Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Eternal patrol: Kenneth Robert Martin, 1945-1968

I got to thinking the other day about this serious-looking young man, a member of the Russell High School graduating class of 1963. Born May 12, 1945, he would be 73 this spring --- had he lived. As it was, he was 23 when he died just after his birthday back in 1968 and the first among a few I've known who died in the service of their country.

I didn't know Kenneth Robert Martin well, but remember him as a polite and considerate, hard-working young man. His high school record, lifted with the picture from a 1963 Russell yearbook, suggests that he was an achiever, and that his classmates respected him, too. He was class president during his senior year --- a good candidate for outstanding PK (Preacher's Kid), which is exactly what he was.

Ken spent his freshman year at Diagonal High School, then moved to Russell with his parents, The Rev. Robert P. and Lois Martin, and younger brother, Ray, when the Rev. Mr. Martin was assigned to serve the Russell Methodist Church (this was before the 1968 merger that formed the United Methodist Church).

I know that Ken attended college after his 1963 graduation and that his father was reassigned to another parish, which happens regularly in the United Methodist scheme of things, but lack any of the details. By 1968, he had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, perhaps as many young men facing the draft at the time time did --- in order to have some control over assignment during the Vietnam War. His home of record at the time was Bakersfield, California, although the military credits him to Minnesota, where he was born.

The USS Scorpion off Naples in April, 1968 (U.S. Navy photo NH70305)
About this time of year 50 years ago, during February, Ken was working as an electronics technician (communications) 2nd class aboard the Skipjack-class nuclear submarine USS Scorpion, homeported at Norfolk, Virginia, and with a crew of 99 a key player in U.S. Cold War naval efforts.

The Scorpion left Norfolk for the Mediterranean on Feb. 15, 1968, then three months later, on May 16, its mission complete, departed the Mediterranean and headed west for home. En route, however, she was detailed to observe Soviet naval activity in the vicinity of the Azores.

Final communications from the Scorpion were impaired, but the last message --- received early on May 21 --- reported that she was closing on a Soviet Echo II class submarine and other vessels, preparing to begin surveillance.

There were no official announcements concerning the USS Scorpion in the days that followed, but on May 27 U.S. media began to report her overdue at Norfolk. On June 5, the Navy declared her "presumed lost" with all aboard, and that is the death date assigned to her men.

At the end of October, 1968, the crushed hull of the Scorpion was located on the seabed 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores some 9,800 feet below the ocean's surface.

A portion of the USS Scorpion's hull on the seabed southwest of the Azores (U.S. Navy Photo USN1136658)

Although there are numerous theories, including equipment failure, accidental explosion of a torpedo and a Soviet submarine attack, the U.S. Navy never has declared an official cause for the USS Scorpion's loss. The Navy continues to monitor her resting place, watching for signs of contamination from her nuclear reactor and two nuclear-tipped Mark 45 anti-submarine torpedoes that were aboard.

Ken has a memorial tombstone at San Francisco National Cemetery.

His father continued to serve parishes in the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church until 1987 when he retired and settled in Fort Dodge. He died there two years ago, on Jan. 29, 2016, at the age of 93. Lois Martin and Ray Martin survive.

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