Just before sundown on 17 May, an Iraqi pilot in an F-1 Mirage jet headed down the Gulf, scanning his instruments for oil tankers.
In the darkened combat information center of the U.S. Navy guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG 31), an operations specialist noted the Mirage’s blip on his screen: track number 2202, range two hundred miles, headed inbound. The jet was pointed past the ship, four miles off the port beam. The sailor passed the word to his skipper.
At two minutes after 9 p.m., the Mirage locked its Cyrano-IV fire-control radar onto the Stark. The frigate’s instruments lit up in warning. A sailor asked permission to send a standard “back off” message to the Iraqi pilot. “No, wait,” came the reply.
At 9:05, the Mirage banked left, toward the warship. At just over 22 miles’ distance, the pilot launched his first Exocet, a sea-skimming, shipkilling missile. The weapon leveled out a dozen feet above the waves, accelerated to nearly the speed of sound, and turned on its radar-homing seeker. Twenty seconds later, another Exocet dropped from a wing and lit off toward the Stark.
The first missile punched through the hull near the port bridge wing, eight feet above the waterline. It bored a flaming hole through berthing spaces, the post office, and the ship’s store, spewing rocket propellant along its path. Burning at 3,500 degrees, the weapon ground to a halt in a corner of the chiefs’ quarters, and failed to explode. The second missile, which hit five feet farther forward, detonated as designed. The fired burned for almost a day, incinerating the crew’s quarters, the radar room, and the combat information center.
About one-quarter of the crew was incapacitated in the attack. Twenty-nine were killed immediately; eight more died later.
The attack jolted the captain and crew of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58), many of whom knew sailors on the Stark. Everyone knew the two frigates shared the same weapons, the same systems, the same vulnerabilities. Lester Chaffin, an electrician’s mate 1st class, studied the missiles’ paths and the damage done, and counted the shipmates who would have perished if the weapons had struck their own ship.
The Roberts‘ skipper, Cmdr. Paul Rinn, had known the Stark’s captain since their Naval War College days, and the classmates had renewed their ties at Gitmo the previous summer.
“When I got that message, I sat on the bridge of the ship,” Rinn recalled. “And the XO, Bill Clark, came back about 30 minutes later. I hadn’t said a word to anybody, and he said, ‘Are you okay?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not okay. I’m sitting here thinking, “What 29 guys would I would give up on this ship, that I’d ever be able to sleep again?'” Couldn’t do it; wouldn’t ever want to do it. So if there was anything that put a stamp on [my intensity], it was that I was never going to let that happen. How do you do it? How do you ever prevent it? You work as hard as you can.”
Rinn saw the Stark as the mistake of a guy who hadn’t been mentally ready; he vowed never to let an enemy take the first shot. Training aboard the Roberts, always intense, ratcheted up a notch.
The first convoy of Operation Earnest Will would begin in eight weeks. And six months later, the Sammy B itself would deploy to the Gulf.