The USS Wainwright was the third member of the Belknap class of guided missile cruisers and the third ship to carry the name Wainwright. She was named in honor of five members of the Wainwright family—Commander Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, Master Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright Jr., Commander Richard Wainwright, Rear Admiral Richard Wainwright and the admiral’s son, Commander Richard Wainwright.
On 18 April 1988 the U. S. Navy fought its first surface engagement since the battle of Surigao Strait in October 1944. Operation Praying Mantis did not unfold as expected. The Americans destroyed the first two GOSPs, but the Iranian navy failed to respond. During the morning of 18 April, as Surface Action Groups (SAGs) Bravo and Charlie attacked the GOSPs, SAG Delta cruised into the Strait of Hormuz hoping to encounter the Sabalan. But the Iranian frigate remained in Bandar Abbas, moored between a pair of civilian tankers that provided protection against American sea- or air-launched Harpoon anti-ship missiles. Strike aircraft from the American carrier Enterprise’s surface combat air patrol (SUCAP) group were unable to get a clear target confirmation on the Sabalan and could not engage the frigate without risking an inadvertent hit on the adjacent ships.
The Iranian failure to respond promptly and as expected (or hoped) by JTFME had many causes. The Iranian command structure was far less coherent than the American, involving regular military forces-the navy and air force-and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. A coordinated response necessitated centralized direction from Tehran, but on the morning of 18 April 1988 the focus of the Iranian government was elsewhere. About three hours before Less initiated Operation Praying Mantis, the Iraqi army began its “Blessed Ramadan” offensive against Iranian forces deployed in the Faw Peninsula. For the Iranians, the naval events in the Persian Gulf that same morning were little more than a distraction.
It was late morning before Tehran began to react. At about 1100 Iranian small boats sped into the southern Gulf, striking at oil facilities and commercial vessels. At 1146 Iranian speedboats attacked the American-flagged supply ship Willie Tide with rocket-propelled grenades. A few minutes later other Iranian boats shot up the Scan Bay, a Panamanian-flagged ship with fifteen Americans on board, and the British-flagged tanker York Marine. The SAG Delta frigate Jack Williams directed A-6E Intruder strike aircraft that were already airborne into attack positions. At the direction of Rear Admiral Less, two Intruders engaged the Iranians, dropping a string of Rockeye cluster bombs on the leading Swedish-built Boghammer cigarette boat. The surviving boats sped off and ran themselves aground on Abu Musa Island.
At 1130 Iran’s French-built Combattante II fast-attack craft (FAC) Joshan, armed with a 76mm gun and an American-made Harpoon antiship missile, sortied from Bushire. After leaving port, the FAC headed southeast and began to close on SAG Charlie. The Joshan’s sortie, along with the activity of the small boats, presented Less with a dilemma. Intelligence reports indicated that the larger Iranian frigates were preparing to steam out of Bandar Abbas. Under the operational plan approved by the Reagan administration, JTFME was allowed to strike only a single Iranian ship. The 275-ton Joshan was not the chosen target, and sinking her might well end the day with the much larger Sabalan still intact. But the Joshan carried a functioning Harpoon, in fact, as the Americans knew, the only functioning Harpoon in the entire Iranian naval arsenal. The small FAC represented if not the only, certainly the most serious, threat to American naval forces in the Gulf on 18 April.
Had Less possessed the authority to act on his own initiative, his decision would have been simple. Intelligence provided information that kept him informed about the comings and goings of the Iranian military assets deployed against him. Less commanded an overwhelmingly superior force, well able to destroy the Joshan, Sabalan, Sahand, and any other Iranian ship afloat or in harbor that day. But the restrictions imposed by Washington gave him little room for initiative. Eager to sink one of the larger frigates, he chose not to attack the approaching Joshan: a decision that needlessly placed American naval personnel at risk. He ordered the Enterprise to launch elements of her war-at-sea strike group, in preparation for striking the Sabalan and the Sahand when they finally sortied, and directed the commander of SAG Charlie to warn off the FAC.
As the Joshan continued to close on SAG Charlie, the Americans issued four separate warnings to turn away, but the Iranians ignored them all. After several tense minutes, when the Joshan had closed to within thirteen nautical miles, Less granted SAG Charlie permission to engage. Captain J. F. Chandler, the Wainwright’s commanding officer, directed his counterpart on the Joshan: “Stop your engines and abandon ship; I intend to sink you.”
The commanding officer of the Joshan disregarded the demand for surrender and fired his lone Harpoon at the Wainwright. Less faced the “most tense moment” of his command in the Persian Gulf as the American- made anti-ship missile sped toward the cruiser. But the Harpoon passed harmlessly down the starboard side of the Wainwright, either because of a malfunction or because the missile had been fired at such close range that it passed its target before reaching the programmed activation point for its homing radar.
SAG Charlie now unleashed its wrath against the small Iranian FAC. In the next few minutes the Wainwright and the Simpson fired five SM-1 Standard missiles in surface-to-surface mode at the Joshan. The Bagley followed with a Harpoon. All the SM-1s found their marks, leaving the Joshan a burning, sinking hulk over which the Bagley’s Harpoon passed harmlessly. SAG Charlie then finished off the Iranian ship with gunfire.
Having easily countered the small boats and destroyed or damaged the regular air and naval craft sent against SAG Charlie, JTFME now prepared for the third round of Iranian responses of the day. As expected, at 1459 one of the frigates finally steamed out of Bandar Abbas toward SAG Delta. Since the Iranians had demonstrated hostile intent in the attack on the Wainwright, Less now possessed greater freedom of action and prepared to strike at the frigates as they sortied. The Enterprise’s war-at-sea strike group was nearby, operating with the frigate Joseph Strauss near the Strait of Hormuz. The strike leader observed what he believed to be a Saam-class frigate, possibly the Sabalan, near Larak Island, proceeding on a southwesterly course at twenty-five knots. She was, in fact, the Sahand, sister to the Sabalan.
Three American aircraft-two A-6E Intruders and one F-14A Tomcat- approached and circled the frigate. The two Intruders were equipped with forward-looking infrared sensors, and the Tomcat carried an on-board television system. The Americans were convinced that the vessel was an Iranian man-of-war, but under the rules of engagement needed a visual identification before they could attack. To comply with the requirement, one of the Intruders had to conduct a low-level approach in an effort to “VID”(visually identify) the frigate. As the American aircraft approached, the Iranians replied with antiaircraft fire and launched heat-seeking SAMs. The Intruder released flares to confuse the missiles and broke hard to avoid fire. Having VID-ed the frigate, the Americans attacked. The Intruders launched two Harpoons, four Skippers, and several laser-guided bombs (LGBs); the Joseph Strauss fired a third Harpoon. Two of the Harpoons, three of the Skippers, one Walleye LGB, and several 1,000-pound bombs struck the Sahand, leaving the frigate dead in the water with decks ablaze. On the Joseph Strauss, crewmen felt the shock waves as the Sahand’s magazines caught fire and exploded. By early evening the Sahand had disappeared beneath the surface of the Persian Gulf.
As SAG Delta and the supporting aircraft demolished the Sahand, the Sabalan ventured out of Bandar Abbas. The SUCAP Intruders that had earlier attacked the Boghammers had refueled and were still airborne. Less directed them to an intercept position south of Larak Island. Again, to get the required VID, one of the Intruders had to risk flying low over the Iranian frigate; it drew fire and three SAMs, all of which missed. The leading Intruder dropped a 500-pound Mk-82 LGB, which struck the Sabalan amidships and exploded, breaking the back of the ship. As a second strike group raced toward the stricken frigate, Less, having already sunk his one frigate-the Sahand-requested permission from central command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to finish off the Sabalan. This request went all the way up the chain of command to Washington, where Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci and Chairman Crowe decided against further strikes. As the American forces watched, Iranian tugs took the Sabalan, dead in the water with stern down, in tow to Bandar Abbas.
For the U. S. Navy, Operation Praying Mantis was a marked success. The early morning retaliatory strikes provoked the Iranians into the direct naval confrontation they had sought to avoid. The surface and air engagements cost the Iranians about half of their operational navy. Praying Mantis also demonstrated America’s new striking power in surface warfare. Nevertheless, few new lessons were learned regarding command and control. U. S. communications worked well, although the delayed Iranian reaction and the absence of jamming or electronic countermeasures hardly amounted to a severe test of the system.