Mayport honors 37 sailors killed aboard USS Stark

Memorial ceremony honors lives lost when missile hit frigate 32 years ago

By Brittany Muller - Reporter, Steve Patrick - News4Jax digital managing editor

MAYPORT, Fla. - Survivors of a missile attack on the Mayport-based frigate USS Stark 32 years ago and family members of those who died that day will gather with fellow sailors and community members Friday.

It's an annual, somber remembrance ceremony to honor the 37 lives lost.

The guided missile frigate USS Stark was on patrol in the Arabian Gulf on May 17, 1987, when it was struck by two missiles fired by Iraqi fighter jets, puncturing large holes and starting a fire on board. Black smoke covered the air.

USS Stark plaqueThe initial explosion and fire killed 29 sailors, including two lost at sea. Eight would later die from their injuries. Twenty-one others were injured.

Each year, USS Stark sailors from the 1887 crew, family members and others come together to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice while serving our country. 

“I was in the car compartment when the missiles came in. There weren’t too many of us that got out of there,” Stark survivor Luther Padgett said. “I helped carry two guys out and it was seconds later that the whole compartment was in flames."

Pagett, who suffers from PTSD, traveled from South Carolina with his son and grandson to attend the ceremony for the first time.

“I think it’s pretty important for them to know what went on and see the results from that,” Padgett said.

Friday's service included words from the chief at the time, the tolling of the bell, a wreath laying and a rifle salute.

Ernestine Foster, who lost her husband, Senior Chief Petty Officer Vernon Foster, attended the ceremony with her two children.

“His job was to be the navigator of the ship. His job was very important,” Foster said. “I think everyone should leave a legacy behind and I think what my husband has done and the other 36 sailors has done -- they served as a hero."

USS Stark attackIraq, which was considered an U.S. ally at the time, apologized for the attack, with Saddam Hussein said the pilot mistook the Stark for an Iranian tanker.

IMAGES: USS Stark memorial service
FROM THE VAULT: May 1987 documentary on missile attack

The ship was eventually repaired and returned to service. It was decommissioned at Mayport in 1999.

A USS Stark monument was dedicated with the establishment of a memorial park in Mayport on Aug. 1, 1987. Each May 17, surviving sailors who served aboard the Stark and family members of those killed in the attack attend a memorial service at the park, keeping the spirit of the men alive.

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