By Jim Gray, GMCM SWCC Ret.
Operation Earnest Will, part of the “Tanker Wars” between Iran and Iraq, began in July 1987, when the United States decided to protect Kuwaiti-owned tankers from Iran. This was accomplished by “reflagging” tankers under the American flag and providing naval convoy escort to and from Kuwait. In addition to the U.S. Navy ships, this campaign would also involve U.S. Special Operations Command in its first tactical commitment. U.S. Navy SEALs and Special Boat Units under NSW Task Units, and U.S. Army SOF’s Task Force 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) Night Stalkers all came together to provide critical, behind the scenes support for the more visible convoy; the largest since World War II.
My perspective of the operation was as a boat captain of a Patrol Boat MKIII. NSW had contracted two jacking rig barges and converted them to mobile sea bases. Each barge would have a NSW Task Unit, a SEAL platoon and a special boat detachment. Barge Hercules became NSWTU Atlantic and Barge WimBrown VII became NSWTU Pacific. Patrol Boat MKIII and Sea Fox detachments arrived from special boat units 12, 13, 20 and 24, and the converted barges would deploy to the Northern Persian Gulf in Sept.1987.
I was the chief petty officer in charge of Patrol Boat 753 from April to August 1988 attached to Wimbrown VII. The barge had four MKIIIs; 775 and 776 from SBU-12, and 757 and 753 from SBU-13. Barge Hercules had patrol boat detachments from SBU-20 and SBU-24. Each Barge Task Unit would conduct their own patrols, but both answered to the NSW Task Group. Patrol boat operations primarily were coastal patrol and interdiction to stop the Iranians from mining the sea-lanes and stop Iran small boat attacks on Oil Tankers.
On Sept. 21, TF-160 Little Birds nicknamed Seabats discovered an Iranian ship, the Iran Ajar, laying mines in the sea lanes. The Little Birds received permission to attack the ship and, they fired on it until the crew deserted the ship. In the morning, SEALs boarded the now abandoned Iran Ajar and took control, finding nine additional mines and a logbook showing the position of mines already laid. The Patrol Boat MKIII detachment found the Iran Ajar crew in life rafts and took them captive.
On Oct. 8, Seabats sunk three Iranian gunboats near Middle Shoals buoy. Patrol boats rescued some of the Iranian crews in the water.
On Oct. 17, Tanker Sea Isle City is hit by an Iranian silkworm missile, and the next day, American destroyers shelled the Rostam Oil Platform. Afterward, SEALs boarded and gathered intelligence.
In the winter months the seas proved too rough for the Patrol boats and Sea Fox, and they were sent back to Bahrain. The Sea Foxes would go home and SBU-11 would remain at Bahrain to provide security at Stira Anchorage.
On April 14, 1988 USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) hits a mine, prompting the initiation of Operation Praying Mantis on April 18. U.S. Navy air and surface assets attack the Sirri and Sassan Oil Patforms. Two Iranian frigates are sunk in this action.
On July 23, a TF-160 Seabat goes down due to mechanical failure in Iranian waters. Two patrol boats cross the line to perform search and rescue, but the pilots are picked up by other TF-160 assets. Patrol boats in Iranian waters are ordered to stand guard over the Seabat wreckage and they hold position until relieved by a U.S. Navy cruiser.
On July 3, the Guided Missile Cruiser USS Vincennes (CG 49) shoots down commercial Iran Air Flight 655 by mistake, killing 290 civilians.
On Aug. 20, the Iran-Iraq cease-fire goes into effect and the post cease-fire operations slow down. Wimbrown VII was taken out of service, and the SEAL platoon and a patrol boat detachment operated from Barge Hercules until June 1989.
During that time, we also conducted SEAL support operations and escorted tankers to Kuwait. The threats we faced during Ernest Will from the Iranians were mines and aircraft attacks. The threat from both Iran and Iraq included missile attacks, and our personal nemesis, combatant craft operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite force, the Pasadaran Guard. Their boats included armed Boston whaler types, and the Boghammar, a type of high-speed patrol boat. The Iranians even had patrol boat MKIIIs left over from the days of the Shah, so when we went out on patrol and saw other patrol boats they got a real hard look.
We operated in the northern Persian Gulf and the Iranians used Farsi Is and Karge Is and Bushere as their boat bases. They also used Iranian oil platforms for launching attacks. The Iranian Navy had several European-built, fast attack crafts and would also use local area craft like dhows and oil platform support craft to sow mines and gather intelligence on the movements of our barges. We were very worried about suicide attacks on the barges, and one duty we had was to not let any vessel within one mile of the barge. This task was called “pouncer duty.” For us on Wimbrown VII our normal patrol boat routine was patrol, patrol, pouncer, then a maintenance day, then repeat. But SEAL Ops and Kuwait escort duties could mess up a schedule. At first we only did night patrols but later we did day and night patrols, and that made for a long day. Ask any boat guy there…sleep was a blessing.
In the Northern Gulf it was divided waters. The Iranians had an excursion zone. No one could cross into these waters and most of the time we honored it. Our barges were towed to different anchorages fairly often so there would be less chance of being targeted. But, I remember our barge being anchored in a known minefield once, according to our charts. When an incident happened, such as a ship attack, it went down fast. Most old warriors will tell you, 90% of the time you’re bored and the other 10% you’re scared to death. It was no different for us in the Gulf.
The biggest lesson I learned in Operation Earnest Will was the awesome responsibility of command in a war zone. Every decision could mean life or death for your crew.
Many of my fellow boat captains and crewmen have their memories as well. This was my time in Operation Ernest Will.