1988 Black Sea Bumping Incident
The event that has happened on February 12th, 1988 near the main base of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, US Navy sailors are still remembering with shivers and learning about in Navy schools. Back then, sensing the near demise of the Soviet Union, American cruiser Yorktown and the destroyer Caron had shamelessly violated the USSR borders, entering 7 miles into our territorial waters. And they paid for that, the border guard ships of the Black Sea Fleet “Bezzavetny” and SKR-6 have rammed the intruders. The little known facts of this incident have been given to us by Vladimir Bogdashin who was manning the bridge of “Bezzavetny” in 1988
Vladimir Ivanovich, why did the Americans do it?
It was a demonstration of power. To show that there’s no one tougher than they. The same exact US Navy ships took the same route 2 years ago, in 1986. Back then we did not do anything, just raised the protest flags, giving a warning that the passage is not allowed. And just recently a very embarrassing incident with Mathias Rust has happened…. It was clear, if we allow something like this to happen again, nobody will take us seriously. And so Gorbachev gave us a task – immediate reaction to any such incidents. The USSR Navy has spent 2 years at this task. Plans were made to disrupt any such incursions. But the actions of “Bezzavetny” were never in the plans!
Why is that?
When we found out that Yorktown and Caron are coming back, the plans to meet them have begun. And I just came back from the Mediterranean cruise, unloaded all missiles and gave liberty to part of the crew. And all of the sudden I get a transmission from the division commander – “Destroyer Krasny Kavkaz (she was originally being prepared to meet the Americans) has technical issues so you’re going to sail at 6am and assume guard duty…”
Did you have live missiles on board?
Yes, except I only had 2 missiles instead of the (usual) 4. SKR-6 had live missiles as well. She joined us in Bosporus region.
Were you following them from Turkey?
Yes, we came in the evening and the next day the Americans were supposed to cross the Bosporus and enter the Black Sea. Two recon planes were supposed to detect them and inform us.
So the goal was to close in and follow?
No, to detect first and we had problems with that. Americans were coming in with a complete radio silence and us trying to figure out where they were, in a place where are a lot of civilian ships crossing Bosporus wasn’t working at all. All ships look the same on the radar screen… And heavy fog to boot…. Then I contacted our ferry “Heroes of Shipki” which was entering the Bosporus at the time. And asked them if they got visuals on our guests please contact us…. Soon enough she spotted them and gave us the coordinates.
Were they aware of that?
Most likely. They were wandering around the Turkey’s territorial waters for a while, but then set sail towards Sevastopol, followed by us.
Have you tried to warn them?
Of Course! We had constant communications!
“We’re not violating anything” At the time they were in the open sea and really didn’t violate anything. We were very close to Yorktown, about 10 meters from her hull and there was about 80% of her crew on deck. Everyone was taking pictures and making obscene gestures. But when they crossed the border I’ve received orders to bump. SKR-6 was closing on Caron. I went for Yorktown. The first bumping was light, just a scratch. We scraped our hulls, destroyed their gangway, that’s it.
How about the second bumping?
After the first bump I have received an order to back off and avoid further contact. But I had a problem….
Yorktown has 3 times the displacement of Bezzavetny and twice the size. When I hit her port side the first time, the hit caused the bow of my ship to turn sharply to the left and the stern to the right. And our sterns were getting too close together… It was dangerous for them as well as for us…. Bezzavetny had two 4-barrel torpedo launchers on each side, ready for action. Collision might’ve caused them to explode. The Americans had 8 Harpoon missile launchers on their stern… If we bumped our sterns my torpedo launchers would go straight under their missile launchers. The only choice I had was to go full speed, make sharp turn to starboard and ram into her, throwing my stern away from her in the process.
Our bow hit the Yorktown full speed at about 13-14 degrees port side. The hit had completely destroyed a part of the helicopter pad and began to destroy everything else on the deck. Before that action, our starboard anchor was lowered. The hit caused the anchor to penetrate their hull, fly like a bullet over their deck, separating from its chain and falling straight into the sea.
How heavy is the anchor?
About 3 tonnes. Pity, the loss of an anchor is considered a disgrace in the Navy. And whoever ends up losing one is considered to be a bad captain who had made really bad decisions…. But I had other circumstances…
They say you’ve destroyed some of the American missiles?
Yes, those Harpoons. A new tactical weapon back then. They were all at her stern. We ended up destroying 4 launchers out of 8. Broken warheads were hanging from their cables. When the American sailors who came to do the repairs saw that, they ran away as quickly as they could. And it seemed like there was a fire on Yorktown as well, we saw that there were damage control crews working around the missile launchers area.
What kind of damage has Bezzavetny sustained?
The hull at the bow was damaged, a crack about a meter and a half long. We also had a hole at the bow, about 40 centimeters wide, but it was above the waterline so it was not dangerous. Lost the leers and the anchor…. During the repairs later on we also found out that the huge bolts holding the engine base were bent about 4 centimeters. And only in April it was found that the titanium shielding that was protecting the hydro-acoustic assembly was torn to pieces. But the repairs were light anyway….
What’s with the story about an explosion?
The coastal border patrol reported it. After the first bump they saw the sparkles and a cloud of smoke, thinking it was an explosion. And have misinformed the command. In reality, it was just a burning paint.
How about SKR-6?
She was about 4 times smaller than Caron. Bumped into her hull, bounced off, that was it.
After the bumping, did the Americans leave the USSR territorial waters?
Not right away. Caron went full speed and came to our port side. They wanted to clamp us! I went full speed and came around the other side of Yorktown. Caron has calmed down and together with her “beaten colleague” has left the territorial waters. There was so much welding going on Yorktown! They had to cross the Bosporus again and I guess they didn’t want the turks to find out that they were beaten! So they cut all the visible artifacts of the battle damage – missile launchers, helicopter pad pieces – all went overboard!
After some time, we got replaced by 4 more ships coming from Sevastopol and returned to base.
How did the command react?
Command’s position wasn’t clear. The Fleet Commander gave me shit about the lost anchor. The chief navigator of the Fleet gave me a stack of paperwork and said “Here, figure out where you were right and where you were not”. And on the 13 of February they ordered me to Moscow. And I thought “My life is toast”. At the headquarters I stepped into the elevator and met the second-in-command. He said “Well, thank you Fleet” and shook my hand. There were two Air Force generals in the same elevator. He turned to them and said “And our aviation lets some strangers land right on the Red Square….” I found out later that this man was insisting that I would be punished. But Chebrikov who was the minister of KGB at the time, reported to Gorbachev that the Fleet did everything right. Gorbachev agreed with him. And everyone began breathing again at last….
What kind of political consequences the bumping has caused?
For USSR they weren’t bad at all. The captain of Yorktown was replaced. American senate froze all financing for any intelligence expeditions in the Mediterranean and Black seas for the US Navy 6th fleet for 6 months. After all that, NATO ships never came closer than 120 miles to our shores.
Were you awarded any medals?
A year later when I was attending a Naval Academy they gave me a Red Star medal. “We know what it’s for” said faculty director. “But it says here ‘For developing new techniques’”. None of the crew received any awards. But my boys deserved it!
Were you upset?
You know, I like leaders who keep their word. If you set a task to make a hard response, then don’t go on switching gears in favor of big politics and especially don’t even think of punishing someone for following orders!
By the way, how did our sailors perform?
Unlike the Americans nobody panicked! No accidents, everything was shipshape. I had a michman (gunny) Morgunov – a man with a superhuman strength! And when those Harpoons were close by, he was standing on the deck with a rope in his hands. “Just a bit closer, I’d grab their rocket and haul it in!” I know him, his used to load our 120 kilogram rockets all by himself!
And the Americans?
They are good seafarers. But psychologically weaker. Dying for their country does not come into their plans. They were shocked – the legend about them being the best of the best was shattered. They got beaten by the group of ships much smaller than theirs. And they also, once I have offered my help (that’s a rule) were sitting quietly in their cabins. The cruiser looked dead – that much shock they were in….
What was the fate of the ships?
During the split, Bezzavetny ended up in Ukraine’s hands and got renamed to “Dnepropetrovsk” and then they scrapped her. Even though she was still serviceable. SKR-6 was old, she got cut as well.
How did you part with Bezzavetny?
In the same 1988… After that, I spent two years in Grechko’s Naval Academy. And then I was assigned to captain the destroyer “Leningrad” and then destroyer “Moskva”. And after they have written her off, I became a captain of the current Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet (it was named “Slava” back then), per Lushkov’s request. That destroyer was the corner stone of the split of the Black Sea Fleet. But that’s a different story altogether….