service to their (our) nation — and for the equally immeasurable sacrifice of those they leave behind.
Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the 99 lives lost aboard Scorpion are just a minute fraction of the 58,220 who never came home from the Vietnam War in that same era, or of the hundreds of thousands lost in other American wars. All told, through the course of our nation’s history, well over a million service members have lost their lives in the line of duty.
And a personal note: On that Memorial Day in 1968, I recall first hearing about the missing submarine from a Marine guard at the New London Submarine Base, who was advising everyone entering or leaving the base that ships in port were readying for departure on a search mission, and that crew members must report for duty immediately. Along with my own concern for my fellow submariners, it was a bracing reminder to my fiancée, just two months before our planned wedding, that military life presented one new and potentially momentous dimension to a future together.
Yet here we both are, 55 years later, still enjoying the fullness of life. We have been blessed in that respect — but we must always remember and revere those whose commitment to service of country erased that same opportunity.
Rest in peace, shipmates. We are forever in your debt.
Start a conversation using these share links: