In early July, 290 people aboard a regularly scheduled Iranian airliner were killed because a top-of-the-line U.S. Navy cruiser was unable to identify it correctly. The captain of the USS Vincennes, apparently believing his vessel was about to be attacked by a hostile F-14 fighter, fired two Standard-2 missiles at the passenger plane, and 290 civilian lives were lost.
In the first days after the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655, questions, accounts, and contradictory government statements--from both Iran and the United States--abounded, and the currents of debate around the incident were almost as difficult to track as those of the Persian Gulf waters themselves.
The ship's commanding officer, Capt. Will Rogers III, was informed by the most sophisticated electronic technology available that an approaching plane was hostile and descending. He issued repeated warnings, and he notified his superiors of the potential combat situation. But the pilot of the Iranian passenger plane failed to respond to Rogers' warnings. Capt. Rogers certainly was aware that 37 American sailors were killed in May 1987 when the USS Stark did not respond to the threat of an Iraqi jet. The Stark's captain was retired.
Under volatile conditions, commanding a ship ill-suited for the Persian Gulf, with only minutes to make decisions, Rogers probably had only two choices: destroy the approaching craft, or risk his ship and crew. He was trapped between what the $1.2 billion electronic system told him and the options that system presented to him--and those options were narrowing with each passing second. Waiting, so it appears, until he could wait no more, he fired on the plane and eliminated what he believed to be a threat to the lives of the sailors under his command and to the ship he captained.