New Captain Phillips movie and the truth of hostage rescue by Navy SEALs

Number of bullets fired at three Somali pirates was far higher and Navy SEALs faced lie detector tests over missing US$30,000

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 October, 2013, 6:15am


Dramatic accounts of the Navy SEALs rescuing the captain of an American cargo ship made headlines around the world in 2009.

The military said SEAL snipers killed a trio of pirates in a tense stand-off. Three shots, three kills.

It was the lethal, co-ordinated precision that has made SEALs famous and feared.

It was an unbelievable story that gave rise to a film that hit the big screen on Friday with Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks playing Captain Richard Phillips.

But the real tale of the events in the Indian Ocean that emerged later wasn't as tidy as Hollywood's. In fact, many more than three shots were fired, US$30,000 went missing and the integrity of the SEALs was questioned.

Military officials, who had said that just three shots were fired, soon learned that the number was much higher.

And the US$30,000 went missing from a lifeboat, triggering an inquiry that questioned the integrity of the commandos.

Those are among the messy details missing from previous accounts of the famous raid - and from the film Captain Phillips.

On April 8, 2009, four armed Somali pirates scurried up the side of a large cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, and took Phillips and his crew hostage.

In a failed attempt to get the pirates to leave, Phillips gave them US$30,000 from the ship's safe. The pirates eventually abandoned the Maersk, jumping into a lifeboat and taking the cash and Phillips at gunpoint.

The USS Bainbridge, a destroyer that had responded to the hijacking, gave chase as the pirates headed towards the Somali coast. Days later, a team of SEALs parachuted into the Indian Ocean and boarded the Bainbridge. The navy persuaded the pirates to let the Bainbridge tow their lifeboat and then tricked the fourth pirate into going aboard the Bainbridge.

As the Bainbridge reeled in the lifeboat for a better shot, the SEALs took up positions on the back of the warship and trained their sights on the three pirates.

On April 12, a gun unexpectedly went off inside the lifeboat, and the SEAL snipers opened fire.

Seconds later, one or possibly two SEALs descended the tow rope and boarded the lifeboat, quickly shooting the pirates - one of whom was still alive.

Former SEAL Matt Bissonnette recounted the episode in his memoir No Easy Day.

Bissonnette was deployed aboard the adjacent USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, when the rescue took place.

"Entering the life raft, they quickly and methodically re-engaged each pirate, making sure there was no more threat," Bissonnette recalled. "They found Phillips tied up in the corner unhurt."

In an interview, Phillips said he didn't see the SEALs firing inside the 7.5-metre lifeboat. But he said one of the pirates closest to him was "gasping" and in a "death rattle".

The young pirate had two serious chest wounds, he said. He didn't see the other two pirates at the other end of the lifeboat.

Attorney Philip Weinstein, who represented the surviving pirate later prosecuted in federal court, said his legal team had an expert examine photos the government provided of the dead Somalis. The expert estimated about 19 rounds had been fired into the bodies, Weinstein said.

"There were clearly not three shots fired," Weinstein said. "They were riddled with bullets."

The US$30,000 was never recovered. As part of the investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, SEALs were polygraphed, according to former and current law enforcement and military officials.

Nobody was exempt from questioning. Investigators even interviewed Captain Frank Michael, the executive officer of the Boxer and among the highest-ranking navy personnel to enter the lifeboat after Phillips was saved, a former US official said.

Weinstein said his client, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nearly 34 years, had no idea who took the money, and he didn't think the pirates threw it overboard. Weinstein said there were plenty of people who had access to the lifeboat after the shooting stopped. According to Phillips' account of the kidnapping, the money could have easily been concealed in a small bag or someone's pockets.

In his book, Phillips writes that while he was held hostage on the lifeboat, a pirate took the money out of a bag and began dividing it up into piles.

There were "two stacks of hundreds, one of fifties, then twenties, fives and tens ... I never saw the money again. Later, when they gave me a sack to lean against, I felt the stacks of money inside, but I never spotted the cash out in the open again."

Kevin Speers, a spokesman for Maersk Line, said the missing money remains a mystery.

Captain Phillips director Paul Greengrass said the movie wasn't intended to tackle every twist and turn, but hews to the truth. And what happened to the money didn't concern him.

"Movies are not journalism," he said. "Movies are not history."