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Operation Praying Mantis Blows a Hole in Iranian Navy


During the Spring of 1988, the U.S. Navy was engaged in Operation Earnest Will, which had as an objective to maintain freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf as Iraq and Iran continued to fight a seemingly endless war. On 14 April 1988, lookouts on the Perry-class frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts spotted three mines ahead in waters northeast of Qatar. Immediately the frigate's skipper, Cdr. Paul Rinn, sent the crew to General Quarters. Unfortunately, in backing down the frigate hit a fourth mine, which blew a 21-foot hole in the port side, cracking the hull, and injuring ten Sailors. The damage control efforts of the crew have become legendary as they welded cable to the hull to keep the ship from breaking in half. Within a few days, allied minesweepers combed the area and found more freshly laid mines. Judging from the markings, Iran was the clear culprit.

In Washington, President Ronald Reagan met with his national security team. Adm. William J. Crowe, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted to go after Iranian warships. Reagan instead favored the less militarily confrontational approach of going after Iranian oil platforms that had been used for command and control purposes. However, Crowe did convince the president to allow for "a very good set of rules of engagement" that would permit the Middle East Force commander to engage Iranian warships should they challenge the American operation. Crowe hoped that the notorious Iranian patrol frigate Sabalan, a warship that had mercilessly attacked many merchant ships and massacred numerous unarmed sailors, would be drawn into the fray. The action was code-named Operation Praying Mantis.

Under the command of Rear Adm. Anthony A. Less, three surface action groups of three ships each went into battle on 18 April, with two going after the oil platforms and a third seeking out the Sabalan. Overhead, aircraft from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise provided cover. Iranians stationed on both platforms resisted, but were overpowered by naval and helicopter gunfire. Marines and SEALs captured the two rigs, set demolition charges, and departed unscathed.

Meanwhile the third surface action group operating off Bandar Abbas failed to flush out the Sabalan. Instead the Iranian missile boat Joshan came out to challenge the U.S. ships and fired a Harpoon missile at the cruiser USS Wainwright. The cruiser maneuvered to limit its profile against the cruise missile and fired chaff. The tactic worked as the missile locked onto the foil cloud 100 feet off the starboard beam. The Wainwright immediately fired six Standard missiles at the Joshan followed by a Harpoon. By the time the Harpoon arrived at its intended target, there was nothing left to hit.

The Wainwright's surface warriors had no time to celebrate. With an Iranian F-4 fighter quickly closing, the Wainwright's skipper ordered Standard missiles to the rail and away. Two birds streaked towards the jet, apparently causing damage as the plane rapidly fell before returning to Bandar Abbas.

To avenge the morning actions against their two oil platforms, the Iranians sent the Sahand, sister ship of the Sabalan, across the Gulf to attack oil platforms of the United Arab Emirates. An A-6E Intruder aircraft from the Enterprise responded to surface-to-air missile launches from the Sahand by firing two Harpoons and four laser-guided bombs. The guided-missile destroyer USS Joseph Strauss fired another Harpoon into what became a burning hulk.

Finally at 1700, the scorned Sabalan cleared Bandar Abbas harbor and fired three missiles at a passing A-6E aircraft. Avoiding the missiles, one of the American planes turned and dropped a single 500-pound laser-guided bomb down the Sabalan's stack, ripping apart the engineering spaces. Less requested permission to finish off the ship. However, in Washington, Crowe turned to Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and said, "We've shed enough blood today," and called off any further action.

For Iran, 18 April was a disastrous day. Besides losing a large portion of its navy, the Iranians suffered setbacks on land as an Iraqi assault reclaimed the Al Faw peninsula. For Iran, the situation only worsened over the next few months. Eight years and hundreds of thousands of war dead drained the revolutionary zeal of the Iranian people. Calls to raise a 100,000-man "Mohammed Corps" went unheeded. Iranian leaders began to consider the reality of ending the war with a non-military solution. n

Sources: David Crist, Operation Earnest Will: The United States in the Persian Gulf, 1986-1989 (Ph.D. Diss. Florida State University, 1998); Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., In the Line of Fire, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993).

Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation.

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