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U.S. Warship Trains Guns on Iraqi Planes

November 26, 1987

ABOARD USS RICHMOND K. TURNER IN THE PERSIAN GULF (AP) _ This U.S. battle cruiser came within a hairbreadth of firing its missiles at three Iraqi warplanes in the northern Persian Gulf on Thursday after the planes approached in what officers believed was a threatening maneuver.

″They were flying in a ship attack profile,″ said Capt. John D. Luke, commanding officer of the Turner. ″They were flying low so that they would not be seen on radars, they were going fast and they were coming toward us.″

Officers aboard the cruiser, which has been on patrol in the northern gulf during the past few days, say they average two to three alerts per day because of Iraqi air activities.

On May 17, an Iraqi fighter-bomber hit the frigate USS Stark with two missiles, killing 37 American seamen. Iraq apologized for what it said was a mistaken attack.

Luke said incidents as serious as Thursday’s have occurred five or six times previously, and this one came as close as any to the actual launching of the ship’s long-range anti-aircraft missiles.

″We didn’t have much more to go until we fired,″ he told members of a Pentagon news pool who were aboard the ship.

″It was just a gut feeling″ not to fire, he added. ″Nobody wants to do that. But we were at full maximum readiness in case that decision had to be made.″

The incident occurred at noon, as the Turner’s crew of 418 were just sitting down for their Thanksgiving day meal. Luke, who was greeting sailors passing through the mess line, broke away and rushed back to his command center to deal with the crisis.

The ship went to ″condition three red,″ the highest state of alert, after its radar picked up the three Iraqi F-1 Mirages moving south along the Saudi Arabian coast. The planes ignored several radio warnings before the alert was signaled through the ship, officers said.

Crewmen manned deck guns and portable Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, and the sleek white Standard-2 missiles that form the ship’s primary armanent slid swiftly out of their deckhouses onto the launchers.

The missiles were swiveling with the search radar that was locked on and tracking the Iraqi planes when the alert was canceled after about 15 minutes.

Luke said that in addition to the ″ship attack profile″ of the planes, ″there were a few other things that could have happened, that didn’t happen, to indicate that maybe they would have either accidentally or intentionally shot at us.

″You’ve got to keep in mind it’s not always that they want to fire at an American ship, but there’s always the possibility of that accident. So we have to be prepared for that accident as well as that intention.″

Luke said Thursday’s maneuver appeared to pose a threat not only to his ship but to several others in the immediate area, including two minesweepers which have been operating in the waters near Iran-held Farsi island, the support ship Mount Vernon and one or two other U.S. warships.

Luke, of Charleston, S.C., would not say how close to the American ships the Iraqi planes had come but said, ″if you had been on deck you might have been able to see them.″

Another alert occurred about an hour later, and again the missiles went into position for possible launch, but there was no order to fire.

The flight pattern was a familiar one for Iraqi planes that carry out almost daily air raids against shipping targets along the coast of Iran. The jets fly south, turn east across the gulf and fire their Exocet missiles at oil tankers on the way back north.

The alert did not seriously disrupt the Thanksgiving meal, which included about 30 turkeys and 80 pounds of turkey loaf, with all the customary trimmings: dressing, mashed potatoes, candied yams, buttered corn, salad, hot rolls, mince pie, sweet potato pie, ice cream, and cake made in the shape of a turkey.

The scene was repeated aboard the other 10 ships of the navy’s Middle East Force, including the missile frigate Elrod, escorting the 19th convoy of U.S. flagged Kuwaiti tankers toward the Strait of Hormuz, and 18 other warships outside in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

The Turner’s chaplain, Lt. Alan ″Blues″ Bates, held a religious service in the crew messhall before the meal.

The ″Battlecruiser Chrous,″ eight crew members who only recently began singing together, sang several hymns at the service and made their debut before national network television cameras, inasmuch as a network news team was present as part of the media pool.

With the crew dressed in crisp blue navy dungarees and the officers in whites, Capt. Luke gave out awards to several members of the crew for top performance and said they could be thankful for ″our beautiful country, families and friends, our good health and safety in the dangerous environment of the Persian Gulf and aboard this ship.″

He said, ″You are great guys and truly the best our country has to offer.″

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