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After 25 years of loss, families resent Navy's silence about sub

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Barbara Whitkop hauls the old blue suitcase down from the attic. The suitcase is covered with dust, but the pain of the keepsakes inside is as raw as this November morning.

The old photos, letters and documents are the legacy of one of the great mysteries of the Cold War, the 1968 sinking of the nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Scorpion.

But it is a mystery so unsettling to Mrs. Whitkop and others that they prefer leaving the dusty baggage untouched, believing that the answers lie forever lost beneath the sea.

Twenty-five years ago Mrs. Whitkop, now 50 and remarried, was Barbara Karmasek, married to Donald Karmasek, an outgoing 24-year-old torpedoman on the Scorpion and a 1960 graduate of the Polytechnic Institute in Baltimore.

Theirs was a Navy marriage of tearful departures and exuberant homecomings, exotic ports for him and lonely nights for her.

On May 27, 1968, she waited with her two sons on a pier in Norfolk, Va., for the Scorpion to return from a three-month secret mission. On the rain-swept dock crowded with children and radiant wives, her little boys in their brand-new sailor suits were miniature versions of their dad.

But the Scorpion never came. And even more cruelly for the families of the 99 men on the Scorpion, neither did sufficient answers.

The Navy offered few clues for 25 years. But now the Navy has declassified documents showing that within months of the disappearance, a Court of Inquiry determined in secret the "most probable" cause of the disaster: The Scorpion was destroyed by one of its own torpedoes.

The chilling scenario, related to Mrs. Whitkop in her Northeast Baltimore home for the first time by a reporter, leaves her silent.

Finally, softly, she says: "Well, I guess I take that with a grain of salt. I think I'd want proof before I believe it."

At least five of the Scorpion's 99 men were from Maryland. As crew members of a nuclear-powered submarine, they were the front line of the Cold War, testing their mettle against the enemy at dangerously close range.

They were exceptionally trained, patriotic and dedicated. Yet the loss of their submarine was itself lost in the tumultuous events of 1968.

Today, a quarter of a century later, how many people remember the Scorpion?

Unanswered questions

Their families have lived not only with the grief of losing a husband, father, brother or son, but also with the curse of not knowing what happened, of never having a body to bury.

The Sun has spoken with members of four of the Maryland families. None embraces the Navy's scenario. Some react numbly. Others become angry and call it a cover-up of a catastrophic Navy blunder or of a deadly encounter with the Russians that, acknowledged publicly, might have touched off World War III.

"How many times have you heard me say, 'I can't put your father's death to rest?' " says Mrs. Whitkop to her son, Don, one of the boys in the sailor suits and now a father himself. "I'd like to be able to; I really would. I'm looking for answers where there are none; I know that."

Families notified by news

The families' distrust of the Navy stems from that May afternoon 25 years ago. Those on the Norfolk pier, after braving wind and rain for several hours, were finally told by a naval officer to go home.

Mrs. Whitkop and others say the officer told them the Scorpion was having trouble navigating the channel because of the weather. But on the news that evening, it was reported that the Navy feared the Scorpion was missing.

"The Navy didn't even notify the families first," says Kathe O'Quinn, sister of Donald Karmasek. "We've always gotten our information through the news media."

Mrs. O'Quinn waited on the pier that day with her brother's wife and children. At the time, she was engaged to the cook on the Scorpion; he was supposed to be bringing home an engagement ring he'd bought in the Mediterranean.

When the Scorpion did not surface, even as the families believed weather was the problem, the Navy began deploying dozens of ships and airplanes to search for the lost sub.

Five months later, a Navy ship towing cameras at the end of more than two miles of cables found the Scorpion at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Its grave was about 400 miles southwest of the Azores islands, 11,100 feet below the surface.

The Navy convened a seven-member Court of Inquiry that met for 11 weeks, interviewed 90 people, studied photographs and other evidence, and concluded for the public: "The certain cause of the loss of Scorpion cannot be ascertained from any evidence now available."

Torpedo jettisoned

But last month the Navy released key portions of that report as well as other documents related to the Scorpion and the USS Thresher, another nuclear submarine that sank. The Thresher went down in 1963 about 100 miles east of Cape Cod, killing all 129 men aboard.

In abrupt, matter-of-fact language, the "most probable" cause of the Scorpion's demise is:

The battery of a conventional Mark 37 torpedo in a tube is inadvertently activated. Unable to shut it off, crewmen jettison the torpedo. It then becomes armed and uncontrollable and seeks its nearest target, the Scorpion.

The torpedo slams into the front half of the sub. Flooding begins. The Scorpion, less than 300 feet below the surface, begins to sink, nose first. The crew takes all possible recovery actions, but flooding cannot be controlled. Bulkheads collapse in rapid succession. As the Scorpion continues to sink, unflooded tanks and torpedo tubes implode. The Scorpion collides with the ocean floor and breaks apart.

Other causes ruled out

The panel deemed other causes unlikely, such as a collision with another ship or a sea mountain, sabotage, fire or flooding due to structural failure.

It reported that no enemy ships, submarines or airplanes were known to be within 200 miles of the Scorpion's last reported position.

"This is not definitive," Navy Lt. Jim Fallin says of the findings. "This is the most probable scenario that could be stated, based on the most credible evidence that was and is available."

Lieutenant Fallin, a Navy spokesman, says the documents were released as part of a process of declassifying information in this "post-Cold War world."

Also, he says, the Navy wants to allay fears that the nation's two nuclear subs on the ocean floor (one of which, the Scorpion, carried two torpedoes with nuclear warheads) have leaked radiation. Naval monitoring has determined they have not, the documents say.

Leaky valves reported

The crewmen's relatives aren't the only ones who doubt the Navy's eerie scenario of the destruction of the Scorpion. Dan Rogers, an electrician's mate on the sub for one year, says he believes it sank because it was poorly maintained and in dire need of an overhaul.

Mr. Rogers, 52, of Spring, Texas, requested a transfer out of submarine service rather than go with the Scorpion on its final mission.

"I didn't know it was going to sink," he says. "But I was absolutely uptight after having been on there and seeing the things I had seen. I was just unable to deal with going to sea again on the Scorpion."

He says the sub conducted rigorous maneuvers with leaking valves, faulty safety systems, a malfunctioning hydraulic system and broken, worn-out equipment. Crewmen jury-rigged so much equipment they called the Scorpion the USS Scrapiron, he says.

Andy Elnicki, of Jewett City, Conn., served as a first-class electrician on the Scorpion for 3 1/2 years, including 12 months with Mr. Rogers. Mr. Elnicki was transferred off the Scorpion 13 days before the start of its fatal voyage.

But had he not been transferred, Mr. Elnicki says, he would have had no qualms about going to sea on the Scorpion.

"I was concerned [about maintenance problems], but not as concerned as Dan Rogers," Mr. Elnicki says. "I was on 10 different submarines, and every one of them had problems."

Although the Navy acknowledges that several operational problems with the Scorpion were severe enough to restrict its diving depth, the Court of Inquiry declared the overall condition of the submarine "excellent."

Letters from sea

But Pat Chipley has reason to believe Mr. Rogers. And Doris Johnson was concerned about what her husband had written in a letter.

Mrs. Chipley was 21 in 1968 and married to Daniel Paul Burns Jr., a 21-year-old radioman on the Scorpion. They grew up in Baltimore Highlands in Baltimore County and were married in 1967.

Mrs. Chipley, who remarried, still lives in her old neighborhood.

She says her former husband once told her the sub was lucky to get home because of a propeller problem. "After that I always thought there was something wrong with it," Mrs. Chipley says.

On May 27, 1968, she waited with her daughter, Stacy Lynn, in Baltimore Highlands -- a daughter her husband had yet to see. He left on the Scorpion in February, and Stacy Lynn was born in March. For what was to have been a joyous homecoming, the baby wore a pink-checkered dress, on which was embroidered, "My heart belongs to daddy."

Mrs. Johnson's husband, Robert, a 36-year-old radioman, was flown to Spain in March to join the submarine in port. Asked why he was assigned to the Scorpion in mid-mission, she says: "Who knows why the Navy does what it does?"

Mrs. Johnson, who lives in Rising Sun in Cecil County, says her husband wrote her a letter shortly after arriving saying he was shocked to find that "there wasn't any part of the communications system that was working." The radiomen made repairs themselves, he wrote.

After contemplating the Navy's torpedo scenario, Mrs. Johnson says in a weary voice: "I don't think you'll ever know what really happened."

Then she says she'd prefer not to talk about the Scorpion.

It's still too painful, she says, 25 years later.

Tragic footnote to 1960s

There has been no closure to the grief. Although there were memorial services and tributes at church, there were no funerals and no graves. Even the Navy chaplain in Norfolk, at a memorial service two weeks after the Scorpion went down, acknowledged the tragic ambiguity:

"There is mystery in death. There is mystery in the sea. Both are in some degree incomprehensible and unfathomed. Timid men fear to approach any mystery. There is greater safety in the known. But someone must probe the mystery of the sea even at the price of probing the mystery of death."

The loss of the Scorpion, as horrific as it was, became a mere footnote to history. In 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down. Rioters set cities ablaze. Protesters raged against the Vietnam War. The USS Pueblo, the Tet offensive, marijuana, peace signs, "Love it or leave it," Resurrection City and Spiro Agnew formed a dizzying and disturbing collage of the times.

"I remember my parents saying that it's like they died and were forgotten," says Kathleen Carole Burns, the sister of Daniel Burns, the young radioman from Baltimore Highlands. "They never made peace with it."

Her mother died in 1977, and her father in 1981.

"I think it's the reason my mother passed away," says Ms. Burns, who still lives in Baltimore Highlands. "She more or less worried herself to death, grieved herself to death."

Lieutenant Fallin, the Navy spokesman, says the Navy is sensitive to the families' suffering.

"The Navy has not forgotten the brave sailors of Scorpion, nor will we," he says. "We continue to share the loss with the families. I can't imagine what it must be like for them."

Karmasek's legacy

Mrs. Whitkop says she never knew what her first husband, Donald Karmasek, saw in submarines. "But he loved those damn boats."

He had already been to submarine school by the time they were married in 1962. She voiced her concern after the Thresher sank in 1963.

"I remember his words all the time," Mrs. Whitkop says. "He told me, 'I promise, if we ever lose another one, I'll never ride 'em again.' . . . Well, he kept his word on that, didn't he?"

He served first on a conventional submarine for four years. Then he underwent surgery for the removal of scar tissue from his lungs. Upon his release from the hospital, he was handed his medical folder and told to report to the assignment officer. On the way he peeked inside, which he wasn't supposed to do, and saw that now he was no longer recommended for submarine duty.

"You know what he did?" Mrs. Whitkop asks. "He ripped it up and got assigned to the Scorpion."

Her husband never talked much about his trips to sea, she says, but it seemed he was gone all the time. When he didn't return from that last mission, even after the Navy declared him dead, she deceived herself just to survive.

"I knew how to live with him out to sea, so that's what I did," she says. "I wouldn't let anybody tell me that he wasn't."

After the Navy found the Scorpion wreckage, but no human remains, she contemplated every possibility.

"I actually thought the Russians had blown it up, and the lives of those men weren't important enough to go to war for," she says. "And there were times I thought the Russians had taken them prisoner, and none of them were dead."

She remembers that Don, her oldest son, was in the fifth grade when Vietnam prisoners of war and even soldiers listed as missing returned home. "He at that age figured, 'Well, why not my daddy, too?' " Mrs. Whitkop says.

Where to mourn?

Don Karmasek is 29 now, owns a local tile-contracting company, is married and has one son. His mother told him and his brother all she knew about their father, he says, but he still grew up feeling left out.

"My son is 6 years old, and a lot of kids in his class don't have fathers," Mr. Karmasek says. "Twenty-five years ago everybody had a father, and I didn't. Back then father-and-son things were a big deal."

When he turned 24, he says, he stopped to think: This is how old my dad was when he died. And when his own son turned 4, he thought again: This is how old I was when he died.

"Sometimes I don't know how to relate to my son," he says, his voice cracking. "I can't say, 'I did this with my father when I was this age.' "

He says he thinks of his father more as a victim than a hero. He says he often recalls a line from the film, "The Hunt for Red October." The Soviet submarine captain, played by Sean Connery, utters these words: "Forty years I've been at sea -- a war at sea, a war with no battles, no monuments . . . only casualties."

Mrs. Whitkop received something of a monument from the Navy about six months after the Scorpion went down: a marker. She wondered what to do with it, because she never considered a monument apart from a body.

She decided to put it up in Loudon Park Cemetery because she knew she'd need a place to take the boys as they grew up. It served its purpose, but now her sons are grown, and none of them has visited the site in years.

It's an empty place, an incomplete place.

Donald Karmasek's mother, Dorothy, doesn't go there anymore either. She is 71 and still lives in the Northeast Baltimore home where she raised six children.

When she needs to spend a moment with the memory of her son, she goes to the Inner Harbor, near the aquarium where the submarine Torsk is docked, and looks into the swirling, murky water. And she says: "There he is . . . somewhere in there."

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