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thedrifter
04-20-08, 09:48 AM
Teamwork saved stricken warship

Navy frigate hit Iranian mine in Persian Gulf 20 years ago
By Steve Liewer
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

April 19, 2008

SAN DIEGO – In the glow of the emergency lights, Petty Officer 2nd Class Jack Smetak struggled to keep his game face on.

Minutes earlier, the blast from a submerged Iranian mine had knocked him nearly off his feet as he stood in the combat information center of the Navy frigate Samuel B. Roberts.

Before the explosion that afternoon of April 14, 1988, Smetak had spent all day scrunched up in front of a computer, logging the ship's position as it steamed through the war-torn Persian Gulf.

In a few minutes, the water in the engine room had risen to 30 feet. Even a sturdy new ship like the Roberts couldn't take much more.

“I didn't want to let the other people know I was scared,” said Smetak, now 50 and living in San Diego. “I remember praying, 'Please, God, don't let me die today.' ”

Smetak and his more than 200 shipmates survived, thanks to their own grit, the strength of their ship's welding and perhaps providence.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the crisis, about one-third of the Roberts' former crew gathered last weekend for their first reunion. The event took place in Portland, Maine, a few miles from the shipyard where the vessel was built.

Two wars with Iraq since that 1988 mine explosion have dimmed memories in the United States of the “Tanker Wars,” when Iran and Iraq destroyed more than 100 oil tankers as a sideshow to a bloody struggle that lasted eight years and claimed 1 million lives.

In 1987 and 1988, U.S. Navy ships escorted the oil tankers of their ally Kuwait, which were reflagged as American. Iranian patrol boats frequently harassed the tanker convoys, and Iran's navy occasionally mined the sea lanes.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein also posed a threat. On May 17, 1987, an Iraqi fighter jet fired two missiles into the Roberts' sister ship, the Stark, killing 37 sailors. The administration of President Reagan accepted Hussein's explanation that the attack was an accident.

The Stark tragedy weighed heavily on the Roberts' skipper, Cmdr. Paul X. Rinn, as he trained his men in summer 1987 for the frigate's maiden deployment. Rinn drilled them relentlessly, especially on how to fight the kind of fires and flooding that had confronted the Stark's crew.

“You're not a commanding officer in the United States Navy to be anybody's friend. But if you bring them home from a war zone in one piece . . . then you are their best friend and they don't have to know it,” said Rinn, now 60 and living in Fairfax Station, Va.

Most of the Roberts' sailors had joined the crew while the ship was still under construction. Those who worked in the vessel's combat information center, including Smetak, spent three months learning wartime scenarios in a simulator at the Point Loma Naval Base.

Rinn's crew aced every pre-deployment test and later earned the Battle E award as its squadron's top frigate team.

By spring 1988, the Roberts' crew had neared the halfway point of its six-month tour in the Persian Gulf. On April 14, the ship was steaming alone about 100 miles northeast of Doha, Qatar, heading for a rendezvous with a supply ship to restock its fuel and stores.

Seaman Bobby Gibson scanned the ocean with binoculars. Gibson spotted one mine, then a second, then a third. The bridge officer ordered the ship to stop, and Rinn ordered all sailors to leave the below-deck engine room as a precaution.

Rinn had no wish to stick around as nightfall approached. He decided to back up the Roberts so it would avoid moving farther into the minefield.

A mine exploded as the frigate moved backward.

“It lifted the whole aft end of the ship up,” Rinn said. “With it came this enormous fireball that rose right above the mast.”

The blast blew a hole in the keel about 100 feet forward from the stern, knocking out the ship's power. That hole later was measured at 16 feet by 25 feet, according to the book “No Higher Honor,” Brad Peniston's 2006 account of the mine strike. The explosion blew upward seven decks and out through the exhaust stack.

“I went down below. It was kind of pandemonium – lots of whistles and bells going off, guys coming out,” said Capt. Gordan Van Hook, now 51, who was then a lieutenant and the ship's chief engineer. “Some of them were pretty badly burned.”

Water nearly filled the main engine room and an adjacent machine room. Rinn knew the ship could stay afloat even with those rooms flooded, but he couldn't afford to lose any more.

Which is why it alarmed him to visit Auxiliary Machine Room 2, on the lowest deck next to the inundated main engine room. The bulkhead was riddled with shrapnel, and water gushed through the holes.

There, Chief Petty Officer Kevin Ford, the head cook, led a damage-control team whose members' work would determine whether their shipmates lived or died. They stuffed shirts and rags into the cracks, then scrambled to find boards and tools to make braces that could shore up the bulkhead.

Smoke poured from the smokestack, signaling an inferno raging in the engine compartments below – adjacent to the magazines storing torpedoes and ammunition.

The main deck grew so hot that the soles of sailors' shoes melted. But Rinn stopped the firefighting crews. He knew pouring more water into a nearly flooded ship would only make it sink faster.

The blast had ruptured the metal below the waterline, leaving only the main deck to hold together the fore and aft sections.

“It was making popping sounds, like a giant soda can (flexing),” said Van Hook, a third-generation Navy officer who used to live in Coronado. “We thought it was going to break apart.”

Above all, Rinn didn't want to abandon ship. Friendly vessels couldn't venture into a minefield to rescue his men, and he could see sharks swimming around the vessel.

“If you put your sailors in the water, half of them are going to die,” Rinn said.

It took long hours of sweat, but Ford's team patched the bulkhead just enough to stop the leaking. Meanwhile, Fireman Mike Tilley relit the only diesel generator that hadn't been disabled. With the electricity restored, sailors could run pumps to control the flooding.

A Navy helicopter later evacuated 10 injured sailors, including three with serious burns. All of them lived.

Then Rinn picked a course and started moving the ship, praying it wouldn't hit another mine. The Roberts limped along all night. First light saw the frigate safely out of the minefield – though the crew later learned that it had narrowly missed hitting two other mines.

They spent two days being towed into port, the wounded ship creaking with every wave.

Four days after the mine strike, Reagan ordered a retaliatory strike against Iran called Operation Praying Mantis. Navy ships destroyed two oil platforms and sank two Iranian warships and three patrol boats.

The Roberts piggybacked home to Maine on a ship normally used to haul oil rigs. Shipbuilders at Bath Iron Works in Maine returned it to duty after more than a year. The frigate now is stationed in Mayport, Fla.

Van Hook remains on active duty. He commanded the San Diego-based Destroyer Squadron 23 from 2003 to 2005. He is currently serving in the Pentagon and plans to retire in the fall.

After serving aboard the Roberts two decades ago, Smetak was commissioned as a Navy nurse in 1992. He served his final tour at the San Diego Naval Medical Center before retiring last year.

Rinn was sent to the Pentagon to head a program on combat readiness and ship survivability. Some of the damage-control lessons he created now are Navy doctrine. He retired as a captain in 1997 and works for an international consulting firm in suburban Washington, D.C.

Rinn, Van Hook and Smetak all attended the reunion last weekend in Maine. They agreed that they formed a tighter bond on the Roberts than with any other command in the Navy.

“It was a good ship,” Smetak said. “It was probably my best time in the Navy.”

Rinn attributes the Roberts' survival that night to his crew's pluck, not luck. He said the endless drills paid off.

“I brought everybody back in one piece,” Rinn said. “That was my greatest achievement in the Navy.”

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632; steve.liewer@uniontrib.com

Ellie