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Navy Escorts Convoy of Tankers Through Persian Gulf

March 26, 1988 GMT

ABOARD THE USS REUBEN JAMES IN THE PERSIAN GULF (AP) _ The U.S. Navy Saturday escorted its 40th convoy of reflagged Kuwaiti tankers into the Persian Gulf, followed by merchant vessels from other nations seeking informal U.S. protection against an upsurge in attacks by Iranian gunboats.

A procession of as many as nine vessels, including two American warships, three U.S.-flagged tankers and at least four non-U.S. ships, slipped through the Strait of Hormuz and past the Iranian gunboat base at Abu Nusa at 11 a.m. local time, where the convoy briefly encountered an Iranian warship that steamed down the majestic line of vessels.

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The Navy was assigned only to accompany the ships flying the Stars and Stripes. But its presence appeared to suspend for a while the Iranian warship’s radio challenges to merchant shipping that often fall victim to Iranian gunboats in the Iran-Iraq tanker war.

The parade of five U.S. ships included two Kuwaiti tankers - the 290,085- ton Middletown, a products carrier, and the 46,723-ton liquefied gas carrier Gas Princess - and the 39,000 ton MV Courier, a U.S. Navy fuel tanker.

The escort was provided by this guided missile frigate, making one of the last voyages in the gulf before returning home to Long Beach, Calif.

Four unidentified tankers joined the convoy as hitchhikers as it passed through the so-called Silkworm Envelope, a 100-mile stretch of the Hormuz passage where vessels come within the 60-mile range of Silkworm anti-ship missile batteries installed by Iran a year ago but never fired.

Some of the ships turned off on other courses as they cleared what Comdr. John J. Kieley III, skipper of the Reuben James, calls the ″Worm Hole.″

As the convoy approached the next perilous stretch, the waters around the Abu Musa Island base for Iranian gunboats, two more tankers lined up behind the American group. The line of vessels, with Middletown in the lead and Reuben James directly behind it, extended four miles long.

Kieley, of Huntington Beach, Calif., said it was commonplace for non-U.S. flag tankers to tag along with American convoys in the narrow strait. ″But it is sometimes hard to tell whether they’re actually trying to join us. Everybody has to go use the same traffic separation channels in the strait.″

As the convoy neared the Abu Musa area, the frigate peeled sharply out of its slot just behind the lead ship, Middletown, surged ahead at 25 knots and maneuvered into a position to screen the convoy from an Iranian navy ship, the Bushehr, which had turned up in the area. Issuing radio challenges to other commercial vessels to identify themselves and their destinations.

Farther back in the convoy, the frigate Samuel B. Roberts did the same.

As the Bushehr, a 3,100-ton supply ship, approached on the Reuben James’ starboard side, Kieley radioed him to ″state your intentions.″

The Iranian replied: ″This an is Iranian warship. We are in normal patrol in this area of international waters.″

Kieley told him to ″stay clear″ of the convoy. The Bushehr held to its passing course, about two miles away.

In rapid-fire sequence, an Iranian aircraft also showed up on the radar, approaching Abu Musa from about 48 miles away from the convoy.

But the flurry of activity eased as quickly as it had developed. The American warships fell back in line as the Bushehr vanished behind. The approaching aircraft were identified as non-hostile. The small boats proved to be fishing craft.