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Cole Sailors Say Sentries' Guns Weren't Loaded

November 14, 2000|From the Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The sailors on sentry duty aboard the U.S. warship Cole when it was bombed last month did not have ammunition in their guns and were not authorized to shoot unless fired upon, according to members of the ship's crew.

Even if the sentries had recognized the threat from a small boat approaching the guided missile destroyer in a Yemeni harbor Oct. 12, their "rules of engagement" would have prevented them from firing without first obtaining permission from the Cole's captain or another officer, the crew members said.

Petty Officer John Washak recalled that shortly after the small boat blew a 40-by-40-foot hole in the destroyer's side, killing 17 sailors, he was manning an M-60 machine gun on the Cole's fantail when a second small boat approached.

Washak said he pointed the machine gun directly at the boat to warn it off. But, he recalled, a senior chief petty officer ordered him to turn the gun away.

Washak protested, fearing that the ship was still under attack. But even in the aftermath of the bombing, "with blood still on my face," he said, he was told: "That's the rules of engagement--no shooting unless we're shot at."

The rules of engagement aboard a U.S. warship are set by its captain following Navy guidelines. Pentagon officials have declined to discuss publicly the specific rules in effect aboard the Cole, but senior officers said in congressional testimony that the ship had filed a detailed security plan, which they believe was followed.

As the FBI tries to determine who was behind the suicide attack, the Defense Department and congressional committees are searching for broader lessons about how to protect U.S. ships.

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