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H-Gram 018: 30th Anniversary of Operation Praying Mantis

13 April 2018 

Contents 

1. No Higher Honor: The Road to Operation Praying Mantis, 18 April 1988

2. 75th Anniversary of World War II—Operation Vengeance: Admiral Yamamoto Shot Down, 18 April 1943

3. A Presidential Unit Citation for a Failed Attack: USS Tunny's Second War Patrol, 9 April 19

4. 100th Anniversary of World War I: Dental Valor

5. 120th Anniversary of Spanish-American War: Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898

 

No Higher Honor: The Road to Operation Praying Mantis, 18 April 1988

"Mr. Secretary, I think we've shed enough blood today," said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral William Crowe to Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci. With that, the primary target of Operation Praying Mantis, the Iranian frigate Sabalan, dead in the water with a laser-guided bomb down her stack and U.S. Navy planes ready for the kill, was given a stay of execution. Sabalan's skipper, the infamous "Captain Nasty" (named for his habit of firing into the crews' compartments of neutral merchant ships and tankers, and leaving the high-casualty scene of attack with his trademark radio call, "Have a nice day") also lived to go on to be a vice admiral. Nevertheless, the cost to the Iranians of the one-day operation was very high: over 60 dead and 100 wounded. Sabalan's sister, Sahand, was on the bottom, the largest warship sunk by the U.S. Navy since World War II, smothered by a rain of air- and ship-launched Harpoon missiles, laser-guided air-launched Skipper missiles, and a variety of other air-delivered ordnance. The Iranian missile boat Joshan was also on the bottom, having fired the last operational U.S.-supplied Harpoon missile in the Iranian inventory at the cruiser USS Wainwright (CG-28)—and narrowly missing—crippled by a shower of Standard missiles fired in surface-to-surface mode and then sunk with guns. Three Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats were also sunk and others damaged. An Iranian Air Force F-4 Phantom fighter, hit by an extended range Standard missile from Wainwright, barely made it back to Bandar Abbas, Iran. Two Iranian oil platforms in the Arabian Gulf, used for intelligence collection and staging points for Iranian reconnaissance and attacks against neutral shipping, were also heavily damaged by U.S. naval gunfire and demolition charges emplaced by U.S. Marines off USS Trenton (LPD-14). U.S. forces were unscathed, except for a Marine AH-1 Sea Cobra helicopter that crashed into the ocean after nightfall while pursuing Iranian speedboats, killing its two-man crew. Operation Praying Mantis, the largest U.S. Navy surface action since World War II, did succeed in modifying Iranian behavior, and represented the culmination of several years of undeclared war between the U.S. and Iranian navies (both of them, regular and Revolutionary Guard). Although there continued to be tense encounters, the Iranians refrained from laying additional minefields in the Arabian Gulf.

The proximate reason for the execution of Operation Praying Mantis was to retaliate for minefields laid by the Iranians in the shipping lanes of the Arabian Gulf. On 14 April 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) struck a mine in a recently and deliberately laid Iranian minefield in the shipping channel in the central Arabian Gulf. The Iranian-made Sadaf 02 (Farsi for "oyster") moored contact mine, based on a 1908 Russian design, inflicted severe damage to the Samuel B. Roberts, breaking her keel, flooding two main spaces, and starting fires. Casualties were light; ten wounded, four of them seriously, only because an alert lookout had spotted the mines, giving the ship's captain, Commander Paul X. Rinn, enough time to order his crew to get above the main deck before the ship hit an unseen mine while attempting to back out of the minefield. Post-event computer simulations all indicated the ship should have sunk, yet her well-trained and drilled crew saved their ship in one of the most inspiring damage-control efforts in the history of the U.S. Navy. At the height of the fire and flooding, the commander of the U.S. Middle East Force, Rear Admiral Anthony Less, asked Commander Rinn via radio if he was considering abandoning ship. Rinn replied that he had no intention of giving up the ship and finished with the ship's motto, "No Higher Honor." The motto derived from the battle report filed by Lieutenant Commander Robert Copeland, skipper of the first Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413), lost in an extraordinarily valiant sacrificial action during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in World War II, in which he stated there was "no higher honor" than to lead the American Sailors who displayed such extraordinary courage during battle.

For more on Operation Praying Mantis and the undeclared naval war between the U.S. and Iran in the late 1980s, please see attachment H-018-1. For more on the legacy of Coxswain Samuel B. Roberts and the three ships that have been named for him see my previous H-Gram 010/H-010-4.

75th Anniversary of World War II

Operation Vengeance: Admiral Yamamoto Shot Down, 18 April 1943

At 0935 on 18 April 1943, 16 U.S. Army Air Force P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighters arrived over Bougainville in the northern Solomon Islands after a circuitous 600-mile flight from Guadalcanal. The two Japanese G4M Betty bombers and six escorting A6M Zero fighters were exactly where the P-38s expected to find them. Four of the P-38s, designated the 'killer" group, went after the bombers, while the others engaged the fighter escorts. The pilots did not know who was aboard the bombers—only that their target was a VIP—nor did they know the true source of the intelligence regarding their target, having been told a cover story that it had been provided by Australian coast watchers. Both of the bombers were shot down. One bomber crashed in the jungle of Bougainville and the other crashed at sea just off the coast. The next day, a Japanese search party found Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Japanese Combined Fleet, in the jungle, sitting upright, buckled in his seat thrown from the aircraft, clutching his katana ("samurai sword") with one white-gloved hand, dead from a .50-caliber slug through his face. One P-38 and pilot were lost on what was the longest fighter-intercept mission of the war. The P-38s returned several times over the next weeks to make it look to the Japanese that the intercept of Yamamoto had been a coincidence, and not because U.S. naval intelligence had broken the Japanese navy code (by then the JN-25D cipher), intercepted and deciphered the message with Yamamoto's flight schedule, and done so in sufficient time for Admirals Nimitz, Halsey, Mitscher, and commanders at Guadalcanal to plan and execute a complex and daring "joint-service" mission (the USAAF P-38s were the only aircraft that had the legs to execute the mission, and even then needed special drop tanks flown in just in time from General MacArthur's Southwest Pacific theater). Operation Vengeance (as best I can tell a name given after the fact) is one of the greatest intelligence-operations success stories of all time. For more, please see attachment H-018-2.

A Presidential Unit Citation for a Failed Attack: USS Tunny's Second War Patrol, 9 April 1943

It was a submarine skipper's dream come true. On the night of 9 April 1943, the Japanese convoy was right where naval intelligence reports said it would be, approaching the Japanese stronghold at Truk Island in the central Carolines, and the submarine USS Tunny (SS-282) was in the perfect position. On the surface, but ballasted down with decks awash, Tunny's skipper, Lieutenant Commander John A. Scott could see off his port bow a column of ships led by a destroyer, followed by a large aircraft carrier. Off his starboard bow was another column, led by a destroyer, followed by two smaller aircraft carriers. At a range of about 880 yards, Scott set up to take out all three carriers, when out of the darkness came three motor torpedo boats, forcing him to submerge. Nevertheless, Tunny fired all four stern tubes at the smaller carrier and all six bow tubes at the large carrier. The shots appeared to be perfect, and seven of the ten torpedoes were heard to detonate at the right time. Back in Pearl Harbor, the attack was hailed as the greatest of the war to date, only to have the euphoria dashed by subsequent deciphered Japanese messages confirming the safe arrival at Truk of all ships in the convoy. The Japanese traffic also confirmed that only the escort carrier Taiyo had been slightly damaged, and that all the torpedoes that would otherwise have been hits had prematurely detonated just short of their targets. Despite the result, Scott's attack would be rightly lauded as a superb example of daring and skill. The results of the attack provided yet more confirmation of what many submarine skippers had been saying for months: U.S. torpedoes were unacceptably defective. Tunny and Scott would go on to earn a second Presidential Unit Citation on her fifth war patrol, dueling and sinking a Japanese submarine, and damaging the super-battleship Musashi. Taiyo led a charmed life for a while, surviving four attacks and two torpedo hits from U.S. submarines, before finally succumbing to torpedoes from the submarine USS Rasher (SS-269) on 18 August 1944, sinking with heavy loss of life (estimated about 800). For more on USS Tunny's extraordinary second war patrol, please see attachment H-018-3.

100th Anniversary of World War I

Dental Valor

U.S. Navy dental officers earned two of the 12 Medals of Honor awarded to U.S. Navy personnel for exceptional acts of valor under combat conditions during World War I, one of them posthumously. Lieutenant Commander (and future vice admiral) Alexander Gordon Lyle was awarded the medal for rescuing and operating on a wounded Marine while under intense bombardment in France on 23 April 1918. Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Weedon Oscar Osborne would be awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for action during the Battle of Belleau Wood on 6 June 1918, when he attempted to carry a wounded Marine officer off the battlefield under intense fire, which killed both. Lyle and Osborne are the only two U.S. Navy dental officers to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Their citations are in attachment H-018-4.

At the time, the Medal of Honor could be awarded for exceptional courage under non-combat conditions, and nine other Navy personnel won such awards during World War I. The Navy combat version of the medal was distinguished by a different design, known as the "Tiffany Cross," which was introduced in 1919 for World War I Navy recipients. This design was officially discontinued in 1942, partly because it looked too much like a German Iron Cross and partly because the Navy and Marine Corps Medal had been by then created for non-combat acts of valor. The non-combat version during World War I retained the original Civil War (and current) five-pointed design.

120th Anniversary of Spanish-American War

Battle of Manila Bay, 1 May 1898

The Spanish Pacific Squadron didn't have a prayer. The United States, on the other hand, had been planning the attack on the Spanish in the Philippines for over four years. According to my "Z-power" professor at the Naval Academy, the fact that the Battle of Manila Bay occurred at all was because the Spanish could not find a white sheet big enough to be seen by the U.S. Asiatic Squadron. That tongue-in-cheek remark was somewhat unfair in that the Spanish flagship, the cruiser Reina Cristina, made a valiant effort to get underway under a hail of U.S. fire. Hit 81 times with half her crew of 400 dead or wounded, the burning Reina Cristina was ordered scuttled by the wounded embarked Contra-Almirante Patricio Montojo. Nevertheless, Montojo had previously recognized that his old, ill-trained, under-manned squadron would be no match for the U.S. Asiatic Squadron in a battle of maneuver. Therefore, he chose to fight from an anchored position in shallow water in the small bay between Sangley Point and the peninsula of Cavite so as to spare the city of Manila from damage resulting from the battle and to give his sailors the best chance of swimming ashore after his ships were sunk. Had he anchored his ships under the protection of the one Spanish shore battery with large enough guns to reach the U.S. squadron, the battle might have been a bit more even, but he didn't. As a result, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron under the command of the combat-experienced and aggressive Commodore George Dewey, embarked on the modern protected cruiser USS Olympia (C-6), cruised back and forth off Cavite at ever-decreasing range, blasting the anchored Spanish ships like ducks in a shooting gallery, suffering only a handful of ineffective hits in return.

In the end, the Battle of Manila Bay was more like a massacre. At a U.S. cost of one dead (from a heart attack/heat stroke on a non-engaged support ship) and seven wounded, all seven Spanish ships were abandoned—either sunk, aground, scuttled or on fire, with between 77 and 381 dead (sources vary). Hailed in the American press as a great victory, the battle propelled Commodore Dewey to "rock star" fame, a presidential run, the rank of "Admiral of the Navy" (technically senior to the World War II five-stars), and president of the new U.S. Navy General Board from 1900 until his death in 1917. Nevertheless, the battle failed in its objective, which was to so shock Spain that it would give up Cuba without a fight. Instead, the Spanish refused to negotiate and sent a force of cruisers to Cuba, and the United States had to resort to an invasion of the island. The victory also sucked the United States into the ongoing insurrection between the Filipino people and Spain when the nation replaced Spain as colonial master of the Philippines, which would cost far more lives than the Spanish-American War (and would largely be written out of U.S. history). For more on the Battle of Manila Bay, please see attachment H-018-5 "You May Fire When Ready, Gridley."

Published: Tue Apr 17 09:02:46 EDT 2018