USS Stark FFG-31
Posted on Facebook by Frank Gonzales
Remembering a very sad day in our Navy’s recent history:
May 17th 1987 – At 8:00pm local time, a Mirage F-1 fighter jet took off from Iraq’s Shaibah military airport and headed south into the Persian Gulf, flying along the Saudi Arabian coast.
An Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) plane, in the air over Saudi Arabia and manned by a joint American-Saudi crew, detected the aircraft.
Aboard the USS Stark, a Perry-class frigate on duty in the gulf,… radar operators picked up the Mirage when it was some 200 miles away; it was flying at 5,000 feet and traveling at 550 mph.
Captain Glenn Brindel, 43, commander of the Stark, was not particularly alarmed. He knew it was fairly common for Iraqi and Iranian warplanes to fly over the gulf. Earlier in the day, Iraqi jets had fired missiles into a Cypriot tanker, disabling the vessel. But no American vessel had been attacked.
In keeping with standard procedure, Captain Brindel ordered a radio message flashed at 10:09 PM: “Unknown aircraft, this is U.S. Navy warship on your 078 for twelve miles. Request you identify yourself.” There was no reply. A second request was sent. Still no answer. Brindel noted that the aircraft’s pilot had not locked his targeting radar on the Stark, so he expected it to veer away.
At 10:10 PM, the AWACS crew noticed that the Mirage had banked suddenly and then turned northward, as though heading for home. What they failed to detect was the launching by the Iraqi pilot of two Exocet AM39 air-to-surface missiles. The Exocets had a range of 40 miles and each carried a 352 lb. warhead.
For some reason, the sea-skimming missiles were not detected by the Stark’s sophisticated monitoring equipment. A lookout spotted the first Exocet just seconds before the missile struck, tearing a ten-by-fifteen-foot hole in the warship’s steel hull on the port side before ripping through the crew’s quarters. The resulting fire rushed upward into the vessel’s combat information center, disabling the electrical systems. The second missile plowed into the frigate’s superstructure.
A crewman sent a distress signal with a handheld radio that was picked up by the USS Waddell, a destroyer on patrol nearby. Meanwhile, the AWACS crew requested that two airborne Saudi F-15s pursue the Iraqi Mirage. But ground controllers at Dhahran airbase said they lacked the authority to embark on such a mission, and the Mirage was safely back in Iraqi airspace before approval could be obtained.
As fires raged aboard the Stark, Brindel ordered the starboard side Flooded to keep the gaping hole on the port side above the waterline. All through the night the fate of the stricken frigate was in doubt. Once the inferno was finally under control, the Stark limped back to port.
The Navy immediately launched an investigation into an incident that had cost 37 American seamen their lives. The Stark was endowed with an impressive array of defenses — an MK92 fire control system that could intercept incoming aircraft at a range of 90 miles; an OTO gun that could fire three-inch anti-aircraft shells at a rate of 90 per minute; electronic defenses that could produce bogus radar images to deceive attackers; and the Phalanx, a six-barreled gun that could fire 3,000 uranium rounds a minute at incoming missiles. Brindel insisted that his ship’s combat system was fully operational, but Navy technicians in Bahrain said the Stark’s Phalanx system had not been working properly when the frigate put out to sea. (Brindel was relieved of duty and later forced to retire.)
A, C-141/B Starlifter carried 35 flag-draped caskets to the Stark’s home base at Mayport, Florida. (Two of the crewmen were lost at sea during the attack.)
President Reagan and the First Lady were on hand to extend condolences to grieving families.