By Philip Gardocki
It was September 1981. And "Colonel" Mohamar Quaddaffi, Dictator of Libya, claimed as territorial waters, all of the Mediterranean within 200 miles of the Libyan shoreline. The fact that this included Sicily and Malta did not seem to bother the Dictator. In response to this, President Reagan sent a Navy Carrier group to operate within the 200 mile "Line of Death" but outside of the 12 miles considered territorial waters by the rest of the world. It was then reported that Libyan aircraft attacked aircraft from the Nimitz, which was operating in the Mediterranean. The Nimitz aircraft shot down two Libyan aircraft.
Largely unreported at this time was 48 hour confrontation between a Navy cruiser and Libyan forces containing a submarine, a missile boat, and at intervals at least two aircraft. At times, all weapon doors were open on the Libyan forces. The Libyans eventually stood down and retired.
It was in this environment that our destroyer, the USS King, DDG-41 arrived in the Mediterranean. The incidents described were less than two days old and already there were tee shirts of downed Libyan aircraft, and camels being targeted by Harpoon missiles. Initially we were unaffected by the events and had shore leave in Marseilles, France. Then, we were ordered to sail with the Oliver Hazard Perry, FFG-7, to sneak up on the Soviet Flagship in the Mediterranean, the "large antisubmarine warship" Leningrad, currently operating in Libyan waters.
Large Antisubmarine Warship Leningrad, off the coast of Libya,
as photographed by the author.
I was skeptical we would be successful. Besides being the flagship of the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean, the Leningrad had a goodly number of radars and over 20 helicopters for air search. When you consider that the Libyans were feeling very watchful on their territory, the odds looked slim that we were going to sneak up on them.
A day later, we were towing the Oliver Hazard Perry back to port. She had a single turbine engine design and when it failed, she was immobile. It was a bad day for Democracy. We dropped her off in Marseilles and, four days later, alone, we were back on our original mission of hunting bear and antagonizing a minor power.
Early one morning, after several days sailing, there was an announcement that we were closing in on the Leningrad. OK, how did we do this?
It was really nothing that we did. The Soviets spent most of their budget on building weapons and next to nothing maintaining them. In the case of their Navy, ships did not use any equipment that was not necessary. Leningrad was at anchor, radars off, helicopters stowed, engines cold. As soon as our ship broke the horizon, her escorting destroyer, a Krivak*, raised steam, and sailed to intercept us. Once we were identified, the Leningrad raised steam, and started running away. The maximum speed of the Leningrad was about 38 knots, while ours was 33, and she began to pull away from us.
I was disappointed at our inability to get a close-up view of this ship, when suddenly, the cloud of smoke emanating from her stack ceased. Her engines had failed! So it was, we closed on to the flagship of the Soviet Navy, at 5 knots. By my estimate, there was over $100,000 of camera gear on deck, none of it government owned, and we were snapping pictures with abandonment.
And we offered to provide technical help. But our offer was ignored.
It was a bad for day for Communism.
After the initial cruise by, we took our post at a respectful distance of maybe 5 miles. By mid afternoon, Leningrad raised steam again. Then, in what only could be considered a show for our benefit, she lit off her radars, exercised her missile launchers and launched most of her helicopters. She looked like a grey beehive with 20 helicopters buzzing around her.
Then, she lost one. It looked like an invisible hand just reached up from the water and plucked it out of the sky.
We offered to help. Our offer was ignored.
It was a bad for day for Communism.
* The Soviets also classified the Krivak class as "large antisubmarine warships".