Operation Praying Mantis
was my introduction to modern warfare
as a participant
The USS Samuel B Roberts came over to relieve the USS Gary from the patrol it was running (generic boring holes in the ocean, aka water doughnuts). A few hours later, they hit the minefield that the Gary had passed over unscathed during the night.
The US had been posturing in the Gulf for a while, and at one point we had to sit by while a tanker was shelled at will by the Sahalan. Calls of help were left unanswered because we did not get permission to engage. When the Sammy B hit the mine, the rules changed.
The US was purposely looking for the Sahalan when we retaliated. It was targeted because her crew was responsible for attacking quite a few tankers. A few items not mentioned in Epyons fine writeup include how the Sahalan was also hit with some laser-guided bombs from US aircraft and how the command and control platforms were warned in advance that shelling would commence in five minutes. A lot of folks hopped on the speedboats and took off, and we let them go because we were interested in damaging the infrastructure, not the humans.
This all took place on April 17th, 1988. What is not generally known is what happened the next morning.
The USS Gary (FFG-51) was assigned to go to the northern portion of the Gulf, north of some barges that we were using for northern gulf operations. We were well out of the air protection envelope. The main job of the USS Gary was to act as a quacking duck to see if the Iranians still wanted to fight.
The two helicopters that were onboard the USS Gary were launched early, and encountered an Iranian aircraft that was at the far field of the RADAR. They were jamming on most frequencies. The ship got a call from Grey Ghost (the Combat Air Patrol, a P3 Orion, if memory serves) that they were tracking two inbound missiles. It turns out that the two missiles were Silkworms, relatively stupid yet packing quite a punch. The USS Gary turned and kicked their engines into high gear. The ship was prepared for impact, and the overhead PA system was tuned into the 1MC channel, which was occupied by Combat. Everyone heard the order given to place a "bird on the rail", meaning the USS Gary was going to launch an anti-missile missile. Unfortunately, the jamming by the Iranians kept them from launching.
COMBAT: "Launch the bird, repeat, launch the bird."
GUNNER: "We cannot launch, we have no RADAR lock."
COMBAT: "Well, fire the goddamned missile anyway!"
GUNNER: "Sorry, Sir, you cannot launch unless you have a RADAR lock.
Loud bangs announced the deployment of chaff to confuse the Silkworms. One did lock onto the cloud of aluminum confetti, and veered off. The other one kept coming. Another problem for the USS Gary was that the Phalanx anti-missile gun on the back flight deck was RADAR-guided. The USS Gary ended up shooting their main gun (a 75) in the general direction of the missile, sort of like trying to hit something a few feet across with a shell that was only about four inches in diameter while rocking and rolling on a ship moving at 30+ knots. That was when Grey Ghost confirmed that the missile had run out of fuel and had splashed down exactly 17 seconds from impacting the USS Gary. The ship was well within the theoretical operating envelope of the Silkworm, perhaps they had short-changed the fuel load on the missile.
It should be noted that then-President Reagan had stated that the United States would attack any missile site that ever launched a Silkworm missile at any US ship. A man on the barges in the Gulf had taken actual pictures of the Silkworms passing nearby. These were supposed to be given to the Captain of the USS Gary for the wardroom. Additionally, the entire action had been filmed by a news team from the US, including shots of the Silkworm splashing down. Since the US did not want to follow up on their threat, the man mysteriously disappeared off of the barge, along with his pictures (tough to do when you're miles from any coast). The news team was told not to report the action of that morning. Senator Alan Cranston, when directly asked by the news media if any Silkworms were fired at US ships during the whole affair, said, "At no time was any Silkworm fired at a US ship." A blatant lie, but a political way of getting out of bombing missile sites in Iran.
During Operation Praying Mantis, the helicopter personnel on the USS Gary set the all-time helicopter flight hours record in a one-month period, which still stands to this day. The CNO has decreed that the record will never be broken because it required a lot of fast-paced work that could jeapordize lives. The USS Gary crew and helo detachment were also set to receive the Combat Action medal, but they ended up classifying the action, thereby preventing the award.
Years later, when folks heard where I was during April 18th, 1988 (my mother's birthday, by the way), they'd ask me what it was like during combat. They had heard the radio chatter between the ships and knew the real story. I usually reply that we made our own version of a medal, all dark brown, called the I Shit My Pants in the Persian Gulf and All I Got Was This Lousy Shit-Brown Ribbon award.
It did change my perspective on war, comraderie and the US Government. I now vote in every election, even the silly local ones. I don't want people like ex-Senator Alan Cranston to get put into office due to apathy.