1986

Operation Praying Mantis

By Dr. Stephen C. Everly '86 (Commander USNR Ret.) 

Any sailor’s first deployment is always memorable. This is the first time that one’s training is tested at sea in a real world environment. For myself and many of my shipmates our deployment to the Persian Gulf in January of 1988 in support of Operation Earnest Will was our first operational tour. Little did we know at the time that we would participate in the first major U.S. Navy surface engagement since World War Two, codenamed Operation Praying Mantis. Operation Praying Mantis took place on the 18th of April,1988 throughout the Persian Gulf. I recently came across a letter recounting my experience during that operation that I had written to my parents as part of my mother’s personal effects after her passing in May of 2015. Rereading the letter brought back memories of that deployment, my shipmates and of course the combat action against the Iranian navy. Nearly thirty years later, I wonder how life has turned out for my fellow officers and sailors. During the events of April 18th, all of our lives hung in the balance and fortunately we came through with no casualties. 

 

1The author at sea ca. May 1988 onboard USS Jack Williams 

Operation Preying Mantis was the perhaps inevitable result of the USN involvement in Operation Earnest Will during the Iran-Iraq war during the 1980’s. Ships assigned to the Persian Gulf were engaged in convoy escort duty to ensure the unimpeded flow of oil out of the region. These convoys were formed in response to Iranian small boat attacks against numerous outbound tankers. In addition, the Iranians had resorted to mining international waters at various points of the war. During this time, I was an Ensign stationed aboard the USS Jack Williams(FFG-24) and was serving as the Communications Officer.   
   
So, how did I end up in the middle of the only US Navy surface action since WWII? My father had served during the Korean War in the Navy as a radioman. As I grew up, he pushed me to apply to the United States Naval Academy. To be honest, I was not the prototypical Annapolis applicant. I played no high school sports, had zero interest in sailing and physically was often mistaken for frail. I excelled academically at my high school in Fairfax County, Virginia and graduated 1st in a class of 450 or so. Most of my classmates assumed that I would apply to an Ivy League school and it was a major shock for many when I decided upon Annapolis. So why did I choose Annapolis? The reasons were mainly financial- my parents could not have afforded to send me anywhere except to an in-state Virginia school and I had no interest in UVA or Va Tech.

    I graduated from Annapolis with the class of 1986. My first duty assignment was to serve onboard the Argentine training sailing vessel ARA Libertad as an exchange officer. This was a 4 month tour which took me to Europe and South America. I became fluent in Spanish(for a time) and was the first US exchange officer since the British-Argentine war over the Malvinas Islands. After finishing the cruise, I attended Surface Warfare Officer School(SWOS)SWOs and Communications Officer School in Newport Rhode Island prior to reporting to the USS Jack Williams. Two of my classmates at SWOS were actually assigned to the USS Samuel B Roberts who deployed with us to the Persian Gulf. I reported aboard in May of 1987. The Williams’ was homeported in Mayport, Florida at that time.
     About a month after I arrived the USS Stark returned from her deployment to the Persian Gulf. The Stark had survived, albeit with heavy loss of life, an “accidental” Exocet missile attack from Iraqi jets a few months earlier. Viewing the Stark put the entire crew in a sober state of mind. We already knew that we would deploy in January of 1988 to the same region and that the area remained dangerous.  Pre-deployment preparations made all of aware that we were leaving for an active war zone. The nightly news often had reports of merchant shipping under attack in the Gulf; thus our armament included additional topside .50 caliber mounts, 40 mm grenade launchers, and a 25 mm chain gun on the port side forward to counter hostile small craft. Finally our underway duty assignments had been modified to reflect the upcoming threat. Normally all personnel stand a three section watch. This equates to being on a watch assignment eight hours out every twenty-four. In order to man all posts and have an instant damage control team on call, the entire ship was placed on a port and starboard rotation. What this meant was that everyone was on watch for six hours and off for six hours for the entire deployment.

    Pre-deployment preparations did take their toll on the crew; several crew members went AWOL and/or requested transfers. We had all seen the damage that the USS Stark had received. We left Mayport in early January to begin the nearly 5 week transit to the Persian Gulf. The ship embarked so many extra personnel(helicopter detachment) that I as the junior Ensign slept in the overflow berthing instead of my stateroom. I shared a 10x15 foot bunkroom with 10 of the senior enlisted. On average I managed about 6-7 hours of sleep a day but only about 4 consecutive hours.  We rendezvoused with the other ships in the middle of the Atlantic and transited together. The ten day transit to Mallorca gave everyone a taste of the arduous watch schedule. My watch station was OOD or Officer of the Deck, I was responsible for the safe navigation, flight operations and safekeeping of the ship while underway. The OOD reports directly to the Commanding Officer and is a position of great trust and responsibility. Being the junior of the two OOD’s, I stood the noon to six P.M.  watch and the midnight to six A.M. watch. On a typical day, most of the crew stood about 14-15 hours of watch, performed maintenance duties, ate and sometimes slept. Even when not in combat, operating a ship at sea is not an easy job.

    We steamed across the Atlantic and at a very close interval- usually either 1,000 or 2,000 yards apart. Normally we would practice formation maneuvers several hours every night. As a point of reference, this would be similar to driving cross country in a convoy with about 2-4 car lengths separation and switching places/positions simultaneously via radio signals. This portion of the cruise was very mentally draining and required almost constant focus for 6 hours every night. My Junior Officer of the Deck was a Chief Petty Officer who kept the ship on station by using a radar scope. I computed the new course and speed and told him what angle and distance to keep from the guide ship. He was unorthodox, but quite effective. The rest of the crew off of the bridge was practicing damage control scenarios, engineering drills and reviewing combat procedures for our arrival in the Gulf. 

    We stopped in Mallorca, Spain for a short port call before proceeding further east to the Suez canal. Although Spain was a foreign country, it was still very familiar and friendly. For me the transit through the Suez canal was the boundary between our known world and a completely foreign culture in the Middle East.  The transit took about 24 hours and both sides of the canal still had burnt out armored vehicles left over from the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960’s and 70’s. We arrived on station in mid-February and began patrol operations. Our ship was normally stationed in the southern Persian Gulf and not in the far north near Kuwait. We settled into a routine of escorting tankers and observing Iranian small craft. I averaged about 16 hours days on the bridge as I was the first person to relieve the watch and the last person relieved.  We witnessed one tanker attack in real time while the ship was refueling from a fuel barge. The attack took place about 10 miles from us and served as a reminder that Iranian forces were watching and waiting for a chance to attack. On one transit through the Straits of Hormuz, we were escorting several tankers out and were being shadowed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels when several Japanese tankers decided to join our convoy for protection which I found both amusing and smart.

     During all of our patrols, we stayed in international waters and were very careful not to provoke any hostile response or action from the Iranians. In mid- April, the Iranians decided to mine the sea lanes which lay outside of their territorial water in an effort to disrupt the flow of oil out of the gulf. Shortly thereafter the USS Roberts hit a mine during daylight hours and planning commenced for the retaliatory strikes against Iran.  The following letter is my account of that days’ events: 

“Dear Dad, Mom, John, and Pat:

I’m not sure when this letter will get to you, we have not sent mail out in awhile for reasons I’m sure you’ll understand. The news reports were fairly accurate as to what transpired but they did leave out a few fairly important details. I’ll start at the beginning with the Samuel B. Roberts and her accident. The area where she hit a mine is not now in the convoy lanes. It was earlier, but the routes are altered. We did pass within a 1000 yards of the area about 36 hours earlier with two merchant vessels under escort. I believe that the mines were laid very shortly after we passed through, although they may have been planted to damage our convoy. That they were new mines I have no doubt, also they were of Iranian origin. We took part in escorting the Roberts to the United Emirates port of Dubai, where she will be repaired in drydock. The major damage to her was I her engineering plant, casualties were light.

As the press no doubt reported the strikes against Iran were a measured reprisal designed to discourage future activity. There were two basic areas to strike, one several oil staging platforms, and the other was the Iranian Saam class frigate Sabalan who was on patrol. The cruiser Wainwright and frigate Simpson two of the ships we came over with shelled the platforms and the Trenton landed marines to seize them and plant explosives. This operation was very orderly, the occupants were given time to evacuate and about forty of them did so before the rig was attacked. The oil platforms were completely destroyed. While this was in progress the Iranians reacted in three different areas: first of all they sent Boghammer speedboats to attack Western operated oil rigs and a tanker, second they dispatched a French combatante class patrol craft to the vicinity of the Wainwright and Simpson, finally they scrambled an inordinate amount of F-4 Phantoms over their major naval base at Bandaar Abaas. The operations against the platforms began at about 8am on the 18th.

    Our role in the operation was to be the primary strike ship against  the Iranian frigate. We knew that something was in the works when we embarked the Pentagon media pool and the Commodore for our squadron. As the flagship, we led the two other ships on a reconnaissance through the Straits of Hormuz in search of the Iranian frigate or any other target. The ship went to General Quarters while we steamed outbound thru and back one again thru the Straits of Hormuz. The only activity at the time was Iranian F-4’s flying Combat air Patrol over Iran. We were very fortunate to have the carrier Enterprise in the Arabian sea to provide recon flights and attack support. Two A-6 intruders located the Iranian frigate at anchor in Bandaar Abaas that morning, so we steamed back thru in company with DD O’Brien and the DDG Strauss to an area north of Abu Musa Island. Abu Musa is an island about 15 miles south of the coast of Iran, which is used for staging small boat attacks on merchant shipping. On our return transit thru the straits the action begin to pick up. Over the bridge to bridge to radio we listened to a U.S. warship(later identified as the Simpson) warn an Iranian warship to leave immediately. The warning was followed right after by the U.S. ship telling the Iranian to abandon his vessel as he was going to sink him. Actual reconstruction indicates that the Joshan, an Iranian patrol boat with missiles, approached the vicinity of the Wainwright and the Simpson, ignored warnings, fired a missile at the Wainwright, missed and was immediately sunk by the Simpson using an SM-1 missile.

   We ate lunch at General Quarters, and were able to secure from GQ at about 1300 that afternoon. About 1400 the action started to develop as carrier air reported large numbers of small craft enroute our location. The ship remanned GQ after reports that three Saam frigates were heading towards us. At this point we were well in the Iranian exclusion zone and well within range of Silkworm missiles, something to remember shortly. A-6 aircraft engaged and sank about 3 or 4 of the small craft at which point the remainder returned to base. At this point only one frigate was sighted about fifteen miles from our formation. When our aircraft attempted a positive visual I, they were taken under fire by the ship. At this point the A-6 repositioned themselves and launched one Harpoon missile and several bombs at the Iranian ship.  The Iranian took a hit from the Harpoon and one of the bombs. About five minutes later the USS Strauss launched a Harpoon from about 12 miles away and scored a direct hit as well.  Our planes reported the ship was listing badly, ablaze, and observed the crew abandoning ship. I was on the bridge for the entire time and witnessed the launch by the Strauss. We were just far enough away that we could not see the Iranian, but we did see the secondary explosions as his magazines blew up.

At this point our morale was sky high, all the shooting had been done by us, we had not been hit and we had accomplished all of our goals. About ten minutes later the second Iranian ship was reported headed our way and wad initially engaged by the A-6 with laser guided bombs and badly damaged. We were about a minute away from launching our harpoon when the A-6 reported seeing Silkworm missiles launched towards our position. To say this alarmed people would be to put it mildly, the Silkworm missile carries about 1200 kgs of high explosives which makes it about four times the size of an exocet. In all about five missiles were launched towards us, with targeting data for the missiles being provided by the frigate before she was hit and by a C-130 afterwards. We immediately put the after end of the ship towards the missiles and ran at 30 knots away from them. When the Captain announced over the 1MC that there were incoming missiles about half of the crew hit the deck and remained there. On the bridge we were trying to spot them so we could engage them with hand carried Stinger missiles. The press pool got a little more than they bargained for I think, being on the receiving end is not nearly as much fun. The female reporter above the bridge burst into tears immediately upon hearing the announcement, while the writer on the bridge became very pale and immobile for awhile. As I was above decks, we were all little calmer since the impact point would be about 100 yards behind us on the ship. Personnel below decks were basically scared shitless, pardon the language, but that is 100 percent accurate description of the entire crew at that point. As we maneuvered we fired chaff into the air to decoy the missile which seemed to work as were not hit. About five minutes passed before we were sure that the missiles had missed, although when the CO said over the microphone “ .50 caliber gunners, Stingers take the missile inbound port quarter” everyone figured that we were going to eat one. After all trying to hit a 550 mph missile with a machine gun is definitely a last resort. The flight deck crew for our helicopter saw the last missile as it passed about three miles astern of us and completely demolished a stationary oil rig. Needless to say one we were clear of the missile range our tension factor decreased bya thousand percent. I am writing this about 36 hours after the fact, now that I am rested and much calmer. Everyone on the bridge reacted extremely well, no got hysterical except for one yeoman second. He screamed missile inbound and scared the entire bridge out of a year of life when he saw a launch by another ship during the timeframe. Otherwise things ae back to whatever is normal around this area. Iranian activity has slowed markedly and we are remaining in groups of three ships and patrolling very close together.

Well that is about it for the actual facts. I personally do not want to hear ever again the words incoming missile and if we never went to GQ again while we are over here that would also be fine. Right now we are all joking about the incident, which is a very good way to detension the crew. After over forty days at sea and being in combat with lunatics, I am more than ready to call it a deployment and come back. I have no doubt that we will make it back in one piece, after all we are now out of range of all the missiles, and their surface navy is definitely third rate. Try not to worry too much, we will be out of the area in about a month and on our way home. “

   So nearly thirty years later after the events of the day, I have mixed feelings about that day’s activity. Pride, anger, sorrow, grudging admiration and relief were the chief among these. I was very proud of our crew and the crews’ of the other ships. We sustained minimal casualties within the task force while essentially destroying the operational capacity of the Iranian navy in a fair fight. The crew of the Roberts saved their ship; a testament to their ingenuity and hard work. Our crew performed well during an extremely stressful day. This was the first direct combat experience for the vast majority of the crew; most of whom were extremely young and immature by today’s standards.

    After the mine attacks on the USS Roberts, there was a great deal of anger over the cowardly nature of the attack. Mining neutral ships in international waters made it a much more personal little war with the Iranians. This is very similar to the use of IED’s against US troops instead of a straight up fight. The mood on the ship was a little bloodthirsty; we wanted to sink all of their major surface vessels in retaliation- not just one or two.

   Today, I feel some sympathy and sorrow for the Iranians aboard the three ships that came out to engage us directly. Given the US air supremacy in the region, those vessels stood little chance of survival even if they had managed to launch a successful missile attack against us.  Those sailors at least played by the accepted rules of engagement.  It is also hard not to admire their bravery for sortieing out to engage us, despite the overwhelming odds against them.  Overall, there is a big sense of relief looking back over the years. All of us were able to return home and pursue whatever dreams we chose. Although the ship returned a mere year later to the Gulf for a second deployment, that one was relatively uneventful.  During that deployment, I served as the Damage Control Assistant and was responsible for fighting shipboard fires. During the transit home, we had a major fire in an engineering space which we were able to contain with no casualties and minimal damage. This incident underscores the fact that there is no such thing as a routine day at sea.

     I left the ship after almost three years onboard and reported to Marine Corps unit for my final active duty assignment. I served as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer with 2md Anglico in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. I had already decided to leave active duty after my five year obligation to attend graduate school so I wanted a final tour that was physically active and challenging. The Anglico units in the Marine Corps are airborne qualified and placed a premium on physical fitness as our platoons were often detached for service with elite army/foreign units. I attended Basic Airborne School in Fort Benning, Georgia in July of 1990 and eventually earned my gold jump wings back at Camp Lejeune. Our pinning ceremony for the gold wings would most certainly be classified as aggravated assault today! Our unit was among the first groups of troops deployed during Desert Storm. My platoon was training in the North Carolina mountains when the invasion happened. We returned to Lejeune about 4 hours too late to deploy with the first wave. Our platoons ended up coordinating with two different Ranger Regiments for possible deployment. My group ended back up in Fort Benning for about five weeks to work with the Rangers. Although we never deployed with them, it was an interesting experience working with them during that time. Back in Lejeune we continued to train for eventual deployment and one night training operation again illustrates the inherent danger present even in routine training exercises. Our platoon executed a night helicopter parachute insertion into an old runway near Lejeune. I was part of the ground crew and watched the 12 person drop occur. The drop zone was not illuminated as we were trying to simulate combat conditions and this particular drop resulted in one fatality (by drowning in a creek), one Marine was electrocuted in power lines and there were several less serious injuries.

      Thinking back, I probably did not inform my parents of this event or several other risky training evolutions. They were already worried that I would be back in the Persian Gulf for the third time in as many years. The letter that I sent them would most likely have not made it past the censors in today’s environment. The advent of email communication has made it easier for overseas troops to stay in contact with home; however, it is much easier to censor electronic communications.  I am sure that they were nervous about my assignment to an active airborne unit as well. As a father today, I can better appreciate how hard it would be for me to watch my daughter engage in combat in real time from the safety of my couch. My mother did an admirable job hiding her worries from me. Even after seeing me on CNN during combat operations, I never heard a word of complaint or nervousness from her.

      For me, the first deployment was the high point of my naval career; after all it would be hard to top in terms of direct combat action/adrenaline rush. As a 23 year old ensign I had been the OOD in a wartime environment and for four months had been in the middle of historical events and not reading about them. Since then I have not given much thought to the events of that day. The rediscovery of my letter brought back the memories of that deployment and almost thirty years later I can still recall many of the faces, names, and quirks of my shipmates during that deployment.

 

© 2018 United States Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation 410-295-4000