Piracy on the Horn of Africa: A glimpse of life onboard a US Navy Destroyer on patrol


The role of the modern day US Navy Destroyer is vastly different from that of our predecessors. In the past, our Destroyers were the disposable asset used to protect the big deck ships and battle gun for gun with the enemy. Today we still steam in formation protecting the big decks, but more and more our Destroyers are running independent missions in uncharted waters. This is the story of America’s newest and most lethal of Destroyers running solo in the waters off the Horn of Africa in search of modern day pirates.

The modern day pirate takes in many forms and has been elusive to the local Navies. They are used by the major terrorist networks to smuggle guns and drugs for profit, they ferry human refugees into slavery, and act out a plethora of other vile and nasty deeds. When their ships are identified, they attack and commandeer commercial shipping and fishing vessels. It is our job to find and stop them.

 The first few months of our tour here keep us steaming off the coast of Mogadishu, Somalia. Our Visit Board Search & Seizure teams board all unknown vessels and gather information on where they have been, where they are going and who they have seen in their travels. While most of the ships we board are legitimate merchant seamen or fishermen, they all have information to share in our quest for the pirates. The legitimate merchant seamen know what waters to avoid, therefore where we should start looking. After gathering a lot of intelligence and mapping the most probable route the smugglers are using we move on to our next mission. Next on our list of targets are human traffickers running between Somalia and Yemen. Here is where we made our biggest impact. On at least two separate occasions, we were able to identify and herd the human traffickers into the hands of the Yemeni Coast Guard.   While we would typically prowl around in our designated box, occasionally we would get to stretch our legs and run to the fight. On one instance, the British ship RFA Fort Austin’s helicopter encountered a ‘suspicious’ merchant ship enroute from Yemen. By ‘suspicious’ I mean they failed to answer any queries. At around a hundred miles from their position, we were the closest coalition vessel and quickly came to full power to investigate our new friend. As it turned out, the merchant ship was North Korean and pretending to not understand our queries. On our first approach, we checked them out, ran their registry information, took all the intelligence information available and kicked up the mains to lead them to believe we were done with them. However, the following day, we again queried them. This time when the pretended not to understand English we broke out our ace in the hole – one of our Engineers is a Korean National. Anyhow, they refused to allow us to board and inspect their ship. They claimed to have just left Yemen after picking up cargo but at first refused to open their cargo hold doors for the British helicopter to inspect from the air.  They appeared to change their mind when the Frigate HAWES arrived with a bigger, badder helicopter than the Brits were using and we successfully brought the merchant ship to all stop. Anyway, after a couple of hours, Fifth Fleet decided not to board the Koreans, maybe for the better considering our tenuous relations with North Korea these days. We may not have been given permission to board and search the Korean ship but we did prove to them and their government that we know they are selling arms to our enemies and we are capable of and not afraid to stop their ships. If needed, we could have easily boarded their ship without incident, and they now realize this fact. Shortly after this incident we received a distress call from a commercial vessel under attack by suspected pirates. They were about four hours away by sea but The HAWES deployed one of their helicopters for recon. Anyway, when the helo arrived, the pirates turned tail and ran away. By the time we arrived on station, it was near nightfall and the bad guys had faded off into the sunset.          

To break up the monotony of our routine, the Captain kept the crew on their toes through his daily “Quick Draws”. Quick Draw was an impromptu tasking thrown at various divisions or organizations on the ship – usually totally unrelated to their particular area of expertise. The typical Quick Draw revolved in some way around damage control, probably due to the high probability of getting the responding crew members soaked to the skin (did I mention that the Captain appears to have an evil streak?). The ruptured piping and bulkhead rigs would be stationed on the forecastle and the unsuspecting victims would be called into action to plug the leaks and patch the pipes. Usually the victims would be the Supply Department, Admin, or the cooks – people not usually tasked with pipe patching. If it wasn’t damage control related, the tasks would usually involve guns, again with the victims not normally tasked with the use of weapons. One of my favorites was calling the junior medical personnel (baby doc) to the port and starboard bridge wing for the task of manning the 50 cal and shooting 50 rounds down range, or calling the gas turbine electricians (GSE’s)to the fantail to shoot a barrel in the wake with 9MM pistols. When the Main Engineroom One gas turbine mechanics (GSM’s) were tasked similarly, they managed to shoot the tending line and lose the barrel.  Saturday’s were special with the Smackdown, pitting one group against another to see who can complete the task first. The Smackdown ranged from operating the P-100 fire fighting pump and putting water over the side, pipe patching competitions, manning the primary attack team from the lockers and putting water over the side to routine gun shoots. However, many a Smackdown had a twist, my favorite was when two teams of force protection team members were tasked to shoot rounds from the 50 cal but weren’t told about the missing firing pins. But as an engineer, my favorite Smackdown event was when Engineering Watch Team One and Two were tasked to bring the ship from dead in the water to 32 knots speed over ground. To set the stage, the Engineering Training Team (ETT) took the watch and sent Watch Team One to the flight deck. Watch Team Two was left scattered throughout the ship blissfully unaware of the impending tasking. Once ETT had the watch, thrust control was taken from the bridge and all four mains were stopped. When the ship had drifted to dead in the water, the Captain called for Team One and Two to man the Enginerooms, take control of the engines at the local Shaft Control Unit and with the propeller pitch in manual at 100% start all four mains and bring the ship to 32 knots speed over ground. For the record, from dead in the water with no main engines running, we achieved 32 knots speed over ground in less than six minutes – ya gotta love gas turbine engines!

In addition to the Quick Draws, we started a new weekly routine of Jazz, Cigars, and Sunset on Fridays. Apparently our Triad (CO, XO, CMC) and several members of the crew are cigar aficionados. During our port visit to Bahrain, the crew bought just about every cigar available at the Duty Free Shop so the XO decided that it would be a good idea to celebrate the end of the week on the flight deck smoking cigars and listening to jazz music as the sunset. This and the weekly flight deck picnics on Sunday were the crew’s rewards for another successful week at sea.  

When we were sent here, neither Fifth Fleet nor the Coalition Forces thought that a single ship could drastically impact the events occurring off of the Horn of Africa. However, they forgot to factor in the fact that the NITZE crew enters every task with the realization that success is inevitable.  We proved that one ship can, and did make a difference. Our presence off the coast of Somalia dramatically decreased the number of successful attacks by pirate ships and disrupted the channels that the world wide terrorist networks rely upon to generate revenue.



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