Tuesday, May 29, 2007

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58)

The USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) is one of the last ships in the US Navy’s Oliver Hazard Perry Class of guided missile frigates. The ship is named after a US Navy coxswain who was killed during the Battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 and is the third ship to be named Samuel B. Roberts (the first was sunk during the heroic Battle off Samar in the Philippines in 1944; the second was a Gearing Class destroyer which served honorably from 1946 to 1970). The frigate was commissioned on April 12, 1986, and, after initial shakedown cruises and training exercises, was sent to the Persian Gulf in January of 1988. The Samuel B. Roberts, under the command of Commander Paul X. Rinn, became part of the US Navy task force that was assigned to escort re-flagged Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq war. This US Naval commitment in the Persian Gulf was known as Operation Earnest Will.

On April 14, 1988, the Samuel B. Roberts struck an Iranian M-08 mine in the central Persian Gulf. The resulting explosion punched a 15-foot hole in the hull, knocked the ship’s two gas turbine engines off their mounts, and flooded the engine room. The ship was almost broken in two and for five horrific hours the crew fought fires and flooding. Ten sailors were injured and taken off the ship by helicopter for medical treatment. Eventually, though, the remaining crewmembers were able to bring the situation under control and the ship was towed to Dubai for temporary repairs.

As a result of this incident, Navy divers swept the area and discovered several unexploded mines in the Persian Gulf. The serial numbers stamped on them matched the sequence of numbers found on mines that were seized by the US Navy the previous September on board the Iranian minelayer Iran Ajar. Clearly, the Iranians were mining the Persian Gulf and, in retaliation, President Ronald Reagan unleashed Operation Praying Mantis. It was a devastating attack on Iranian naval and oil assets, which caused the destruction of two Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, sank one Iranian frigate, damaged another, and destroyed several high-speed Iranian patrol boats. America lost one Marine attack helicopter and its crew of two. This was one of the largest naval battles to take place since the end of World War II.

Shortly after Operation Praying Mantis, the Samuel B. Roberts, in no shape to steam back to the United States, was literally carried to America on board the Mighty Servant 2, a semi-submersible heavy-lift ship owned by a Dutch shipping firm. The Samuel B. Roberts was brought to the Bath Iron Works in Maine and was repaired in time to take part in Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield. The ship remains in service today and its home port is Mayport, Florida. The Samuel B. Roberts, like the USS Stark before it, showed that the Oliver Hazard Perry Class frigates could take an amazing amount of punishment and still survive. This was, and still is, one of the most successful frigate designs built since the end of World War II.


Figure 1 (top): The Samuel B. Roberts being towed to Dubai for repairs. Note how low in the water her stern is because of the flooding caused by the mine blast. Click on photo for larger image. Photo by Fred Weiss.

Figure 2 (Middle): The Samuel B. Roberts being carried back to the United States on board the Mighty Servant 2. Click on photo for larger image. Photo by John La Sala.

Figure 3 (Bottom): The Samuel B. Roberts arrives in Souda Bay, Crete, for a scheduled port visit in April of 2002. Click on photo for larger image. Photo by Bill Gonyo.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Memorial Day, 2007

Figure 1 (top): A Marine rifle squad fires a volley over the bodies of fifteen officers and men killed at the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Oahu, during the raid on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Burial ceremonies like these took place a day after the attack on December 8. Note the sandbagged gun emplacement on top of the small hill in the upper right of the photograph. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

Figure 2 (bottom): Sailors honor those same men killed at the Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay a few months later on Memorial Day, May 31, 1942. Note that same hill in the background where the sandbagged gun emplacement had been located. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

Monday, May 28th, 2007, is Memorial Day here in the United States. Let’s take a moment to remember those individuals who, as Abraham Lincoln said, gave “the last full measure of devotion” to their country. All I can add is, “Thank you from a grateful nation.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The 20th Anniversary of the Attack on the USS Stark (FFG-31)

The USS Stark (FFG-31) was an Oliver Hazard Perry Class guided-missile frigate and was named after Admiral Harold Stark (1880-1972), who became famous for his service during World War II. The Stark was commissioned on October 23, 1982.

In 1980 war erupted between Iran and Iraq, endangering the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. By 1984, both sides were attacking oil tankers bound for each other’s ports, making the Persian Gulf a very dangerous part of the world. Even tankers steaming toward neutral countries in the area, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were getting hit in the crossfire of this new “Tanker War.” President Ronald Reagan understood that if the sea-lanes to major oil-producing countries in the area were closed as a result of this conflict, it would have dire consequences for the world’s economy. To prevent this from happening, he ordered US warships into the Persian Gulf to protect and escort US-flagged oil tankers bound for Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. US Naval warships also were meant to discourage the Soviet Navy from moving into the area and trying to influence the outcome of the war.

The Stark was deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1984 and then was sent back in 1987. Shortly after 9:00 PM on May 17, 1987, an Iraqi F-1 Mirage jet fired two Exocet sea-skimming missiles at the Stark (the pilot later claimed that he had mistaken the American frigate for an Iranian oil tanker). Although the Iraqi jet was spotted on the Stark’s radar, the commanding officer of the ship, Captain Glenn Brindel, 43, was not aware that the Iraqi plane had just fired its missiles. Captain Brindel did not think it was strange that an Iraqi jet was in the area because both Iraqi and Iranian planes patrolled the Persian Gulf regularly. In fact, earlier that same day Iraqi jets fired missiles at a Cypriot tanker, causing serious damage to the ship. Two attempts were made to contact the Iraqi pilot by radio, with the Stark identifying itself as a US Navy warship. But there was no reply from the Iraqi pilot. Then the radar operators on board the Stark noticed that the jet had suddenly veered away from the ship, apparently heading for home. The jet was indeed heading for home, but the two Exocet missiles were hurtling toward the Stark.

None of the defensive weapons on board the Stark fired at the incoming missiles, including the much-vaunted Phalanx Close In Weapons System (CIWS), which was supposed to protect the ship against sea-skimming anti-ship missiles. The Phalanx was apparently in a “standby” mode and no orders were given to fire any anti-aircraft missiles at the Iraqi jet. The first hint that the Stark was in serious trouble came when a lookout spotted the missiles heading toward the ship, traveling at roughly the speed of sound and flying only 12 feet above the waves.

A few seconds later the first missile smashed into the port side of the frigate, tearing a 10-by-15 foot hole in the Stark’s steel hull. It plowed through the crew’s quarters, the post office, and the ship’s store. Fortunately, the missile’s warhead failed to explode. The missile did, however, spew burning rocket propellant along its path of destruction, causing a major fire that incinerated the ship’s combat information center and disabled its electrical systems. The second missile also hit on the port side near the bridge; only this time the missile’s warhead blew up on contact, destroying a large section of the frigate’s superstructure.

The fires burned throughout the night. The Stark started listing as water poured into the ship. Out of a crew of 226 men, 37 were killed and 21 were injured. Because most of the ship’s electrical systems were out, a crewman sent a distress signal using a handheld radio that was picked up by a US destroyer steaming nearby. Soon tugs and other US warships were racing to assist the damaged frigate. The massive fires were eventually brought under control through the heroic efforts of the Stark’s crew, a truly remarkable achievement considering the amount of structural damage that was sustained by the ship. Judging by the damage caused by the explosion of the second rocket, it also seems doubtful that the Stark would have survived if the warhead on the first rocket had detonated. The Stark was towed to Bahrain where temporary repairs were made and then sent to Ingalls Shipbuilding in Mississippi, where more extensive work could be done on the battered frigate. Although it would eventually cost $142 million to rebuild the ship, the Stark proved that a relatively small warship could take a lot of punishment and still stay afloat.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein apologized for the “unintentional” incident and promised to pay compensation to the families of the 37 dead crewmembers (which he eventually did). Hussein also agreed to pay reparations for damages to the frigate (which he never did). Did Iraq really mistake the Stark for an Iranian-bound oil tanker? Maybe, but the attack could have been a signal to the United States not to interfere in the war. The Reagan administration accepted Iraq’s apology because it didn’t want the incident to degenerate into an open conflict with Iraq, which the United States saw as a useful counterbalance to Iran. As for Captain Brindel, he was relieved of duty and later forced to retire from the Navy. The US Navy determined that the Captain did not take proper defensive measures once a potentially hostile Iraqi warplane appeared on his ship’s radar screen.

Throughout the 1990s the Stark was an active member of the US fleet. However, the ship was prematurely decommissioned on May 7, 1999, due to the downsizing of the US fleet. It was then scrapped after only 17 years of service (warships of this type have a potential lifespan of approximately 30 years). This week’s anniversary of the attack on the Stark is a reminder of how much and how little has changed in the Persian Gulf.


Figure 1: The USS Stark conducting sea trials in July of 1982.

Figures 2 and 3: Two different views of the Stark showing the damage that was done by the two Iraqi Exocet missiles. The ship was hit on the evening on May 17, 1987, and these pictures were taken the following morning.

Figure 4: The USS Stark being towed to Bahrain for repairs.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

USS Philadelphia and America’s First War on Terror

The USS Philadelphia was a 1,240-ton frigate built in Philadelphia, PA, and was commissioned in April of 1800. The fledgling US Navy, which was created by Congress in 1794, was originally equipped with only six frigates. But when the United States was drawn into the Quasi-War with France in 1798, Americans quickly realized that they needed a bigger navy. In response to this urgent need for warships, the citizens of the city of Philadelphia donated the money to have this ship built, raising all of the funds through subscription drives. Shortly after the ship was commissioned, she sailed to the West Indies for several months, capturing five enemy warships and recapturing six American merchant ships that had previously been taken by the French. Then came the war with the Barbary Pirates.

Shortly after being inaugurated as the third president of the United States in 1801, Thomas Jefferson faced a serious problem. Since the early part of the Seventeenth Century, the northwest African Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli made a living terrorizing European merchant ships. Each Barbary State had its own pirate fleet that would capture and confiscate defenseless merchant ships sailing in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic. The Barbary pirates would then turn the passengers and crew of these hapless ships into slaves. The Pirates justified these attacks by saying that the Koran allowed them to wage “jihad,” or holy war, against all nonbelievers, especially Christian “infidels.”

The Barbary States demanded that the Europeans negotiate treaties with them so that they would not attack European ships. The Europeans also had to give hefty gifts or “tribute” to the monarch of each State as a sign of respect. The only problem was that, whenever the rulers of the Barbary States needed more money, they would promptly break their treaties, capture more merchant ships, and hold them for ransom, forcing the Europeans to negotiate another, more expensive, treaty.

The Europeans decided to pay the Barbary States this extortion because they thought that it was cheaper than going to war with them. The Europeans didn’t see this as extortion, but simply as the price of doing business in the Mediterranean.

When Jefferson became president in 1801 he had had enough. He hated the Barbary pirates since 1785, when they first started blackmailing the new United States. At that time we had no navy, little money, and we desperately needed to trade in the Mediterranean in order to survive. America was in no position to fight a new war, so we paid. But by 1801 things had changed. We now had a constitutional government, a Navy, and a Marine Corps. So, shortly after taking the oath of office, Jefferson sent a naval task force of four warships to the Mediterranean to blockade Tripoli, the Barbary State that was currently demanding a new treaty with the United States. The 36-gun USS Philadelphia was part of that original task force (see top photograph). The ships were crewed by over 1,000 men, including almost half of the US Marine Corps, which in those days totaled less than 350 men. Jefferson did this on his own authority, without consulting Congress and without getting a declaration of war. With the Constitution in place for barely 12 years, Thomas Jefferson was sending American warships and Marines to fight in a far-off part of the world that few Americans had ever even heard of.

After enforcing a blockade on Tripoli for almost a year, the Philadelphia returned to the United States. But the blockade of Tripoli continued and in 1803 the Philadelphia (under the command of Captain William Bainbridge) was sent back to the Mediterranean as part of a larger task force, which included the 44-gun frigate USS Constitution and the 28-gun frigate John Adams. The entire task force eventually consisted of 10 warships under the command of Commodore Edward Preble on board the Constitution.

On October 31, 1803, while on blockade duty just outside of Tripoli harbor, the Philadelphia ran aground on an uncharted reef while trying to pursue an enemy vessel. The Tripolitans quickly sent a large force of gunboats to attack the stranded American warship, which could not use its guns due to a severe list caused by its grounding (see center photograph). Tripolitan gunboats fired on and hit the Philadelphia while the frigate’s crew tried for several hours to lighten the ship, hoping this would allow it to float off the reef. They threw guns, equipment, supplies, and even the ship’s foremast overboard, but the Philadelphia remained grounded. With his ship unable to move or return fire, and with more enemy warships coming in for the kill, Captain Bainbridge decided to surrender. Bainbridge and his entire crew remained prisoners in Tripoli until the war ended in1805.

This was a terrible loss for the small American Navy and a horrible humiliation for the country as well. What made matters worse was that, shortly after the ship was lost, a strong gale blew in on November 2 and raised the sea level, allowing the Philadelphia to float off of the reef. The Tripolitans quickly brought the ship into Tripoli harbor and, after recovering the cannons the American sailors had thrown overboard, now had a fully equipped frigate that could be used against its former owners.

Commodore Preble could not allow the Philadelphia to remain in enemy hands. Since it was too dangerous for any American warship to sail into Tripoli’s well-fortified harbor, he planned a daring raid that was designed to destroy the frigate. On the night of February 16, 1804, a small four-gun ketch named Intrepid slipped into Tripoli harbor under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Decatur. Lieutenant Decatur and his crew of 70 volunteers sailed the Intrepid alongside the Philadelphia and then boarded the frigate. In a quick but savage battle, Decatur and his men soon overwhelmed the Tripolitan guards on board the warship. The Americans then set fire to the Philadelphia, making sure that the ship was burning brightly before they left. Decatur and his men went back on board the Intrepid and quickly started rowing away from the blazing frigate (see bottom photograph). The raid was a complete success and not a single American was killed. The Intrepid made it out of the harbor and the American task force sailing nearby picked up its crew. The Philadelphia burned to the waterline and sank, thereby keeping this valuable warship out of enemy hands permanently. British Admiral Horatio Nelson said that this was “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

Although the Philadelphia had a short life, she did make a substantial contribution to the US Navy before she was lost on that reef in 1803. The war with Tripoli continued after the destruction of the Philadelphia. America did not flinch after sustaining this significant setback. The United States continued to send more ships to the Mediterranean and it made it clear to the Barbary Pirates that America would not give in. By 1805, after four long years of blockade, naval confrontations, military failures, and an amazing overland expedition by the incredible William Eaton, the bashaw (or king) of Tripoli gave in and wanted to negotiate a new (and much cheaper) treaty with the United States. It was the first major overseas victory for both America and the US Navy. It was also America’s first major battle against Muslim terrorists who tried to intimidate and blackmail the nation. This all happened over 200 years ago.


Top Photograph: US Frigate Philadelphia off the coast of Morocco by Wells, published by J. Gold, London, England, in the “Naval Chronicle,” 1803.

Middle Photograph: “Stranding and Capture of USS Philadelphia, 31 October 1803.” Sketch by William Bainbridge Hoff.

Bottom Photograph: “Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804.” Oil on canvas by Edward Moran (1829-1901).

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

USS Houston (CA-30)

The USS Houston (CA-30) was commissioned on June 17, 1930, and, after conducting an initial shakedown cruise in the Atlantic, steamed for the Pacific on January 10, 1931, to become flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet. Once war started between China and Japan in 1932, the Houston was sent to Shanghai to protect American lives and property. Marine and Navy gun platoons were sent ashore to help bring some stability to the city and the Houston remained in the area until November of 1933, when she was relieved by the cruiser USS Augusta. The Houston then went to San Francisco where she participated in numerous fleet training exercises. During this period in her life, the Houston made several special trips, including one on July 1,1934, when she took President Franklin Roosevelt on a 12,000 mile cruise from the Caribbean to the Panama Canal, then to Portland, Oregon, and then on to Hawaii. President Roosevelt would make several more trips on board the Houston and this ship would become his personal favorite.

Throughout the rest of the 1930s and on into 1940, the Houston continued to participate in numerous fleet maneuvers and training exercises. On November 3, 1940, the Houston left San Francisco for the Philippine Islands and arrived in Manila on November 19. She immediately became the flagship of Admiral Thomas C. Hart, Commander of the US Asiatic Fleet. The Houston was based out of the Philippines until the start of the war on December 7, 1941. After the war started, the Houston escorted ships between the island of Java, in the Netherlands East Indies (part of current-day Indonesia), and Australia for approximately eight weeks and was attached to the newly formed ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) Command. But while the Houston was performing the tedious (but necessary) task of convoy escort, the Japanese surrounded Java by occupying the islands of Bali, Borneo, and Sumatra.

On February 4, 1942, the Houston was part of a small Allied task force that tried to intercept some Japanese warships that were reported to be in the Makasar Strait of the Flores Sea, just to the northeast of Java. Also in the task force were the USS Marblehead (CL-12), the Dutch light cruiser De Ruyter, the destroyer leader Tromp, as well as three Dutch and four American destroyers. Unfortunately, the ships had absolutely no Allied air cover and were attacked by 54 Japanese land-based bombers. The ships fought the planes for more than three hours. By the time the Japanese left, the Marblehead was seriously damaged and the Houston had sustained a 500 pound bomb hit on its No. 3 turret, which was located towards the stern of the ship. Forty-eight of the Houston’s crewmembers were killed and 50 were wounded. The ships gave up the search for the Japanese warships and returned to Tjilatjap, located on the southern coast of Java.

The Marblehead was so badly damaged that it had to be sent back to the United States for repairs. Although Houston’s No. 3 turret was destroyed, the ship was kept in the area because the Allies were so short of cruisers. With only six of her nine 8-inch guns now operational, the Houston resumed escorting convoys between Australia and Java.

On February 18, the Houston’s commander, Captain Albert H. Rooks, learned that Dutch Vice Admiral Conrad Helfrich had replaced Admiral Hart as commander of the ABDA naval forces. Helfrich was determined to defend Java to the last ship, even though the island’s future was bleak. By February 26, two large Japanese invasion forces were headed towards Java. There was little hope that the few remaining ships of the ABDA Command could stop, let alone defeat, the massive assault groups that were about to attack Java. The Japanese also had total air superiority over the entire area, making it almost impossible for Allied warships to remain at sea without having to endure constant aerial assaults. The wise move would have been to withdraw all of the Allied warships to Australia and abandon Java. But Vice Admiral Helfrich would have none of that and, since he was in command of the ABDA forces, he ordered his ships to attack the oncoming Japanese invasion groups. It turned out to be a horrible mistake.

On February 27, Helfrich sent what was left of his small fleet into the Java Sea, hoping to sink enough enemy transports in the oncoming Japanese invasion force to discourage the enemy from making a landing on the eastern coast of Java. In tactical command of the Allied task force was Dutch Rear Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Netherlands Navy. Doorman’s group was composed of the British heavy cruiser Exeter, the Houston, the Australian light cruiser Perth, and the Dutch light cruisers De Ruyter and Java. Steaming with these cruisers were a total of nine British, Dutch, and American destroyers. Doorman steamed right into an oncoming Japanese task force of approximately four cruisers and 13 destroyers. Several additional warships, as well as aircraft, soon joined the Japanese.

What followed was the Battle of the Java Sea and it turned out to be a disaster for the Allies. Admiral Doorman was killed and his flagship, the De Ruyter, was sunk. Also lost were the cruiser Java and three destroyers. In addition, the Exeter was seriously damaged. The Allies claimed that three Japanese destroyers were sunk, but the Japanese maintained that only one destroyer was damaged. Fortunately, the Houston did not sustain any major additional hits during the battle. What was left of Doorman’s ships limped back to Java, with the Japanese invasion force continuing its advance towards the island.

On February 28, 1942, the Houston and the Perth were ordered to leave Batavia, on the northwestern coast of Java, and sail through the Sunda Strait. They would then hook around the bottom of the island and steam for Tjilatjap, which was on the southern coast of Java. Admiral Helfrich wanted to gather his few remaining ships in Tjilatjap to continue the fight against the oncoming Japanese fleet. But on the night of February 28, as the two ships entered the Sunda Strait, they were amazed to find that they had stumbled onto an enormous Japanese invasion force of almost 100 ships which had begun an amphibious landing on the Western coast of Java. One can only imagine what went through the minds of the captains of these two lonely Allied warships when they saw this vast Japanese armada stretched out before them. Turning back was not an option since Japanese warships quickly surrounded the two Allied cruisers. They could have tried to run away, but the Japanese, with their superior numbers and firepower, eventually would have cornered them and destroyed them. So Captain Rooks (on board the Houston) and Captain Hector MacDonald Laws Waller, commanding officer of the Perth, decided that they would attack and sink as many Japanese ships as they could.

The Battle of Sunda Strait lasted almost an hour. The Houston and the Perth blasted a number of Japanese ships at almost pointblank range. One Japanese transport was sunk and three others were forced to beach themselves to prevent them from sinking in deeper water. The Houston also scored hits on three different Japanese destroyers and sunk a Japanese minesweeper. But there were simply too many enemy warships. Both the Perth and the Houston took a terrible beating. Japanese heavy cruisers and destroyers hit the Perth dozens of times and several torpedoes also hit the Australian warship. Shortly after midnight, the Perth could take no more punishment and sank, taking 353 out of 680 crewmembers with her, including Captain Waller.

The Houston didn’t fare any better. She took her first torpedo hit shortly after midnight and began losing headway. But the ship kept on firing all of its guns until it was literally out of ammunition. Soon three more torpedoes slammed into the Houston and at approximately 12:30 AM a shell obliterated the ship’s bridge, killing Captain Rooks. By 12:35 AM on the morning of March 1, 1942, after being torn to pieces by shells, torpedoes, and raging fires, the USS Houston rolled over and sank. Out of a crew of 1,061 men, only 368 made it to shore. Most of them would later die due to torture, disease, and malnutrition in Japanese prisoner of war camps during the remainder of the war.

Captain Rooks would later be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle and the Houston’s Chaplain, Commander George S. Rentz, was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his efforts to save several wounded crewmen who were struggling in the water after the ship went down. He was the only Navy Chaplain to be so honored during World War II. The Houston was a tough ship, with a brave crew, that fought against impossible odds. This is a ship that clearly deserves to be remembered.