When Heritage Meets Initiative – The Story of Samuel B. Roberts FFG-58

By Sam Cox, Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

On the late afternoon of 14 April 1988, the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) was fighting for her life after striking a deliberately-laid Iranian moored contact mine in the central Arabian Gulf.  As the fire raged seemingly out of control and the ship was slowly but inexorably sinking, crewmen who were battling to save their ship were seen to place their hand on the list of names on a bronze plaque, seemingly making a spiritual connection with crewmen on board the first USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413). Lost during the Battle off Samar, Philippines on October 25th, 1944, DE-413 sacrificed herself in one of the most heroic actions in the entire history of the United States Navy. Simply put, the previous Samuel B. Roberts set an unmatched example of the Navy core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment that inspired the 1988 crew to one of the greatest damage control efforts, preventing their ship from sinking when every post-event computer model indicated FFG-58 should have gone down.  Those actions also gave the ship their motto, “No Higher Honor,” when, after the Battle of Samar the skipper of DE-413, Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, extolled the valor of his crew in the face of such overwhelming odds, stating that there was “no higher honor” than to have the privilege to command such a crew.

Lieutenant Commander Robert W. Copeland, USNR, receives the Navy Cross from Rear Admiral David M. LeBreton, at Norfolk, Virginia, 16 July 1945. LCdr. Copeland received the Navy Cross for heroism while in command of USS Samuel B. Roberts (DE-413) during the Battle off Samar, 25 October 1944. Courtesy of Mrs. Harriet N. Copeland, 1980. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

 

Background

Following the fall of the Shah of Iran (a U.S. ally) to Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in 1979, the dictator of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, tried to take advantage of the chaos in Iran by launching an invasion in September 1980. The result was a year’s long bloody stalemate in which Iraq resorted to the use of chemical weapons to stop Iranian “human wave” counter-attacks. Hundreds of thousands of military personnel and civilians on both sides died in the seemingly endless fighting. As each side became more desperate to break the deadlock, the war expanded into the Arabian Gulf. Iraqi jets began attacking Iranian oil tankers in an effort to cripple Iran’s economy and ability to sustain the war effort.  With the small Iraqi Navy and merchant fleet already bottled up by the superior Iranian Navy and Air Force (both U.S.-trained,) the only option Iran had to retaliate was to strike neutral-flag shipping in the Arabian Gulf (some of which were in fact carrying war supplies to Iraq via Kuwaiti ports.) By 1987, the Arabian Gulf had become very dangerous as both sides conducted attacks against shipping with little regard for positive identification, culminating in the accidental Iraqi Exocet missile strike on the frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) in May 1987 that killed 37 Sailors.

MAYPORT, Fla. (Dec. 15, 2014) The guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) arrives at Naval Station Mayport after completing a six-month deployment in the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility. The crew of Samuel B. Roberts conducted theater security operations and provided deterrence, protected peace and security, and preserved freedom of the seas. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael Wiss/Released)

 

The U.S. did not support either side (although Iraq was viewed as the lesser of two evils,) although the U.S. did agree to a Kuwaiti request to escort their tankers (after they had been “re-flagged” under U.S. flag) which was designated Operation Earnest Will. The Iranians viewed this as U.S. intervention in the war, and retaliated by having the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (a separate religiously zealot force from the “Regular” Iranian Navy) resort to laying mines in the Arabian Gulf. In September 1987, U.S. forces caught the Iranian ship IRAN AJR red-handed in the act of laying mines and captured her.

Over the next months, U.S. Navy and special operations forces engaged in an undeclared quasi-war with Iran. FFG-58, on her very first deployment, provided escort for multiple Earnest Will convoys, and on multiple occasions had thwarted Iranian attacks on neutral shipping by aggressive maneuvers (in accordance with the rules of engagement) just short of opening fire. The Iranians countered by laying minefields along the track used by FFG-58, and other U.S. warships, returning to the southern Arabian Gulf to pick up the next convoy. On April 14th, 1987, lookouts on FFG-58 sighted a possible minefield.  FFG-58 then struck an unseen submerged mine while trying to back out of the field.

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58), 1988. A view of the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) in dry dock for temporary repairs. The frigate was damaged when it struck a mine while on patrol in the Persian Gulf, August 1. U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

 

The damage to FFG-58 from the mine strike was grave, breaking her keel, starting a severe fire, and flooding two main spaces (flooding a third main space would have sent her to the bottom.)  That only ten crewmen were injured enough to require medical evacuation, and no one was killed, was due to the alertness of the lookouts, the initiative of the Officer of the Deck, and sound decision-making by the commanding officer. Over the course of several hours, the crew of FFG-58 regained electrical power, cabled the cracked superstructure together, stopped the flooding, and extinguished the fire in one of the most exceptional damage control efforts in the annals of U.S. Naval history.

Lessons Learned

Damage Control – Train like it matters! 

By all accounts the skipper of FFG-58, Captain Paul X. Rinn, was a damage control fanatic, who drilled his ship over and over in every conceivable damage scenario, which was recognized by the highest marks by evaluators during her pre-deployment work ups. Yet even then, FFG-58 was faced with a completely unique set of circumstances that required the highest ability to adapt and innovate in ways that could only be accomplished by a highly trained crew that wasn’t afraid to act on initiative.

USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58) underway after the ship struck a mine on April 14, 1988. A USMC CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter is on the helicopter pad.

 

Initiative – It’s an All Hands effort!

Although FFG-58’s crew took the art and science of damage control to new levels, U.S. Navy ships have traditionally done very well with damage control whether in combat or accident; examples abound where Navy crews saved their ship from severe or even catastrophic damage, such as Stark, Forrestal, Enterprise, and Tripoli. The problem has usually been what happens before the explosion or collision, oftentimes a breakdown in basic bridge and CIC watchkeeping and seamanship. In the case of FFG-58, despite the grinding, boring routine of operating in the heat of the Arabian Gulf, FFG-58’s lookouts were alert, immediately notifying the Officer-of-the Deck (OOD) of the potential danger before even being sure what it was. Instead of a complacent, “Oh it’s just another dead sheep (which float with their feet up) or floating trash” reaction, the OOD took immediate and decisive action to bring the ship to a stop, not hesitating a moment to alert the captain. The initiative by the OOD gave the captain time to bring most of the crew up from below decks, thereby saving numerous lives (and quite likely the ship, because dead crewmen can do nothing to save the ship.)

Command Climate, our Integrity as shipmates, matters.

The alertness and initiative that saved FFG-58 was a direct result of a command climate that fostered the utmost in attention to detail and adherence to procedure, while at the same time ensuring that the crew was unafraid to offer innovative solutions to immediate life-and-death problems. It took moral courage for the commanding officer to direct the crew to stop fighting the fire because the fire-fighting water was believed to be sinking the ship. It took courage on the part of the Chief Engineer, Lieutenant Gordan van Hook, to recommend a highly unorthodox approach to putting out the fire. But in addition to moral courage, it also took a command climate where the skipper trusted the judgments of his officers and crew (after they had proved the soundness of their judgment during relentless battle drills) and the crew was unafraid to voice their ideas and concerns.

There is no safe place on a warship, ever. Whether below decks or above decks, whether in peace or war, there is hazard all around. Although the captain is responsible and accountable, everyone from the captain on down shares the danger, and every member of the crew is responsible to do his or her part, as part of a team, to warn or deal with threat. Whether mines or torpedoes from below, missiles, bombs or shellfire from above, or rocks, shoals, other ships, darkness, fog or heavy weather, or even on the most placid day, alert teamwork and vigilance is necessary for the ship to survive.

Intangibles, like your ship’s heritage, matter. 

Whether in combat or crisis, it has long been a military axiom that unit cohesion is the critical element in success. The best training and the best equipment are critical, but those are insufficient. Training and equipment are not what makes anyone willing to lay down their lives for their ship and their shipmates. The skipper of FFG-58 made extraordinarily effective use of the history and legacy of Samuel B. Roberts and the first two ships that bore his name, to instill in his crew that they were part of something greater than themselves, and to instill a desire in them to live up to the legacy of honor, courage and commitment of those who had gone before. His crew fully understood, that no matter how bad things might get, Sailors before them had been through as bad, or worse, and done their duty to the utmost, and so could they. Captain Rinn knew there was “No Higher Honor” to serve in command of the crew of FFG-58, and his crew knew there was “No Higher Honor” than to serve in the United States Navy and live up to the legacy of Sailors whose valor and sacrifice had shown the way before.


Find out more about the ship, Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) here.