Rescue on the High Seas

by LTJG Steven Rho, U.S. Navy

The Maersk Alabama, an unarmed container ship, was hijacked in 2009 by Somali pirates and subsequently rescued through the efforts of several United States Navy units--including my own, the USS Bainbridge (DDG-96).

While the events of that month have quietly drifted out of the general public's view, they remain as fresh to me today as the day I stepped onto the Maersk Alabama as a member of its newly organized security detachment.

I had been serving as the gunnery officer on the Bainbridge, responsible for maintenance and operation of the ship's guns. Already deployed for two months off the coast of Somalia, we were now in the slack period that inevitably comes after the initial thrill of heading overseas. The long, uneventful watches were catching up with the crew. Memories of home grew rosier as the weeks dragged by.

Modern-Day Jonah

It was my first deployment--far different than merely venturing away from home as I'd done before. Key among the differences was the absence of a "real church," the kind that I grew up with. A lay leader directed church services on Sundays, but it seemed like I could never attend for one reason or another. Sometimes I was on watch. But for the most part it was a willful decision from a faltering relationship with God. I was a modern-day Jonah trying to escape the grasp of God rather than make Him my priority and obey Him.

A few weeks before the pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, my wife asked me how I was coming along in my Bible studies.

To my shame, all of the Bible studies I brought with me were stuffed into a cabinet. I was resigned to leafing through the Bible from the beginning, as if reading a novel.

Nonetheless, God spoke to me in my sluggishness, catching my attention with the book of Joshua, "Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:7-9).

The very next day those words became my sustenance as the Bainbridge received a frantic distress call from the Maersk Alabama crew. When our XO told me that I would be the OIC of the group of eighteen sailors that would embark the Maersk Alabama I was honored, since I was a new ensign with minimal experience in Navy life.

Once the Bainbridge had located the ship and the lifeboat where Captain Richard Phillips was held captive, our security detachment boarded the cargo ship. Our mission was to escort her to Mombasa, Kenya--keeping out of harm's way as much as possible--while Bainbridge and other units worked to resolve the hostage situation. There was concern about several pirate vessels armed with heavy machine guns that had sortied in our direction to disrupt the rescue.

Be Strong and Courageous

I didn't sleep very much during that week with all the activity of phone calls to the Bainbridge or the U.S. State Department, working with the crew, and drills preparing us for other possible pirate attacks. While I didn't always have time for a nap, I did have time to pray--and that's what I did whenever I felt exhausted, frustrated, or doubtful about the future.

In my need I turned back to God for help, and His encouragement was the same every time, "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous." It was enough for me, and I felt God's presence as much as I ever had before.

The "Alabama Eighteen" group of technicians, specialists, and other sailors carried out their duties with uncompromising professionalism and diligence, manning their weapons stations around the clock, and keeping a vigilant eye out for the pirate boats as the cargo ship steamed towards Kenya.

I prayed constantly for wisdom during the transit. The grace of God lay thick upon us as we traveled towards the Port of Mombasa.

Once safely in port, we spent the next few weeks in Mombasa waiting for the crisis to end. It came on Easter Sunday when Navy SEAL snipers effected the rescue of Captain Phillips. Our "Alabama Eighteen" made a loud scene when we heard the news -- extremely happy for having a part in one of the best-coordinated rescues ever conducted at sea.

Our voyage was a blessed one. I feel everyone knew that it could have turned out very differently. And as I reflect, I see that in those extraordinary circumstances the Lord prompted me to spend more time with Him.

God promised me He would be with me wherever I went. And He was with me--on the Indian Ocean, in Mombasa, and at the furthest reaches of my wandering heart.

LTJG Steven Rho currently serves as the First Lieutenant on the guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge (DDG-96). He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife, Kristin, and is a proud member of the Virginia Beach OCF group.

Printed in May 2010 COMMAND magazine.