Saving the “Sammy B.”
Retired U.S. Navy Capt. Paul X. Rinn spoke to Sailors in San Diego on September 9th about leadership and success in the pursuit of professional excellence. Rinn, who served a total of 30 years in the Navy, shared an example of his own leadership when the ship he commanded struck a mine in the Arabian Gulf in the early evening of April 14, 1988.
The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG 58) – affectionately known as Sammy B. – was on her maiden deployment when lookouts spotted mines in the water. The ship stopped steaming, Rinn ordered watertight spaces to be sealed throughout the ship, and all hands moved above the main deck. Once these measures were met, Sammy B. began to reverse out of the minefield, following the visible wake her screws had left in the water.
The resulting 30-foot gash in the hull caused her to take on nearly half her displacement in seawater – 2,000 tons – in mere seconds.
Long before that night Rinn had invested heavily in manning, training, and equipping his Sailors with the things he felt would give his crew an advantage if the worst came to pass. For one, Rinn hand-selected Lt. Eric Sorensen as the damage control assistant because he knew Sorensen would turn his Sailors into an elite damage control team; and he did. As the deployment approached, using lessons learned from USS Stark (FFG 31)’s near-sinking, Rinn ensured the ship collected double the required number of oxygen breathing apparatus and canisters, three times the required barrels of aqueous film-forming foam firefighting agent, an infrared hand-held fire-finder, and several extra P-250 gas powered pumps. The crew ran drills and training scenarios consistently and maintained daily equipment run tests.
None of that preparation stopped Sammy B. from hitting the mine, but it did give the crew a fighting chance to survive.
So there they were, trying to save a ship nearly ripped in two, on fire, flooding, sinking, with crewmembers in need of medical attention, daylight fading, no working generators – and subsequently no working firefighting systems – no friendly ships within 100 nautical miles, in shark infested waters inside a minefield. As if that weren’t enough, an Iranian frigate and P-3 maritime patrol aircraft were closing in on them. In the midst of everything else, Rinn ordered crewmembers to prepare a missile for launch in case they needed to defend themselves. The ship and aircraft were both warned that if they didn’t leave the area, Sammy B. was ready and willing to fire on them.
Both threats left.
The crew continued damage control efforts on board, got the generators back online, and managed to contain and then extinguish all fires. Rinn set a new course and the ship steamed slowly though the night while the exhausted crew slept on the deck and took turns watching for fire reflash. Sammy B. came close to several mines but miraculously made it out safely.
Several experts have since presented analyses to prove USS Samuel B. Roberts should have gone down that day. But, while some may say it was pure luck that helped the crew come out of that terrible experience alive – not one crewmember died and all but one returned to duty once they healed– Rinn and his crew inarguably had done their part to be prepared. Rinn’s forethought into manning, training and equipping his crew in the best possible manner had just saved their lives and their ship.
The Sammy B. was transported to Bath Iron Works in Maine where she was repaired and eventually returned to service. USS Samuel B. Roberts was decommissioned in May.