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Marines from Camp Pendleton who stormed pirate-held ship were combat veterans

September 10, 2010 | 11:37 am


The Marines from Camp Pendleton who stormed a pirate-held ship in the Gulf of Aden were combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, where they learned the skills necessary to disarm and arrest the nine Somalis without firing a shot, their officers said Friday.

"This was not their first rodeo," said Capt. Alexander Martin, commander of the Force Reconnaissance Platoon of the maritime assault team. Martin has served three tours in Iraq.

Lt. Col. Joseph Clearfield, commander of Battalion Landing Team of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, which includes the maritime team, called the mission "a 10 out of 10 on any scale."

Clearfield is a veteran of the Marine assault on Fallouja in early 2004.

Launching Thursday morning from the amphibious transport ship Dubuque, the Marines assaulted in two inflatable boats while a helicopter hovered overhead. Despite resistance, the Marines used ladders to quickly scale the side of the freighter.

Although the pirates had threatened to open fire with their AK-47s, most surrendered quickly when the Marines boarded the German-owned ship. Two were found sitting in the captain's chairs on the bridge of the 436-foot freighter, the Magellan Star.

"I would have bet a paycheck that they were going to open fire as soon as the Marines stepped on the vessel," said the Dubuque's commander, Capt. Christopher Bolt.

Two dozen Marines were part of the assault force. In all, about 80 personnel, including U.S. Coast Guard members and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, were involved in the operation.

The pirates -- men in their 20s and 30s, most of them barefoot, some wearing sandals -- were taken into custody for possible prosecution. Using the freighter's communications gear, the pirates had demanded to be paid a ransom, even calling the ship's owner in Germany.

The ship's 11-member crew -- which included Filipinos, Poles and Ukrainians -- was unhurt. It took Marines three hours to search the vessel for pirates who were hiding and to free the crew from a barricaded space in the engineering compartment.

The Marines, from Camp Pendleton's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, are part of the international Task Force 151 hunting pirates who have bedeviled shipping companies in the heavily traveled lanes off the Somali coast. The Dubuque was escorting a merchant vessel when it was ordered to speed to the site of the piracy.

The pirates had apparently been abandoned by members of their "mother ship." That vessel had launched a skiff with the pirates aboard on Wednesday in the attack on the freighter.

But as two U.S. ships and a Turkish frigate responded to a distress call from the freighter, the larger pirate vessel fled.

Staff Sgt. Thomas Hartrick, one of the assault team leaders, said that although the Somalis may not have been as fierce as the Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq, they were armed and dangerous.

"A combatant is a combatant," he said. "You have to look sharp, move quick and be on your best game."

The predawn take-down was the first involving U.S. forces. Whether it signals a heightened aggressiveness by the task force remains unclear.

"It was the right place, right time for us, and the wrong place, wrong time for the pirates," Clearfield said.

The Dubuque is due to return to its home port in San Diego by year's end. Part of the U.S. fleet since 1967, the ship is set to be decommissioned in the spring.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Marines begin takedown of pirates on German freighter. Credit: U.S. Navy