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Rogers Steps Down as Vincennes Skipper : Captain Also Honored for Actions During Tour of Duty in Persian Gulf

May 28, 1989|JANE FRITSCH | Times Staff Writer

Capt. Will C. Rogers III was awarded the Legion of Merit on Saturday, a top military honor, as he stepped down from command of the Vincennes, a guided-missile cruiser.

He has been reassigned to shore duty in what Navy officials describe as a routine transfer.

The Vincennes created an international furor last July when it mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner in the Persian Gulf during a firefight with seven Iranian gunboats, killing all 290 people on the plane.

Speaking from the deck of the ship, Rogers lashed out against the "rabid ideology" of terrorists and the "lack of courage" of those who give in to terrorist actions.

Ovation for Wife

His wife, Sharon, seated among 500 spectators on the pier next to the ship, drew a standing ovation from the crowd Saturday as she accepted a bouquet of red roses from the Navy at the change-of-command ceremony.

Last March, she survived a suspected terrorist bomb attack as she drove to her teaching job in La Jolla. Several days later, she was fired by administrators of the exclusive La Jolla Country Day School, who feared her presence posed a security threat to the children.

Federal investigators have speculated that the pipe bombs that destroyed her van may have been planted in retaliation for the downing of the civilian airliner.

The ceremony took place amid unusually tight security at the 32nd Street Naval Station. Only invited guests were allowed on the base, and all had to pass through two security checks and a metal detector. The Rogerses remain under the constant protection of the Naval Investigative Service.

Pupils as Guests

Among the guests were a number of children from the fourth-grade class Sharon Rogers taught at La Jolla Country Day School. Giggling and smiling, the children gathered around her before the ceremony. Sharon Rogers has not returned to the school since the bombing incident and has reached a $135,000 settlement with its administrators.

Rogers called his wife "a very brave and courageous lady," and described her reaction on the morning her van exploded at a La Jolla intersection.

"She literally rode the fireball out of the vehicle, sprinted to the curb, combed the shrapnel from her hair and asked a construction worker to call and inform me that she had experienced a minor mechanical difficulty," Rogers said.

"When I arrived, she was most concerned, as her lesson plans were in flames and she was going to be late for school."

Posted to Point Loma

Rogers has been reassigned as commander of the Tactical Development and Training Group based at Point Loma. He will be replaced on the Vincennes by Capt. Robert B. Lynch, who previously was assigned to the Naval Military Personnel Command.

Rogers was given the Legion of Merit award for his performance as commanding officer of the Vincennes, to which he was assigned in April, 1987. A letter written on behalf of President Bush by Navy Sec. H. Lawrence Garrett III described Rogers' "superb professionalism, confidence and exceptional leadership and dedication to excellence."

During the ship's tour in the Persian Gulf, Rogers' "tactical skills and calm direction enabled his crew to successfully engage seven heavily armed high-speed Iranian surface craft" attacking the Vincennes in "confined and confused waters," the letter stated. "As a result, five craft were destroyed and two retreated."

The letter made no mention of the Iranian airliner, which Rogers ordered shot down that day in the mistaken belief that it was an Iranian fighter plane. Rogers and his crew were cleared of any responsibility for the mistake in a Defense Department investigation last year.

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