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

November 21, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

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:

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