USS Stark shipmates Armando Asencio and William McLeod were both asleep below decks on May 17, 1987, when two Iraqi Exocet missiles slammed into the ship’s hull as it sat at anchor in the Arabian Gulf.
Launched just after 10 p.m., the first missile tore a hole in the ship’s left bow, not exploding as its fuel ignited a huge fire. Then the second exploded as it tore its way inside.
The fire from the first missile set the ship’s post office, combat operations center and storeroom ablaze as Asencio fled his bunk on the other side through a back hatch, locking it shut just in time.
“The second missile came in and the fire just hit the glass in the door, so I was able to get out at the last minute,” he said. “It was dark with the smoke and diesel burning — it just turned black. I jumped up to the officers quarters and went through their bathroom, out through their galley and out.”
Asencio and McLeod joined dozens of other shipmates Wednesday at the 36th annual memorial at its home port at Naval Station Mayport, McLeod remembered how he escaped through the hole a missile made, only to spend 11 hours in the Gulf waters until a passing helicopter scooped him up.
“The second one exploded almost directly over our hatch, going into our berthing,” the combat systems veteran said. “I crawled out of the hole — didn’t see it, didn’t know it was there. I was crawling around, like, ‘Lord, I can’t get out of here.” I couldn’t see. It was completely black, a cave.”
On May 17, 1987, while on patrol in the Arabian Gulf, 37 sailors died when the missiles struck, causing the largest loss of life to any U.S. Navy ship based at Mayport during a single attack. Despite severe damage, the Stark’s crew saved the ship, which returned to Mayport after repairs and stayed active there until its decommissioning in 1999.
The Navy set up a USS Stark memorial at Morse Avenue and Maine Street at the naval station, with a plaque naming those who died. About 200 people, former crew members as well as current and retired military, gathered to honor the dead and survivors on Wednesday. The ship’s bell was there as well its stern plate, the name shining in black paint.
Capt. Brian Biner, the base’s current commanding officer, said this is a story that must be told.
“To the crew, to the families of the USS Stark, this is your home. This will always be your home,” Binder said. “You are Naval Station Mayport. You are this memorial.”
McLeod said he learned that his ship had been attacked when the Bahrain helicopter pilot who found him flew over the smoking, listing ship. He appreciates these memorials. He has attended more in recent years to renew friendships and conversations with former shipmates.
“I really started coming to grips with it and getting back in touch with the crew and my friends and guys that basically started allowing me to feel comfortable, to start getting involved and facing a lot of that stuff, getting in touch with those emotions again,” he said Wednesday.
Asencio, now a U.S. Embassy staff member in the Dominican Republic, said he tries to attend the memorials every few years after going to the first and the 30th.
“We thank the commander, the base and the new sailors for doing this for us,” Asencio said. “It is healing to have all these people here, family members and survivors here to remember those who are not here with us. It is great to see this monument every year and see that they still remember us.”
Tuesday’s memorial ended with retired boatswain’s mate Peter Weber ringing the ship’s brass bell each time former sonar technician James Pair read the name of a crewmate who died in the attack. Taps and a rifle salute followed.