20 years ago today; USS Princeton and Tripoli strike mines

| February 18, 2011

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.

Both the USS Princeton and the USS Tripoli were awarded Combat Action Ribbons for the incident.

Category: War Stories

Comments (8)

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  1. A Balrog of Morgoth says:

    Did they end up getting two Combat Action Ribbons each? The Navy awarded CARS to every unit present in the Gulf during the war.

  2. Thor says:

    NO, just one CAR.

  3. DUTCH says:

    The Princeton and Tripoli were not the first.

    Three years earlier (14 April 1988), the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) hit an Iranian mine in the Persian Gulf. But for her crew, she would have gone to the bottom.

    It’s the subject of an excellent book: “No Higher Honor” by Bradley Peniston. I happen to have an autographed copy obtained by my son when he served on the “Sammy B” in 2006. It’s a very good read!

  4. Rob says:

    The Sammy B had to be “ship-lifted” back to the US. I had a guy on Hometown Recruiter’s Assistant Program working with me on recruiting duty that was aboard the Sammy B when she struck that mine. It broke the keel of the Sammy B. If I recall, that one hit amidships.

    I will say that the constant state of preparedness that some Skippers preach saves lives. I loathed the daily (sometimes twice a day) GQ drills aboard the Tripoli, but they paid off in the long run. One frame further back was the ammunition locker for the Tripoli. We were VERY lucky!!

  5. defendUSA says:

    Nice post…I don’t remember reading much on it and I like it when someone who was there can tell the story.

    Our unit in Landstuhl had to to the autopsies on the Stark guys.
    You had a pretty cool head and that is always a good thing.

  6. Stonewall116 says:

    I remember watching the news story on CNN that the Tripoli had hit a mine but it disappeared rather quickly. Never knew the Princeton hit one, too. Reading more details of that was really informative. Glad everybody made it through that ordeal, too. When I read paint fumes throughout the ship, I could easily have seen a repeat of the Japanese carriers at Midway going up.

    Of course, I would ask the question if anybody ever determined if those mines were Iraqi, Iranian or whose? My money would be Iranian.

  7. AW1 Tim says:

    I got an up-close look at Samuel B. Roberts when she returned stateside for repairs. It was amazing that a ship could take that much damage and still remain afloat. It is a tribute to her builders, BIW, and the professionalism of her crew that she survived and eventually returned to the fleet.

    Repair-wise, rather than rebuild the damaged sections, it was decided to simply cut them out, and build a whole new module and fit it into place. It was an amazing thing to see, but it went very quickly and very well, all things considered.

    Nowadays, my worry is if we will be able to survive such damage due to the Navy reducing crew sizes and preaching the diktat of “optimal manning”. Saving money by reducing crew size is a fools errand, and will only lead to longer work hours, and a less-efficient crew.

    Regardless, GREAT write-up, Thor! Thanks for doing this.

  8. Anonymous says:

    USMC I was on the USS TRIPOLI. When she was hit and it was a hell of a ride.I was sent to the bottom of the ship to fight fires and stop the water from coming in ye right.I will tell you i was never more scared being there being told brace for shock in coming mines.We were secured in there not knowing if we were ever coming topside again.