One minute after the guided-missile cruiser Princeton's captain warned his crew to be especially vigilant before dawn in the Persian Gulf just east of Kuwait, a mine tore through the ship's stern, snapping beams and ripping through steel deck plating.
It was Feb. 18, 1991, and the Princeton was one of two Navy ships to hit Iraqi-emplaced mines that morning. Navy ships had been operating in the region for about six months, when President George H.W. Bush began sending troops to the Middle East after Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait.
Then Lt. Michael Gilday was the Princeton's tactical action officer. Just seconds after the first blast, the ship triggered a second mine "that nearly split Princeton in half and tossed men about for seven seconds," according to the Navy History Division.
Water was pouring into some sections of the ship, creating fire and shock hazards. The ship sounded general quarters, sending the crewmembers to their battle stations. But the radar and combat systems were down, leaving Princeton essentially defenseless.
As others raced to assess the cruiser's damage, Gilday "rapidly brought his combat system back on the line and personally carried out the duties of the Local Anti-Air Warfare Commander."
Gilday demonstrated "superb tactical competence" and "untiring devotion to duty," his Navy Commendation Medal with combat distinguishing device citation states.
"He was the key to Princeton's unequaled combat readiness throughout Operation Desert Storm," it adds.
Gilday was asked about the incident during his nomination hearing last week by Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who served as an Army captain. The senator noted that a commendation medal with combat distinguishing device is rare.
"I spent a lot of time as a result of that in a shipyard repairing that damage," Gilday said, "so I feel that I have a unique perspective when it comes to shipyards and the great work that they do. Particularly with a combat-damaged ship that we saved."
Seven sailors were injured between the two blasts on the Princeton and another mine explosion on the nearby amphibious assault ship Tripoli that tore a roughly 20-foot-wide hole through that vessel's hull, according to a Washington Post report at the time.
The Navy sent ocean minesweeper Adroit to the area to identify other nearby mines before the damaged ships were moved.
"Adroit discovered so many mines that she ran out of flares and began to mark them with chemical-lights," a Navy History Division account states.
Gilday and the rest of the Princeton's "exhausted crewmen manned their Battle Stations until the [salvage tug] Beaufort towed their ship clear the following day," it adds.
Cotton commended Gilday's service during the hearing. The future CNO's comments about saving a damaged ship come as work continues to repair a pair of destroyers involved in two separate deadly collisions in the Pacific in 2017.
"I think it's good that your sailors know that Vice Adm. Gilday was once Lt. Gilday ... and you know what it's like to be a sailor and a leader out on the front lines," Cotton said.