Saturday, September 6, 2008

Operation El Dorado Canyon


By John Lehman, Former Secretary of the Navy in On Seas of Glory – Heroic Men, Great Ships, and Epic Battles of the American Navy (The Free Press, 2001)


American failure in Beirut would be partially redeemed by success against a pirate in Tripoli.

Moammar Gadhafi is a living monument to the weakness and indecision of the West. On more than on occasion, this foremost practitioner of state-sponsored terrorism has been vulnerable to overthrow, only to be spared by European or American vacillation. When Washington finally was driven by his outrages to strike, it offered a case study of how difficult it had become to deal with the obvious.

Gadhafi ascended to power in 1969 under peculiar circumstances. As Libya’s economic prospects brightened, its political system disintegrated. The Americans and British, both of whom retained military bases in Libya, had helped King Idris I onto the throne when Libya gained independence in 1951. As Idris aged, however, he and his heir fell into a bitter quarrel. When Dick Allen and I were sent to Libya by Henry Kissigner in April 1969, Tripoli was full of rumors about expected coups against the king. Both the monarch and the crown prince were preparing to depose each other, but when a coup was launched on September 1, it turned out to be that of an unknown, British-trained Gadhafi. With the old king infirm, ineffective and conveniently out of the country, the coup succeeded.

Libya’s new master lost little time announcing that he was a disciple of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Gadhafi, a devout Muslilm and fierce anti-Marxist, was by no means a Soviet puppet. Yet, like Nasser, his anti-Western proclivities propelled him to seek Soviet assistance.

We of the West have a hard time dealing with terrorism, perhaps because we do not really understand the terrorist’s aims. He knows that he cannot win an open test of strength. His objective instead is to paralyze our will to act – to pit our regard for individual life against our instinct for self-defense. So every terrorist action has a political purpose – to get us to change our policy to save innocent lives. Democratic leaders here and abroad have found it very difficult to resist pressure, especially when it is amplified by sensational TV coverage, even if it means that other innocent lives may be put a risk later.

Gadhafi first used terrorism as part of the effort to force the United States and Western Europe to reduce their support for Israel – an effort that began with airline hijackings. Beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict Gadhafi also sought to make himself a world power through terrorism. By the early 1970s, as Western Europe reeled under the Munich massacre, airline hijackings, murders and mayhem, Gadhafi’s oil money was financing a terrorist international: the PLO, the IRA, the Red Brigades, the Japanese Red Army, even the Moro Muslim guerrillas in the Phillippines….The result was a horrifying paradox: In purchasing Libya’s oil, the West was financing Gadhafi’s attacks on the West.

The United States was mercifully free of many incidents on its own territory, although Americans abroad were often targets….America’s inability to come to grips with state-sponsored terrorism helped to seal the doom of President Jimmy Carter’s bid for reelection. The Reagan administration hoped to do better.

Gadhafi had made himself a target not just because he blatantly supported terrorism but also because he had expanded his operations into outright international aggression.

Against international law, Libya had laid claim to the entire Gulf of Sidra (or Sirte), a large indentation in the North African coastline that was flanked by Libyan territory but was far deeper than the twelve-mile limit. This would have been treated like the dozens of other unlawful claims that we do not recognize. But the Gulf of Sidra was the only place in the Mediterranean that was free of any major sealanes or airways – for decades the U.S. Sixth Fleet had depended on it for periodic live-fire exercises……In August 1981 the fleet crossed the "line of death," and the Libyan Air Force, now grown to several hundred late-model Migs, SU-22s and Mirages, rose to meet it. Gadhafi had bought far more aircraft than he had pilots to fly them, and there were Syrian, North Korean, North Vietnamese and East German "volunteers" manning his force. In the first few days of the exercise Libyan aircraft attempted to get into firing positions on U.S. fighters protecting the fleet. In every case they were unable… Finally, in circumstances that are still unclear today, two SU-22s were suspected of firing on a flight of two F-14s launched from the Nimitz. The outcome was never in doubt….The Tomcats splashed them each with a single missile.

But this was not the end of America’s involvement with Gadhafi. On June 14, 1985, TWA flight 847 was seized….On October 3, 1985, the Achille Lauro cruse ship departed Genoa, Italy….Careless security let four Arab gunman board despite Latin American passports and a lack of luggage….a steward discovered them oiling their guns….The pirates then seized control of the ship…..True to form, the terrorists then murdered an American. This time, Leon Klinghoffer, a New Yorker confined to a wheelchair, was the victim.

On November 23, an Egyptian flight was hijacked…., this time a U.S. Air Force civilian was murdered. Sixty persons were killed when the Egyptians botched the rescue. The next day a U.S. military shopping mall in Frankfurt, Germany, was bombed, wounding twenty-three Americans. A month later, on Dec. 27, the Rome and Vienna airports were struck. Five Americans, including an 11 year old girl, were among the dead; over a hundred were wounded.

Clear evidence of Gadhafi’s complicity in these attacks finally persuaded Washington to do what it should have done years before. Economic links were broken; the fifteen hundred Americans in Libya were ordered to leave immediately; and Libya’s action were described by executive ordered to leave immediately; and Libya’s actions were described by executive order as an "unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States." Libyan assets were frozen ($2.5 billion worth), and at last the President declared that Gadhafi must end support and training camps for terrorism.

Gadhafi had reached an advanced stage of delusion with respect to American intentions….This time Washington would not be put off. In March, the Sixth Fleet prepared again to cross the "line of death."

In the second week of March, just after these events but before the crossing of the "line of death," I flew out to the Mediterranean to meet with Admiral Frank Kelso to discuss upcoming operations, and visit the fleet and see firsthand how ready the men were….In the third week of March, the fleet assembled for the third time for a massive exercise in the Gulf of Sidra. This was to be the full challenge below the "line of death."

…Only one Libyan aircraft, a Mig –25, ever got a visual sighting on a U.S. ship, and he was under escort by F-14s when he did so. Gadhafi’s air force was intimidated. He ordered all his aircraft away from the fleet. Not one took to the air over water. But as soon as the first F-14s were within the range of the Soviet-built long-range surface-to-air missile Qaddafi gave the order to fire, and a pair of SA-5s were launched….Our planes were able to counter the missiles. These highly deadly supersonic weapons exploded harmlessly at high altitude.

….On April 5, the La Belle disco in West Berlin, favored by American soldiers, was bombed, killing two Americans and wounding more than fifty others. On April 8, a TWA flight from Rome had a midair explosion that took four American lives, including that of one little girl.

Following the Berlin bombing, for whatever reason, a flood of leaks from the White House, the State Department and Defense Department filled the media with stories that the President was now really going to clobber Gadhafi and that a retaliatory strike against him was imminent. It was, a journalist remarked, the least-secret operation in history….The steam of leaks beginning on April 6 about the imminent raid greatly distressed the fleet….At 1:30 a.m. on April 15, when the raid was launched, the city lights were still on in Tripoli.

By coincidence, the air force unit chosen for the strike was the same tactical fighter wing of F-11s at Lakenheath RAF base in England to which I had been assigned for two years as a reservist while attending Cambridge University. Because of the political cowardice of our allies, they had to fly twenty-seven hundred miles around Gibraltar, refueling four times in the seven-hour flight. In perfect coordination,…the Coral Sea launched a large, integrated support package for the Air force F-111s, consisting of EA-6B jammers, EA-3 intelligence aircraft, EA-2C radar aircraft, A-7 and F-18 antiradar missile shooters to suppress the antiaircraft missile and guns, and F-14 and F-18 fighter cover….

The 111s assigned to the Azziziya barracks put their bombs on target. Apparently Gadhafi had gone to his underground command center and escaped harm. An above ground headquarters was destroyed and his family injured from the blast. An adopted daughter was killed…..After clearing the beach, the F-111s immediately rendezvoused with their tankers to begin the long seven-hour flight back to England. When one was reported missing, the Navy commenced a search-and-rescue operation that lasted into the next day, with no result….Not a single Libyan aircraft rose in opposition.

From a military standpoint the Libyan operation would stand as a model for decades to come. It was a flawless joint Navy Soldiers Air Force operation. Gadhafi got the message and terrorist attacks on Americans stopped after the Pan Am Lockerbie bombing….

END of Lehman.

Wiki on Capt. Paul F. Lorence and Maj. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci

Captain Paul F. Lorence (February 17, 1955April 15, 1986), a weapons systems officer, was killed when his F-111F fighter-bomber, callsign Karma 52, was shot down in action off the coast of Libya, on April 15, 1986. Paul Lorence grew up in Oakland, California where he attended Skyline Highschool and at the age of 17 joined the USAF, after 4 years he left to attend San Francisco State University where he majored in History. After completing his degree he attended Officer Training School at Mather AFB in 1981 where he was awarded Most Outstanding Officer and the title for Flying Excellence. He was then sent out to RAF Lakenheath to begin a career as a F-111 WSO. It was there that he met his wife to be in 1983 with whom they had a son in 1985.

On April 14, 1986, in response to acts of terrorism thought to have been sponsored by Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi – in particular, the 1986 Berlin discotheque bombing of April 6 – and against the backdrop of heightened tension and clashes between the Libyan and U.S. navies over the disputed Gulf of Sidra, the United States launched a surprise attack on targets in Tripoli and other parts of Libya. Neither France nor Spain would agree to U.S. military aircraft overflying of their territory, so the 24 USAF F-111F fighter-bombers which took off from American airbases in Britain had to make a 1300-mile[vague] detour by following the Atlantic coast before cutting into the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar to carry out their attack on Libya.

Lorence and his pilot (Maj. Fernando L. Ribas-Dominicci) were the only U.S. casualties in the bombing raid, which was code-named Operation El Dorado Canyon.

Recovering the bodies

The Libyans had always denied that they were in possession of the bodies of the two crew members but on December 25, 1988 – nearly three years after the U.S. attack and just four days after the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing – Gaddafi offered to release the body of Capt. Lorence to his family through the good offices of Pope John Paul II.[1] But the body that was eventually handed over was identified by dental records as that of Capt. Ribas-Dominicci. Lorence's remains were therefore believed to be still in Libyan hands and an on-going campaign by family members since the loss of Karma 52 has aimed to return Lorence to them. However, in 1996 a childhood friend, Theodore D. Karantsalis, a public records librarian, started another campaign; the campaign aimed, albeit unsuccessfully, to retrieve the body by April 15, 2006, the 20th anniversary of his death. However, on November 17, 2006, the federal government [declassified and released] details of Operation El Dorado Canyon to Karantsalis pursuant to a lawsuit styled Karantsalis v. Department of Defense filed in Miami, Florida. [2]

The names of Lorence and Ribas-Dominicci are engraved in the F-111 "Vark" Memorial Park located in Clovis, New Mexico. Both Lorence and Ribas-Dominicci were awarded the Purple Heart and Ribas-Dominicci was posthumously promoted to the rank of Major, effective April 15, 1986.

The San Francisco State University (SFSU) Department of History established the Paul Lorence Scholarship, honoring Lorence. Lorence graduated in 1980 from SFSU summa cum laude with a


  1. ^ "Libya to Return a Body", New York Times (December 25, 1988). Retrieved on 2006-11-23.
  2. ^ Kay, Jennifer (May 2, 2006). "Fla. Librarian Presses Search for Friend", San Francisco Chronicle,
  3. ^ "SFSU Department of History Paul Lorence Scholarship". San Francisco State University. Retrieved on 2006-11-23.

External links

Further reading

  • Venkus, Robert E. (1992). Raid On Qaddafi. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-07073-X.

Are Lybians holding remains of Capt. Lorence as bargaining chip?:

Paul Lorence Scholarship in History at SFSU:

Petition on Line:

Wiki on Dominicci:

Major Fernando Luis Ribas-Dominicci (June 24, 1952April 15, 1986), was an F-111F pilot in the United States Air Force. He was killed during Operation El Dorado Canyon, the April 15, 1986 U.S. air raid on Libya.

Ribas-Dominicci was born in the town of Utuado, located in the mountains of Puerto Rico where he received his primary and secondary education. As a child, he had always dreamed of becoming a pilot and after he graduated from high school, he entered the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez where he earned his Bachelor's degree in civil engineering. As a student in the university, he was a member of the campus' ROTC program and upon graduation was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.[1]

Ribas-Dominicci was assigned to Cannon Air Force Base, in New Mexico, where he received advanced training as an General Dynamics F-111 combat pilot. By 1983, Ribas-Dominicci was a Captain and the recipient of the Air Force Commendation Medal. In 1985, he completed his master's degree in aeronautical science at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, USA.[1]

Walter J. Boyne (March 1999). "El Dorado Canyon". Air Force Magazine 82 (3). Retrieved on 2006-11-23.

Captain Paul Lorence: An American Patriot Left Behind, In 2001, Lorence's lifelong friend, reference librarian Theodore D. Karantsalis, enlisted the aid of Congressman Wally Herger's office to urge Libya to return Lorence's remains on behalf of his family and friends. The Paul Lorence web blog (posted above) was started in 2005 to get the word out around the 20th anniversary of the raid.

Venkus, Robert E. (1992). Raid On Qaddafi. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-07073-X.

Bill Kelly can be reached at


Brad said...

I seen no mention of a downed US F-18 on January 8th, 1986 precluding Operation Attain Document.

The official story at the time was the fighter crashed off the coast of Nice, France. I tend not to believe the official story here and was wondering if you knew anything about it.

Bill Kelly said...

Gee Brad,

That's news to me. Since we weren't suppose to be flying over French airspace, maybe they didn't want to talk about it.

Do you know any more?


Brad said...

At the time the plane went down, the Coral Sea and eight other vessels were reportedly on a routine exercise in the Western Med. Lt. Cmdr. Bill Soontag, Navy spokesman in Washington reported the plain went down in the vicinity of Nice, France during a training mission.

The day the plane went missing, KUNA, Kuwait's official news agency quoted a diplomat as saying a Libyan anti-aircraft missile battery shot down a U.S. fighter over the Gulf of Sidra. Don't know who the diplomat was, but he was based in Beirut. Not sure any more details on him.

The pilot was Major J.N. "Slash" Summerlin. He was a family member and I've never been able to find out any more information. I just want the truth.

Brad said...

Oh, and there is this from the "Coral Sea Wall":

"In Memory of John N. Summerlin, Major, VMFA 314, January 8, 1986. I believe his plane went missing on a low level "Practice" bombing mission.... while on the 85-86 med cruise.... this may not be totaly accurate....but just a memmory of what happened. sorry no other info. "

B said...


I was on the Coral Sea and a member of VMFA 314 when Maj. Summerlin went down. It was a cloudy and foggy day with a very low ceiling and visibility probably less than a mile. We had not heard of the incident until Maj. Summerlin’s sortie returned to the ship and some of us overheard parts of a conversation amongst the other members of the flight. One of the other pilots had said that while conducting flight ops above the clouds he had observed Maj. Summerline go below the clouds and did not re-emerge. They called for him on the radio but he never responded. Those who were flying with him felt that he may have been inflicted with vertigo and while inverted may have thought he was upright and when he pulled up he went into the water. I recall most of the squadron standing on the flight deck staring, for what seemed like hours, into the mist behind the ship hoping to see a plane emerge. But he never returned.

I believe we were off the coast of France, but that I am not sure of. They never really told us where we were while out at sea, I guess they never thought we really cared or needed to know. I’m sure it’s much different today.

Non of what I have said is official and the ‘official’ reports may be different, I am only recalling a memory of a conversation that I possibly was not suppose to hear.

Major Summerline was a good man and I’m sorry for your loss. I hope this helps.


Mikkey said...

Another El Dorado Canyon in 2011...I sincerely hope so.

An absolute necessity….now that the Libyan people is struggling to free itself from the tyranny of Kaddafi, and remembering all the victims of this evil dictator mentioned in your blog.

Bill Kelly said...

The truth about 1986 U.S. bombing in Libya - Published: July 4

In his July 3 op-ed, “Should we kill Gaddafi?” Evan Thomas repeats one of the great canards relating to assassination when he asserts that, in 1986, “the United States bombed Gaddafi’s tent in Libya, killing some of his relatives.”
I was a Defense Department legal adviser for the planning of these airstrikes. Col. Moammar Gaddafi never was the target for several reasons, not the least of which was because his location was uncertain on any given night. Even in 1986, Mr. Gaddafi had greater fear of an internal uprising than a U.S. attack. Consequently, he made a decision about 10 o’clock each night as to where he would spend the night.
On the night of the airstrike (April 15), Mr. Gaddafi stayed in his quarters in the fortified (again, against internal threats) Tarabulus (Aziziyah) Barracks in Tripoli. Aziziyah Barracks was an airstrike target because it was the principal command-and-control center for Mr. Gaddafi’s worldwide terrorist program. The targeted command-and-control center was destroyed. The tent damaged in the airstrike was used by Mr. Gaddafi for news conferences. He did not live or sleep in it. His residence, near the command-and-control center, suffered blast damage incidental to bombing the center. Although regime authorities claimed Mr. Gaddafi’s “adopted daughter” was killed, this proved to be a fabrication.
W. Hays Parks, Lorton