Praying Mantis Blows a Hole in Iranian Navy
By DAVID F. WINKLER
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
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
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.
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,
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical Foundation.