ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Monday marks 34 years since two Iraqi missiles struck the Mayport-based USS Stark on patrol in the Persian Gulf, killing 37 sailors and injuring 21 others.
It remains the deadliest attack on a U.S. Navy ship since the Vietnam War.
Monday morning, dozens gathered as the Navy held a solemn ceremony at Beaches Veterans Memorial Park in Atlantic Beach honoring those who lost their lives.
A former crewmember rang a bell 37 times -- once after each name was read aloud. There was also the laying of the wreath in their remembrance, a 21-gun salute and Taps was played.
“Thirty-four years, but it still seems like yesterday,” said Gary Clinefelter, whose son Brian was killed in the attack. “Every morning I get up. I go through the same things. The loss.”
Survivor Richard Wezhsler said he couldn’t talk about the tragedy for 25 years.
“The first missile hit. I was on watch at the time. I knew something bad happened, I just didn’t know what,” Wezhsler said. “I thought we had maybe run aground. You know? I was 19 years old.”
Fellow crew member Clyde Barrow felt survivor’s guilt.
“I always felt like the families of those men would blame me because I was left in charge of them. That’s why I didn’t come for the longest time. Then once I came and I started meeting some of the families, I realized how cathartic it is to come,” Barrow said.
Many of the survivors spoke of this as a family -- not only those who survived the tragedy but even those who served aboard the Stark in the years after.
“There are brothers that went through this with you and will help guide you through it,” Barrow said. “We’ve become close and I think we love each other more now than we did then.”
The USS Stark was off the Saudi Arabian coast near the Iran-Iraq war exclusion boundary when it was hit by two Iraqi missiles. Only one detonated, but the other started a fire.
The initial explosion and fire killed 29 sailors, including two lost at sea. Eight would later die from their injuries. Thanks to the crew’s heroic efforts that day, they saved the ship.
The ship was eventually repaired and returned to service. It was finally decommissioned to Mayport in 1999 but the memory of what happened still lingers.
Iraq, which was considered a U.S. ally at the time, apologized for the attack. Saddam Hussein said the pilot involved mistook the USS Stark for an Iranian tanker.
One man said that while he was not aboard the Stark, he thinks about those men every day.
“Words can’t even -- they just can’t,” former sailor Tristum Beeks said. “It’s just too hard to think about those guys. There’s just, there’s just no words.”
The annual tribute is usually held at a memorial park on base the permanently honor the fallen sailors, where they hope the ceremony can return next year once remaining COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Sailors who died from May 17, 1987 missile attack
The Stark was attacked on a Sunday. At the end of that week, President Ronald Reagan delivered a nationally-televised eulogy at Mayport honoring the 37 who died.