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Profile: Will Rogers III
Will Rogers III was a participant or observer in the following events:
Crew members monitor radar screens in the combat information center aboard the Vincennes. This photo was taken by a crew member in January 1988. [Source: Public domain]The USS Vincennes, a state-of-the-art Aegis guided missile cruiser patrolling the Strait of Hormuz in an effort to keep oil tankers safe from Iranian and Iraqi depredations, detects an Iranian aircraft apparently closing in on its position. The captain and crew of the Vincennes are aware of previous attacks on US ships and Kuwaiti oil tankers by Iranian gunboats, and know of the attack a year before on the USS Stark by an Iraqi fighter (see May 17, 1987 and After). Just a half-hour before, the Vincennes itself had fired on Iranian gunboats. Captain Will Rogers III has seven minutes to decide what to do about the aircraft, which he and his radar operators believe is most likely an Iranian F-14. Although the first transmission from the Iranian aircraft identifies itself as “commair”—commercial aircraft—the radio operator forgets to reset his receiver, and subsequently receives transmissions from Iranian military aircraft which he mistakenly attributes to the incoming aircraft. When the aircraft is nine miles away, Rogers fires two SM-2 surface-to-air missiles at the aircraft. At least one missile hits the plane, which is not a military fighter, but Iran Air Flight 655, a civilian Boeing 747 carrying 290 passengers. The missile slices the airliner in half; all 290 passengers, including 66 children, die. Though the international community is outraged, the White House and the Pentagon defend the Vincennes’s action. The UN Security Council will not condemn the attack, and President Reagan volunteers to pay compensation to the families. The Navy is embarrassed that in the first real military action from one of its new Aegis cruisers, it had shot down an unarmed civilian aircraft. An investigation proves that the aircraft had been well within a commercially designated flight path, and was not descending in a threatening manner, as was initially claimed by both Vincennes personnel and Pentagon officials. No disciplinary actions against Rogers or any of his crew are ever taken. During the 1988 presidential campaign, Vice President George H. W. Bush will frequently say of the incident: “I will never apologize for the United States of America. I don’t care what the facts are.” [New York Times, 11/9/1988; TomDispatch (.com), 5/3/2007; History (.com), 2008]
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