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Operation Praying Mantis

On April 14, the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts struck a mine while sailing in the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Earnest Will. The explosion put a 25-foot hole in the Roberts' hull and nearly sank it. But the crew saved their ship with no loss of life, and Roberts was towed to Dubai on April 16. In response to this, on April 18th, 1988 the United States initiated Operation Praying Mantis

Operation Praying Mantis is the largest battle for American surface forces since World War II. It resulted in the sinking of two Iranian warships and as many as six armed speedboats. It also marked the first surface-to-surface missile engagement in U.S. Navy history.

U.S. Naval Order Of Battle
Elements of Air Wing 11 operating from aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65)
The legendary AMS2 Spike Robbins, VA-95 Troubleshooters
USS Merrill (DD-976) - destroyer
USS Lynde McCormick (DDG-8) - guided missile destroyer
USS Trenton (LPD-14) - amphibious transport dock
Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) 2-88
Surface Action Group Charlie
USS Wainwright (DLG/CG-28) - guided missile cruiser
USS Bagley (FF-1069) - frigate
USS Simpson (FFG-56) - guided missile frigate
SEAL platoon
Surface Action Group Delta
USS Jack Williams (FFG-24) - guided missile frigate
USS O'Brien (DD-975) - destroyer
USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16) - guided missile destroyer
Air support
Iranian Naval Order Of Battle
IS Sahand (F 73) - frigate
IS Sabalan (F 73 - frigate
IS Joshan - guided missile gunboat
at least 6 boghammer speedboats

The Battle; 18 April 1988

AMS2 Spike Robbins, the morning of Operation Praying Mantis
me, Spike Robbins, the morning of Operation Praying Mantis

The United States responded with several groups of surface warships, plus aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise CVN-65. The action began with coordinated strikes by two surface groups. One group, consisting of two destroyers and the amphibious transport dock USS Trenton LPD-14, attacked the Sassan oil platform, while the other, which included a guided missile cruiser and two frigates, attacked the Sirri oil platform. U.S. Marines from Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) 2-88 fast-roped onto the Sassan platform, gathered intelligence, and set explosives to disable it. The Iranians responded by dispatching Boghammar speedboats to attack various targets in the Persian Gulf, including an American-flagged supply ship and a Panamanian-flagged ship.

burning oil platforms.jpg

After these attacks, VA-95 Green Lizard A-6E Intruder aircraft were directed to the Boghammar speedboats by an American frigate. The two A-6E's piloted by Lieutenant Commander James Engler and Lieutenant Paul Webb, dropped Rockeye Mk-20 Rockeye II cluster bombs on the speedboats, sinking one and damaging several others.

ATKRON 95 Intruder loaded with Harpoon, 500lb Laser Guided bomb and Mk-20 Rockeye II cluster bombs-
ATKRON 95 Intruder loaded with Harpoon, 500lb Laser Guided bomb and Mk-20 Rockeyes

iranian boghammer.jpg
An Iranian Boghammer

As the escalation continued. The IS Joshan, (Combattante II Kaman-class fast attack craft,) challenged the USS Wainwright (CG-28) and Surface Action Group Charlie, firing a Harpoon missile at them. The USS Simpson (FFG-56) responded to the challenge by firing four Standard missiles, while USS Wainwright (CG-28) followed with two Standard missiles. The attacks destroyed the Iranian ship's superstructure but did not immediately sink it, so USS Bagley (FF-1069) fired a Harpoon of its own, which missed. The three ships of SAG Charlie closed on the Joshan, destroying it with naval gunfire.

Fighting continued when the Iranian frigate Sahand F 74 departed Bandar Abbas and challenged elements of an American surface group. The frigate was spotted by two ATKRON 95 A-6E Intruders while they were flying surface combat air patrol for USS Joseph Strauss (DDG-16). Sahand fired missiles at the A-6Es, and the Intruders replied with two AGM-84 Harpoon's and four laser-guided AGM-123 Skipper bombs.

IS Sahand 1977
IS Sahand 1977 as a smoking wreck

Joseph Strauss added a Harpoon. Most, if not all, of the U.S. weapons hit the Iranian ship. Fires blazing on Sahand's decks eventually reached her magazines, causing an explosion that helped sink the ship.

Despite the loss of the IS Sahand, the Iranian navy continued to fight on. Later in the day, the Sahand's sister ship, the IS Sabalan, departed from its berth and fired a surface-to-air missile at several A-6Es from VA-95.

IS Sabalan 1977
IS Sabalan 1977

Lizard's James Engler and John Schork dropped a laser-guided bomb on Sabalan, leaving the ship dead in the water. The Sabalan, while partially submerged, was taken in tow by the stern by an Iranian tug. VA-95's aircraft, as ordered, did not continue the attack.

LCDR Engler was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross by Admiral William J. Crowe,Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for these actions against the Sabalan and the Iranian gunboats.

After The Battle

By the end of the operation elements of the American fleet had damaged Iranian naval and intelligence facilities on two inoperable oil platforms in the Persian Gulf, and sank at least six armed Iranian Boghammer speedboats. Sabalan was repaired in 1989 and has since been upgraded, and is still in service with the Iranian navy. Damage to the oil platforms was eventually repaired and they are now back in service.

The U.S. side suffered two casualties: the aircrew of a Marine Corps AH-1T Sea Cobra helicopter gunship. The Cobra, attached to the USS Trenton, was flying reconnaissance from the Wainwright and crashed sometime after dark about 15 miles southwest of Abu Musa island. The bodies of Capt. Stephen C. Leslie, 30, of New Bern, N.C., and Capt. Kenneth W. Hill, 33, of Thomasville, N.C., were recovered by Navy divers in May, and the wreckage of the helicopter was raised later that month. Navy officials said it showed no sign of battle damage, though the aircraft could have crashed while trying to evade Iranian fire.

Historical Perspective

Operation Praying Mantis is one of five American naval engagements cited by United States Naval Academy Prof. Craig L. Symonds in his book Decision at Sea (2005) as being decisive in establishing U.S. naval superiority. The others were the Battle of Lake Erie (1813), the Battle of Hampton Roads (1862), the Battle of Manila Bay (1898), and the Battle of Midway (1942).