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Operation Praying Mantis was a little known military incursion by the United States against Iran in 1988. The circumstances that lead up to Operation Praying Mantis grew out of the bitter Iran-Iraq War. Iran had become increasingly aggressive in the northern Persian Gulf in an effort to hamper Iraq’s oil trade. As the war turned into a bloody stalemate, Iranian forces began harassing and attacking neutral shipping in the area. On October 19, 1987, an Iranian missile attack on a Kuwaiti supertanker prompted a mild military response from the United States. US warships shelled command and control oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf. Tensions did not recede however, and a US military build-up in the Gulf was initiated. US warships were assigned to protect convoys of merchant ships passing through the Persian Gulf.

Tensions came to a head on April 14, 1988. On that day, the USS Samuel B. Roberts sighted three mines floating approximately one-half mile from the ship. Twenty minutes after the first sighting, as the Samuel B. Roberts was backing clear of the minefield, she struck a submerged mine. The resulting explosion ripped a 30 by 23 foot hole in its hull and injured ten sailors. Only after a seven-hour struggle was the crew able to save the ship from sinking. The Samuel B. Roberts was sent back to the United States for repair.

The United States’ response was Operation Praying Mantis which began on April 18, 1988. The USS Simpson, USS Wainwright, and USS Bagley attacked the Iranian frigate Sahalan and oil platforms in the Sirri and Sassan oil fields. The Iranian Navy missile patrol combatant Joshan approached the three U.S. ships. When the Joshan was warned to stand clear, she responded by firing a Harpoon missile at the group. Chaff was able to divert the missile and the USS Simpson was the first ship to return fire, striking Joshan with a missile of her own. After the Joshan was disabled by missile fire, she was sunk by gunfire. Special forces operating from the USS Trenton boarded and secured another oil platform used to coordinate attacks on merchant shipping. SEALs next secured the Iranian minelayer ship Ajar after it was disabled by US Helos helicopter gunship fire. After valuable documents incriminating Iran in attacks in the Persian Gulf were seized, explosive charges were placed on Ajar and it was sunk shortly there after. After the two days of fighting, Operation Praying Mantis was deemed a success and hostilities ended.

The immediate result of Operation Praying Mantis was the destruction of three Iranian warships, two command and control oil platforms, and at least six combatant speedboats. Iranian military presence in the Gulf was shattered and the US emerged as the clear dominant force in the waterway. Operation Praying Mantis also directly influenced the course of the Iran-Iraq War. The incidents sullied Iran’s international reputation considerably, making it difficult for Iranian dictator Ayatollah Khomeini to obtain arms. In July 1988, despite Khomeini’s desires for total victory, Iran was forced to accept a United Nations–mandated cease-fire effectively ending the Iran-Iraq War.
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.

Oh, shit.

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.

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