Hard to believe, but Battleland began covering this terrible story 25 years ago today:
28 KILLED ON U.S. FRIGATE USS STARK — DIDN’T USE DEFENSES — ‘DON’T KNOW WHY,’ NAVY OFFICIAL SAYS
WASHINGTON — The USS Stark, a 5-year-old Navy frigate crammed with the latest arms designed to destroy attacking aircraft and missiles, inexplicably did nothing Sunday when fired upon by an Iraqi fighter plane, Pentagon officials said Monday.
— May 19, 1987
The story marked a turning point in Battleland’s understanding of the U.S. military. It taught him that initial stories are usually wrong, that the military lacked superpowers – and even some decidedly humble human ones – and that over-learning lessons can backfire.
It’s important sometimes to recall the arc of a story like this. Like so many military matters, war foremost among them, the story changed – and not for the better – over time in these stories Battleland reported for the Miami Herald:
DEFENSE PROBABLY TURNED OFF — COMPLEX SYSTEM HAS TO BE SET UP
The battery of sophisticated weapons aboard the USS Stark was most likely turned off Sunday night, leaving the ship practically defenseless when it was attacked by an Iraqi warplane, a Navy spokesman said Tuesday.
— May 20, 1987
STARK WARNED WARPLANE TOO LATE — IRAQI MISSILES HAD ALREADY BEEN LAUNCHED, RECORDS SHOW
WASHINGTON — The USS Stark did not try to warn an Iraqi warplane away until more than a minute after the plane had launched its two deadly missiles against the frigate and was headed home, according to U.S. and Iraqi records. Minutes earlier, the ship’s tactical action officer twice dismissed suggestions from a concerned petty officer that the plane’s pilot be warned that he was approaching an American ship, says a congressman investigating the tragedy.
Furthermore, Pentagon records show that the May 17 attack, which killed 37 sailors, should have come as no surprise to the ship’s commanders: Six minutes before theStark issued its two warnings to the plane, two nearby U.S. ships told the Stark that the Iraqi plane was bearing down on it. That the Stark repeatedly ignored the threat of the Iraqi plane until too late stands in sharp contrast to accounts given shortly after the incident. On May 19, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said: “The ship had queried the plane as to its intentions. . . . They were not responded to by the Iraqi plane, and the attack came immediately after that.” A week later, Weinberger referred to the strike as a “sneak attack.”
— June 7, 1987
STARK REPORT FAULTS CREW’S RESPONSE
The crew of the USS Stark failed to respond properly to an incoming Iraqi jet fighter that attacked the ship with two Exocet missiles and killed 37 sailors four weeks ago, according to a congressional report released Saturday. “No action Stark could have taken would have foreclosed the possibility of a hit, but actions not availed could have reduced that possibility,” the House Armed Services Committee report said.
“The evidence we now have shows the Stark should have, first, radioed a warning to the Iraqi Mirage much sooner — the first warning was actually broadcast only after the Mirage was well within Exocet missile range,” said Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., chairman of the committee. “And, second, the Stark should have turned broadside to the Mirage” so all of the ship’s radar and weapons “could be brought into action.”
— June 14, 1987
3 STARK OFFICERS RELIEVED OF POSTS
Capt. Glenn Brindel and two of his senior officers aboard the U.S. frigate Stark were relieved of their posts Friday because of a “lack of confidence in their performance” during the Iraqi missile attack on the vessel last month, the Defense Department said. Defense officials added privately that the three are certain to face courts-martial for their actions during the May 17 attack in the Persian Gulf that killed 37 U.S. sailors aboard the frigate and injured 21 others.
— June 20, 1987
COLLAPSE OF FIGHTING CAPABILITIES DOOMED STARK, NAVY CONCLUDES
The “total collapse” of the USS Stark’s fighting capabilities triggered a “cascade of failures” that turned the frigate into a sitting duck the night it was attacked by an Iraqi warplane, according to the Navy’s formal investigative report, released Thursday. Key officers were not on the bridge and critical systems that could have defended the ship went unmanned the night of May 17, when two Exocet missiles slammed into the ship and killed 37 sailors, the declassified version of the 45-page report said.
“Stark never fired a weapon nor employed a countermeasure either in self-defense or in retaliation,” said the report, which detailed numerous errors in judgment and outright mistakes by the Stark’s officers and crew in the minutes before the apparently accidental attack.
— October 16, 1987
OFFICER: DISASTER WAS NEAR IN 1985
A U.S. warship came dangerously close to shooting down an Iranian 747 airliner carrying pilgrims to Mecca several years ago, the former commander of the USS Stark said in an interview Monday. Glenn R. Brindel said the near-disaster was drilled into every U.S. naval commander in the Persian Gulf and that top defense officials urged extreme restraint before exercising force against unknown aircraft. Consequently, Brindel didn’t shoot at an incoming Iraqi F-1 fighter the night of May 17, 1987, and 37 of his crewmen died as a result.
Brindel, who said he thought the near shoot-down took place in 1985, said the AWACS radar surveillance plane over the Gulf relayed false information to the captain of a Navy ship in the plane’s path. Brindel said he did not remember the ship involved, and his claim could not immediately be confirmed by Navy officials. Late last year, Brindel left the Navy in disgrace, sharply criticized by his Navy superiors for allowing the “total collapse” of the Stark’s defenses.
On Sunday, perhaps recalling the fate that befell the Stark and Brindel, the captain of the USS Vincennes fired away at an unknown intruder, killing 290 Iranian civilians. Brindel said the fate of the Stark probably played a role in the decision of Capt. Will Rogers III, commander of the Vincennes. “I think the Stark incident probably contributed to part of the decision process that the commanding officer went through,” Brindel said.
— July 5, 1988
The Navy investigated the errors. The Stark was made shipshape again, and continued to sail until 1999. She was scrapped, in Philadelphia, in 2006.