After celebrating Veterans Day 2013 yesterday, I thought it apropos that I would share one of my own ‘veteran stories’ from my days serving in the U.S. Navy. First let me say this story as really not something on the order of a Battle of the Bulge, Midway or D-Day or anything of that sort, but for me at least, was as exciting a time as I’ve ever experienced during my five years of active duty service as a commissioned officer after graduating from the Naval Academy.
You will see after reading this story that I have the unique distinction to have served onboard one of two ships that was struck by mines during the Gulf War in 1991 while participating in Operation Desert Storm. My ship was the USS Princeton (CG-59) and the other ship that struck a mine was USS Tripoli (LPH-10). This story will give you the reader the first person’s perspective of what it’s like to operate a ship in “harms way” which is what the US Navy was and remains designed to do in defense of our country’s national security.
The mission of the US Navy is “…to maintain, train and equip combat-ready Naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas.” An application of that mission came to bear during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Our ship was one of the latest of the Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruisers at the time, and was assigned the Air Warfare Commander role in the northern Persian Gulf in support of the pending ground war with Iraq. This particular cruiser was equipped with vertical launched surface to air missiles housed in silos on the fore and after part of the ship that could all be simultaneously launched if needed. These missiles would be controlled the then state of the art air/surface radar system employing steerable beam tracking that permits the ship to actively track hundreds of airborne contacts and engage incoming hostile aircraft or missiles to include low flying surface to surface ones if necessary in full “automatic mode”. As this made us the most capable Anti-Air warfare platform in theater, we were particularly well equipped to handle practically any kind of shipborne, air or land based attack by the Iraqi military forces. Thus the decision by the fleet commander to assign us the mission to provide air warfare protection for the over 30 ship Amphibious Task Force operating off the coast of Kuwait and Iraq in support of the Theater Commander, Norman Schwarzkopf’s strategy to deceive the Iraqi military commanders into thinking we planned to amphibiously land on the beaches of Kuwait. The strategy’s intent was to force the Iraqi military to stay locked down in that locale while permitting our ground forces to do an “end-around” into Iraq directly and trap those forces in a pincer movement that turned out to work perfectly.
I thought I would first share some background leading up to the events that make up the main story. In August 1990, the USS Princeton was en route to visit Vladivostok, USSR. We were one of two ships, the other being USS Reuben James (FFG-57), to visit this port since before World War II (1938). As the war with Japan and later the Cold War with USSR precluded our US Navy ships to visit this strategic Russian port, this was quite an exciting historical milestone to be part of. The year prior to this visit, the wall between East and West Berlin was tore down symbolically representing the end to this Cold War between our two nations and the start of the “Glasnost” era that began toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency who worked closely to achieve this “detente” with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russian premier. With this as a historical back drop, our ships visit was part of an exchange visit with Russian vessels visiting San Diego similarly to help further the new found peace between our two nations.
Unfortunately, in the midst of our visit symbolizing the end of this near 45 year stalemate between our countries, Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, decided his own country would annex the nation of Kuwait, an oil-rich country near the northeast corner of Saudi Arabia and just south of their own Iraqi port of Basra at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf. The United States having strategic economic interests in both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait immediately took Saddam Hussein to task for this invasion as an act of war on a sovereign nation. The United Nations agreed with then president George H.W. Bush and gave him the authority to put in immediate economic and military sanctions on Iraq as what became known as Operation Desert Shield. That Operation which lasted until January 15, 1991 had the main purpose to provide ample time for the US and her allies to build up military ground, air and sea forces in the area to first be able to defend Saudi Arabia from being invaded and later to then forcibly remove Iraq from Kuwait if other economic sanctions did not succeed in getting Saddam to leave Kuwait.
Rather than cancel our visit to Vladivostok, the 7th fleet commander, Admiral Charles Larson, who was traveling with us on USS Princeton chose to complete this historic visit. Admiral Larson still had the task to then ready us and the rest of the Pacific Fleet to support our preparations to support Operation Desert Shield and later once the air war began Operation Desert Storm. We finished our landmark visit of Vladivostok then quickly returned to the United States to ready our ship to be deployed back to the Persian Gulf by year end. In that time, the crew of USS Princeton had to take care of personal business and ready themselves for war. On December 7, 1990 our ship got underway from her home port of Long Beach Naval Station and began the cross Pacific transit to the Persian Gulf. After a brief visit to Subic Bay, Phillippines for the New Year, we steamed at top speed to enter the Persian Gulf on January 13, 1991, two days before the beginning of the air war and the official start of Operation Desert Storm. For the first 3 weeks, we steamed closely behind USS Midway (CV-41) on assignment to provide air guard duty. Midway was launching and landing aircraft nearly continuously for these first few days of the air war and we kept close astern of the carrier in case one of the aircraft were to ditch upon launch or landing. USS Midway was one of two aircraft carriers operating in the Persian Gulf launching aircraft attacks on Iraq (the other was USS Ranger (CV-61) who we had steamed across the Pacific with en route for the Gulf. The aircraft aboard these carriers along with those the Air Force stationed in Saudi Arabian bases were used to methodically destroy all the above ground radar, anti-air SAM and gun emplacements for this phase of the air war against Iraq. Our other role was to ensure Midway was protected from any air attack by Iraqi jet or land based missiles. With warnings that Iraq had at its disposal chemical/biological weapons, I remember this being a particularly stressful time and we did several drills where we practiced donning chemical protection suits and discussed how we would self administer antidotes to any kind of biological weapon like anthrax should Iraq choose to use such weapons. Also during this Air war phase of the Gulf War, our ship was ordered to launch three Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise missiles on Iraq.
The air war, though quite effective at neutralizing any Iraqi Air Force threat, did not succeed at convincing Iraq to exit their ground forces from Kuwait, so by mid February, plans were made to begin readying for a ground offensive. Our ship was reassigned to the aforementioned Amphibious Task Force under the direction of the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), the command ship in charge of overseeing the “feint” amphibious landing of Kuwait being planned. On February 18, 1991, three days before the ground war would begin, knowing we were the ship most ready and able to take an incoming missile attack, and given there were intelligence reports indicating that some surface missile batteries had gone active on the Kuwaiti coast, our Commanding Officer (CO), Captain Ted Hontz, directed our ship to operate as close to the coast of our Kuwait that are operating box would allow us to be. Captain Hontz was well aware that if one ship could react and engage an incoming threat it would be Princeton with its sophisticated suite of Aegis radar and surface to air missile systems. Given the relative vulnerability the balance of the amphibious ships were to such an attack, Captain Hontz view was both quite brave and the most practical use of his command.
It was in this tactical situation, that I found myself, the Officer of the Deck (OOD) coming on watch at 7am in the morning of February 18th. As OOD, I am accountable directly to the CO for directing the watch team on the bridge to maneuver the ship per the CO’s orders. I had been OOD qualified since we first came into the Gulf and was accustomed to being in charge on the bridge when the CO was not there, but this morning was different. Captain Hontz was already on the bridge, and as I was coming up to the bridge to stand my watch, I learned why. Before taking the watch, I made my standard visit to Combat Information Center (CIC), the compartment just below the bridge where one gets the tactical situation based on the various radar systems and other intelligence available. That particular morning, I found out that the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) had been struck by a submerged moored mine just below the waterline punching a hole in her hull. Though there was flooding on the ship, it had been contained and so they were still operational if somewhat compromised. The disconcerting part of this information was that Tripoli was 10 nautical miles further out from the Kuwait coastline then we were. Our location was consistent with the CO’s orders to be closer to the known threat of surface missile batteries becoming active on that coast. Basically, that meant we, like Tripoli, were in the middle of a minefield…
So, as I came to the bridge to take the watch at 7am, the CO was on the bridge. It was clear to everyone the risks were high and so we were only moving at a minimal 3 knots to keep from drifting while still giving us maximum opportunity to spot any other mines under the surface akin to what hit the Tripoli. After I assumed the watch, the CO knowing we were as close to the edge of our operating box as he was permitted to bring us, commanded me to bring the ship around on an easterly course about 180 degrees from the direction we were heading. When a ship is traveling this slow, it is equally slow to come about, so to speed our turn, I ordered the conning officer to back the starboard (right) engine 1/3 while forwarding the port (left) engine 1/3. What this does to a two propeller ship is to cause it to pivot in place rather than actually turn through the water. Given that we wanted to proceed cautiously to avoid mines, this maneuver made quite a bit of sense. In fact, that decision may have very well have saved the ship.
The problem was that we were actually unknowingly between two submerged Italian made “manta” mines that were lying on the bottom of the water which was roughly 60 feet in the area we were operating. This type of mine is not set off by contact but by pressure typical of a caveating propeller or bow wave caused by a ship moving through water. The closer mine was off our port quarter and as we pivoted our stern in the direction of that particular mine, the pressure wave caused by our propeller detonated that mine and began to lift our stern out of the water. That mine set off a second mine off our starboard bow sympathetically and caused us to rock vigorously back in the other direction. The combined trauma to the ship severely damaged the stern of our ship and one of the propeller shafts thereby making us dead in the water. Additionally, several pipes internal to the ship burst and we eventually had to secure air conditioning which meant a temporary shutdown of our air defense radars and thus missile systems. In sum, we became a big metal sitting target and extraordinarily vulnerable to missile attack. Further, three of our crew on either end of the ship were thrown around quite violently and had to be airlifted off the ship for medical treatment. Why I said above that the decision to pivot might have saved the ship was that these mines had they been set off amidships (center of the ship), we might have been completely lifted out of the water thus breaking our keel in two and thus sinking rapidly. Rather, we ended up only turning into the mine rather than going over it and so the damage was thus deflected.
Through the valiant reaction of a well trained crew on damage control, the ship’s air conditioning and thus defense systems were restored and we were able to resume Air Warfare Commander role for approximately 30 hours until were relieved later by another cruiser in the area, USS Horne (CG-30). Until then, without the ability to turn our port shaft/propeller, we had to await to be pulled out of the area by a salvage and rescue ship, USS Beaufort (ATS-2) preceded by a mine sweeping ship, USS Adroit (MSO-509), who ensured the area around us was cleared of any other mines. It was a pretty stressful time as I remember being in a modified General Quarters status for all that time living with the very real threat that we actually might still lose our severely damaged stern and possibly sink.
Fortunately, we were safely towed out of harm’s way and eventually found ourselves in Bahrain where we were provided sufficient repairs to continue our journey further south first to Jebel Ali to offload our weapons and then on to Dubai, UAE to a dry dock for further repairs for an additional 8 weeks.
In late April, we were finally back underway under our own power again after being awarded the Combat Action Ribbon for our wartime action. En route back to the Long Beach, we made a trip down below the equator after passing Singapore so we could hold a Shellback ceremony, then stopped again in Subic Bay Philippines, Hong Kong, and then Pearl Harbor Hawaii where we picked up family members for a Tiger Cruise which included my Dad, a former Navy veteran himself. When we arrived back in Long Beach, we received a hero’s welcome that I’m sure seemed well deserved to those who greeted us upon arrival. Despite the earned accolades, it still seems to this day humbling to those of us on the crew knowing we had simply heeded the call to serve our country during wartime and had in fact encountered military action.
Though it was a harrowing experience to hit a mine, none of us went into this thinking we would be heroes. Mostly we were grateful that we were able to serve our country and return safely to our loved ones. I am in particular grateful to have served alongside all the sailors and officers of USS Princeton and will remember fondly the time I called these men my shipmates. We have plans as a crew to have a twenty-five year anniversary reunion on February 18, 2016 to memorialize the events that day we struck the mine. I am looking forward greatly to seeing these shipmates once again!
ADDENDUM: February 18, 2017… on the occasion of our 26th anniversary of the mine strike on USS Princeton. A year ago we celebrated our 25th anniversary by visiting our ship homeported in San Diego. We were blessed to have the chance to visit her current crew and get a VIP tour of the ship we once fought to keep afloat and ready for combat during the ongoing Gulf War. I share here the memories of that visit and the reunion last year on this NEW Princeton Mine Strike Crew Website where I hope we get to share many future memories in the years ahead.