Monday, April 20, 2009
When some of these high drama incidents are reported in detail, I find myself imagining what it must have been like to be there in person as an eyewitness to the shocking events.
Many years ago, I preached a sermon about Jesus and his disciples and apparently my propensity to fill in some of the detail not specified by the passage or, I suppose, demanded by hard historic evidence prompted one member of my audience to comment afterward, “Well, you certainly have a rich imagination there, Reverend.”
He said it with such neutrality that I never could figure out if it was a compliment or a critique. Many connoisseurs of preaching consider it to be a particularly egregious violation to stray from the confines of the inspired text. Featherbrained speculation can lead to all manner of apostasy. Others appreciate the color and texture and scope. Come to think of it, the aforementioned observer spent his career farming the black soil of Iowa and the word he used to describe my imagination was “fertile” not “rich.” Maybe it was a compliment after all.
So when I heard the heroic story of Captain Richard Phillips of the giant cargo vessel Maersk Alabama who gave himself over to heavily armed pirates in exchange for the safe dispatch of his crew, my imagination kicked in. There is plenty to imagine.
Piracy on the high seas is frightful enough. Given the challenges of the Somalian economic situation, commandeering heavily loaded ships transferring inventories worth substantial sums has proven to pay handsomely. The word is out. Corporate decision-makers would rather pay off a pirate’s demand in cash than risk losing those boxcar-sized containers filled with expensive product in the open sea. But not this time.
Three of those brash pirates were convinced that a truckload of cash would be waiting for them in port. They took their hostage, Captain Phillips, at gunpoint into the passenger compartment of an enclosed red lifeboat, attached the vessel to the USS Bainbridge with a hundred foot cable and bobbed over the waves in the wake of the massive destroyer. Capt. Phillips understood that his value to the pirates required that they present him alive. That must have been a consoling thought to him and his family back in Vermont – Andrea, Maria and Daniel (his wife, daughter and son). But when you realize that poking him in the back was the steel barrel of an automatic weapon with a feather-touch trigger (AK-47) – one miscalculation, one bump in the wrong direction, and the good captain’s life would come to a tragic, violent end. The sheer terror of the scene, well, it attracted attention around the globe.
In retrospect, the naïveté of the pirates is a stunning thing to contemplate. The three of them fully believed they were on the verge of retirement. Certainly, as they rode the waves, they discussed how they would spend their two million dollars. Witnesses say they were giddy with enthusiasm over their presumed triumph. Their captive would be their ticket to the good life. They peeked through the opening to check on their tow vehicle – rather enjoying the ride.
What they did not know is that the President of the United States authorized a rescue mission from the White House. In the dark of night, three marksmen, Navy SEALS, jumped out of an airplane flying undetected at an altitude of twenty-five thousand feet. They dropped silently in free fall down to a mere fifteen hundred feet (a HALO jump – high altitude, low opening), popped open their small canopies and parachuted into the water right in the path of the Bainbridge where they were picked up by expert sailors and were whisked onto the deck up a rope latter unseen as the ship continued to cut through the water full speed ahead. By morning light, the three shooters trained their weapons on the lifeboat from hidden locations on the aft of the destroyer.
It all happened in a split second. One pirate had a gun on Phillips in the lifeboat. The other two made the fatal mistake of poking their heads through an opening above. A radio command went simultaneously to all three SEALS and the triggers of their high-powered precision weapons were squeezed at once. Without warning, all three dropped lifeless to the floor of the bobbing craft. Phillips could not have heard the shots; only the chink of broken glass on the windshield.
With no notice, no alert, no signal, no knowledge of the operation, Captain Richard Phillips, still in chains, stood from his bench to look at the sudden carnage that surrounded him. A moment ago, he could only think of Andrea, Maria and Daniel. How they might fare without him. The injustice of life cut short hung over his thinking like a dark, foreboding cloud. And now, the gruesome reality of the lifeless forms in the confines of an enclosed lifeboat. Eyes wide in disbelief – was it an hallucination? Was he dreaming? A wave knocked him off balance – he looked again. He shouted out to them. No response.
He was safe.
Those SEALS were probably trained right here in Coronado. We will never know their names. Dick Couch, a Vietnam-era SEAL and author of “The Warrior Elite,” called it “Just another day at the office” for these highly trained, highly skilled commandos.
This weekend, our family hero and nephew, Barrett (Bear the Marine) sat in our living room. He recounted some of the stories. Battalion 1/4, Bravo Company landed at Camp Pendleton just last week. It means that Barrett, who completed two tours in Iraq, is home. Safe. His four years in the Corps are an amazing saga of sacrifice, loyalty, duty and growing. When he was a senior in high school, he knew one thing. He wanted to serve his country. Now, he’s focused on a college degree. We were there for his graduation from boot camp. Before long, we’ll be there when he is awarded his baccalaureate degree. As we celebrate the safe arrival of a member of our family, we are all that much more aware of families who sacrifice every day to secure our freedoms and our homeland.
On this Monday morning, we think about the plight of Captain Phillips, and imagine his journey from the hole of a lifeboat bouncing over waves tethered to a powerful Destroyer somewhere in the Indian Ocean and now in the arms of the people he loves the most. Thanks to a few good men. And women, too.
Thank you, Barrett. And welcome home.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009