A quarter-century ago, the USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58)—keel broken, hull pierced, stacks on fire—nearly went to the bottom of the Persian Gulf. Yet even after that lapsed time, the naval mine remains the undisputed champion among weapons that have damaged or sunk U.S. warships since World War II. The ship’s first chief engineer was Lieutenant Gordan Van Hook, a third-generation naval officer who was somewhat junior for such a position on a guided-missile frigate. Nonetheless, he helped forge a crew that won the squadron Battle E on her maiden deployment, and when the Roberts struck an Iranian mine on 14 April 1988, he helped bring the ship through mortal peril. He received the Bronze Star with Combat V and went on to command a destroyer and a destroyer squadron. In 2008, he retired as a captain with 29 years of service and now serves on the U.S. Naval Institute Board of Directors. Van Hook spoke with Bradley Peniston in 2004 for Peniston’s book, No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, newly out in paperback from the Naval Institute Press. Much of Van Hook’s account appears here for the first time.
Naval Institute: You were a plankowner on the Roberts. When did you get to the ship?
Van Hook: I arrived at Bath Iron Works in the summer of 1985. The ship was pretty well together and in the water. Shipyard workers were getting ready to go on strike.
The strike was the best thing that ever happened to the ship, and it really was the secret of why she got off to such a great start. We were delayed by five or six months, the personnel machine was still turned on, and guys kept arriving. So we had to think of things for them to do.
We’d take them over to different ships, including the Kauffman [FFG-59], still under construction. You could walk around the spaces and see what was above you and below you. We did all sorts of scavenger hunts and games, and lots of training and quizzing. It got us off to a great start, made the crew much closer, more together, better trained.
I give a lot of credit to Lieutenant Eric Sorensen, who was fabulous—just a great DCA [damage-control assistant]. He was really absorbed, totally devoted to it. He was the kind of guy you could say, “Go through that bulkhead,” and he’d find a way to do it. Eric was probably very unpopular with the other officers, because he was iron-willed about what he wanted to get done and had full support from the chain of command. I’ll give the captain [Commander Paul Rinn] a lot of credit, because Eric torqued him off at times; he torqued all of us off. But the captain managed it. He learned you’d much rather have someone like that pulling on the reins rather than having to kick him in the butt.
Naval Institute: Your shipmates now say, “Yeah, I hated him, but he saved our lives.”
Van Hook: Which is often the case. He did his job well, but he wasn’t always loved for it.
Naval Institute: Commander Rinn really pushed the ship’s heritage: Coxswain Roberts saving Marines on Guadalcanal, DE-413 fending off Japanese battleships at Leyte Gulf. Does that kind of thing make a difference?
Van Hook: It was really something that every crew member thought about and felt. When we commissioned, we had about 20 of the original [DE-413] crew man the ship with us. Admiral [Hank] Mustin was giving this great speech about Gunner Carr on mount 51 with his gut ripped open, ramming in the last round as the ship’s going down, saying, “Give me one more, boys!”
To this day, that ship [FFG-58] is known in the Fleet as being one of the best. It’s always done well; when a ship gets off to a good start, it carries on. I think that [heritage] had a lot to do with that.
Naval Institute: The Roberts was commissioned in 1986, and then off to evaluations at Guantanamo Bay?
Van Hook: Yes, Gitmo—we wanted to make a mark there. Paul Rinn doesn’t like to do anything halfway. He wanted to come out the best ship that had ever gone through there. He pushed on us pretty well, and we had a superb organization anyway.
We pretty well blew them away down there, but it was very stressful for me because we were trying to do it so fast. We were basically doing drills around the clock.
Naval Institute: The USS Stark (FFG-31) got hit the year before you first deployed. How did that affect the Roberts?
Van Hook: This is when the mass conflagration training really took off. Emergency egress drills were taken more seriously. I can remember going at it during that time with a lot more sense of “Hey, this could really happen to us,” and even “If this happened, what would I do?”
Naval Institute: So the Roberts went to the Persian Gulf in 1988, and did convoy duty during Operation Earnest Will. You were halfway through your deployment when the forward lookout spotted mines in the main shipping channel.
Van Hook: I was on watch as TAO [tactical action officer] when we came to all stop. I remember watching on the TV, watching the helicopter, then this huge explosion lifted me up. You more than heard it, you felt it, a lifting motion. I thought, “Oh, God, something’s happened to the helicopter.” Then all hell broke loose, people running all around.
We had already gone to general quarters, which was a great move. It really did a lot to set us up for success. I remember running down to main control. We still had lights at that point. I remember thinking to myself, “This is the wrong direction to be going.” The passageway was a wreck, all the AFFF [fire-fighting foam] cans knocked over. Sirens, bells, buzzers.
In main control, it was complete cacophony, as you can imagine: screaming, yelling. [GSM—Gas Turbine System Technician, Mechanical—Chief David] Walker was EEOW [engineering officer of the watch], and was taking control of things, and doing a good job. The damage-control side didn’t seem to have it together, didn’t know what was going on. It was no fault of their own; they just weren’t getting the reports. They were trying to make sense of it.
At that time, they were bringing in the wounded.
Naval Institute: Those were your guys, right?
Van Hook: Yes, the GSs [gas-turbine system technicians]. I remember being very focused on that.
Then I was just trying to get out, get around, figure out what we were dealing with, because nobody really even knew what we had. By this time, we had already gotten the report, hell, you could see that the main engine room was full of water. It filled up in no time.
I went in there, the after entrance, and just saw water all over the place. I was just flabbergasted, aghast. I figured we must have some sort of hole or something, but I just couldn’t tell if it was anything we’d be able to make any headway against.
I remember yelling to somebody to get some submersible pumps, which is hysterical now when you think about it. I had no idea that I had a 20-foot hole in the bottom. I was just thinking: “Water! Get it out!”
The hatch was open on AMR [auxiliary machine room] 3—not the main hatch, but the little circular one—and you could see it was full of water, too.
So I went forward to look at AMR 2. Water was just pouring in through cracks. Some guys had actually taken their shirts off and stuck them in the cracks. The water was going up for a while, up over the lower deck plates, but it seemed like they had it under control. It was hard to tell at first whether we were stopping it, because there was a lot of water coming in through that after bulkhead.
Naval Institute: What did the cracks look like?
Van Hook: There were SSDG [generator] enclosure cracks that were four or five feet long. Some were along welds; some looked like they had just bubbled out and cracked. That’s where they had stuffed shirts, oakum, and all sorts of stuff.
At the same time, I kept hearing reports from on top that there was fire up above, fire in the stacks; they were pouring on AFFF down there. I said, “What the hell is going on here?” because there’s no fire down here I can see. But I was worried because the 76-mm magazine was close to the uptakes.
So I went up to 03 level [atop the superstructure]. There were lots of people working hoses, pouring stuff down the stacks. The air intakes [for the gas turbines] are on the sides of the superstructure. I went in a hatch up above the intake on the side there, crawled around to where I could look all the way down to the engine modules. I could see flames and water down there.
But there was no way to get at it. No way to get a hose in there because you had the deicing stuff, and inlets.
I came up on the deck and started explaining it to the captain. We’re kind of going back and forth with each other, and I’m saying, “The engines are still on fire. They’re underwater, but they’re on fire, and that’s what you’re seeing.” I was concerned that it was somehow going to spread, or that the heat was going to melt the uptakes.
Naval Institute: Rinn said you finally convinced him to unbolt a big plate over the engine-removal shaft. What happened next?
Van Hook: Guys got it off—I don’t know how long, but there were about 70 bolts, and they got it off just [so quickly]. How did they do it that fast? Where did they get the wrenches?
Anyway, I remember all of us gathering around and lifting that thing up, and sure enough, flames came up the intake, like it had been hit by a bellows. I think we dropped it, and jumped back, and I thought, “Oh, sh_t; the captain was right and I was wrong.”
But it went right back down. And then it was just a matter of getting hoses right down on it. I think that’s what finished it off.
Once we got that fire out, all of a sudden everything settled down. Everybody was just saying, “I think we’re okay.” I remember walking around the ship and having time to survey everything that had been done.
That’s when we started getting that funky feeling of the whole ship moving. It was going up and down in the most unnatural way, and when you walked on the main deck, on Main Street, between the helo hangars, every now and then you’d hear this huge crash, boom, boom!
It was the whole ship flexing on the main deck, just like a soda can, because the ship is an I-beam, with the main deck and keel. On this class of ship, the aluminum superstructure acts as a strongback. But the superstructure was cracked all the way around, so that wasn’t doing anything. The main deck was all that was keeping it together, and it was going up and down, up and down. It was just the eeriest sound.
Naval Institute: So you strung cables around the stack and other things on top of the superstructure, and there was a welder who kept trying and failing to get a weld to stick.
Van Hook: Yeah, because the whole superstructure was moving along that crack. At the time, it was so unnerving. That’s when I started to think, “Geez, is this ship going to break up?”
The Roberts was ultimately towed to Dubai, hauled to Newport, Rhode Island, repaired by Bath Iron Works, and returned to duty. Today, the ship is homeported at Naval Station Mayport, Florida.