October 1, 2006  

Damage control

The heroic effort to save the Samuel B. Roberts

The Navy is in the process of reviving its “brown-water” heritage in order to counter the rise of asymmetric threats and contribute to the Long War. Soon, the Littoral Combat Ship will make its way into the Navy, as well as new riverine assets and possibly the X-craft or the new, slick, carbon-fiber-hulled Stiletto. These fast-moving ships and innovative boat designs will build upon the Navy’s long-standing legacy in full-spectrum maritime operations.

Almost two decades ago, the Navy found itself engaged in the tight waters of the Persian Gulf. It was during the protracted Iran-Iraq War in 1988 that President Reagan ordered the Navy to begin escorting reflagged tankers for the perilous run in mine-infested waters between the Straits of Hormuz and Kuwait’s oil refineries. This congested waterway was further complicated by frequent close runs by Iraqi and Iranian jet aircraft and aggressive Iranian Boghammar patrol boats. In “No Higher Honor,” the story of one particular ship is followed from its construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine through its initial shakedown cruises up to its participation in Operation Earnest Will in the Persian Gulf.

The author of this artfully composed product is Bradley Peniston, an accomplished journalist who is the managing editor of the international defense weekly Defense News (an AFJ sister publication). In this, his second book on naval matters, Peniston brings a journalist’s careful eye for detail and numerous interviews to bear in retelling the leadership, training and operating conditions of an American frigate, the Samuel B. Roberts. The 4,700-ton, gas-turbine-powered ship was small by the Navy’s conventional standards, but its speed and maneuverability made it an ideal escort in the gulf. Under the command of an aggressive and experienced ship handler, the Roberts overmatched the many Iranian frigates and patrol boats that harassed commercial traffic along the world’s most critical waterway.

The warrior leader in this superbly crafted micro-epic is Cmdr. Paul X. Rinn. Rinn was perfectly suited for his new command. In the final years of the Vietnam conflict, he was assigned as a counterinsurgency adviser far up the Mekong River near the Laotian border. Here, he worked with foreign cultures, including Cambodian, Laotian and Thai irregulars. He also operated with the U.S. special operations community and U.S. Marines in combat patrols and operations against the Khmer Rouge. After Vietnam, when the Navy junked its Vietnam-era expertise in small boats, Rinn had a fairly typical surface warrior career. He was then given the chance to command the Samuel B. Roberts, a yet-to-be-built Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate.

From its commissioning to its operational tour in the gulf for Operation Earnest Will, Rinn pushed his crew to raise its performance levels to the highest standards. On one fateful day, the crew came to realize the importance of the combat drills and damage control skills that their skipper relentlessly honed. Halfway through its deployment, the Roberts found itself in the middle of an Iranian minefield and it backed over an ancient but potent instrument of naval warfare, an M-08/39 naval mine packed with more than 250 pounds of explosives. Just before 5 p.m. on April 14, 1988, the Roberts hull bumped into a 3-foot black metal sphere.

“A lead foil horn crumpled against a half-inch hull plate. Chemicals mixed, generating an electrical charge,” Peniston writes. “An eighth of a ton of TNT violently transformed into heat and vapor and soot. The shockwave hit the ship at frame 276 — two-thirds of the way down the 445-foot hull, and just four feet to port of the centerline. The blast lifted the entire ship at the point of impact, and the stern rose a few feet more than the bow. The stress was more than the keel could endure.”

A fireball burst up from the damaged engine room as scalding gases melted its equipment and vented up through the ship’s exhaust stack. Its back broken and its crew stunned, the Roberts was dead in the water. Water was flooding into the ship’s engine compartments, and a raging fire was consuming the stricken vessel’s fuel tanks. As Peniston captures it, “In a heartbeat, a single low-tech weapon had roughly halved the structural strength of a U.S. Navy warship.”

The pluck and ingenuity of the unglamorous damage control parties now kicked in to save their fragile ship and their wounded shipmates. Their performance lived up to the ship’s motto: “No Higher Honor.”

While it centers on the crew’s ordeal in responding to the mining incident that nearly sunk the Roberts, the book itself offers much more. Peniston adroitly weaves in the technological details of the frigate’s construction and its naval armament, along with the political context of the ongoing struggle in the Middle East. Additionally, he successfully combines the human element drawn from numerous interviews with Rinn and his crew. The composite is a riveting and comprehensive narrative.

The Navy already uses this compelling story in its damage control and leadership education programs. Thanks to Peniston’s diligence, its utility will only grow as the nation seeks to use its maritime forces to assist friends and allies in close waters and in key maritime chokepoints. “No Higher Honor” concisely captures the essence of effective leadership and the importance of cohesion and rigorous drills for small vessels going into harm’s way.

“No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf,” by Bradley Peniston; Naval Institute Press, $29.95.

FRANK HOFFMAN is a retired Marine officer and frequent contributor to professional military journals.