The Morning of the Attack on the USS STARK (FFG-31)

May 17th, 2006 by xformed

I was in the Staff Office early that morning, as I was Duty Officer. I hadn’t been in the door but a few minutes when the phone rang. The voice was all too familiar, barking orders as soon as I said my name into the phone. Capt Wes Jordan, Chief of Staff at COMNAVSURFLANT began ordering me to pull all the MEFEX (Middle East Force Exercise) training records from the previous summer.
He told me the news of the STARK being attacked, in his to the point manner, and told me to get the files down to his office right away. This order, while not from my current Commodore, was easily interpreted as one of priority.

Capt Jordan, no longer the DESRON 32 Commodore, retained a tremendous amount of info on just about everything, including the record keeping he had required when we had sailed on our work up exercises for a Med deployment. The USS STARK (FFG-31) had tagged along with the battle group to get her training in, as there wasn’t a dedicated fleet exercise for those few ships then deploying to the Middle East force AOR. That being the case, we had her daily exercise completion reports filed along with those of the rest of the ships on the FLTEX.

I opened one of the classified safes and began retrieving the thick folders of exercise messages. As I Was involved in this process, the Commodore, Capt Joe Lopez, and the Chief Staff Officer, CDR Dewey Collier arrived. I recall turning around from the tall stand up safe and telling them about the phone call. Capt Lopez’s expression was one that indicated he wasn’t too happy with the chain of command being jumped over (about three steps to be exact) and then he told me to get the files and get them down to SURFLANT.

About 45 minutes later, I was at Capt Jordan’s office door. He had a room full of staff officers, but he came over took the folders and shook my hand, greeting me warmly. I headed back to the office.

We went back to work at the office, as we had deployment preps to handle, but, as time went by, reports came in. A few days after the incident, one of the officers from COMCRUDESGRU 8 came down and told us to come up to their spaces to see a message to Admiral Boorda. The message was a “Personal For” from the CO of the USS CONYNGHAM (DDG-17) to CCDG 8. It described the bravery of the crew of the STARK, and the men of the CONYNGHAM, who provided the bulk of the manpower to relieve the worn out sailors on the STARK. CONYNGHAM was the second ship on scene, and the first ship, USS WADDELL (DDG-24), left when she arrived, to search for the men who had gone overboard from STARK.

The XO of CONYNGHAM spelled the very junior Damage Control Assistant (DCA) of the STARK, bringing the experience of a middle grade LCDR to the table. The XO realized the weight of topside firefighting water was a serious threat to the stability of STARK and got the crew working to get the water off the ship.

One of my former shipmates from USS LEFTWICH (DD-984), Bill Stetson, had been the Engineer Officer of CONYNGHAM just before their deployment to the MEF. He got a letter from his crew a few months after the attack and he told me they thanked him for making the train for “out of the box” situations, one of which had been to use sledge hammers to crack aluminum bulkheads, as we had no effective cutting tolls/torches on the ships at the time. They found this to be the way to attack the problem of the water in the topside spaces of the STARK, which had an aluminum superstruture. They told him of a few other things they thought he was crazy when he instructed them, but they used them that day.

More info in the “P4” message to the Admiral indicated the extensive fires had shown we had some significant deficiencies in our essentially WWII damage control equipment. It also spoke of the courage of a sailor who volunteered to take on the grusome task of collecting the remains and working to identify them, how he stoically attended to that duty. The combination of several crews, of men, consumables, and knowledge, saved the STARK. That message told a factual story, written by someone able to rapidly collect and analyze the lessons learned, while others fought to save the ship. It was a first glimpse into the type of equipment we would see very quickly. Commercial items, such as exothermic torches, Jaws of Life, NIFTI (infrared thermal imaging), and Fire Fighting Ensembles got to the fleet as a result of the lessons paid for by human lives.

Several years later, I found myself as XO aboard an FFG-7 Class ship scheduled for a Middle East Deployment. The outgoing Commanding Officer, CDR Wade Johnson, had me get copies of the STARK Investigation, which became mandatory reading for the khaki clad crew members. We had several training sessions discussing the things that led to the ship being hit. One major point was the operator at the FC1 control panel was not at his station when the attack came. Of the available sensors, that station had a good chance of seeing the threat and reacting to it. The operator had control of the Mk-92 Combined Antenna System (CAS), which has a high rate track-while-scan (TWS) capability. He could designate a target, assign it to a fire control channel and fire the assigned weapon, all from his console. He had left to get coffee, but had been gone for some time, and no other tactical watchstander had paid attention. As a result, we put the rule in place that no one was to leave their station in the Combat Information Center (CIC), without the permission of the Tactical Action Officer (TAO). We didn’t say no one could leave, but that departures were to be managed by the senior watchstander in the space.

About two months later, we were a few days from reaching Port Siad to commence our transit south in the Suez Canal. I walked into CIC, as I did routinely, after midnight. I stepped around the comm table and stood next to LTJG John Jenkins, the CIC Officer, and the assigned TAO for the midwatch. I stared at the MK-92 Console on the port side, about 6 feet from John, and then at him. “Mr. Jenkins, where is FC1?” His face flushed and he stammered “Don’t worry, XO, we’ll have it down when we get to the Persian Gulf.” By the time he finished his comment, he was sounding confident. I responded “No, you won’t, you don’t have 3 weeks.” I once more reminded him he had to know who was there and if someone needed to leave their station, he had to use sound tactical judgment in granting that permission. I also took a moment, since it was a quiet watch, to let him know it took 21 days to establish, or break habits, and I had seen that play out many times in practical application. I left to continue my tour of the ship. John was one of the best junior officers on the ship, and the only non-Department Head aboard to be qualified as Tactical Action Officer, which was no small achievement on his part, and a great vote of confidence in John from the Commanding Officer, by then, CDR Edward “Ned” Bagley, Jr.

A few weeks after the attack on the STARK, I had my oral board for Command-at-Sea. Usually, this was a feared event for us SWOs, not because we didn’t know “our stuff,” but because you never knew what daily practical thing one of the squadron COs, who would assist the Commodore in grilling you, would ask. The “gotchas” seemed to be things that had recently bit, or had nipped at the heels of the CO asking the question, and almost always was related to supply type things. That being the case, we felt out of our league, and had mentally expected our assigned Supply Officers would handle things. Questions such as Ship’s Store Stock Turn and security requirements, CASREP part turn in, etc, etc. I got lucky. Due to the attack, I had the majority of the questions being about tactical operations of the ship. I was in my element. Not saying I didn’t get the gouge on the Supply stuff, but I did breathe a sigh of relief as I left the room with passing grade.

Not only did we use the lessons of the STARK for the TAO to manage his watchstanders, we spent extra time with the electronic warfare (EW) crew members, letting them know how crucial a part of the picture they were. We also paid attention to lookout training, for, as with the British in the Falklands War, were the ones to see the Exocets first. A year later, I was assigned to the COMNAVSURFLANT MObile Training Team (CSMTT), conducting Combat Systems Assessments (CSAs) for LANTFLT ships. My teams reinforced the use of lookouts as an intergral part of the Detect-to-Engage (DTE) exercises we required the ships to run.

The Navy took to heart the hard learned lessons of the STARK attack and quickly responded in getting new equipment and training to the fleet.

Thanks to Mudville Gazette for the Open Post!

This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 17th, 2006 at 12:46 am and is filed under History, Military, Navy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 responses about “The Morning of the Attack on the USS STARK (FFG-31)”

  1. Brad said:

    Thanks for the story, and great new look for your site. For your readers: there are photos of the damaged Stark at http://www.navybook.com/nohigherhonor/pic-stark.shtml.

  2. sid said:

    I sure hope such lessons are driven home ont he LCSs.

  3. USS STARK (FFG-31) - 20 Years Ago. - - It’s not random, it’s CHAOS! said:

    […] year, here’s what I posted about my arrival at work in regards to my part of involvement in this day in […]

  4. CDR Wm J. Boulay USN (ret) said:

    Thank you for this post. I was the XO of the Conyngham that you referred to. I am so very pleased to see that the contributions of the “Gus Boat” crew mentioned. I also drafted the message you read, using the immediate observation of my chiefs and officers for the body. Today is the 20th anniversary and as I do every May 17, I say my prayers for the men we left behind, and search the ever dwindling news stories for mentions of the anniversary. That is how I found this post and the absolutely correct summary of our message. I will finish with the observation that a few years later, s Surface program Director under the watch of Joe Taussig, the Deputy Undersecretary of the Navy for Safety and Survivability, I helped make good on those words by deploying COTS solutions for the most serious material deficiencies and later, at the Office of Naval Research, helped develop a fire research program EX-USS Shadwell in Mobile Alabama. On her we can simulate the 2000 degree fire that amost took the Stark and from what we learned and continue to learn there, our fire fighting posture is vastly improved.

  5. Mrs.Paul Finan said:

    Thank you, CDR Boulay.
    We think of the crew and also pray for the men left behind.

  6. Monday Maritime Matters - - It’s not random, it’s CHAOS! said:

    […] help the damage control efforts to save STARK. I discussed some of my remembrances of that day in this post, which, was found by the then Executive Officer of CONYNGHAM, who left a […]

  7. Troy Jones said:

    CDR. Boulay,
    It was a pleasure to serve with you as my XO on the GUS boat. I will never forget that night when we rushed out to help Stark, and the officers and crew that did all they could.

    Troy Jones
    GM3 USN 1986-1990

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