The attack on the USS Stark, the largest naval battle since WW II, tanker escorts, etc are topics of my e-interview with Harold Lee Wise, author of Inside the Danger Zone: The U.S. Military in the Persian Gulf, 1987-1988.
What inspired you to write Inside the Danger Zone?
The book grew from my masters thesis. As I researched these events and talked to veterans, it became clear that there was an important story to be told and one that had been overlooked. I saw an opportunity for a book, but the veterans themselves were the ones who really inspired me to write it. Many of them told me that no one had ever asked them about these events. I thought they deserved to be heard. I tried to tell their stories, and the story of the United States in the Persian Gulf at that time, in an entertaining and exciting manner.
The operations and incidents described in the book include the Iraqi missile attack on USS Stark, firefights between U.S. Special Forces and Iranian gunboats, attacks on Iranian warships and oil platforms, the seizure of an Iranian minelayer, and USS Samuel B. Roberts hitting a mine. Iranian missile and gunboat attacks damaged American and allied ships while the mine campaign threatened shipping of all nations. The tense situation eventually resulted in Operation Praying Mantis, America’s largest sea-air battle since World War II, a one-day showdown between U.S. forces and the most feared ships of the Iranian navy.
What do you feel are some of the lessons learned from May 1987 through July 1988?
There were many lessons learned during this period. One important thing is that this period was the proving ground for a new generation of high-tech weapons, most of which worked well with the notable exception of the tragic Vincennes incident. There were several “firsts” for the U.S. military including the first missile exchange between ships and the first use of satellite communication to relay decisions from the White House during combat. The Navy learned many lessons about damage control and ship design from Stark and Samuel B. Roberts. During this period, the military had to adapt to unexpected and dangerous threats, such as mines and armed speedboats, while also dealing with the unique difficulties of operating a large force in the Persian Gulf region for the first time. These lessons served the United States well in later years.
In the bigger picture, the entire period was a welcome change from what had been a long string of U.S. military failures in the region. Many of the diplomatic relationships that exist today were built in this time and the basic framework of U.S. relations to the Middle East took shape. It was a turning point in U.S. global strategy. Besides being the first tentative step toward a lasting military entanglement in the Persian Gulf region, this deployment was by far the largest for the U.S. military in the time between the Vietnam War and Desert Shield.
Have any of these lessons been since forgotten and are in danger of being re-learned the hard way today?
Because of the countries involved, the geographic area, and the continuing importance of oil, these operations should be thoroughly studied. Thankfully, the U.S. military has done a fine job in building on the lessons learned in that period. Many of the tactics and strategies that were important then could be valid in a future conflict and not only in the Persian Gulf. One lesson that should not be forgotten is that low-tech weapons are effective in naval warfare. Small boats attacking merchants is one example that has been in the headlines of late. That was a common problem in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War; only the attackers were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and not pirates. Protecting merchant ships, especially oil tankers, from these small boats was a primary goal of the U.S. Navy in the Gulf back then. The Navy used a combination of ships and special boat units operating from mobile sea bases. These mobile sea bases are just one of several interesting aspects of that time.
Can you tell us a little bit about Operation Praying Mantis?
Operation Praying Mantis was a one-day running battle between the United States and Iran that took place on 18 April 1988. The operation was intended as retaliation for the mining of Samuel B. Roberts. The end result was two Iranian frigates sunk or disabled, one Iranian guided missile boat sunk, two Iranian oil platforms (used as command and control bases) destroyed, and several armed speedboats sunk. For the United States, Operation Praying Mantis was a success on multiple levels. For the U.S. military, it was the largest engagement of any kind since the Vietnam War. There were no embarrassing equipment failures or costly lapses in judgment and U.S. intelligence, using both human and technological assets, was one step ahead of Iran all day. After all of the failures in the region, and overall for that matter since Vietnam, it was a day when nearly everything went right for the U.S. military. There are a few mysteries involved as well. Praying Mantis is the topic of the longest chapter in the book.
Who should read Inside the Danger Zone?
Anyone interested in recent naval history, Middle East history, or those who like a good adventure story will enjoy the book. It is intended to be accessible for a general audience. It focuses on the experiences and viewpoints of the officers and crew who served in the Persian Gulf while presenting background information and economic and political context to put the events in perspective. One reviewer said it read like a Clancy novel, but was “even better.” I’ll let the readers be the judge of that, but I hope anyone who reads it enjoys it. The web site with more info and photos is www.insidethedangerzone.com.
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