I never knew Julius Johnston, III (1943-68). I don’t know what he was like, what interested him, or what he thought of life, death, or love. But I imagine he spent the last seconds of his life in terror as the submarine he served on plummeted nearly ten thousand feet toward the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. By the time it hit bottom with enough force to ram the stern into the engine room, all 99 crew members were dead.
Johnston served as a quartermaster aboard the USS Scorpion (SSN 589), a Skipjack class, nuclear-powered submarine built at Groton, Connecticut and commissioned in 1960. One of 19 nuclear attack submarines assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, it had been redirected from the Mediterranean Sea to the Azores to observe Soviet naval activity and report back to its base in Norfolk, Virginia. Its last communication occurred on May 22, 1968.
Officially, what caused the Scorpion to sink is still unknown, although speculation runs from one of its torpedos exploding to an electrical malfunction to an attack from a Soviet warship or submarine. Several authors have argued for the latter, claiming that the Scorpion was lured into a trap off the Azores in retaliation for the sinking of Soviet submarine K-129 just two months earlier off Oahu, Hawaii.
According to this theory, K-129 had attempted to launch three ballistic missiles at the Navy base at Pearl Harbor but was sunk before it could attack. This appears to have been a rogue incident, although North Korea seized the USS Pueblo in January of that year and John A. Walker had begun spying for the Soviet Union in late 1967. Walker was convicted of espionage and sentenced to life in prison. He died in 2014.
As a result, North Korea gained access to Pueblo’s cryptographic equipment. Walker, a watch officer at the submarine headquarters in Norfolk, had been passing on top secret data to his handler. This allowed the Soviets to know the exact location of all submarines in the fleet. They easily could have trapped Scorpion and sunk her.
I remember the Pueblo, because it was covered extensively on television, radio, and in print media. I can still picture the North Koreans parading the commanding officer and crew in front of television cameras. I don’t remember the Scorpion, most likely because it did not receive the same kind of media coverage. That may have been due to the secret nature of the mission or because it might have led to demands for retaliation. After all, this was a hot period during the Cold War that included the Tet Offensive in Vietnam and an attempt by North Korea to assassinate South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
There are two reasons in particular that I bring up the Scorpion now. The first is that I met the widow of a crew member years ago when I sold investments. I hadn’t known about the Scorpion then, either, but her story fascinated me. I have not forgotten it and have thought of her from time to time.
Part of my fascination had to do with the horror of such a sudden death. Part of it had to do with dying so young. Most of the crew were in their twenties, which is a life barely begun. And part of the fascination had to do not with death but life.
We live in anticipation, even expectation, that something big will happen, that our ship will come in, that we will hit a long ball over the wall, that we will finally get time in the spotlight. Yet, the irony is that most of us live in obscurity. Obscur et sans gloire, as one of my favorite authors writes. We work, we play, we travel, we learn a little about ourselves and other people. We try to be kind when we can. When we can’t, we try at least to be fair. And then we die.
In Howard’s End, E.M. Forster writes that, “With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.”
That brings me to the second reason for bringing up the Scorpion. Today is Julius Johnston’s birthday. He was a successful young man.
Image credits: Feature by Nate Anderson/Navsource Online Submarine Photo Archive; surfaced, “More Questions Than Answers: What Sank The USS Scorpion Submarine In 1968?” The National Interest, November 20, 2019; friends, Cryptology Information Warfare.
Historical source: Wikipedia, Ed Offley, “The Final Secret of the USS Scorpion,” HistoryNet (Summer 2018). Happy: Flag Day, wedding anniversary to the Szemeredis, birthday to Mary Brancatelli (grandma), birthday to Julius Johnston, III.