Shortly after 9:00 pm Persian Gulf time on 17 May 1987, Radioman Larry Hardin of the guided missile frigate USS Stark (FFG-31) walked toward his berthing area located on second deck on the port side near the bow. As he neared the hatch, he smelled fresh popcorn, and although he was tired from standing watch, the smell made him hungry for a snack. Instead of going to stretch out in his bunk, he followed the aroma down the narrow passageway to its source, the enlisted personnel’s mess deck.

            Hardin walked in, took a bag of popcorn, and relaxed with some other off-duty crew in a blue vinyl booth near the soft-drink machine. The Sailors ate and made small talk while a movie played on the ship’s closed-circuit television. The mood in the mess deck was jovial. For some of the more experienced crew, this was their second tour of duty in the region and so far, it had been a quiet, routine cruise. Some called it boring.

           Unlike most other areas of the world where the U.S. Navy deployed, the Persian Gulf lacked liberty ports, places where the Sailors could go ashore to unwind, drink, and party. Back in March, Stark visited Karachi, Pakistan, outside the Gulf, and the crew got the chance to do some shopping. Hardin bought a leather jacket. Still, even with that brief respite, the monotonous duty wore on the Sailors. Their morale was good but naturally, they looked forward to an August return to sunny Florida to enjoy a late summer at home. Until then, the crew anticipated more of the same in the Gulf. Although Iran and Iraq were at war, Stark, as a neutral presence in international waters, had no reason to expect action.

           Suddenly, the crew heard “a big loud thud” and felt a shudder that reverberated through the ship. Hardin’s first instinct was that it was an internal problem. “Have we blown an engine?” he thought as the crew in the mess sprang to their feet and looked at each other in puzzlement, wondering if it was something serious. As if in answer, they heard the unmistakable sound of the general quarters alarm—a loud electronic “bong, bong, bong ...” coming over the ship’s speaker system—calling the crew to battle stations.


“Written in a direct and engaging manner the book provides new insights… about the complexity of the military and political activities as well as the various innovations used to adapt to the Iranian threat. A very enjoyable and worthwhile read.” ---

Captain David Grieve, USN (Ret.)


           The crew scattered to their respective assigned locations. Hardin quickly walked to his battle station, the radio room, and discovered the communication system had no electricity. The power suddenly flickered back on, and as Hardin and the other radio personnel struggled to bring the radios online, still not knowing what was happening, they felt another tremendous jolt. This time the power went off for good. With it went Stark’s main communication link with the outside world.

            Several minutes passed as scattered reports came in over the sound-powered internal phone system. The news was chilling. The two impacts were missiles, both direct hits, and an uncontrolled fire raged below decks. Stark was under attack. Following standard procedure when faced with the possibility of capture or sinking, Hardin and the others in radio began to gather  sensitive materials for possible destruction. As they performed these emergency duties, the room temperature soared. Eventually, Hardin realized that ship’s control berthing compartment, home to off-duty Sailors, where he would have been had he not gone to the mess, was filled with fire from burning rocket fuel.2 If not for the tempting smell of the popcorn, Hardin would have been among those in the inferno.

           For Hardin and the surviving Stark crew, this was the beginning of the longest night of their lives. For the United States as a whole, it was the beginning of a new phase, an ever-deepening military involvement in the Persian Gulf. A large deployment of American forces in the Middle East soon became a fact of life, although in May 1987, at the time of the attack on Stark, the American presence in the Gulf consisted of a mere seven smaller-model navy ships, all based in Bahrain, and an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) support contingent in Saudi Arabia. In the next fourteen months, an unprecedented number of American military personnel would serve in the Persian Gulf region. This was the first step of an ever-deepening long-term military commitment to this crucial part of the world.

           The Persian Gulf was a place of shadowy danger. From May 1987 through July 1988, when Saddam Hussein and Iraq had yet to become the enemy, America was, in the words of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, “not at war, but certainly not at peace either.”3 From the perspective of the Sailors and Marines who manned the ships and the pilots who flew the planes it was, at times, a full-out shooting war. During this period, U.S. ships escorted oil tankers, dealt with Iranian mine fields, shelled Iranian installations, and sunk enemy ships. On occasion, American and Iranian forces engaged in open combat, most notably during Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, the world’s largest naval battle since World War II.

           This book sheds some light on this period, a time when the United States was just dipping its military toes into the Persian Gulf. The tanker escorts and associated operations were the first large-scale deployment of U.S. service personnel since Vietnam, and this experience laid the foundation for future American operations in the Middle East. In the post-Vietnam, pre-Desert Storm era, when the U.S. armed forces became better known for spectacular failures than noteworthy successes, the 1987–88 involvement in the Persian Gulf saw both extremes.