|USS Sculpin (SSN-590), a Skipjack-class nuclear-powered submarine,
was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named for the sculpin.
Her keel was laid down on 3 February 1958 by Ingalls Shipbuilding in
Pascagoula, Mississippi. She was launched on 31 March 1960 sponsored by
Mrs. Fred Connaway, and commissioned on 1 June 1961 with Commander C. N.
Mitchell in command.
Sculpin departed Pascagoula on 8 June for her designated home port,
San Diego, California. Following her arrival there, she began a period
of shakedown training. In July, she held special trials and tests in the
Puget Sound area and then returned to San Diego for type training. In August,
Sculpin cruised to Pearl Harbor for two weeks before returning to San Diego.
She operated off the West Coast before entering the Mare Island Naval Shipyard
for post-shakedown availability in October. This was completed in late
March 1962, and Sculpin returned to her home port.
Following training operations, she departed for the western Pacific
in May; returning to San Diego in August. The nuclear submarine participated
in local training operations, ordnance evaluation projects, and fleet exercises
until entering the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in early January 1963 for
a hull survey. Sculpin returned to San Diego at the end of the month, conducted
type training for two months and, on 29 March, got underway for a dependents'
cruise. The submarine returned to Mare Island in April for restricted availability
and remained there until August when she returned to San Diego and commenced
Sculpin was in Pearl Harbor, in early December, en route to the western
Pacific, when defective piping forced her to sail back to Mare Island for
repairs. She returned to San Diego on 25 February 1964, and operated from
that port until early April. On 8 April, Sculpin sailed for duty with the
Seventh Fleet. Prior to reporting, she made port calls at Pearl Harbor,
Sydney, and Subic Bay. For the remainder of her deployment, Sculpin operated
in and out of Subic Bay, and Naha, Okinawa, with the Seventh Fleet. She
returned to her home port on 20 October 1964 and was awarded the Navy Unit
Commendation for her deployment. Operations and exercises along the west
coast, from San Diego to Bangor, Washington, occupied the submarine for
the next 25 months.
On 27 November 1966, Sculpin stood out of San Diego for Naha and another
tour with the Seventh Fleet. She returned to her home port on 11 May 1967
and began conducting local operations. The submarine had an extended training
cruise from 27 July to 26 October and, on 11 November, gave a demonstration
dive for President of the United States Lyndon B. Johnson.
On 31 December, Sculpin was notified that she was due for drydock and
overhaul at Puget Sound, and she sailed for that destination on 2 January
1968. This was Sculpin’s first major overhaul and refueling since commissioning,
seven years before, and she was in drydock from 30 January 1968 to 22 January
1969. Sea trials and training lasted until 26 July when she sailed to Pearl
Harbor on a shakedown training cruise. She returned to the West Coast on
22 August and began an upkeep period at San Diego which lasted until 8
September. The submarine operated along the California coast until 6 February
1970 when she got underway for Pearl Harbor and deployment to the western
Sculpin sailed from Pearl Harbor on 21 February and entered Buckner
Bay, Okinawa, on 6 March. She also visited Subic Bay, Hong Kong, and Yokosuka
before returning to San Diego on 21 August. She conducted local operations
until 4 January 1971 when she began a three-month restricted availability
period at Mare Island. The yard work was completed on 16 April, and the
submarine returned to San Diego. The only interruption of her schedule
came in October when she sailed to Puget Sound to have her bottom sand
blasted and painted.
Sculpin returned to San Diego on 13 November 1971 and began preparing
for another deployment period which began on 5 January 1972 and terminated
on 24 July. She was berthed at San Diego for the remainder of the year,
with only 15 days being spent at sea.
On 2 February 1973, Sculpin entered the Mare Island Naval Shipyard for
a three month restricted availability. After leaving the yard in May, the
submarine operated along the Pacific coast until 12 November when it arrived
at San Diego and began preparing for a deployment in early January 1974.
Sculpin sailed from San Diego on 7 January for Pearl Harbor and the western
Pacific on an extended cruise.
History from 1974 to 1990 needed. In 1974 the Sculpin was drydocked
in Bremerton, Washington under the Command of Commander James J. Pistotnik.
It left Bremerton in 1976 and returned to San Diego.
Sculpin was decommissioned on 3 August 1990 and stricken from the Naval
Vessel Register on 30 August 1990. Her final Captain was Cmdr. J. B. Allen.
Sculpin was decommissioned at Newport News Naval Shipyard with ceremonies
occurring at Norfolk Naval Base prior to the shipyard event. ex-Sculpin
entered the Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program in Bremerton,
Washington, on 1 October 2000 and on 30 October 2001 ceased to exist.
The Sculpin's Lost Mission: A Nuclear Submarine in the Vietnam War
By Admiral Charles R. Larson, U.S. Navy (Retired),
with Captain Clinton Wright, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Paul Stillwell
One would expect that Cold War "special ops" involving U.S. nuclear-powered
submarines are shrouded
in secrecy. Other American sub activities during that era, however,
are also hidden, one for a very
In 1971, after he had spent two and a half years of duty in the White
House as naval aide to President Richard Nixon, Commander Chuck Larson
was ready to go back to sea. He was ordered to be executive officer of
the attack submarine Sculpin (SSN-590), under Commander Harry Mathis. For
several months the boat went through workups of the coast of southern California
to prepare for a deployment to the
western Pacific. That deployment included active participation in the
After leaving the West Coast in January 1972, our first assignment was
a classified special operation that lasted about two months. It went very
well. The mission helped us hone our ship-handling and intelligence-gathering
skills, and made us confident in our capabilities, and feel good about
the way the ship was operating. Although it is still classified after all
these years, it's safe to say that it was intelligence-gathering targeted
against the Soviet Union.
Years later, Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew's book, Blind Man's
Bluff (New York: Public Affairs, 1998), described Cold War submarine operations.
Because of security concerns, I can't specifically discuss the contents,
but the book is a good read.
After the special operation, the Sculpin went into Yokosuka, Japan,
for some liberty, and my wife, Sally, met me there. I had grown my beard
while at sea and that, combined with my black hair and pale complexion
after the extended period underwater, made me look-according to Sally-like
Rasputin, the mad tsarist Russian.
In March, shortly after we began our second operation, patrolling the
South China Sea, we were diverted for a specific mission. The U.S. government
believed supply trawlers were operating out of Hainan Island, off the southern
coast of the People's Republic of China. They were running arms, ammunition,
and supplies from the northern part of the Gulf of Tonkin down to the Vietcong
in the IV Corps region, the southernmost portion of Vietnam. U.S. forces
discovered this when ground troops caught the enemy in the act of off-loading
a trawler on a South Vietnamese beach. The incident sparked a big firefight,
creating the legend that the trawler crews were elite forces willing to
fight to the death. It also initiated a concerted effort to stop the traffic
by convincing the enemy that it could not succeed.
Each of the trawlers could carry about 100 tons of munitions. Several
suspect ships were photographed, so we knew generally what they looked
like, but as long as they were in international waters, we had no means
to interdict them other than to turn them around by making low passes with
a P-3 Orion patrol plane or a close approach by a surface ship. This was
complicated by the fact that so many legitimate trawlers like them were
in the area. Several gunrunners had been turned around, but this would
not stop the at-sea resupply effort.
To convincingly discourage the effort, it would be necessary to destroy
them in the waters off South Vietnam before they could land their cargo.
The plan that evolved was to use a submarine to follow one from Hainan
to South Vietnam and finger it for our forces to destroy. We were selected
for this mission.
The Pursuit Begins
We took up a patrol station off Hainan on 10 April. After referring
to a book with images of the different types of trawlers and what we could
expect, we picked up our quarry on 12 April. The wardroom was divided on
whether she was a good prospect. However, the ship resembled photographs
of other known suspects, and her projected track was taking her toward
the west coast of the Philippines, which did not make sense for a fisherman.
So we took off in trail. Not long thereafter, the trawler turned to the
south, and that was the clincher for us. She had an extremely distinctive
shaft rub and propeller sound, which our sonarmen could easily discriminate
from background noise. We relied completely on passive sonar to avoid being
detected. The active sonar in the Skipjack-class submarines wouldn't have
been reliable because of the reverberations in shallow water.
The ship we followed was probably 200 feet long, a large trawler, certainly
suitable for open-ocean fishing. We did, of course, identify her by periscope
before we started to trail, but we weren't able to follow her totally by
periscope and maintain visual contact. We didn't want to take the chance
of having our periscope seen in the flat, calm waters of the South China
Sea. Also, she was making a speed of advance through the water of about
11 knots. That meant that if we were going to do our periscope operations
every now and then, get out radio messages, and do our required housekeeping
evolutions, we were probably going to have to run an average of about 18
or 20 knots submerged to keep up with her. We also had to include time
for ocean analysis and tactical maneuvering to make certain we were staying
with the correct target.
One more challenge was that the trawler was heading south, right through
the "dangerous ground." On charts of the South China Sea, an area about
180 nautical miles wide and 300 miles long is simply labeled dangerous
ground. Our charts had one track of soundings through that area-taken in
1885. We assessed that the terrain was fairly level, but the depth was
200 feet or less in most of this area. So we were in a position of running
up to 20 knots in 200 feet of water, with between 30 to 80 feet under the
keel at that high speed. Our ship could react very quickly to plane (control
surface) movements, so we had only our most experienced officers of the
deck, diving officers, and planesmen on station. Our chief petty officer
diving officers controlled the ship's depth by supervising the planesmen.
They did a superb job.
As the trawler headed south, she vectored a little to the east and went
into an area in the dangerous ground where we couldn't go. Up to then,
although we were in the dangerous area, we felt secure in knowing the bottom
was fairly level. But now she went into an area that was littered with
rocks, shoals, and shipwrecks. I wondered then if the trawler's crew was
smart enough to do what we called a "sanitization move"-go where even surface
ships wouldn't follow. She doubtlessly believed that if she went through
there she would come out the other side well clear of any tailing vessel.
I was absolutely convinced that the trawler was unaware of our presence
(that became clear later when we intercepted a radio message). We believed
the ship's course change was simply a safety move. While we were able to
use our fathometer to plot the bottom and know the depth under our keel,
the device looks only directly down; it doesn't look ahead. We were genuinely
worried about what we couldn't see ahead-an undersea mountain, a wreck,
or something else.
Lost and Found
When the trawler had entered the dangerous ground, we requested cover
from an on-call P-3 Orion. Although we were under the operational control
of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) in Saigon, we had
the ability to call the shots on the scene. We wanted the aircraft to remain
covert, so it would not scare the trawler back into port by making low
passes near her. During the ship's voyage through this very shallow, wreck-strewn
portion of the dangerous ground, the plane, remaining at high altitude
to minimize the chance of being seen, kept track of her by radar and visual
observation. We dodged around the area by hauling off to the west, then
south, and finally back to the east, to an area where we predicted the
trawler would emerge, still in the dangerous ground. As the P-3 turned
the contact over to us, the trawler appeared just about where we thought
she would. We picked her up from the distinctive shaft rub and propeller
sound and got in close enough to get a good positive periscope observation.
We then went back in trail.
As we headed south in the South China Sea, we approached a new hazard.
We found a large number of oil-drilling platforms near the coast of Borneo.
We first became aware of this hazard through the prolonged tracking of
a diesel contact, which prompted the CO, Commander Harry Mathis, to go
up to periscope depth for a look. We spotted an uncharted platform. If
the rigs were operating, that was no problem; we could plot the location
of their noisy diesel engines. We found some charted, some not, some operating
and others not.
Our concern, of course, was about those uncharted and not running. We
made frequent periscope observations to avoid the platforms, which forced
us to run faster to maintain the quarry's speed of advance. We continued
south at higher speeds for longer periods of time, sometimes with barely
20 to 30 feet of water beneath the Sculpin's keel.
As our target passed between the Great Natuna Islands, we made an end
run around North Natuna. After that, our quarry was on a beeline for the
Gulf of Thailand, passing through the busy sea-lane between Hong Kong and
Singapore. The density of the large shipping traffic in this lane was incredible.
Crossing it was like running across a busy freeway. It was night time,
and sonar was useless amid all the traffic noise, so we crossed at periscope
depth following our quarry's stern light, maneuvering to avoid the large
ships bearing down on us from both directions.
The Gulf of Thailand presented a new challenge. The water was hot, 86
degrees Fahrenheit, and shallow, averaging 110 feet deep, and the bottom
was flat. The surface was a dead calm mirror with fishing buoys and nets
everywhere, not to mention small fishing boats of every description. It
was also very hazy and so hot that the horizon was somewhat obscure. Such
were the wartime circumstances that our operation order authorized us to
operate in water as shallow as six fathoms. Who says nuclearpowered submarines
can't operate in the littorals?
During this time we half-jokingly talked about "the hump." We were trying
to visualize what the Sculpin looked like on the surface, running at 20
knots, with maybe only 40 feet from the top of the sail to the surface.
We visualized a hump-the water displaced above the boat's hull-roaring
through the South China Sea like a mini tidal wave, with observers wondering
what it was. We assumed the ship left some sort of trail but were certain
one would have to be very close to be able to see it.
An incident when I had command duty got my attention. I brought the
Sculpin up to periscope depth and saw what I thought was a periscope going
by. My first reaction was, "Holy smoke, there's another submarine up here."
Then I realized it was a small water-saturated log that was floating vertically.
Just for a moment I thought there were two submarines staring at each other
and wondered which one was going to blink first.
As the trawler moved farther south, she made a distinct turn to the
west and then to the northwest. We were absolutely sure she was a gunrunner,
going in to land and off-load her ammunition. Then, two things happened.
We were ordered by MACV to photograph our target and alerted to prepare
to execute a provision in our operation order for us to sink our target
The photographic mission meant leaving our trail position and speeding
up ahead of the target to take pictures as the trawler cruised by. The
risk of detection was great because of the flat calm sea and our hump as
we repositioned at high speed. To avoid this, we had to go as deep as possible.
Commander Mathis selected 90 feet keel depth, leaving 20 feet between the
keel and the bottom. We limited periscope exposure to 6 inches for less
than ten seconds. We did get good pictures and apparently were not detected,
although one photograph revealed three men on deck looking in our general
direction. The depth control skill of our diving officer chiefs was extraordinary.
Where'd She Go?
Immediately after the trawler made the northwest turn, and just before
we communicated with higher authorities, we lost contact for about two
hours. Up to that point, our target had been somewhat predictable, cruising
on a straight course to the northwest near the center of the Gulf of Thailand
about 100 miles off the coast of South Vietnam, with the familiar shaft
rub being tracked by sonar. It was night with a full moon, and we saw her
lights through the periscope. The horizon was indistinguishable. Suddenly,
sonar reported she had stopped, and while the CO watched, the trawler turned
off her lights. Blind and deaf, we then lit off the radar and made several
sweeps that revealed nothing. This was not too surprising. When a radar
hasn't been used in months and is not tuned, taking it out and rotating
it a couple of times doesn't guarantee a high probability of picking up
a small target. We were not sure whether she had stopped for the night
or was moving away in a new direction at slow speed. We reported the lost
contact, which threw the operational command authority in Saigon into a
had been moving South Vietnamese naval forces along the coast to maintain
a blocking position based on our updates, so the whole operation threatened
to unravel. Commander Mathis and I huddled and decided: "Well, we've got
to assume that she's making a run toward the border up there. Let's just
go down and run as fast as we can and get about 30 miles ahead of her predicted
track and set up a barrier."
So we moved up and waited for her farther up into the Gulf of Thailand.
We made that sprint at 20 knots with 20 feet under the keel. At first daylight,
we contacted our on station P-3 aircraft and described our quarry, particularly
her white color. We requested that the Orion's crew search the area from
where we lost contact to the Vietnamese coast. They reported several widely
separated contacts; only one of them was white. The CO authorized a low-altitude
identification pass, and the P-3 made a positive ID. They reported to Saigon,
and we closed the target. As we neared, we regained that familiar shaft
rub and when we took another periscope look, it was her-positive identification,
both sonar and visual.
Originally, MACV requested authorization for us to sink the target with
our torpedoes, but this was not approved. For years I assumed that the
National Command Authority in Washington, D.C., disapproved the request.
However, several years later, Harry Mathis, who by then was a captain,
was commanding officer of the Submarine Base Pearl Harbor. He regularly
played tennis with retired Admiral Bernard "Chick" Clarey, who had been
commander-in-chief Pacific Fleet at the time of our operation. Admiral
Clarey remembered the operation very well because he and Admiral John McCain,
commander-in-chief Pacific, had followed our progress closely in daily
briefings. Admiral Clarey told Mathis that he had argued vehemently in
favor of having us shoot, but Admiral McCain was not convinced it would
work. Instead, South Vietnamese naval forces were called in to do the job
on 24 April.
The surface forces-led by a South Vietnamese destroyer escort-challenged
the trawler, which hoisted a Chinese flag and an international flag signal
designating they were fishing. The South Vietnamese commander was hesitant
to take action because he was concerned about creating an international
incident. Fortunately, we established communications with the U.S. liaison
officer on board the destroyer with the UQC underwater telephone. His first
question was whether we could verify this ship as our trawler. We told
him, "Absolutely, this is the one without a doubt." We then went to periscope
depth to observe.
The trawler tried to convince the South Vietnamese destroyer that she
was an innocent fishing vessel. We spoke once again with the liaison officer
and with higher authorities and said: "We are absolutely sure that this
ship came out of Hainan flying a PRC (People's Republic of China) flag.
We have tracked her 2,500 miles to this position, and in our opinion she
is a gunrunner making a run toward the border and certainly is not a fisherman.
We can verify who she is, which should allow us to take whatever action
As we later learned from the intercepted communication, the trawler
at one point said, "I think there is a submarine out there." This was the
first indication that the trawler crew was aware of us as we coordinated
with the destroyer. Based on our identification, the destroyer escort ordered
the trawler to stop, and when she failed to comply, began making intimidating
runs at her, finally opening fire from a standoff position with her 3-inch
guns. The trawler was hit and began burning, running in a circle as if
the rudder was jammed hard over.
We watched through the periscope, and our crew gathered in their mess
to watch on the TV monitor. Suddenly, with a thunderous roar, clearly audible
through the Sculpin's hull, the trawler exploded and disintegrated as its
cargo detonated. Flames leaped hundreds of feet in the air, accompanied
by the cheers of our crew.
At this moment, Commander Mathis asked the crew over the 1MC for a moment
of silence. Enemy or not, they had perished doing their mission. Later,
we were pleased to learn that 16 of the trawler crew had been rescued and
they spoke Vietnamese, not Chinese. The captain and the navigator were
among them and able to provide valuable intelligence about their operations.
One of the few casualties was the
Our communication with command headquarters, through the loitering Orion
during the urgent final search, was vital. Only later did we learn that,
because of atmospheric conditions, the communications link with Saigon
consisted of the P-3 aircraft on station relaying to another P-3 revving
up its engines on the ground at its airbase while parked next to a phone
booth. A flight crew member would run out to the phone and relay the messages
between Saigon and us.
One other significant factor made the mission possible. It could only
have been done by a nuclearpowered submarine. That experience gave me great
admiration for the diesel-boat crews and skippers of World War II. We had
more margin for error than they did because of their speed limitations
owing to low battery capacity. If we made a mistake on the Sculpin, we
could make it up through speed and repositioning, which couldn't be done
with a diesel boat. Certainly our speed came in handy, not only in the
basic trail, trying to stay up with a ship doing 11 knots and do all the
things we had to do, but also during that period when we lost them. We
were able to run quickly forward, reposition up the track, and get a chance
to pick them up again. But that blackout period was a low point. We had
trailed the ship 2,300 miles and thought we'd lost her.
The trawler's crew verified that their ship was a gunrunner. They had
on board enough arms and ammunition to supply the Vietcong in IV Corps
for at least 60 days. Her destruction thus made a significant contribution
to the safety of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops in the area and set back
the enemy's military operations there.
The surviving crew were North Vietnamese. They were split up, with U.S.
and South Vietnamese intelligence each interrogating half and their stories
compared. It was determined that the navigator's responses were credible
because he provided interrogators with exactly the same track we plotted.
The United States learned much about the North Vietnamese at-sea resupply
strategy. It also learned that the trawler crews were not elite forces
that would resist until death. One engineer told of being at his station
when the political officer came to the engine room hatch, told him the
enemy had arrived, and ordered him to stay at his post. The engineer, no
doubt considering the nature of the cargo, said, "I immediately went on
deck and jumped into the water."
It was an unusual operation. We spent more time submerged inside the
100-fathom curve than any U.S. submarine since World War II. Crew training,
equipment reliability, ship control, navigation, sonar, communications,
propulsion plant-everything and everyone performed superbly. We could not
have asked for anything more. For that operation the Sculpin earned the
Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the only U.S. submarine during the entire
Vietnam War to receive that award.
The Sculpin was also nominated for the submarine combat patrol pin,
and our individual awards for the combat "V." If that had been approved,
she would have been the first submarine since World War II to get the combat
patrol pin. Instead, the nomination was disapproved somewhere up the chain
of command. I assume it was probably rejected by a World War II submariner
who thought the operation wasn't nearly as hazardous as what he did during
his war, and it didn't measure up. I can't argue with that, but the crew
had great hope that they could proudly wear the pin for their contribution,
particularly to the safety of our troops. Another consideration, however,
might have been that those pins would have raised questions and possibly
compromised an operation that was still classified.
We covered a huge distance in trail during that operation. Someone asked
me later how I slept at night. I said, "With a pillow under my head, up
against the bulkhead in case we hit something."
Admiral Larson went on to serve on active duty for 40 years. His senior
position was as commander-inchief of all United States military forces
in the Pacific. Captain Wright served 26 years on active duty. He was commanding
officer of USS Puffer (SSN-652) and operations officer for Commander Submarine
Group Seven. Mr. Stillwell, the former editor of Naval History and the
U.S. Naval Institute Oral History Program, has written the "Looking Back"
column since 1993.
Cold War Records
This article is the result of merging my notes and recollections with
those of Clint Wright, who stood a good many watches as Sculpin's officer
of the deck during the pursuit of the trawler. Clint also gained access
to the unclassified versions of the submarine's deck logs. Other OODs during
the operation included Lieutenants Dick Snaider, Jim Gabala, Alan Beam,
and Charlie Krupnick.
Getting our joint account through security review was an interesting
challenge. Clint's original motive was to publish an article, because he
wanted the Sculpin Sailors to get credit for what they did. My motive was
to try and get it cleared for my oral history, so at least part of our
special operations could be made public to my family and to other interested
people. We jointly pursued this effort, dealing with the director of Naval
Intelligence and several people who used to work for me. The first thing
we discovered was that there were absolutely no records of the Sculpin's
operations. They had all been destroyed.
This highlights weaknesses in the Naval Intelligence Command's record
keeping. As far as we can determine, the Navy had its standard Cold War
intelligence gathering, what we called "special operations," which were
classified and compartmentalized. Those reports appear to have been preserved.
But because the Sculpin's Vietnam operation was not in that category-it
was a more conventional, although extremely unusual, operation and didn't
have the protection of that system-the reports were purged at some point
when the government discarded old records. There is just no official record
of this operation.
In putting this story together and sending it forward for clearance
by the Navy Department, I think we did a double service. We not only got
it cleared so those who served in the Sculpin during this time can receive
credit, but we made this operation public and prevented it from being lost
forever. At some point, an old Sculpin Sailor would have wanted to talk
about it, and there would havhave been no way to find the records. So I'm
very pleased that we were able to do that for our fine crew.