Friday, November 07, 2008

Haunting Photos

Back in July I posted a few photos from my 4-year tour of duty in the U.S. Navy (see In the Navy) and I wrote that I would post more at a later date. I think today, the 7th of November qualifies as a later date.

I did not have an expensive camera; the one I used was a Kodak Instamatic which used 110 cartridges. In order to get rolls of film developed while at sea, the film had to be enclosed in those old yellow mailing envelopes. Mail for Atlantic based sailors was processed through the APO in New York before being forwarded to the sendee addresses. The reverse applied for mail sent to the fleet.

If your ship happened to be at sea, which mine was during most of my enlistment, the mail addressed to the crew would be shipped by a series of ship-to-ship transfers until it reached its destination. It might even be shipped to the next scheduled port-of-call to await that ships arrival. This process could take only a matter of days or several weeks depending upon the ship's current assignment.

I would estimate that I never received about 30% of my processed photos during my tour of duty. There were two rolls of film (48 pictures) taken while in Athens that never made it to me. I have only two photos taken in Greece, which were the first two on a new roll of film. They appear below:

Sometime between the end of March and the beginning of April of 1968 I snapped the photographs at the right and the one below on the left while I was on liberty in Athens, Greece.

The first one is a shot of the Acropolis taken from behind the hill. You can just see parts of the Parthenon and another ruin at the left center of the photo.

You will note the sepia tone to the picture, as well as the next one; I don't know how the pictures came out like that. There were some clouds in the sky, but it was an otherwise bright day. You can see the shadow cast from the marble rubble at the right.

The second photo was shot from atop the Acropolis looking down at the structure. It is of the ruins of an amphitheater called the "Theater of Herod Atticus."

The skyline of Athens can be seen in the background. Beyond the city is the harbor of Piraeus and the Aegean Sea, a part of the distant Mediterranean.

The same curious sepia tint is present on this photograph also. I used "Haunting Photos" as the title of this post for a reason, but not because of these two photos.

It is the next photo (the third of three sepia tinted photos) that is somewhat haunting.

Because of the delay between the time the photo was taken and the time that I received the processed pics in the mail, I can only speculate what date the photo may have actually been taken. I have determined it was taken on or about May 17, 1968.

U.S. Naval Base - Rota, Spain

The photo was taken from the fantail of the Warrington, the ship's U.S. flag prominent in the foreground, left-center. We are tied up at a pier in front of two U.S. nuclear submarines. The subs are tethered to a 'tender ship' for either supplies or repairs.

I had forgotten about this photo and I certainly never realized its possible significance until a few days ago. I had never removed these photos from the plastic sleeves of the photo album, all of which were taken before December, 1971. On the back of the photo I had written something but it was smudged almost beyond legibility. I could make out only "589, 5/16/68."

I decided to go the Naval Vessel Registry to see if I could find the name of the sub matching that hull number. Since it was a nuclear sub, the designation had to be "SSN-589." That was when the "haunting" feeling was first felt.

The sub had been stricken from the Naval Registry on June 30, 1968, the reason cited: Lost by storm or perils of the sea.

SSN-589 was the Skipjack class nuclear attack submarine Scorpion. She was declared 'presumed lost' on June 5, 1968 after she had been reported overdue by Navy personnel from its home port at the U.S. Naval Base in Norfolk, Virginia on May 27, 1968. She was carrying a crew of 99 submariners.

She had been operating in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean during the same time that my ship was on assignment in the same areas. She possibly could have been included in some of the exercises in which the Warrington as well as many other vessels may have been involved.

During those times the movements and locations of the U.S. Navy's fleet of nuclear submarines were heavily classified. Only the highest ranked officers, on a need to know basis only, would have been aware of the submarine's presence. These silent stalkers had the ability to stay submerged for months at a time and were only seen on the surface during rare ports of call.

It was on one of those stopovers that she was tied up next a Sub Tender dockside at the naval base in Rota, Spain. The Warrington had arrived there only the day before. Myself and several other crew members watched as the submarine was berthed.

While I was 'Googling' for information on the Scorpion, I found a passage that stated that she had pulled into Rota on May 16, 1968, to allow two sailors to disembark for emergency reasons. The two sailors were to be sent stateside; one for serious health reasons and the other due to a family emergency.

I also referred to a personal reference; one of three journals of poetry I had written during my time in the military. There were three poems in one of them dated May 15, May 16 and May 17, 1968 respectively and stated our location as "U.S. Naval Base - Rota, Spain."

Based on reports from radio transmissions, it was assumed that she probably sunk and imploded six days later on May 22, 1968, about 400 miles southwest of the Azores.

I do remember that that her wreckage was found years later by oceanographers using the bathysphere Trieste. There has been considerable controversy over the years concerning the sub's fate; whether she experienced systems trouble or that she may have even been sunk by a Russian submarine.

I found a link to a book written about the lost submarine: Scorpion Down. My interest has peaked enough to consider buying or trying to find a copy of it.

For the record, the 4th photograph from that roll of film did not have the sepia tints found on he three previous pics above. It was taken within a couple of days after the one at the sub base.

The photo is one of those "Kodak Moments." It shows a Spanish police officer writing a parking ticket! It may have been taken in either San Fernando, Spain or in Cadiz, Spain. The photo wasn't marked or dated, but the next two poems in my journal had my locations as those two Spanish cities and were dated 5/18 and 5/20.

I cannot say for certain that the photo is in fact that of the Scorpion because there were two other subs tied up on the starboard side of the tender while we were there. However, the outermost sub in the picture is the sub we watched being berthed in May, 1968, and our visit there corresponds to the official Naval records citing the Scorpion's visit at Rota, Spain.

I am haunted not only by the strange occurrences of the sepia tones in the three photographs - But by the fact that we might have been the last people to have seen her before she disappeared.

It is hauntingly possible, assuming some of the crews of the others ships there took pictures, that this photo may be one of only a handful, if not the last, photograph ever taken of SSN-589, the U.S.S. Scorpion.



Christina said...


too weird!

kenju said...

We were living in Norfolk when that ship went missing, and I remember reading about it.

Hale McKay said...


We were still cruising around the Mediterranean when it happened. We didn't learn of it until late June- early July when we returned stateside.

Hale McKay said...


Obviously, I agree. I remember the incident but forgot about the pictures and never gave them much of a thought.

Not until forty years later did I realize the significance of the photo.

The sepia tints - defective film? Some kind of omen?

I hearing the music from "The Twilight Zone."

Jack K. said...

Hale, thanks so much for sending me the note and link to this posting. I received the note while I was at work. I didn't have time to read it until now. Glad I did.

You have done a marvelous job doing the research. I believe your supposition about the sub being the Scorpion is quite correct.

As for the sepia tint, another possibility is the aging of the print. Just a thought.

Take care friend and happy Veteran's day to you.