Today In History: U.S. Shoots Down Iranian Airliner, Killing 290

July 3, 2018 | Matt

July 3, 1988


Today is the anniversary of a largely forgotten dark chapter of American history – the day the U.S. Navy shot down a civilian passenger airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 people.

Iran Air Flight 655 was flying from Tehran to Dubai, over Iranian territory. It was shot down by an SM-2MR missile fired from the USS Vincennes, which was in Iranian waters after one of its helicopters provoked warning fire from an Iranian speedboat. 224 adults were killed and 66 children.

In the firestorm of condemnation that issued from around the world, the US government claimed that the Vincennes crew had mistakenly identified the plane as an F-14 Tomcat. Tomcats, manufactured by the United States, had been sold to Iran since the seventies. They were sold as capable only of air-to-air combat, but the American troops were allegedly told that they had since been modified to allow for air-to-ground assault.


The Vincennes made ten attempts to communicate with the aircraft but received no response. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Iran Air crew should have been monitoring the civilian frequencies attempted by the US Navy. However, the Iranian government claims that the plane was transmitting IFF squawks in Mode III, a civilian-only signal. The Iranian military used Mode II.

Some analysis lays the blame at the feet of William C. Rogers III, captain of the Vincennes, for belligerence.

America never admitted legal liability for the incident, and never apologized to the state of Iran. In 1996, the US and Iran settled in the International Court of Justice – America paid $61.8 million in compensation to the families of the victims, averaging out to $213,103 per person killed.

It was the deadliest airliner attack in history. The record was surpassed in 2014, by the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

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