Over a 48 hour period, the 15th MEU/PELARG team conducted offensive air operations in Afghanistan resulting in the deaths of 5 confirmed enemy fighters, provided disaster relief in Pakistan to 120 victims who had been without aid since July, and seized a pirated vessel, rescuing a crew of 11 hostages and detaining 9 suspected pirates off the coast of Somalia. A busy couple of days and an impressive battle-rhythm by any standard for this dynamic Navy-Marine Corps team.
For her part, the USS Dubuque was 1,500 miles away from her command ship, the USS Peleliu, and attached to Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151) – the international counter piracy task force – when the events associated with the pirated motor vessel occurred. She spent the night of 7 September escorting vessels through shipping corridors in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) in the Gulf of Aden.
A few hours after first light on the 8th (approximately 0830 Bahrain time), the Turkish frigate TCG Gökçeada, CTF 151 flagship, received a distress call from Motor Vessel (M/V) Olib G, a Maltese-flagged, Greek-owned chemical tanker. Gökçeada immediately launched her helicopters for ISR. Once on station they reported seeing two pirates with RPGs aboard the Olib G.
An hour later, in a second (unrelated) incident, the Antigua-flagged Motor Vessel Magellan Star reported that they were being boarded by pirates and the crew had locked themselves in what they later called their “citadel.”
TCG Gökçeada moved to the scene and discovered a skiff with two outboard motors and no crew. The USS Princeton (CG 59) was less than 15 nautical miles from the Magellan Star and made best course and speed to join the Turkish frigate. The USS Dubuque was ordered to the scene shortly thereafter.
The pirate attack and subsequent boarding and rescue operation took place in the Gulf of Aden, approximately 85 miles southeast of Mukallah, Yemen.
I was in my stateroom that morning having a cup of coffee when Major Mike “Honcho” Ford, a burly southerner with a cowboy’s drawl, knocked on my door. “Hey man,” he said calmly, “we got a ship that’s been pirated. No official tasking yet, I’ll pass you a sitrep when I get it. Go ahead and put the guys on alert-120.” As the 15th MEU’s Maritime Raid Force Commander, the platoon and I had been training with “Honcho” for nearly a year for this mission, so what happened over the next 60 minutes was by now a well-rehearsed standard operating procedure.
I called down to the men’s berthing. Few words were exchanged between my acting-platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Hartrick, and myself. “Staff Sergeant, skipper” “Yes sir.” “A vessel’s been taken by pirates – I don’t have much else for you at this time. Set alert-120.” “On it, sir.” We both hung up.
The guys swung into action, pulled pre-staged shooter’s kits, body armor, weapons, ammunition, communication and breaching equipment and moved it to our assembly area. Comm was op-checked, weapons were function checked and set in the best condition possible, shooters performed their pre-assigned tasks to meet our conditions for a 120 minute alert status while assistant team leaders conducted simultaneous individual inspections: flotation devices, chem lights, breathing devices, roster cards, tourniquets, medical equipment, lights, night vision, weapons, comm…all given one last op-check. I barked out a quick warning order and dropped my kit at our assembly area and moved to the ship’s tactical control center.
Lt. Col Clearfield, the overall Mission Commander, was seated at the desk communicating on various phones and computers. I reported in. “Hey Alex, here’s the update (followed by an intelligence and operational update), go ahead and set alert-60.” “Yes sir.” And we did…moving then into a 60 minute ready posture. The next step would be alert 30, which means full kit, waiting for the green light.
An announcement was made over the ship’s loud speaker as the Dubuque made an impressive 20 knots (not bad for the third oldest ship in the Navy) towards the Critical Contact of Interest (CCOI): “Assemble the crisis action team.” It was repeated again. Everyone it seemed was already assembled, busily preparing their notes, thoughts and briefing products as we awaited the arrival of the ship’s skipper, Captain Bolt, and Mission Commander, Lt. Col. Clearfield.
By now it was late morning, early afternoon on the 8th of September. I was sitting behind the BLT’s Operation Officer, Major Tom Tennant, and across from S2 Capt Mark Powers in the ship’s flag plot. Copenhagen in lip, coffee in hand. The excitement was palpable, but all players were calm, focused and prepared to brief and execute what for us had become a well rehearsed assault package.
Lt Col Clearfield entered. The room came to attention, and was quickly put at ease. He broke out his notepad and briefed us on the situation. There has been a ship taken over by pirates (“suspected pirates” the lawyers would later remind us), the crew of 11 is safe and has locked themselves in the engine room, the pirates are showing no signs they wish to surrender, they are armed and aggressively posturing. We have no official tasking to board at this time. But still, he said, we’re going to plan this out and prepare to execute.
Major Brian Dryzga, a Huey pilot and the MRF’s Air Mission Commander (AMC), briefed that his birds (Hueys and Cobra gunships) were spotted on the deck, loaded with fuel and ammunition and ready to launch when we arrive on station if needed to provide ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) . Honcho talked us through the template, handed out taskings and provided his guidance as the assault force’s immediate officer in charge.
Captain Bolt and Command Master Chief Rosado walked in the room. “Attention on deck!” “Please, take your seats.” “This is what I know…” and he briefed the most up to date intelligence he had from NAVCENT’s Maritime Operation Center (MOC) and TF 151. He paused, issued his intent with the ship’s maneuver and overall plan once on station with the two warships already in the vicinity of the pirated ship, smiled, ordered us back to work and left for the bridge.
We each broke to our rooms and offices. I readied the 15 slides or so that is the assault piece of the brief package, and as I pressed “send” over to Honcho so he could finish populating the entire brief, we had official tasking to take station and be prepared to execute pending higher’s authority…we didn’t, at the time, know just what “higher” meant…but that’s a funny story for later.
A huge lesson here was just how well the Marine Corps’ Rapid Reaction Planning Process (R2P2) works with a capable and well-rehearsed battle-staff.
All essential personnel, including every member of our 24 man platoon (call sign: Blue Collar) who comprises the assault element, crowded into the ship’s wardroom. The plan was briefed and confirmed. We set alert-30 and made our way to the ship’s side port, kitted up and waited for the command to execute.
That command wouldn’t come that evening…we’d later move back to our rooms to get what sleep we could before our 0300 reveille and would reattack the next morning.
A brief anecdote from those hours we spent at alert-30 in the small confines of that side port that would be our final position before we launched the assault: “Hey sir,” yelled SSgt Homestead who was talking to Capt Doug Verblaauw, the ANGLICO Det OIC managing air up on the bridge wing, “the execute order’s now at the three-star level.” Everyone looked at each other half-suspiciously.
Then reports came to us about the pirates onboard. They were armed. They were aggressive. They were pointing their weapons at the warships. They were making demands. They were non-compliant. They refused repeated attempts by the Princeton to surrender. They said they would stay on and fight.
“They’ll say go now,” someone said, “won’t they?” We waited and waited. “Hey,” Homestead yelled, “listen up, the decision is now at CENTCOM.” Pause. “General Mattis!” someone said, and the entire platoon ignited in a spontaneous cheer. A second pause. A sergeant remarks, “Man, now it’s gonna take even longer,” he said, jokingly. “Whatcha talking about man, it’s General Mattis! We’re golden.” “No brother, now we’ll have to wait for him to get aboard…you know the General will wanna be with us on this hit.” Everyone laughed and felt relieved…this was going to happen afterall.
An hour later, still waiting, we asked each other, “I wonder what the hold up is?” Darkness was less than an hour away, time was running out. Homestead again: “Hey guys, the execute order…” we all pulled our headsets off one of our ears to best hear him, “it’s at the President.” From the platoon: silence.
I think it was Staff Sergeant “Big Daddy” Holm who from right behind me captured the mood at that moment when he broke the brief silence with that wonderful and all-encompassing euphemism: “Holy shit.”
The BLT’s Chaplain, LCDR Mike Foskett prayed for us, and by the next dawn, we were off…
Avoiding a commentary on our tactics, I’ll say that we gained a foothold in short order on what was certainly the most challenging entry we’ve made in all of our 15 full mission profile rehearsals.
As we sped towards our assault point, I took my eye from my scope and appreciated, for a split second, what was unfolding: a spectacular symphony of naval power. Huey, Cobra and SH-60 helicopters, a US Cruiser, a Turkish Frigate, an LPD and a pirated ship in a sort of tactical tango. The sun was rising over my left shoulder. Snipers and the birds were covering our approach. The decisive moment was hundreds of meters away, and closing, fast. Back behind the scope. No time.
I was with Alpha Element, which was led by Staff Sergeant Homestead. We were first on the boat and moved to the superstructure as Bravo Element, led by Staff Sergeant Hartrick, made their way aft and then below decks…
The details of what happened next are important as they highlight the individual actions of 24 highly trained shooters who were put in decision points of the highest moral magnitude: when to shoot, when not to shoot. I can’t go into all those details at this time, but the long and short of it was: some of the enemy threw their hands up when rifles were put in their face, some ran and attempted to elude us in the superstructure but were run down and some hesitated but were taken down by less than lethal force, as the situation dictated. The end result was 9 pirates captured in an opposed boarding and 11 crew members rescued.
I’ve never been more proud than I was watching the balance of violence of action and professional restraint that is the hallmark of a true professional warrior.
The crew rescue, which was Bravo Element’s doing, was a second, equally important story. The recovery amounted to a 3 hour effort. And Blue Collar seemed a fitting call sign as I watched my guys defeat half a dozen obstacles in confined spaces using thermal torches, power saws, and heavy tools. The physical stamina of the Marines cutting the doors and barricades the crew set in as their own defense against the pirates was impressive. I watched as they rotated on the equipment, all the while holding security, and thought: these are some tough ass blue collar pipe hitters.
Despite announcements I was making over the ship’s loudspeaker to the crew (in Russian and English), despite loudspeaker callouts made inside the spaces by the Marines, and despite a pre-planned arrangement between the crew and Captain Bolt (which was briefed to me, Cold War style, at 3 am on the morning of the assault, and involved British maritime shipping and insurance agencies, soviet-bloc code words and authentications, a Polish captain, Russian and a mixed international crew, Somalian pirates with hostages who threatened to “burn her” and a Turkish command vessel) the crew kept falling back to defensive positions, scared and uncertain of what was happening. In classical Murphy fashion, they lost their phone’s battery power the very minute we boarded their ship.
Deep in the engine room, Bravo Element continued to work the problem, as 1st Lt Williams and his trailer Marines rushed to conduct a detailed clearance of all spaces as well as augment the breaching effort. Alpha Element coordinated the entry of the US Coast Guard LEDET (Law Enforcement Detachment), NCIS, the Dubuque’s VBSS team and a constant resupply effort that was underway to bring us water, breaching tools, and the ship’s damage control experts.
They finally cut one last hole, and called in with our loudspeaker that it was safe, the Marines had control of their ship, and to please come out. The ship’s captain peered hesitatingly from behind a steel bulkhead, still unwilling to come forward. Sgt Chesmore ripped an American flag patch from his shooter’s kit and held into the room as a final identification. The captain broke into a huge smile and immediately called his crew from their hiding places. They ran forward, unlocked the final barricaded door in their “citadel” and were escorted topside. Excited. Exhausted. And happy to have their ship back.
As I walked the captain up to his bridge, he examined all the cut doors, and burnt hallways and remarked, “bastard pirates, they really did a number to my ship.” Walking behind him I replied, ironically: “Yeah. They sure did.”
While this was the end of the day for us, the Navy’s day (which had started much earlier and ended much later) was still far from over. The Navy’s VBSS team, led by Lt. Danny Rigdon and Ens. Mark Bote boarded and took charge of the bridge while their aggressive and highly trained petty officers set to work at once on the rest of the ship (now a highly sensitive crime scene). The Dub’s veteran (read: old) DCA, Lt Jg Mike Fought came aboard and assessed all the ship’s damage and aided with damage assessment. The entire crew of the Dubuque – from those in Combat, in the bridge, down in engineering, out on the boat decks, and up on the flight deck – contributed to the day’s success. It was a 1,000 man effort. Blue and Green.
The actions of the day reflect the potency of a Navy-Marine Corps team afloat that, above all else, trusts each other. It reflects the importance of actually performing VADM McRaven’s tenants of: simplicity in planning, repetition in rehearsal, and security, speed, surprise, and purpose in execution. But really, the Dubuque’s Commanding Officer, Captain Bolt, said it best when he closed the debrief saying that “the word of the day was professionalism.” And I think that captured the true spirit of this operation. Well, that and the few choice words of Big Daddy Holm…
More from Alex on Piracy: The Reality of Piracy