A tear ran down John Prebatte’s cheek as he looked over each of the names of the 37 shipmates he lost on May 17, 1987, when two Iraqi Exocet missiles pierced his U.S. Navy ship.
The engineering officer second class on board the USS Stark was at his father’s funeral when missiles sparked destruction on the Mayport-based ship during patrol in the Persian Gulf. That’s when members of his Navy family died.
But Prebatte was there for them at Monday’s memorial to the Stark’s dead at the Beaches Veterans Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach.
“I trained all those guys,” Prebatte said, getting emotional. “They are gone, but they are not forgotten.”
Ex-bosun’s mate Peter Weber was asleep when missiles pierced the Stark’s hull near him, just after Taps had rung and many crewmembers hit their bunks. He called it a “horrific” night that left so many dead, vowing to be back at the memorial to ensure “their legacy will live on,” he said.
“We had to try to find a solution to get everybody out and save as many as we could. I was able to get out, thank God,” Weber said. “I had a lieutenant help me because I couldn’t see anything because I had blood in my eyes. The first one went right past me.”
The USS Stark was halfway through a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf when two missiles were fired at it from an Iraqi jet. The first ripped through the barber shop, post office and part of the chief petty officers’ quarters, sparking a bulkhead-melting fire. The second exploded, engulfing the sleeping quarters.
The nighttime attack on the guided missile frigate left a gaping hole in its hull and multiple fires fought by survivors of the explosion, saving the ship. After preliminary repairs in Bahrain, the Stark spent 10 months in a Pascagoula, Miss. shipyard. Then it was greeted by a low-key dockside ceremony as it returned home to Naval Station Mayport in September 1988. Stark was decommissioned at Mayport in 1999.
A monument to the Stark and its crew was erected on Aug. 1, 1987, just inside the main gates of Naval Station Mayport, where the memorial service usually takes place every May 17. Due to COVID-19, last year’s memorial was held remotely in Georgia and live-streamed. Virus restrictions on base meant this year’s 34th anniversary event was held at Beaches Veterans Memorial Park, next to the American Legion Post 316 at Atlantic Boulevard and Mayport Road.
The Navy came to the park with an honor guard, rows of sailors in uniform, and words of remembrance from its leaders, including Rear Adm. Don Gabrielson, head of the U.S. Fourth Fleet.
With a memorial to the Stark’s lost crewmembers nearby that included a piece of its hull and a shining brass bell, he reminded the audience that those dead and injured had just bedded down after Taps. Then “not 15 minutes later, everything changed” as so many would never again awake, he said.
“Twenty-nine people never again heard reveille. Eight more succumbed later,” Gabrielson said. “We can never forget the nature of our business. And most importantly today, we come together to always honor, remember and understand the sound of reveille that their sacrifice gave to each of us.”
The ceremony ended with the reading of the names of the dead shipmates, USS Stark sonar technician James Pair tolling the bell as each was read. Then family members placed wreaths near the memorial as a rifle salute fired.
Ironically, another Navy ship damaged during the Gulf War conflict visited nearby Naval Station Mayport a week ago — the USS Cole. Never based at Mayport, suicide terrorists in a small boat detonated a bomb alongside the Navy destroyer on Oct. 12, 2000, as it was refueling in a Yemeni port. The blast ripped a 40-foot-wide gash in the ship’s hull, killing 17 American sailors and injuring many more.
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