Murdoc has been on a bit of a trend lately with books dealing with the smaller ships in the US Navy, and the latest of the sort is No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf by Bradley Peniston.(Official site: www.nohigherhonor.com)
It’s the story of the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) from her construction through the aftermath of her near-sinking by an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” in 1988, a late act in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. For several years, the two opposing sides had been taking potshots at oil tankers in the Gulf in order to deprive the other side of much-needed trade.
Both sides were less than meticulous about identifying their prey; neutral and even friendly ships suffered the consequences. Together they had turned the inland sea into the world’s most hazardous watercourse.
The United States had tried to keep out of the fray–U.S. policy makers would have preferred both sides to lose, if that were possible, but the region’s oil gave it a strategic significance that could not be ignored. Reagan administration officials muddled along at arm’s length, passing battlefield intelligence to Baghdad even as they secretly shipped arms to Tehran, until the Kuwaiti monarchy forced the White House’s hand in late 1986 by extracting a promise to protect its tankers.
In mid-1987 the U.S. Navy launched Operation Earnest Will–its first convoy operation since World War II–and began to dispatch dozens of U.S. warships to the region.
The Roberts was one of those ships and she would nearly be sunk.
The first half of the book details the construction of the ship, an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate, and the assembly and training of her crew. Captained by CDR Paul Rinn, the crew trained as hard or harder than any other in the fleet, with particular attention paid to damage control. The accidental attack on the USS Stark (FFG 31), a sister ship to the Johnson, in the Gulf by Iraqi aircraft underscored the need for top-notch damage control and combat command.
By the time the Stark was towed into Bahrain, a shaken U.S. Navy was already trying to figure out what had gone wrong. Why had the ship failed to defend itself? The service’s formal investigation blamed [Stark commander] Brindel for failing to –provide combat-oriented leadership.” But the investigators also noted that the navy leadership had failed to sound the warning about accidental attacks from Iraqi jets. Instead, Gulf skippers had been told to keep a sharp eye for Iranian mines and admonished not to embarrass the United States by acting precipitously. One contributor to Proceedings wondered whether America’s naval service was breeding leaders who could handle a split-second switch from diplomacy to combat, saying: –The Navy’s natural selection during peacetime mirrors American society. We have always imagined a gulf between war and peace. We have attempted to separate cleanly our values and our behavior accordingly, and this has limited our effectiveness in a world of shadow conflict, or ‘violent peace.’ Even when we bridge that gulf and formally go to war, the mental transformation from gentility to the warrior’s ethic that demands unconditional surrender takes time. How long does it take the warrior to emerge?”
The news of the Stark reached the Roberts at sea as it headed south for some exercises off the Virginia capes. The report shocked the crew. Many had a buddy aboard the Stark; some had acquaintances among the dead. Everyone knew the two frigates shared the same weapons, the
same systems, the same vulnerabilities.
On April 14, 1988, the Roberts found herself in the middle of an uncharted minefield. Using auxiliary motors, Rinn tried to back the ship out along the track she had taken in, but one mine exploded, ripping a 15-foot hole in the ship’s hull and disabling a great deal of her capability to fight the fires and flooding that followed. Drilled constantly against the worst disasters anyone could come up with, the Roberts’ crew found themselves faced with scenarios that no one had imagined. Chief Dave Walker found that, even when partial electrical power was restored, that his console was still dead.
–Chief, it’s all fucked up,” [GSE1 Michael] Wallingford said. –What do you want me to do?”
–Wally, I don’t give a fuck what you do, but you better get that thing running again.”
‘You got any ideas?”
Walker looked around. He hoped the console wasn’t actually damaged, hut rather had simply been cut off from its electrical supply when the engine room flooded. His eyes landed on the floor buffer, a fluffy-footed instrument the sailors loved to hate.
–Yes,” Walker said. –You see that buffer over there? Cut the fucking cord off that buffer.”
The chief explained his idea: take a fifty-foot length and strip the leads, producing a long extension cord. Next, find a connection to the panel’s power supply by severing its cable to the now-useless battery pack. Twist the buffer cord and battery lead together. Now you’ve got a console with a handy plug-in cord. Start trying 120-volt outlets until you find one that works.
–We can do that?”
–Fucking right we can do that,” Walker said. –Nobody’s down here to tell us we can’t.”
And it worked.
That maneuver is just one of many astounding ad-libs by a crew that, though faced with a nearly-insurmountable task, not only kept their ship afloat but made what preparations they could to defend themselves if necessary.
At a Pentagon press conference, some details of what the Roberts had done and was doing were passed on to the press corpse:
As the flag officers described the effort, the reporters added it up. –So simultaneously, they were backing out of a mine field, controlling flooding, putting out a fire, moving magazines, and repairing the ship?” one asked.
The Roberts and her crew were quite something.
A chapter is devoted to Operation Preying Mantis, the retaliatory strikes against the Iranian military. Though the Roberts was out of action, her SH-60 LAMPS Mk III Seahawk helicopter did play a role, making sure that the Roberts was not totally left out.
And, speaking of the press corpse, some things have never changed:
In the meantime, readers of the daily London Guardian received this report:
An American navy frigate damaged by an Iranian mine in the Gulf two months ago is a write-off and will have to be scrapped, according to naval sources in the area. The US authorities are attempting to cover up the costly loss in case it reopens questions about Washington’s large naval presence in the Gulf…The frigate is beyond repair, but is being kept in dock to prevent the full extent of the damage being revealed…In the words of one naval observer, the USS Samuel B. Roberts –crumpled like cardboard” when it hit the mine.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency reprinted the article with glee.
Except, um, that the ship wasn’t beyond repair. In fact, take a look at this:
Pacific Ocean (July 11, 2005) – The guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) underway along side the U.S. Coast Guard cutter USCG Forward (WMEC 911) in the Pacific Ocean. Samuel B. Roberts and Forward are part of a multinational naval and coast guard force from six nations conducting UNITAS 46-05 Pacific Phase off the coasts of Colombia. The Colombian Navy in this year’s UNITAS Pacific Phase hosts Ecuador, Panama, Peru and the United States. During the two-week exercise, participating units have the opportunity to train as unified force in all aspects of naval operations, from maritime interdiction to anti-submarine and electronic warfare. U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command sponsors UNITAS exercises with the objective to foster cooperation and develop interoperability among the navies of the region. U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Michael Sandberg (RELEASED)
Not bad for a ship that crumpled like cardboard and was secretly written off in 1988. (pic from Navy NewsStand)
The book’s title comes from the words of the commander of the first USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE 413), part of the group of tin cans which charged a Japanese battleship and cruiser force in 1944:
In his battle report, Robert Copeland delivered the ultimate encomium to his sailors: –The crew were informed over the loudspeaker system at the beginning of the action of the Commanding Officer’s estimate of the situation; that is, a fight against overwhelming odds from which survival could not be expected, during which time we would do what damage we could. In the face of this knowledge, the men zealously manned their stations wherever they might be, and fought and worked with such calmness, courage, and efficiency that no higher honor could be conceived than to command such a group of men.”
The men of FFG 58 lived up to the memory of their namesake ship on that day in 1988, 44 years after the first Sammy B was destroyed in battle against a foe many, many times her size. A mine, physically small but still a grave threat to any ship, nearly did in the latest Sammy B. But the preparation and action of the crew, combined with an absolute refusal to give up the ship, saved the day against odds nearly as long.
No Higher Honor is a great read, filled not only with action but with the crucial background that made the crew able to do what they did when everything was on the line.