Exploration Mysteries: 1968 Submarine Disappearances

Writer Ian Fleming put it this way: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

But what about four times? In 1968, four submarines mysteriously vanished, one after the other. These mysterious disappearances shook the navies of four countries. To this day, no one is quite sure what happened.


Cold War tensions remained high that year. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia, squashing the Prague Spring. The United States endured civil unrest and the assassinations of both  Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Times were tense, and the arms race, espionage, and the threat of nuclear war still dominated the scene.

The so-called Submarine Revolution allowed the craft to stay submerged and move incognito. Submarines had a critical role in surveilling and gathering intelligence. Many carried torpedoes and valuable information on their designs, codes, etc. Some even had had nuclear weapons.

INS Dakar

On January 25 of that year, the Israeli submarine INS Dakar disappeared. A remnant from the Second World War, this T-class diesel electric sub was purchased by the relatively new state of Israel from the UK. It received major modifications and upgrades, including noise reduction and streamlining of the hull.

On January 9, the Dakar left Portsmouth, England on its maiden (Israeli) voyage, bound for an elaborate welcome ceremony in Haifa.

emergency buoy

Dakar emergency buoy. Photo: Bukvoed/Wikipedia Commons


Things went relatively well for the first few weeks. It stopped in Gibraltar and bypassed Crete, sending regular transmissions along the way. It was ahead of schedule and wanted to arrive earlier at Haifa, but its orders were to keep steady and arrive on the decided date. Then on January 25, all communication ceased. Its last known location: 160km west of Cyprus.

An international search and rescue operation began almost immediately. Israel, the United States, Turkey, the UK, Lebanon, and Greece worked together to find the lost submarine and its crew of 69 men. On February 9, authorities in Cyprus found an orange emergency buoy belonging to the vessel. However, after days of scouring the seas, the international team and eventually the Israeli Navy gave up.

In 1999, another search by Israeli and U.S. Navies found the wreckage on the seafloor between Crete and Cyprus, approximately 3,000m down.


French submarine

The Minerve in 1962 in Norway. Photo: Granit29/Wikipedia Commons


Two days after the Israeli submarine vanished, a French submarine suffered a similar fate. It disappeared in the waters off Toulon in southern France, in the Gulf of Lion. Her last known depth was around 2,000m. It disappeared just an hour before it was due to arrive at port at Toulon. It carried 45 men aboard.

map of where the French sub vanished

The French sub disappeared in the Gulf of Lion.


Twenty vessels and many aircraft flyovers later, the search was called off. The French Navy did not have any answers for the families of the lost, nor did they investigate further. Decades later, in 2019, the ship turned up 45km south of its final destination.


Soviet submarine

Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-129. Photo: CIA


This Soviet submarine belonging to the Soviet Navy’s Pacific fleet disappeared while on patrol in the Pacific Ocean. Conducting a ballistic-missile combat patrol, the submarine was to return on May 5.

During its time at sea, it did various successful dive tests, according to transmissions. However, communication ceased two weeks into its mission when it missed its regular March 8 check-in.

The Soviets began searching frantically for its nuclear-armed vessel. This caught the attention of the Americans, who decided that it might contain critical intel and weaponry. While the Soviets eventually gave up, the CIA launched a search of their own, fronted by Howard Hughes’ company Global Marine.

The Americans recovered pieces of the wreckage 2,414km northwest of Hawaii on August 20 of that year.

USS Scorpion

us submarine

USS Scorpion. Photo: Wikipedia Commons


Lastly, an American submarine called the USS Scorpion vanished in May of that fateful year, near the Azores. This vessel, in particular, dealt with submarine warfare tactics and carried nuclear weapons. Its purpose was to surveil Soviet activity in the area.

The Scorpion’s last message stated that it was closing in on a Soviet vessel to observe it. Then it fell silent. On June 5, after an extensive search by the U.S. Navy, the submarine and its occupants were declared lost.

The Scorpion sank 740km southwest of the Azores, marked.


This case paved way for research and development into hydro-acoustics. Apparently, the Navy’s submarine detection system caught what seems to have been the sounds of explosions from the Scorpion. However, the direct cause remains inconclusive.

The pieces of the wreck currently sit on the seafloor 740km southwest of the Azores. Because of the nuclear material on board, the site is radioactive.


Let us start with the timing. All of these incidents took place within the first half of the same year. Is it a coincidence? Maybe. Authorities concluded that the Minerve went down in bad weather. There was a hurricane-level storm in the area at that time. This is the only one which breaks the pattern. The others showed possible signs of one or more of the following: explosion triggered by hydrogen, explosion by missile malfunction, collision with another vessel, or direct attack from an enemy vessel.

The USS Scorpion and K-129 seem to be connected. Obviously, the Soviet and U.S. militaries routinely monitored each other. Some suggest that the disappearance of the USS Scorpion might have been the Soviets’ doing. A couple of months before the Scorpion vanished, the K-129 went down. The Soviets blamed the Americans, so a veiled retaliation could have been the cause. Also, the Soviets might not have welcomed the Scorpion’s mission of surveilling them.

As for the Dakar, some postulate that this particular class of submarine had structural flaws which could have caused parts of the submarine to rupture. Supposedly, the Dakar did rapid dive exercises. Descending too quickly and pushing its depth limit could have caused a rupture, killing everyone aboard.

But why did all four happen at the same time? Perhaps some parties poked and agitated others to provoke a revealing response. If anyone knows whether any of the sinkings were happenstance or enemy action, that answer remains under a cloak of secrecy.

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu is a writer at ExplorersWeb.

Kristine has been writing about Science, Mysteries and History for 4+ years. Prior to that, Kristine studied at the University of Leicester in the UK.

Based in Port-of-Spain, Kristine is also a literature teacher, avid reader, hiker, occasional photographer, an animal lover and shameless ramen addict.