- What happened underwater more than 50 years ago? We may never know.
1968 was one heck of a year. It saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the Soviet Union crushing the Prague Spring protest, and increasing resistance worldwide against the Vietnam War.
But that’s not all. It was also the year that submarines from the navies of four different countries simply disappeared.
Each of the vessels was out sailing as usual when all of a sudden, they… Weren’t.
For some of them, later research has been able to partially figure out what happened. But for the others, all we have are vague guesses.
Let’s take a closer look at the year that proved disastrous for the world’s submarines.
K-129 — Soviet Union
The K-129 was a Soviet diesel and electricity-powered submarine, armed with ballistic missiles. Launched in 1959, the K-129 was part of Project 629, a Soviet effort to build a new class of post-WWII submarines.
Before departing on her last mission, the K-129 had successfully conducted two 70-day combat patrols. On February 24, 1968, she left on her third one, commanded by Captain First Rank Vladimir I. Kobzar.
At first, everything went well. On the first day of the mission, the K-129 did a test dive and surfaced. She reported that everything was well and off she went toward the Pacific Ocean.
The Soviet Navy never heard from her again. After two weeks of radio silence, the Soviet Union launched an air, surface, and underwater rescue mission but never found the K-129.
The U.S. Navy, with their more advanced underwater surveillance systems, had detected what could’ve possibly been an explosion in the Pacific. They actually found the K-129 at the bottom of the ocean northwest of the Hawaiian island of Oahu and staged a salvage operation that recovered a part of the wreck, alongside the bodies of six crew members.
To this day, we don’t know what happened to the K-129. The official Soviet story was that the submarine dove too deep, its hull caved in, and it sank.
Competing theories think that the K-129’s lead-acid batteries might have exploded, a leaking missile hatch could’ve detonated one of its ballistic missiles, or it could’ve collided with the U.S. submarine USS Swordfish. But the truth will probably never come out.
INS Dakar — Israel
INS Dakar was originally a British submarine that was sold to Israel in 1965 and rechristened with its current name. On January 24, 1968, Dakar was operating east of the Greek island of Crete.
She reported her position in the early morning on that fateful day. Over the next 18 hours, she sent three further control transmissions and then — nothing.
Two days later, an international force consisting of Israel, the U.S., Greece, Turkey, the U.K., and Lebanon went out to look for the submarine. A distress call had been sent out on Dakar’s emergency frequency, but the rescue operation never located her.
A year later, a fisherman came across one of Dakar’s emergency buoys washed ashore near Gaza. Despite that, it would take until 1999 before a U.S.-Israeli search team located Dakar’s wreck at the depth of 9,800 feet between the islands of Crete and Cyprus.
Since then, parts of the submarine — like the bridge and its gyrocompass — have been recovered. However, they’ve been unhelpful in determining what happened to Dakar.
The wreckage indicates that Dakar dove quickly below its maximum depth and suffered an instant, catastrophic hull breach. But why did the boat plummet to the depths without any emergency measures?
Minerve S647 — France
Minerve in Bergen, Norway, in 1962.
While the international task force was looking for INS Dakar off the Greek coast, another disaster struck on the other side of the Mediterranean. On January 27, Minerve, a French Daphné-class submarine, was diving near the French coast.
Minerve was traveling submerged just below the surface. The submarine messaged her accompanying aircraft that she would arrive at her home port in roughly an hour.
But she never did. The message sent to the aircraft was the last anyone heard of Minerve.
Of course, the French Navy sent out a rescue operation to locate the submarine. But despite a year-long search including ships, aircraft, and other submarines, it seemed Minerve had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
For many decades, Minerve remained the only submarine of the Western powers that remained undiscovered. But in 2018, Hervé Fauve — the son of Minerve’s last commander André Fauve — persuaded the French government to start another search for the submarine.
Finally, in July 2019, the marine robotics company Ocean Infinity spotted Minerve’s wreckage at the depot of 7,710 feet. The cause of the sinking remains unknown, although most military researchers blame the weather, which was terrible at the time of the disaster.
The U.S. nuclear submarine USS Scorpion wrapped up the disastrous year. In May 1968, Scorpion was operating in the Atlantic with the aim of observing Soviet naval activity.
Between May 20 and 21, Scorpion attempted to radio Naval Station Rota in Spain for an unusually long time, but could only reach the U.S. Navy communications station in Nea Marki, Greece. According to this message, she was traveling at the depth of 350 feet and was about “to begin surveillance of the Soviets.”
On May 27, Scorpion was due to arrive at her home port in Norfolk Virginia. After she was several hours late for her scheduled arrival, the U.S. Navy launched a search and rescue operation.
Three months later, a research ship discovered Scorpion southwest of the Azores islands. Scorpion lay on the ocean floor at a depth of 9,800 feet.
Despite the Navy’s frequent visits to the site, the cause of the Scorpion disaster isn’t known. Theories range from a hydrogen explosion during battery charge to an accidental torpedo launch or the firing of a defective torpedo.
The wildest theories speculate that the Soviet ships Scorpion was observing noticed her — and retaliated. Officially, however, the U.S. Navy states its investigations have been inconclusive.