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VFW Magazine May 2017 : Page 36

‘INBOUND MISSILE’ BY DAVE SPIVA May 17 marks 30 years since the USS Stark was hit by two missiles from an Iraqi ghter jet. The resulting explosions killed 37 crew members. Three decades later, questions about the incident remain unanswered. L 36 • VFW t. William A. Conklin was onboard the USS Stark the evening of May 17, 1987. Conklin said he had just fin-ished a day’s work and tried to catch a couple hours of sleep before starting his scheduled watch at 11:30 p.m. What Conklin didn’t know at the time was two Exocet mis-siles from an Iraqi fighter jet were headed toward his ship. “I was in my rack trying to go to sleep when I heard a grind-ing (noise),” Conklin said. “It’s a noise I’ll never forget.” Conklin described that sound of the missile as being like a car crash but “five times” longer and “significantly louder.” “I thought we had hit another ship... one of those fishing dhows (a sea vessel common in the Persian Gulf ),” Conklin said. “I thought we cut one in half with our ship and that it was a real mess.” Conklin said he decided to get up and “get to work” because he knew something happened. • MAY 2017 He was right. The Stark , a frigate on routine patrolling duty in the Persian Gulf, was hit by two missiles at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, 1987, about 80 miles northeast of Bahrain, the port the ship left earlier that day. The missiles hit the same spot of the ship within 30 seconds of each other, according to the Navy’s official report of the incident. Of the more than 200 sailors on the frigate during the attack, 37 were killed and 21 were injured. The Stark , and its crew, had been in the area for about two months when it was attacked, which likely came as a surprise to the crew since the ship was not in a designated hostel area during the incident. During this period, the Navy’s presence in the Persian Gulf had increased due to the ongoing “Tanker War” between Iraq and Iran, which had been occurring since the early 1980s.

USS Stark Attacked In Persian Gulf

Dave Spiva

‘INBOUND MISSILE’

May 17 marks 30 years since the USS Stark was hit by two missiles from an Iraqi fighter jet. The resulting explosions killed 37 crew members. Three decades later, questions about the incident remain unanswered.

Lt. William A. Conklin was onboard the USS Stark the evening of May 17, 1987. Conklin said he had just finished a day’s work and tried to catch a couple hours of sleep before starting his scheduled watch at 11:30 p.m.

What Conklin didn’t know at the time was two Exocet missiles from an Iraqi fighter jet were headed toward his ship.

“I was in my rack trying to go to sleep when I heard a grinding (noise),” Conklin said. “It’s a noise I’ll never forget.”

Conklin described that sound of the missile as being like a car crash but “five times” longer and “significantly louder.”

“I thought we had hit another ship... one of those fishing dhows (a sea vessel common in the Persian Gulf ),” Conklin said. “I thought we cut one in half with our ship and that it was a real mess.”

Conklin said he decided to get up and “get to work” because he knew something happened.

He was right.

The Stark, a frigate on routine patrolling duty in the Persian Gulf, was hit by two missiles at about 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 17, 1987, about 80 miles northeast of Bahrain, the port the ship left earlier that day. The missiles hit the same spot of the ship within 30 seconds of each other, according to the Navy’s official report of the incident.

Of the more than 200 sailors on the frigate during the attack, 37 were killed and 21 were injured. The Stark, and its crew, had been in the area for about two months when it was attacked, which likely came as a surprise to the crew since the ship was not in a designated hostel area during the incident.

During this period, the Navy’s presence in the Persian Gulf had increased due to the ongoing “Tanker War” between Iraq and Iran, which had been occurring since the early 1980s.

‘DEEP TROUBLE’

According to the official report of the attack, “each missile injected approximately 300 pounds of propellant into the berthing complex.”

The report also stated that the first missile, which was faulty, “was more damaging than the second missile [...] because it injected burning propellant further inside the ship.”

Mark Wasnock, who at the time was a gas turbine systems technician 3rd class, also was on the Stark when both missiles hit. Wasnock said he was awake when the first missile hit the ship’s port side.

In a VA claim letter written in 2011, Wasnock, now a retired senior chief, wrote about his experience onboard the Stark, that day. He shared the letter with VFW magazine.

He wrote that Hull Maintenance Technician 3rd Class Mike Romanetto wanted him to watch a movie with him that evening.

“He very well may have been responsible for saving my life that night because instead of potentially being asleep in my rack, which immediately flooded from the initial damage, I was now several spaces aft of where the two missiles struck,” Wasnock wrote.

Immediate fire damage from the missile caused damage in enlisted berthing areas, the ship’s barber shop, gyro room and the bridge wing on the port side, according to the report.

“(After the first missile hit,) I was about to open the door of my stateroom when I heard (the general quarters alarm) and then the following words (broadcasted through the 1MC, or ship’s PA system): Inbound missile; port side; all hands brace for shock,” Conklin said. “Those words did not sink into my head at first, but when I opened my stateroom door — the fact that smoke was from my chest to the ceiling and smoke came billowing into my stateroom — it sunk in right away.”

He said that as he was making his way down the passage way to the ship’s engineering spaces, he suddenly ran into a bulkhead.

“(That) is when the second missile hit,” Conklin said. “It made the ship move sideways several feet... I became a pinball running down the passage way. That’s when I realized we were in deep, deep trouble.”

The official report stated that “the second missile’s warhead detonated just inside the ship and vented some of its thermal energy back out through the exterior of the ship.”

In his claim letter, Wasnock wrote that he ran to the ship’s engine room, which “started filling with this thick, black heavy acid-tasting smoke. The smoke was thick, and it became overwhelming and unbearable. I had to evacuate the space, so I reported to Central Control Station (CCS).”

Wasnock wrote: “This period of time was extremely critical in the saving of the ship and preventing further loss of life. The ship had to maintain steerageway and power to aid in the damage control efforts in preventing [the] Stark from capsizing or sinking.”

Wasnock stated he reported to CCS, where Gas Turbine Systems Technician 1st Class Randy Engram was standing duty as the engineering officer of the watch.

“Randy ordered me back in the engine room and said to use my [gas mask] so the acid smoke wouldn’t burn my eyes as much,” Wasnock wrote. “I stayed in the smoke filled engine room for approximately 10 hours doing my duty, crouching down and grabbing air where I could. I was very scared. The ship was at a list that was very frightening to me. I had no idea how far the ship could lean-over on its side with out completely rolling over.”

CASUALTIES AT SEA

According to an August 2013 VFW magazine article, the missile, which made a hole in the skin of the ship, caused several men from the berthing area to be thrown into the sea. The men survived 10 hours before rescuers arrived.

The crew threw life rings overboard to help save the men’s lives, according to the Navy’s report.

The VFW magazine article states that most of the men who died did so in their racks by suffocating or burning to death.

About 10 hours after the attack, Wasnock, who was still standing watch duty in the engine room, learned the ship was hit by two missiles. Shortly after, according to Wasnock, the commanding officer ordered the engine room to be shut down.

“After the main engines were [turned off,] I reported to the fantail where damage control efforts were being managed,” Wasnock wrote. “I was there to join a fire party, and that’s [where] I first saw some of the dead.”

He added that he “became more terrified” of the images he was about to see.

“I remember the black filled body bags,” Wasnock wrote. “That smell of my dead shipmates, or what I thought was the smell of my friends, is still engraved into my head.”

Wasnock stated that he eventually “collapsed from severe smoke inhalation and exhaustion” after obtaining the ship’s dental records from a medical space to help identify the dead. Wasnock wrote that he “could no longer walk.”

“The [executive officer] ordered me off the ship to the USS LaSalle, where I started to receive treatment for my burns, cuts and injuries,” Wasnock wrote.

RECOGNIZING HEROISM

The efforts to save the Stark were successful and lasted at least 20 hours. Conklin said he believes the ship was saved because the crew was “so well trained” for those kinds of incidents. At the time, Conklin was the ship’s damage control assistant, a position that is responsible for preventing and controlling damage onboard the ship.

Saving the Stark did not come without tribulation, however. After the missiles hit the ship, Conklin said he made it to the engineering spaces of the ship and met with Hull Maintenance Technician 1st Class Michael O’Keefe, who Conklin said reported what he saw on his way to the engineering spaces.

“He said, ‘My God, sir. It is a complete disaster up there,’ ” Conklin said of O’Keefe, who referred to the ship’s damage.

“We then found out we had no firefighting water,” Conklin said. “As we now know afterwards, a missile had gone through and cut [the firemain] in half.”

Conklin said he and O’Keefe proceeded to shut off specific valves to the firemain to get water pressure to the firehoses. Conklin said he shut off the necessary valve on the port side, which was the most damaged side of the ship, while O’Keefe closed valves on the starboard side.

Ten sailors, including O’Keefe and Conklin, received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for their heroism during those efforts.

Even though only a select few crew members were officially recognized by the Navy, Conklin said the Stark was saved by “all hands” onboard the ship that day.

In his letter to the VA, Wasnock recognized at least one sailor that should have been recognized for his actions.

“I feel Kevin Cummings was a true hero that day,” Wasnock wrote. “To my knowledge, he was never acknowledged for his heroic actions.”

Cummings, a fireman apprentice at the time, was, according to Wasnock, responsible for keeping the ship afloat while damage control efforts were underway.

In his letter, Wasnock described Cummings running to different areas of the ship to transfer the fuel onboard to maintain proper ballast of the ship. Wasnock said Cummings used step-bystep instructions, containing directions and diagrams on how to shift, align, operate and secure equipment.

“[W]hat made him so great was that he was an under instruction Oil King,” Wasnock wrote, referring to Cummings not being officially qualified for the task of handling fuel on the ship.

Unfortunately, Kevin Cummings died on Aug. 1, 2012.

“In the end, none of us could have done our job if it wasn’t for everyone doing their part,” Conklin said.

The next morning, after the crew fought fires for several hours, sailors from the USS Conyngham, a destroyer, relieved crew members of the Stark to assist with damage, Conklin said.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS REMAIN

Even 30 years after the incident, questions about the attack still are unanswered and might never be revealed.

For one, the Stark did not fire any ordnance in retaliation of the attack, according to the Navy’s official report.

“If there is any place [the Navy] would place blame, and they did, it would be in [the ship’s combat information center, or CIC],” Conklin said. “The people in [CIC] weren’t as prepared as the Navy thought they should have been.”

In the following months after the attack, the Stark’s commanding officer, Capt. Glenn R. Brindel, executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Raymond Gajan Jr., and tactical action officer, Lt. Basil E. Moncrief, were relieved of their duties onboard the Stark, even though both Gajan and Moncrief received Navy and Marine Corps Medals for their actions.

“Over the years, I’ve had to come to grips with [having] a captain [who] I liked and thought did a great job that also probably didn’t convey the right information to the people in [CIC],” Conklin said.

Ironically, even though the ship was hit by two missiles by a foreign aircraft, the crew of the Stark did not receive combat action ribbons for the attack.

“There have been some questions about the rules of engagement that have never been declassified,” Conklin said. “I don’t think there is anyone, 30 years later, who can really speak specifically about that. We will never, ever know because all the people involved in that are gone. In some respects, I don’t think it matters. Ultimately, at the end of the day, what I always tell my shipmates is, ‘it really doesn’t matter how we got there, what matters is what we did when we got there.”

EMAIL dspiva@vfw.org

VFW QUALIFYING MEDAL ISSUED AFTER STARK INCIDENT

NAVY EXPEDITIONARY MEDAL

Sailors from the USS Stark, as well as other ships in the Persian Gulf during that time period, received the Navy Expeditionary Medal for their foreign service.

Other sailors who participated in the Persian Gulf campaign from Feb. 1 to July 23, 1987, also received the medal.

The Navy Expeditionary Medal is earned by sailors “who have actually landed on foreign territory and engaged in operations against armed opposition, or operated under circumstances deemed to merit special recognition and for which no service or campaign medal was awarded,” according to the General Orders of the Department of the Navy.

NAVY AND MARINE CORPS MEDAL ALSO AWARDED

The medal was awarded to 10 men for heroism at the risk of life following the attack on the USS Stark on May 17, 1987.

The Navy and Marine Corps Medal is not a VFW qualifying medal.

Read the full article at http://digitaledition.qwinc.com/article/USS+Stark+Attacked+In+Persian+Gulf/2748032/395748/article.html.

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