Homeport leaders remember the aftermath of USS Stark attack
Sunday, May 17, 1987, was quiet and sleepy on Naval Station Mayport, Florida. Families probably went to church, to the beach or the playground. They caught up on their chores. They prepared for the week ahead.
Then, the base commander, Capt. John Mitchell, got a phone call from the commander of Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 8 that changed everything.
"He said, 'You might want to turn on your television: The local news is reporting that DESRON 8, USS Stark, has been attacked in the Persian Gulf by an Iraqi Mirage fighter jet and had fired two missiles. The news is also saying there's at least one fatality,'" recalled Mitchell.
Mitchell wouldn't know exactly what had happened for days, but an Iraqi pilot in a Dassault Falcon 50 modified business jet had fired two Exocet missiles at the frigate USS Stark (FFG 31), which had been patrolling the Saudi Arabian coast near the Iran-Iraq War exclusion boundary. In the initial attack, Stark sustained damage port side near her bridge, and then was hit on the port side a second time. Thirty-seven Sailors were killed and 21 were wounded.
Information was initially limited, but Mitchell remembers believing things were going to get much worse. He quickly gathered his staff at the base headquarters and called the chaplain, requesting the chapel keep its doors open for as long as necessary to serve family members traumatized by the news.
I remember thinking ... shore station command school sure didn't prepare me for anything like this. It was awful, but ... I had sort of a sense that it was going to get worse."
- Capt. John Mitchell
He was right.
Mitchell soon discovered local media outlets were releasing information that was not correct. They were also naming fallen Sailors' before their families could be notified. He still remembers the dread and helplessness he felt at being unable to protect families living off-base from intrusive reporters on the scent of an unexpected story.
"That was awful," he said.
Mitchell quickly arranged for off-base families to gather at the community center, to minimize the damaging interactions with the media. Thinking on his feet, he ensured chaplains, medical services, and Fleet and Family Service Center (FFSC) counselors would be available. On-base Navy families also rallied together to provide emotional support, as well as food, during this traumatic experience.