Why the Titanic was Found: A US Navy Covert Mission

The ship God himself could not sink found tinged in a Cold War tale (Titanic)

TitanicSoon a century will have passed since the April 15th, 1912, sinking of the greatest boat to scarcely float, the RMS Titanic. With a rerelease of the 1997 blockbuster, Titanic100th anniversary postage stamps, memorial cruises (imagine the irony in that), and exhibitions, the legend of the Titanic continues to grow (Brewin). The latest postscript to the tale, however, lays its roots in a supposed covert US Naval Intelligence mission during the Cold War.

All But a Sub-par Search For Titanic

A new National Geographic documentary set to premiere on April 9th, uncovers an alternate mission and larger purpose behind the discovery of the Titanic’s 73-year-old ocean resting place. After four previous attempts to uncover the ship’s remains off the coast of Canada, the ocean’s own Indiana Jones, veteran of more than 125 sea expeditions, Dr. Robert Ballard,set sail (West).

The professor of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island says, though, that this expedition, was not to uncover the Titanic, but to find the reactors and weapons from two sunken US nuclear submarines, the USS Scorpion and Thresher, who have interesting histories in themselves as the only nuclear submarines the US Navy has ever lost (West).

Scorpion, Stung by Soviets

USS_Thresher__SSN-593__launchingThe USS Scorpion specialized in the development of submarine warfare tactics, participating in exercises that cast her in varying roles, from hunter to the hunted, to intelligence-driven missions (Wikipedia). After 3 months of deployment and what has been unofficially recounted as a mission to spy on a Soviet submarine, the Scorpion was set to arrive at homeport at 1pm on May 29th, but something had gone amiss. A week before, unofficial reports suggest that the USS Scorpion had failed to respond to encrypted messages from headquarters regarding it’s home-coming, the impetus to a the seaboard-wide search-mission redirection of all Navy vessels still unverified by official Navy records (Offley).

Officially, the failure to break radio silence in the early morning of the day of arrival had sent the Atlantic Submarine Force headquarters into a bustling panic. At 3:15, event SUBMISS at 271915Z for USS Scorpion ETA NORVA had been executed (Offley). The USS Scorpion was officially missing.

Official reports never concluded what ended in the deaths of the 99 sailors aboard and a submarine buried in mystique and poignancy. Unofficial reports and interviews with former Soviet and US sailors paint a tale of a Cold War confrontation concealed in an attempt to avoid an escalation and to persist a status quo (Offley). Unofficial reports suggest that the Navy had known all along where the USS Scorpion lay, “officially” being hauled back to harbor five months after it had missed its Norfolk arrival (ibid).

With the 100th anniversary of the Titanic approaching and Dr. Ballard’s claims of a covert mission to uncover the nuclear remnants of the USS Scorpion, the tale of the Titanic and the US Navy’s interweaving mission only becomes more mythical with the story behind the second nuclear submarine, the USS Thresher.

Dasvidanya, USS Thresher Drowns in Atlantic Depths

“Experiencing minor problems…positive up angle…attempting to blow up…” were the last words of a revolutionary “hunter-killer” submarine designed to quietly hunt enemy (Soviet) submarines and dispatch of them at the Empire State building depths (Polner).

The USS Thresher was a nuclear-powered attack submarine, known for its well-trained sailors and revolutionary ability. It sunk during Test Depth exercises off the eastern seaboard in 1963 (Polner). Officially, the cause of the accident is believed to have been a pipe malfunction that led to an electrical malfunction, which quickly turned into a literal crushing of the hull of the nuclear sub as it plunged below maximum safety depth of 1,900 feet (ibid). Though officially reported to be an accident, rumors abounded regarding a second crater near the wreck site, possible evidence, many believed to be of the existence of a previously sunken Soviet submarine that collided with the US war-machine (ibid).

Because the submarine had been off the Atlantic coastal shelf (drawing a maximum depth of 600 feet), it sunk to the sea floor, over 8,000 feet below (Polner). Official reports have the USS Thresher’s remains being found by a deep sea sonar and diving submarine and dredging hooks, with findings that the submarine was not carrying nuclear weapons nor had the nuclear reactor broken up as it fell to the bottom of the ocean (Aerospace).

A Titanic Cover-Up

Of course the official findings, rumors, and now the claims made by Dr. Ballard all point to the discovery of the Titanic in Atlantic coastal waters to be shrouded in the history of the Cold War. The most grandiose vessel of the time laid at the bottom of the ocean, hidden from the world for over seven decades, while two equally grandiose military vessels, met their fates, either by accident or as casualties to the Cold War.

Dr. Ballard’s mission, still during the Cold War, in 1985, may have been much more.

According to Dr. Ballard his “mission was to find those reactors and find those weapons. But we didn’t want the Soviets to know that we were doing that or they’d put a satellite on us and we’d lead them to our submarines…so we needed a cover, and I suggested, naturally, the Titanic, because I wanted to find the Titanic. And so we then went out and did our covert operations and then went and did the Titanic” (West).

*Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the Lint Center Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. or any employee thereof. The Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc. is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Lint Center Bloggers.

About the Authors:

Brittany Minder received her BA in International Relations from Stanford University and she serves as the Lint Center’s Public & External Affairs Associate.

Tim Coleman serves as the Center’s Director of Communications.


  1. Titanic. 1997. Movie.
  2. Brewin, Kester. 5 April, 2012. 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of Titanic, 15 April: A grand Vision and Enduring Tragedy. TES. http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6204415&s_cid=tesmagazinehome
  3. West, Erik. 5 April, 2012. New Documentary Claims Mission to Find Titanic ‘was covert US Navy Operation.’ The Australian Eye. http://www.theaustralianeye.com/news/new-documentary-claims-mission-to-find-titanic-was-covert-us-navy-operation-aoi35826650.html
  4. ibid
  5. 5 April 2012. USS Scorpion (SSN-589). Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Scorpion_(SSN-589)
  6. Offley, Ed. 26 August, 2009. Retrieved 5 April, 2012. The USS Scorpion Buried at Sea. http://www.historynet.com/the-uss-scorpion-buried-at-sea.htm
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. Retrieved on 5 April, 2012. “The Death of the USS Thresher: 129 Men Perished in the 1962 Submarine’s Sinking-Norman Polmar-The Death of the USS Thresher. Epinions.com.
  11. ibid
  12. ibid
  13. ibid
  14. Retrieved on 5 April, 2012. Aerospaceweb.org Ask Us-Broken Arrow Nuclear Weapon Accidents. Aerospaceweb.org.
  15. ibid
  16. West, Erik. 5 April, 2012. New Documentary Claims Mission to Find Titanic ‘was covert US Navy Operation.’ The Australian Eye. http://www.theaustralianeye.com/news/new-documentary-claims-mission-to-find-titanic-was-covert-us-navy-operation-aoi35826650.html