One of our readers, Thor, writes a guest post for us about his experiences aboard the USS Tripoli when it struck a mine in the Persian Gulf 20 years ago today. Here’s what he saw;
Today is the 20th anniversary of the USS Tripoli & USS Princeton mine strikes. Being “sick in bed” due to an infection in my leg, I felt very fortunate to have not been in my shop that morning as I normally worked from 1800- 0600. The berthing compartment was fairly quiet as half of the HM-14 Maintenance Crew & Aircrew were asleep, as was I.
The loud thunderous explosion of the mine immediately woke me up as the bow of the ship was lifted out of the water and SLAMMED back down. I wondered what the hell had happened? Did we get hit with a Silkworm missile? Since my rack was immediately beneath the flight deck, I reached up to feel for any heat, thinking that if the flight deck got hit, I would feel something. No, nothing abnormal. I then quickly considered what other things could have happened. Did something blow up below decks?
The next thing I heard was the General Quarters klaxon sounding and General Quarters being called over the 1MC, the ship’s intercom. I hopped out of my rack, got my uniform on and as I was doing so, I remember a young Sailor, Odie, with a wide eyed look, kind of running to and fro, scared out of his mind, wondering what to do. I grabbed him by the shoulders, looked him in the eye, and firmly told him, “Odie, you’re OK. Get dressed and let’s get to our GQ stations.” He calmed down and followed my instructions. Now I had to remember what was it? Down and aft on the port side and up and forward on the starboard? Yes, that was it. I, among the others in the berthing compartment, all headed down and aft to our GQ station, the hangar deck.
As I got to the hangar deck, I was looking around for my “guys”, the ones I normally worked with throughout the night. “Where’s Dag?”, I asked another shipmate? “Has anybody seen Andy?” What about Fowler?” Nobody knew. I was heavy with worry and fear for my guys, hoping that they were OK. It seemed like several minutes had passed before they slowly started showing up, one by one. I asked them what took them so long to get to their GQ station? They said that they were trapped in the maintenance compartment.
As it turned out, the explosion had hit athwartships and one deck below the aircraft maintenance shops at the paint locker. Because of that, it blew the hatch closed and my shipmates were stuck there until the pressure released and they could open the hatch. Fortunately, the subsequent vacuum that helped release the pressure on the hatch also extinguished the fire in the paint locker. I took a muster of my men and reported to the Division Chief that everybody was present. Thank God!!
The next thing I remember was that the embarked news crews started filtering into the hangar deck, camera were rolling and reporters were talking into their microphones. The Skipper wanted to send the embarked SEAL team below to assess the damage. The smell & odor of paint & paint remover or thinner permeated the hangar deck. It was almost dizzying.
Reports started coming in of people that were killed or injured. Nobody killed. If I recall, a couple of Marines were on Mine Watch, one of which was thrown overboard, the other was thrown into the forecastle. A Sailor that was near the paint locker was overcome by fumes. No casualties and only minor injuries!! Again, THANK GOD!! I remember assisting with the lines to help them get the SEAL team down to the water. A little later, reports started coming back that there were three other mines under the ship. The intensity & gravity of the situation increased ten-fold.
People were wondering just what the heck were we going to do now? One idea was to hook up the Helicopters, the MH-53Es that we had onboard and tow the ship out of the minefield. It seemed possible, but configuring the hook ups would have been problematic. It was damned sure that the ship wasn’t going to attempt to get underway for fear of setting off the other mines that were below her. Finally, some sense came down from above, the minesweepers would tow us out of the area. As the minesweepers approached the Tripoli, the air was very tense. We were all hoping and praying that none of those other three mines activated.
As the lines were attached and secured, we finally felt some movement of the Tripoli . It seemed as if everybody was holding their breath for the next half an hour. After we got out of the minefield, some of us went down to the maintenance shop to assess the damage. The floors were buckled, paint was all over EVERYTHING, tools & radios, etc, were all scattered about the shop and our paperwork was all over the place. We were organized enough that we were able to go to flight quarters by 1630.
We kind of got our stuff back in order and relocated everything to the O-2 level as a temporary workspace. Ventilators were placed throughout the second deck, the main deck and the hangar deck in order to minimize the paint & chemical fumes. The smoking lamp was out throughout the ship. After the damage was assessed, it was determined that we could stay on station and complete our mission. We stayed on station for an additional seven days, with a slight starboard list, which made it difficult to walk and operate about the ship. After our mission was completed, we pulled into Al Jubayl to crossdeck to a fully operational ship, the USS New Orleans. Then the Tripoli made way to Bahrain for repairs.