In early 1988, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Paul Stillwell met Admiral Bernsen, Commander, Middle East Force, on board his flagship in the Persian Gulf. After the admiral retired, he and Stillwell conducted two oral history interviews. The following is an edited excerpt from their meeting on 12 September 1997.
The incident with the Stark (FFG-31) occurred on the 17th of May 1987. The flagship La Salle (AGF-3) was at the pier in Manama, Bahrain. That evening a watch officer came down from the war room and informed me of a report from an Air Force AWACS plane. An Iraqi aircraft had been detected coming south out of Iraq.
Let me go back a bit to provide the full picture. We had a station in the northern half of the Persian Gulf, where we placed a surface combatant to monitor Iraqi aircraft activity. We surmised there was a point where the Iraqi pilots detected on their radar a shipping contact, presumably Iranian; then they would turn and launch an Exocet missile.
A few days prior to the Stark incident, the destroyer Coontz (DDG-40) was on that station. The AWACS reported the approach of an Iraqi aircraft. The Coontz crew then followed correct procedures. They acquired the contact on radar and tracked it to a point at which the rules of engagement said they were supposed to warn the pilot on the radio that if his aircraft proceeded any further, he would be at risk of being taken under fire. That warning was given—in English.
The various folks in the destroyer’s combat information center saw this, including the ship’s captain, Commander Bill Cobb, who was quite involved in this whole procedure. The fire control radar, as I recall, on board the Coontz was actually aimed at the Iraqi fighter. The pilot turned around and left, well outside of Exocet range.
Right after that the Stark came to Bahrain. On the 15th, for my morning briefing, we invited the skippers who were in the area. The skipper of the Stark, Captain Glenn Brindel, was there. One of my staff gave a thumbnail description of what had occurred with the Coontz. At the conclusion of that briefing I turned to Brindel and said: “You’re going to go up there. We’ve already talked about rules of engagement, but why don’t you sit down with my people and get the full story of everything that went on up there.” That’s what he did. Later that morning the Stark moved north and was in position the evening of the 17th.
When the watch officer reported that evening about the aircraft headed south, my only question was, “Is Stark aware, and are they in communication with AWACS?”
The answer was, “Yes, they are.” Unfortunately, the next watch officer visit was to inform me that something had gone drastically wrong. I leaped up and ran up to the war room. I listened to radio reports from the Stark, which had obviously been devastated. The La Salle then headed north. By the time we arrived, the Stark’s fires had been put out.
I have only positive things to say about the performance of the Stark’s damage-control people. They were masterful. There were some noteworthy instances of bravery, of people who entered potentially dangerous areas to rescue other sailors, and, of course, the ship survived.
The investigation began rather quickly. When 37 people die, the Navy gets disturbed. Within a very few days, Rear Admiral Grant Sharp and his team flew to Bahrain. The investigation, as I recall, went on for some ten days, maybe even a bit longer. Just before he left the ship, he said: “We’re finished. We’re going to go home, and we’re going to write this thing up.”
I had the temerity to say, “Grant, I don’t know if you’re allowed to say this, but how did we come out here on the staff, because I am concerned?”
He said: “I had no problem with your actions or the actions of your staff. The preparation and the briefings provided to the skipper of the Stark were appropriate and in my view sufficient for him to have taken the proper action.” That was reassuring.
Now, what really happened? This is the disturbing part. It seems that when Captain Brindel got back to his ship after the morning briefing on the flagship, he did not gather his key people together and go over with them the events that had occurred on board the Coontz. In the interviews during the investigation, he maintained over and over that he was so focused on the need to conduct a series of engineering drills for his superiors back in the United States that the rest of the mission came second.
I guess it was a young lieutenant down in CIC who didn’t want to make waves. He didn’t want to get up on the radio and tell anybody anything, so the airplane just flew down their throats. I really fault the skipper. Other people could have done something to prevent this, but it really emanated in this case from the top. A terrible tragedy, but it just shows what a lack of priorities and command attention can do.
The whole thing was a sad situation. The most moving day of my life was on the tarmac at Bahrain International Airport, when each of those 36 flag-draped coffins moved up the ramp on that C-141 for the flight home. (One crewman who went into the sea was not recovered.) Of course, what goes through your mind at that point, regardless of what the hell any investigation says, is, “Was there anything else that we could have done that might have avoided this goddamn thing?”
It will always be a sick feeling.