The Last Time a US Navy Vessel Sunk Another Ship And How It Happened

Guided missile frigate USS Simpson (FFG 56) pulls up alongside guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) during maneuvering exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo Credit: US Navy / Public Domain)
Guided missile frigate USS Simpson (FFG 56) pulls up alongside guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG 96) during maneuvering exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. (Photo Credit: US Navy / Public Domain)

Currently, the only operational ship in the US Navy to have sunk another vessel is the 220-year-old USS Constitution, a wooden-hulled three-masted heavy frigate that was constructed in 1794. This has been the case since 2015 when the US Navy retired their only other ship in service to have sunk another vessel; the USS Simpson. The actions which saw Simpson sink another ship occurred in 1988, during the Iran–Iraq War.

Advancements in technologies and tactics have made the great naval battles of the past a rare occurrence today, with most issues now being dealt with by aircraft or long-range missiles. Many US ships earned kills during the nation’s wars, especially during WWII and in the wars fought soon after, but these vessels were slowly retired until only one remained.

This sole remaining ship, the USS Constitution, was built while George Washington was president of the United States, and defeated a number of enemy ships. Her most notable action was during the War of 1812, where she defeated five British warships.

More recently, the USS Simpson sunk an enemy vessel during the Iran-Iraq, and by 2015, she and the Constitution were the last two ships with such a claim.

USS Simpson

The USS Simpson was a US Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate launched in 1984. Soon after she was commissioned, Simpson was involved in search and rescue efforts after the 1986 space shuttle Challenger mission, which tragically exploded 73 seconds after it launched. For this, she received a Coast Guard Unit Commendation.

In 1988 she was sent to the Persian Gulf to help escort Kuwaiti oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War, which had been raging on since 1980. Although the war was nearing its end, the US was about to bring the hammer down on Iran’s naval forces.

Operation Praying Mantis

Iranian Frigate Sahand
The Iranian frigate IS Sahand (74) burns after being attacked by aircraft of Carrier Air Wing II from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65), in retaliation for the mining of the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts (FFG-58). The ship was hit by three Harpoon missiles plus cluster bombs. (Wikipedia)

In April 1988 the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts hit a mine in the Gulf while partaking in escort missions. The explosion blew a 4.5 meter wide hole in the ship, but fortunately the crew were able to save the ship without any loss of life. A US investigation discovered that the mine was Iranian, prompting them to launch a devastating retaliatory mission against Iran’s navy. Named Operation Praying Mantis, it would be the largest US Navy action since WWII.

That same month the US launched attacks on Iranian assets with large numbers of ships. Aircraft from the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier was also used in the attack.

The US sent warnings to Iranian oil platforms to abandon them before they were destroyed. After this warning, the platforms’ defenses were neutralized and US Marines boarded them, placing explosives and detonating them.

The battle allowed the US Navy to flex its full might, which lead to the widespread destruction of Iran’s forces through naval and aerial engagements.

By the end of the battle, half of Iran’s operational fleet had been either damaged or destroyed. The Iran-Iraq War ended soon after.

Sinking of Joshan

Iranian Separ Cruiser
Iranian Separ Cruiser delivered by the Defense Forces to the Iranian Navy. (Wikipedia)

During Operation Praying Mantis, Joshan, an Iranian Kaman-class fast attack craft, charged towards Surface Group Charlie alone. In response to this threatening maneuverer, the USS Wainwright contacted Joshan and demanded the crew abandon the ship before it was sunk.

Joshan ignored the warnings and instead fired a Harpoon anti-ship missile at the group, who were able to evade it using chaff. The USS Simpson fired four missiles at the Joshan and Wainwright fired one, all of which hit but failed to finish her. The US ships then peppered the Joshan with fire until she finally sunk.

While this was happening two Iranian F-4 Phantoms were circling the battle 30 miles away. To scare off the aircraft Wainwright fired a long-range missile towards them, which exploded and caused heavy damage to one of the F-4s.

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With the sinking of the Joshan, Simpson would eventually become the last modern US Navy ship to have sunk an enemy vessel. She was decommissioned in September 2015, making the USS Constitution the last US ship that had been victorious over an enemy.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE