Controversial tragedy: 37 sailors killed by missiles in the Arabian gulf 30 years ago

USS Stark (FFG-31) after being struck with two Exocet missiles on May 17, 1987.

A 30-year anniversary ceremony was held today for the 37 sailors who were killed aboard the American frigate USS Stark after an Iraqi aircraft allegedly fired two Exocet missiles at it during the Iraq-Iran War.

On patrol in the Arabian gulf during the time of the attack, the ship was reportedly “mistaken” for an Iranian oil tanker and engaged by a French-made Iraqi warplane.

Despite both the Exocet’s deadly capabilities (only a few years earlier, Argentinian Exocets ultimately sent the British HMS Sheffield to the bottom of the South Atlantic), the startling loss of life and extensive damage to the Stark, the crew managed to bring the damage under control and the Stark was ultimately repaired.

“The Navy thought we did the impossible task of saving the ship after two missile hits, and they call us heroes,” Stark veteran Cliff Sellers said in a 2016 interview. “No. The heroes are the ones who are not here anymore. We are survivors.”

According to the US News, the families of the Stark crew who perished return to Mayport Naval Station every year to pay their respects.

Following the attack, an investigation determined that the Stark was operating well within its rights when it had been fired upon. While no actions were taken against Iraq, the American government used the incident to increase pressures with the Iranians, whom they blamed the incident on.

“We’ve never considered them [Iraq’s military] hostile at all,” then-President Ronald Reagan said. “The villain in the piece is Iran.”

Despite the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff investigation found Iraq responsible for the incident and the Stark’s commander was fired for not defending his ship, the narrative remained that Iran was responsible and was eventually forgotten by the American public. Eventually, the Stark itself was scrapped.

However, not everyone forgot what happened to the thirty-seven men killed and twenty-one wounded- the families come together once a year to grieve, even thirty years later.

Last year, the stern plate of the Stark was tracked down by Jana Ryals, whose brother, Earl, had been killed aboard the frigate back in 1987. Eventually, Mayport officials helped her in securing it as a memorial.

“I primed and painted it and got the front of it the way it should be, then the more I thought about it, the more I thought it wasn’t mine to keep,” said Ryals in 2016. “… It’s where it should be. And it means a lot to the guys who were on it.”

Adding to the weight of her find, she also secured pieces of the ship to give to crew and families who attended.

In a challenge issued last year, Command Master Chief Ross Cramer told all in attendance that they had standing orders for the 30th anniversary this year.

“If you know another shipmate, cut [the piece] in half and give him part,” Cramer said. “Grab that shipmate and bring you and the shipmate and your pieces back here next year for the 30th. That’s your two rules-fair enough.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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