The calls to Robert Ballard, the legendary oceanographer, started coming in without warning a few years ago. People were asking the Lyme resident and professor at the University of Rhode Island about two submarines with ties to Connecticut and the vessels’ connections to his discovery of the Titanic shipwreck.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Ballard, who also discovered hydrothermal vents and the German battleship Bismarck.
He wasn’t telling the truth.
For close to three decades, Ballard’s link to the fallen nuclear submarines was top secret. As those initial calls came in, Ballard hadn’t yet been told that the information about the subs was recently declassified. He didn’t realize that after nearly three decades of silence, the true story of his most famous expedition could finally be told.
In the 1980s, Ballard received funding from the Navy to develop underwater robotic camera technology. The Navy asked him to use the technology to study the USS Thresher, which sank on April 10, 1963, killing all 129 on board, and the USS Scorpion, lost on May 22, 1968, with its 99-person crew. Many Connecticut residents died on the Thresher, and the Scorpion was built in Groton at Electric Boat. The Navy wanted to study the submarines to see how nuclear materials — in addition to its reactor, the Scorpion was carrying nuclear weapons — fared in the ocean over time and how they affected the environment of their North Atlantic resting sites.
“We want you to look for radioactivity. We want you to find the reactors,” Ballard recalls being told. “In the case of the Scorpion, we want you to go inside to look for the nuclear weapons.”
Though the Navy had previously studied the wrecks and knew roughly where they were, the nuclear reactors had never been located. Secrecy during the expedition was paramount. “We don’t want you to be followed by a Russian satellite,” Ballard says he was told. “So we need a cover story. We said, ‘Let’s tell ’em I’m going after the Titanic.’ ”
In a series of expeditions between 1984 and 1986, Ballard studied the submarines. In between, in 1985, he did find the Titanic, and used a return trip to the legendary ocean liner as cover for further investigations related to the submarines.
From studying the wreckage of the Thresher and Scorpion, Ballard learned that pieces of debris form a line on the seabed from lightest object to the heaviest, which is typically the bulk of the vessel’s hull. “[I was] thinking it was going to be a circular pile of stuff, and it was a comet instead,” he says.
It was an important observation. Ballard used that knowledge to follow the debris trail of the Titanic to the shipwreck. Mixed with the elation of finding the Titanic was worry that it would attract too much attention to the secret portion of the expedition. It didn’t. “It was a perfect cover,” Ballard says.
The Navy concluded that the Thresher sank due to a mechanical failure during deep-diving tests, but there have long been questions and conspiracy theories swirling around the Scorpion. Ballard says what he saw was consistent with the theory that one of the submarine’s non-nuclear torpedoes became armed and the crew jettisoned it in desperation “and unfortunately it then acquired the Scorpion [as a target] because it was the only submarine around.”
A Navy veteran who served on submarines, Ballard says that viewing the Thresher and Scorpion wrecks was sobering. “You’re visiting where your fellow naval personnel died, gave their lives for their country,” he says. He adds, that’s also true of other wrecks he’s studied. “Every shipwreck, generally someone died. You don’t pick up stuff. You don’t pick up belt buckles from the Arizona. You don’t go to Gettysburg with a shovel. That’s why I left everything alone at the Titanic. It’s totally disrespectful to pick up anything.”
When it comes to the Thresher, perhaps no one knows this better than Ira Goldman of Waterford, a former crew member of the submarine. In the early 1960s, he temporarily left the Thresher to train to become machinist’s mate. He was scheduled to rejoin the submarine in April 1963 and was assigned to Naval Submarine Base New London just days before it sank. All these years later, the emotional wounds of the loss of his shipmates remain raw.
“The submarine service is very unique,” he says, adding that the small crew size causes people to bond more than on surface vessels. “Everybody knows everybody and all the families involved. So when something like this happens it really hurts everybody.”
Every April the Submarine Veterans Club in Groton holds a memorial service for the Thresher. There is also a service in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the ship was built and where many of the family members of the crew lived. A permanent Thresher memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia was also approved earlier this year.
Goldman still thinks about “his crew” often. “Even after 56 years, it’s hard to go back and think about all that stuff and you see the faces and remember all the special things that happened.”
As for Ballard, he says that all these years later, the exact locations of both the Thresher and Scorpion remain classified. Past coverage has alluded to other secret missions Ballard conducted for the Navy.He doesn’t comment on those. After all, he knows how to keep a secret.