The Navy’s Largest Sea Battle Since World War II Was With Iran

Sebastien Roblin

Following the mining of the U.S. frigate Samuel B. Roberts on April 14, 1988, the Reagan administration ordered a retaliatory strike to bloody the nose of Iranian naval forces—without tipping over into full-out war. 

As described in the first half of this two-part series, in Operation Praying Mantis, Navy surface-action groups Bravo and Charlie proceeded to dispatch two Iranian oil platforms with ease early on the morning of April 18 and then sunk the Iranian missile boat Joshan when she came to investigate.

But SAG Delta—counting the destroyers Joseph Williams and O’Brian, and the frigate Jack Williams— had yet to complete it mission: to sink the Iranian Saam-class frigate Sabalan, notorious for its unusually bloody attacks on civilian shipping using its 4.5” gun and Sea Killer missiles. Soon aircraft from the carrier USS Enterprise were busily searching for the frigate.

But by that afternoon, Tehran made it clear it was not going to take the U.S. assault lying down.

Years later, former Revolutionary Guard Corps chief Mohsen Rezaee recalled being “shocked” by Ayatollah Khomeini’s blithe order to retaliate: “If I were you, I would take a rocket-propelled grenade and I would hit them.”

First, at 12:50, two Iranian F-4 Phantom fighters came barreling towards SAG Charlie. The old Charles F. Adams-class destroyer Lynde McCormick locked on with her radar and fired two long-range SM-2 missiles. The first tore half the wing off one of the Phantoms and raked its fuselage with shrapnel. Miraculously, the pilot retained enough control to dodge the second missile, and both Phantoms belted back to their base in Bandar Abbas.

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