The U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser USS Wainwright (CG-28) underway.
In February 1988 U.S. Naval forces in the Gulf got a new commander. He was Rear Admiral Anthony “Tony” Less, a fifty-year-old, blond, blue-eyed naval aviator with more than six thousand flight hours under his belt, including several combat tours in Vietnam and a stint as flight leader of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. He had also commanded a carrier battle group. Now in his new job he would wear two hats: he was commander of the Middle East Force, but he was also commander of the Joint Task Force Middle East. Reflecting a new concern for effective inter-service cooperation, the United States for the first time would have one person who was responsible for all military operations in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf. Before he left Washington, Less met personally with Admiral Crowe, who emphasized to him the importance of effective joint operations. It was clear that, in Crowe’s view at least, success in the complex environment of the Persian Gulf meant that the U.S. Navy had to act in close coordination with the other services.
And indeed, the Gulf was a complex environment that winter. With Iran in control of the Faw Peninsula, Saddam Hussein began to fear that he might actually lose the war he had started. He therefore ordered a renewal of the airstrikes against tankers in the Gulf. To prevent another Stark disaster, U.S. and Iraqi officials worked out a series of procedures, but Iraqi pilots did not always observe the protocols. “Those Iraqi cowboys in F-4s just turned, closed their eyes, and fired,” one officer recalled. “Then they turned north to go home.” In any given watch period it was more than likely that at least one Iraqi jet would fly through Gulf airspace en route to targets off Iran. “Because of the AWACS, we would know as soon as they lifted off,” recalled Lieutenant James Smith, the weapons officer on the Thach, whom everyone called “Red” because of his hair. “We were really prepared because nobody wanted a repeat of the Stark event. Our air controllers used certain code words to talk to these aircraft as they were inbound. If we asked them to adjust their course, they did.” In spite of these protocols, however, several times in early 1988 Iraqi planes flew dangerously close to U.S. Navy ships. The closest call took place on February 12 when an Iraqi jet actually fired two missiles at the American destroyer Chandler but missed.
Despite the renewed threat from the air, it was the mine threat that provoked the next crisis. On April 14 the Samuel B. Roberts, a sister ship of the unlucky Stark, was heading southward. As always, AWACS planes as well as the Roberts’s own air search radar kept a wary electronic eye on the air traffic, while topside lookouts scanned the sea with binoculars for Iranian speedboats or mines. No new mines had been discovered for a week, however, and when a few floating objects off the bow caught the lookouts’ attention, at least one of them thought they might be sheep carcasses. In addition to tankers, other vessels routinely plied the shipping lanes, including giant Australian cargo ships that carried thousands of live sheep. Whenever one or two of the sheep died, as inevitably happened, they were tossed unceremoniously over the side. American sailors had gotten used to seeing their bloated carcasses float past with the legs sticking up out of the water. But a second look showed that these were no sheep carcasses—they were the real thing. Quickly the lookouts reported the sighting to the bridge. The skipper of the Samuel B. Roberts, Paul Rinn, ordered all stop. Finding himself in the middle of a new minefield, Rinn decided to reverse engines and back out slowly the way he had come. Relatively rough seas made this difficult, and the Roberts was suddenly rocked by a huge underwater explosion directly beneath the engine room that lifted the ship’s stern completely out of the water.
The blast opened a twenty-five-foot hole in the bottom of the Roberts, jarred the ship’s two gas turbine engines off their mounting blocks, bent the main shaft, and ignited a fire that fed on the spilled fuel oil and started spreading through the ship. But as on the Stark, heroic damage control saved the ship. Indeed, lessons learned from the Stark disaster meant that the Roberts’s damage control teams were better supplied with oxygen masks and canisters for firefighting. The crew showed remarkable inventiveness. The mine had nearly broken the Roberts in half, and to prevent the ship from literally breaking apart, the crew used wire cables to effectively tie it back together.50 Eventually the Roberts made it into port using its auxiliary engines.
Unlike the Stark disaster, the mining of the Roberts did not produce banner headlines in the United States. One reason was that on the same day the Roberts hit the mine, the Soviet Union, after a decade of futility, signed an agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan, an event that pushed the Roberts disaster off the front page. In addition, and rather remarkably, no Americans had died on the Roberts, though ten were wounded, including seven who had to be treated for second-degree burns. Still, the event was a turning point. A search of the area afterward led to the discovery of several more mines. U.S. teams secured them and flew photographers from the press out to take pictures before the mines were destroyed. These images proved beyond any doubt that the mines were Iranian in origin.
What no one in the American camp knew at the time was that although the mines were indeed Iranian, they had been sown by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and almost immediately afterward the regular Iranian navy had put to sea in an effort to sweep them up, thus demonstrating the wide gulf between the goals of the Guard fanatics and Iran’s more pragmatic government leaders who sought to avoid a direct confrontation with the American superpower. But U.S. policy makers either failed to make the distinction or were unsure how to respond to challenges from an enemy operating outside government sanction. If Iranians had laid the mines, then Iran must pay the consequences.
At a meeting held on Friday afternoon, April 15, the day after the Roberts was damaged, the President ordered his Department of Defense team to compile a list of possible targets, then he left for Camp David for the weekend. While he was gone, Defense Department personnel put together a plan. Crowe, the only uniformed member of the team, wanted to sink a ship. “My general theory was that if we were going to take any retaliatory measures at all, we should destroy targets that would reduce the Iranians’ ability to harm us.” “I pushed hard,” he wrote later, “for hitting a warship.” In particular, Crowe wanted to sink the Iranian frigate Sabalan, whose captain had built a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness and was known throughout the Gulf as “Captain Nasty.” His modus operandi was to stop a tanker or cargo vessel, query its captain and crew, then shoot up the bridge and living spaces. Afterward he would call out “Have a nice day!” before steaming off. Frank Carlucci, the new secretary of defense, “kind of liked the idea” of hitting a warship, but almost everyone else in the room was opposed, fearing that such an act would escalate the conflict; they argued instead that the United States should target another oil platform.
In the end, Reagan opted for a compromise: U.S. Navy forces would strike at several Iranian oil platforms—larger and more important platforms known as gas and oil separation platforms (GOSPs). But, the president said, if the Iranian navy ventured out in an attempt to defend them, the Navy “could engage and sink them.” Crowe interpreted this to mean that if the Sabalan came out of port, the U.S. Navy could send it to the bottom. This time Reagan made a special effort to inform congressional leaders of the plan. Robert Dole of Kansas reported to his colleagues that “the President . . . intends to keep us fully informed and involved as this action evolves,” and Lee Hamilton declared, “I do not see a renewed debate on Persian Gulf policy.” Having lined up the political support and selected the targets, Reagan gave the “go” order on April 16 to execute what was code-named Operation Praying Mantis.
On the receiving end of that order, Tony Less organized his forces into three strike teams called surface action groups, or SAGs, and assigned each of them a specific target. SAG Bravo was to destroy the Sassan platform and SAG Charlie the Sirri platform, and SAG Delta was to be ready to intercept any attempt by the Iranians to interfere. In addition, the planes of the Enterprise, which had replaced the Constellation on Camel Station, stood ready to join in the fight if an opportunity presented itself. Altogether, more than a dozen warships were committed to the operation. Less himself remained aboard the command ship Coronado at Bahrain to direct the overall operation from a distance. The three SAG groups would attack simultaneously but independently.
SAG Bravo was led by Captain James B. Perkins, and it was his job to destroy the Sassan GOSP. His orders required him to warn the Iranian crew of the GOSP before he fired, which made him uncomfortable because the Sassan platform was not merely an oil and gas separation plant but a well-armed outpost of the Iranian military, armed with .20- and .50-caliber machine guns as well as larger guns, and intelligence sources indicated that it was manned in part by elements of the fanatical Republican Guard. Perkins later argued that “warning an armed GOSP . . . prior to opening fire may register high on the humane scale, but it clearly ranks low in terms of relative tactical advantage.” Still, orders were orders.
Just past dawn on April 18, at about 6:00 A.M., the ships of SAG Bravo steamed up to the Sassan platform. It was an enormous structure—over an acre in size and with several levels, appearing to some rather like a Hollywood version of a futuristic city. While the two sides studied one another, a Farsi linguist on the USS Merrill broke the silence to announce over the radio in both Farsi and English: “You have thirty minutes to get everybody off; we are going to destroy this platform.”
Watchers on the U.S. Navy ships then saw a lot of activity. Men ran about from place to place; some seemed to be getting ready to leave, while others just seemed to be “running around.” Listeners on the radio net heard the GOSP occupants frantically ask their bosses in Tehran for orders, then radio to the Americans to beg for more time. Perkins and his staff denied all requests for an extension, and at 8:04 A.M. the designated deadline expired. With a last look at his watch, Perkins ordered, “Weapons free,” and a five-inch high-explosive shell flew toward the Sassan platform.
It was a curious form of naval combat in the age of electronic warfare. Normally in a confrontation with an armed combatant, the captain of the ship would occupy the padded chair in the combat information center. From that darkened room deep in the ship, where the monitors and TV screens reported all the relevant information from a variety of sensors, he would direct both the ship’s movements and its weapons systems, using radar directors to aim his weaponry. But on this day the captain of the Merrill and the task group commodore both stood on the bridge wing to watch the fall of shot. Lieutenant Commander Henry “Hank” Sanford, the Merrill’s executive officer, actually manned the ship’s “big eyes,” the oversize binoculars on the bridge, so that he could assess the impact of the gunfire more accurately. “Everything,” he said later, “was done visually.”
Almost everything. A second-class petty officer sitting at the gun console in the Merrill’s CIC used a joy stick and a tiny TV screen, just like a video game, to aim the ship’s five-inch guns. He managed to put an air-burst round directly above the gun mount, and it virtually wiped out the Iranian gun crew. That proved to be decisive. After a few more air-burst rounds, the Iranians came on the radio and announced that they had decided to evacuate. Perkins ordered his ships to cease fire. Again the platform resembled an ant farm that had been prodded with a stick as men ran, seemingly randomly, over the platform. Soon, however, they made for the ladders and began to climb down into a few boats that were tied up at the base. Sanford counted them off as they departed, losing count after thirty. He was glad to see them go: “We didn’t want any prisoners.” A few of the men were carrying some wounded and had trouble making the climb, but eventually they all got into the boats and left.
After the Iranians cleared the area, helicopters from the Trenton hovered over the target, and Marines fast-roped down onto the platform. In thirty minutes the Marines recovered whatever papers might be of value and planted their charges. The ships of SAG Bravo moved away from the platform, and the Americans “pulled the trigger.” Those standing on the bridge of the Merrill felt the air concussion from five miles away. It was, one recalled, “the most powerful explosion I’ve ever seen.”
The attack on the Sirri platform by SAG Charlie unfolded similarly. This task group was headed by the Belknap-class cruiser Wainwright, a sister ship of the Fox, which had participated in the first Earnest Will convoy. The Wainwright, a guided-missile cruiser with a two-armed missile firing system forward and a five-inch gun aft, was a handsome vessel with a bluff-faced superstructure. Unlike the Spruance-class destroyers, the Wainwright had not been designed for ASW. Its basic mission was antiair warfare, but its triple-ring missile battery and Mark 76 control system could also fire the Navy’s standard missile (SM-1 or SM-2) at surface targets, which made it a ship-killer. SAG Charlie also had the small frigates Simpson (a sister ship of both the Stark and the Roberts) and Bagley, a slightly larger vessel with similar armament. The senior officer of SAG Charlie was Captain James Chandler, a career Navy officer who had spent nearly all his professional life in cruisers and destroyers. In war gaming exercises at both Newport and Norfolk, Chandler had specialized in missile warfare.
The sailors on the Wainwright had heard rumors for days of a forthcoming mission, and they looked forward to it. “We knew something was going to happen,” recalled a first-class petty officer. “There was a lot of tension. . . . The crew all around the ship were all pretty, you know . . ., well, they were mad actually. Because of what happened to the Roberts. And we hadn’t done nothing about it.” Then on the afternoon of April 17 Chandler held a “captain’s call” on the helicopter deck of the Wainwright. With the crew gathered around him, he explained the coming operation, telling his men exactly what their jobs would be and how he intended to execute his orders. Then he invited questions. At the end of it, he told them to “make sure your battle stations are ready to go to war in the morning.” He told them he was confident in them, that he was sure they would “carry the day.” Then he asked the ship’s chaplain to lead a prayer.
Reveille on April 18 was at 5:30, and when general quarters sounded at 7:00, one officer recalled that “it was the fastest muster we ever had.” Chandler himself went down into the darkened CIC, where more than sixty people crowded around the various screens and monitors. During combat operations, it was Chandler’s policy to turn the bridge over to his executive officer, while he took the chair of the tactical action officer in CIC. To his right was Lieutenant Marty Drake, the ship’s weapons officer. In front of him, sitting at an elaborate panel of screens and switches, including the launch key for the ship’s Harpoon missile system, were the senior enlisted men who operated the electronics. That morning, the petty officers on duty were Operations Specialist Chief Paul McCullough and thirty-two-year-old Operations Specialist First Class Reuben Vargas, who had enlisted in the Navy as a teenager in Puerto Rico. Now Vargas sat with his fingers literally on the trigger, so close to Chandler that, as he recalled later, “his hand was actually on my shoulder.”
The Wainwright and its consorts slowly circled the Sirri platform. At precisely 7:55 a U.S. intelligence officer on board radioed the first warning to the Iranians: “Gas and oil separation platform, this is U.S. Navy warship. You have five minutes to evacuate your platform. Any actions other than evacuation will result in immediate destruction.” This announcement was duplicated in Farsi, and repeated. Then, in mocking imitation of the Iranian captain of the Sabalan, he intoned: “Have a nice day.” The Iranians on the platform radioed back excitedly that five minutes was not enough time, but they began to evacuate at once. Three American helicopters were aloft, and the pilots reported that they could see men making their way down the ladders onto a small tug. “It was clear they were abandoning the GOSP,” Chandler said later, “but they just needed more time. I called the Bagley and the Simpson and told them to hold fire.”
The tug pulled away from the GOSP at about 8:15, but not everyone had evacuated; the helicopter pilots reported that there were uniformed men manning the guns. Some of the Iranians, at least, intended to fight it out. The three ships of SAG Charlie opened a coordinated fire just after 8:30 with five-inch and seventy-six-millimeter guns. The Iranians returned small-arms fire for a few minutes until one U.S. shell hit a compressed gas tank, which ignited a secondary explosion that incinerated the gun crew and set the whole platform ablaze. After that, the Iranians lost the will to fight and agreed to leave. The ships of SAG Charlie held their fire while the Iranian tug returned to pick up the survivors. By now the platform was burning so ferociously it was impossible (and unnecessary) to insert the SEAL team.
So far the mission had been a success: both of the targeted platforms had been completely destroyed, U.S. forces had suffered no casualties, and the earlier embarrassment of expending a thousand rounds to destroy an immobile target had been expunged. But the operation was not yet complete. From the beginning, the senior American officers had hoped that the attacks on the oil platforms would incite the Iranian navy to sortie. It had been almost half a century since U.S. surface combatants had tangled with warships from another navy, and almost to a man, the Americans hoped they would have a chance to retaliate for the Roberts by sinking an Iranian frigate. As one sailor expressed it, “We wanted to kick ass.” On the other hand, few imagined that it would happen, for surely the Iranians were aware that their tiny navy was no match for the U.S. squadron.
Then at 11:30, the signals exploitation team reported to Chandler in CIC that an Iranian surface combatant was closing the formation.
The Iranian decision to sortie its surface navy on April 18 is inexplicable. It is possible that the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Mohsen Reza’i, demanded that Iran’s navy respond to the American attacks. If so, it suggests, as one authority has posited, “that the Guard was in de-facto command of the regular Navy.” Another possibility is that the Iranians concluded that the United States had finally decided to ally itself openly with Iraq, for, as it happened, Iraqi ground forces had launched a massive counterattack that same morning, and the Iranians likely believed this simultaneous assault was not a coincidence—that the United States had at last sided openly with the Iraqis. Whatever factors contributed to the Iranian decision, it was a horrible miscalculation.
Chandler radioed Admiral Less to apprise him of the situation. Less ordered him to get a positive identification on the approaching vessel, and Chandler ordered the Simpson to send its Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System (LAMPS) helicopter up for a visual ID. The LAMPS pilot radioed back that the surface contact was “a frigate-sized Iranian warship with a mast and radar amidships and two missiles astern of the mast.” It was, in fact, the Joshan, a 154-foot Iranian gunboat. But small as it was, the Joshan packed a punch, for it carried a seventy-six-millimeter gun amidships (the same size gun as on the American frigates), as well as a forty-millimeter machine gun. More importantly, it could fire both surface-to-air missiles and the deadly surface-to-surface American-made Harpoon missile. Chandler knew this because, as at Midway, the United States had superior intelligence about the enemy. In fact, the intelligence team that had been put on board for this operation had a complete file on every Iranian ship. Chandler recalled, “The officer in charge of the signal intercept group came down with his book and showed me just what the Joshan was—gave me a short bio of the commanding officer, and showed me his picture.”
Before challenging the contact, Chandler ordered the Wainwright’s weapons officer to put an SM-1 on the rail and advised the ships in his command “to prepare for an SM-1 engagement.” Then he sent the Joshan a radio message: “Iranian patrol frigate, this is United States Navy warship. Do not interfere with my actions. Remain clear or you will be destroyed. Over.” When the Joshan did not respond to that challenge and continued to close, Chandler tried again, demanding that the Joshan send its hull number. This time the Joshan replied, giving its hull number (255) and declaring that it would “commit no provocative acts.”
To Chandler, however, actions were louder than words, and the Joshan continued to close at high speed. Chandler radioed the Joshan twice more, ordering it to stop its engines. There was no response either time. Chandler then notified the other ships in the task group: “He has not stopped his engines. And those canisters [on the stern] are probably Harpoon canisters, and I believe that there is one Harpoon remaining that is operational. He has it on board.”
He warned the Joshan again: “Heed my warning. Stop your engines. If you do not stop, I will take you under fire.” Receiving no reply, he tried again: “If you do not stop, I will take you under fire.” Chandler’s next message was terse: “Iranian patrol ship, this is U.S. Navy warship. Stop and abandon ship. I intend to sink you.”
At that moment, Chief McCullough, sitting just in front of Chandler in the CIC, announced, “Captain, I have separation!” Simultaneously, the electronic warfare specialist announced, “I have an emitter!” A homing device had locked onto the Wainwright. “After that,” Vargas recalled, “all hell broke loose.” Marty Drake, the TAO, called out, “Launch chaff!” though the electronics warfare technician, Petty Officer Third Class Hall, had already anticipated the order, punching the button that fired a cloud of aluminized plastic confetti off to the starboard side. Chandler ordered the task group to open fire: “This is Wainwright. I am launching chaff. I am being locked on. Batteries released! Batteries released! Fire!” The weapons officer ordered: “Let’s go. Launch ’em.”
Then every man on board heard what one called “this big whoosh going down the starboard side from forward to aft.” The Harpoon missile from the Joshan flew so close to the Wainwright that the men on the bridge could feel the heat of the propellant as it passed. It missed the Wainwright by a matter of feet before splashing harmlessly into the sea some seventy-five yards astern. Down in the CIC, the weapons controller turned the key on the ship’s weapons console. “Birds free,” he reported.
The Wainwright’s first missile blew the mast off the Joshan, while the Simpson’s smashed into its superstructure. On the radar screen, however, the Joshan still appeared to be moving. “I think I’m gonna have the Simpson feed him another,” Chandler announced.
“Simpson, this is Wainwright. Are you prepared for another attack?”
“This is Simpson. Evaluate a hit.”
Altogether, SAG Charlie fired four missiles into the Joshan, and all four were hits. By then the Joshan was on fire from stem to stern and sinking.
For Tony Less on the Coronado it was both electrifying and frustrating. Like Nimitz at Pearl Harbor during the Battle of Midway, he had to monitor unfolding events by interpreting the calls he overheard on the radio. “The most tense moment of my tour,” he recalled later, was “when I received the transmission . . . that the Joshan had fired a Harpoon missile.” All he could do was wait for the next transmission that told him “the Harpoon had missed.” Then Less contacted Chandler again:
“Did you sink him?” he asked.
“Negative,” Chandler replied. “He’s dead in the water and on fire.”
Less switched phones and spoke briefly to Admiral Crowe in Washington. Then he got back on the phone to Chandler to order him to sink the Joshan—it had not been the original target of the operation, but a ship was a ship.
Crowe had been monitoring the radio chatter himself from the basement Navy Command Center at the Pentagon along with Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. They heard Chandler’s report that the Joshan had fired a Harpoon and the report that SAG Charlie was engaging. “We heard the message traffic all day,” Crowe recalled. “But we didn’t interfere much.” As he put it, “I’ve always had an aversion to the Pentagon giving orders to operational commanders.”
With orders to finish off the Joshan, Chandler closed to within gun range of the smoking hulk and ordered each of the ships under his command to open fire. With Marine spotters in helicopters to report the fall of the shot, the Wainwright fired one round long, one short, and landed the third on target. Then the ships of SAG Charlie fired for effect. The Wainwright aimed six rapid-fire five-inch rounds into the burning hulk. After the sixth round, the spotter in the helicopter radioed for the task group to cease fire. When Chandler asked him why, the spotter reported that the Joshan had disappeared. “There were bodies everywhere,” Vargas recalled. “The hardest thing was shutting it off.”
On the bridge of the Wainwright, someone asked Chandler if they should sweep the area for survivors. Chandler was quiet for a moment, then replied: “No.” There were a number of Iranian fishing dhows in the area that could pick up any survivors, and Chandler feared that if he closed the wreckage, the Iranians might later claim that it was for the purpose of killing the survivors. As it happened, they made this claim anyway, reporting that American ships had machine-gunned survivors in the water. “It certainly wasn’t a brilliant move on my part,” Chandler said later, “but I still think it was the smart thing to do.”
In response to the panicked calls from the two GOSPs and the sinking Joshan, the Iranians had scrambled a few F-4 fighter aircraft from the airfield near Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz. In midafternoon, as the one-sided fight with the Joshan was winding down, the Wainwright got a report that an F-4 was approaching at high altitude. Chandler warned the F-4 to stay clear; getting no response, he fired two standard missiles in air mode and scored at least one hit, though the crippled F-4 managed to make it back to its base, missing part of its wing.
That proved to be the last encounter of the day for SAG Charlie. After ten hours of combat, the men could finally stand down. They had been at general quarters since seven that morning; some had been at their posts since midnight the night before. “It was pretty tense to be sitting in that seat for seventeen hours,” Vargas recalled later. “It was something you don’t ever forget.” Almost as soon as it was over, the men on the Wainwright began to appreciate how close they had come to being on the receiving end of a Harpoon missile. “The chaplain was very busy that night,” one officer recalled. “We had a lot of scared young sailors who [realized that] they’d almost bought it.”
The reality of that came home to the crew of the Wainwright when they learned that a Cobra helicopter gunship that had refueled on their after deck that afternoon was overdue—long overdue, and presumed missing. Much later, long after the fighting was over, the Navy employed sonar technology to find the wreck of the missing bird, resting on the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Navy divers sent to explore the site discovered the pilot and copilot still strapped into their seats, victims, apparently, of vertigo: a sense of dizziness and loss of balance that occasionally strikes helicopter pilots. Though not the consequence of hostile action, they were the only American casualties of Praying Mantis.