It had the power to hunt and destroy submarines and it could blast incoming missiles out of the sky. Still, on the night of May 17 the uss Stark, a $260-million guided missile frigate sailing in the war-torn Persian Gulf, failed to defend itself against a surprise attack by an Iraqi Mirage F-l fighter-bomber specially armed with two French-made Exocet missiles. One missile struck the ship in the port bow, killing 37 U.S. sailors and seriously wounding two more. Another penetrated the twisted wreckage but did not explode.
An immediate apology from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to President Ronald Reagan for “the painful incident” averted a military crisis between the two countries. Accepting the Iraqi claim that the attack was accidental,
Reagan said that U.S. warships would continue to patrol the Gulf, but he established new guidelines for U.S. forces affected by the 6V2-year IranIraq conflict. “From now on,” the President declared, “ if aircraft approach any of our ships in a way that appears hostile, there is one order of battle: defend yourselves, defend American lives.”
In the wake of the incident, relatives of the dead and wounded demanded to know why men aboard a state-of-the-art warship sailing through a combat zone were little more than “sitting ducks,” in the words of one grieving father, Robert DeAngelis of Dumont, N.J. As well, Republicans and Democrats in Congress called for a reassessment of the U.S. navy’s mission in the Gulf, whose states supply half of Western Europe’s oil, 70 per cent of Japan’s, but only seven per cent of U.S. oil needs. And the Stark’s skipper, Capt. Glenn Brindel, could offer little defence for his crew’s failure to retaliate once the two deadly missiles had been fired from a distance of about 12 miles. Said Brindel: “I don’t know whether any of it was my fault, I don’t know whether it was the fault
of an operator, I don’t know whether it was the fault of the equipment, I don’t know whether it was an act of God.”
The Sunday night attack caught the Stark on routine patrol in international waters about 85 miles northeast of Bahrain. With the ship on what is called condition three, twothirds of the 220 crew members were off duty, many asleep in their bunks. At 10:10 p.m. a Saudi-based American AWACS (airborne warning and control system) radar plane observed a single Iraqi Mirage flying south along the Saudi coastline before it suddenly turned toward the Stark, dropped altitude and launched its missiles. Lacking the means of direct communication with the Stark, the AWACS was unable to warn the ship of the missile launch, and Stark crew members who had been tracking the plane on radar failed to detect the firing. Moments after the attack, U.S. air force controllers aboard the AWACS asked nearby Saudi fighter
planes to intercept the Iraqi Mirage. The Saudi pilots refused, unable to get the official permission they needed before the Mirage returned to its base in Iraq.
Brindel said that the first he learned of the attack was when a lookout reported a visual sighting of a missile only seconds before it slammed into the ship. At a news conference in Bahrain three days after the attack, Brindel confirmed that his ship was capable of defending itself against Exocets. The Stark was equipped with a manual device that launches a cloud of reflecting metal strips that confuse the radar-guidance systems of incoming missiles, as well as the automatic Phalanx system, a radar-controlled Gatling gun that fires 3,000 rounds a minute of heavy uranium 20-mm ammunition at incoming targets. But the captain said the Phalanx system—normally activated only during a presumed attack— was not set to fire automatically for fear it might shoot down a friendly aircraft that might stray within its lethaï range of one mile. And by the time the missile was spotted it was too late to switch it on, he added.
The explosion and fire from one of the wave-skimming Exocets burned 37 U.S. sailors to death in their bunks and left a gaping hole in the aluminum ship, surrounded by twisted metal. A navy bomb squad later found and defused the unexploded warhead of a sec-
ond missile, lodged deep in the debris. Petty officer James Wheeler was asleep before the attack. “I heard the alarm and I didn’t know where it was coming from at first,” the 28-year-old Texan said after being airlifted to a hospital in Bahrain. “Then I heard
something whistling and there was nothing but fire.” Wheeler, who suffered burns to 35 per cent of his body, later was flown to the United States for further treatment. Meanwhile, the crippled Stark was towed to the U.S. naval base in Bahrain, its Stars and Stripes fluttering at half-mast, and still listing to the port side where the missiles hit.
The Iraqi attack focused attention on Washington’s policy toward the Iran-Iraq war. The most significant direct result of the attack on the Stark was an acceleration of a U.S. plan to provide naval escorts for 11 Kuwaiti oil tankers that operate in the war zone at the northern end of the Persian Gulf in case of attack by Iranian ships and planes. Under the speededup arrangements, U.S. officials said last week, the tankers will be flying the Stars and Stripes as U.S.-registered vessels by the end of June—instead of by August. In the past six years there have been 315 attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, 220 of them by Iraq. But last Thursday the U.S. Senate voted 91 to 5 to require the Reagan administration to tell Congress, before the ships began escort duties next week, precisely how they would defend themselves in the event of an attack.
As well, in a similar display of self-interest by a superpower, the Soviet Union has leased three oil tankers to Kuwait, putting them under the Kremlin’s protection. But Iran has already indicated that its aircraft will continue to attack Kuwaiti tankers, whatever flag they fly, because Kuwait supports its enemy, Iraq.
The protected tankers, which mainly carry oil for Europe and Japan, operate deeper inside the war zone than U.S. ships have gone before. The U.S agreement to protect the Kuwaiti ships has been under negotiation since last December. In rushing the operation forward, Reagan said it was a “vital mission.” Said the President: “Our ships are deployed in the Gulf in order to protect the United States interests
and maintain freedom of navigation and access to the area’s oil supplies.” Meanwhile, Senate armed services committee chairman Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat and possible presidential contender, announced that he would call hearings into the Stark incident. He also requested that the Reagan administration keep Congress advised of all developments in the Gulf under the provisions of the 1973 War Powers Act. That law requires the President to consult fully with Congress when U.S. forces are moved into hostile areas.
Indeed, in the wake of those developments the scene appeared set for a major confrontation on Capitol Hill over authorization to conduct military actions in the Gulf. Congressman Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, said: “The presence of American ships in the Persian Gulf has been a tragedy waiting to happen. These ships have been in danger from the outset. They were operating without air cover and on a mission they were not designed for.” But congressman William Dickinson of Alabama, ranking Republican on the armed g services committee, noto ed that the attack oc3 curred in waters where E U.S. ships have pa2 trolled safely in the past. He pointed out “the irony that people here will call on the United States to do something, but they are the same people who vote to cut the defence budget right down to the bone.”
As a U.S. navy board of inquiry opened into the Stark incident on May 21, the U.S. aircraft carrier Constellation sailed into the Arabian Sea and positioned itself near enough to the Gulf to provide air cover with F14 Tomcats, the Navy’s premier jet fighters. And the following day the flag-draped coffins of the dead crewmen were flown into the Stark’s home port of Mayport, Fla., for a memorial service attended by President Reagan. He told the families of those who died, “Young Americans of the USS Stark gave up their lives so that wider war and greater conflict could be avoided.” But as Reagan prepared to bolster U.S. forces in the Gulf, there was a growing possibility that even more young Americans might die in the Gulf.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.