The U.S. warship Dubuque, left, and the freighter Magellan Star, foreground,… (William Farmerie / U.S.…)
Reporting from San Diego — Marines stormed a ship held by pirates in the Gulf of Aden before dawn Thursday in the first U.S. action of its kind, freeing the crew and detaining a heavily armed gang of Somalis, the Navy announced.
The pirates had threatened to open fire on the Americans, but after the Marines boarded the German-owned freighter, most of them dropped their AK-47 assault rifles. The others hid in spaces throughout the ship.
"They had been showing a bravado," Marine Capt. Alexander Martin said. "But when we got there, you could see the change in their eyes. They decided they'd rather live than die."
With the help of an interpreter, the Marines on the amphibious transport ship Dubuque, part of an international anti-piracy task force, had communicated for several hours with the pirates, who demanded a ransom.
"They kept telling us, 'Just give us money and we'll go away,' " Marine Lt. Col. Joseph Clearfield said. "They said if we came aboard, 'We're going to burn you.' "
Marines used cutting torches, saws, hammers and other tools to break into various ship compartments to ferret out the hiding pirates. Nine Somalis were captured without a shot fired.
The Somalis were transferred to another task force ship for possible transfer to a country willing to hold them for trial.
The mission was authorized by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and President Obama. Officials said it was the first time in modern history that the U.S. military has forcibly boarded a ship held by pirates.
Navy Capt. Christopher Bolt, commander of the Dubuque, said the 15 minutes between the Marines reaching the freighter and the pirates surrendering were the most tense of his Navy career. He commended the Marines for holding their fire even though the pirates were still armed.
The freighter, the Magellan Star, was seized Wednesday about 85 miles southeast of the Yemeni village of Mukalla.
The Dubuque and another U.S. ship were ordered into the area after a distress call was sent by the freighter's captain. Bolt kept in touch with admirals in Bahrain and the Pentagon as Marines talked with the pirates.
As a U.S. helicopter hovered overhead, a boat sped 24 Marines to the freighter, where they scrambled up rope ladders. The boarding party was covered by snipers on the Dubuque, who kept weapons trained on the freighter's deck.
U.S. Coast Guard members boarded the ship after the pirates surrendered, the Navy said.
The Marines, from Camp Pendleton's 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, had trained for the possibility of forcibly boarding a pirated ship. But there were more pirates than what the Marines had been led to expect by the freighter's crew.
"Every good combat plan goes to … when you get to the point of meeting the enemy," said Staff Sgt. Thomas Hartrick, leader of one of two 12-member teams. "You just have to make those decisions. A takedown is a takedown, whether it's a house, a high-rise or a boat."
The freighter was carrying a load of steel chain. After pirates attacked, the 11 crew members barricaded themselves in a cabin and were able to communicate with task force members planning their rescue.
The crew refused to leave the cabin until Marines bored a small hole in the door and pushed through an American flag patch cut from one of their uniforms to convince the 11 inside that they had indeed been rescued.
An estimated 20% of the world's trade aboard ships passes through the Gulf of Aden and the region off Somalia as part of a course between Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal. Piracy has plagued the region for several years, and task forces have been established by the U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
There are signs that the task forces and new "defensive driving" practices adopted by the shipping industry are discouraging piracy. In the first half of this year, there were 98 piracy incidents, compared with 144 during the same period in 2009.
The most high-profile incident was the seizure of a U.S. commercial ship in April 2009. After a five-day standoff, Navy SEAL snipers killed three pirates holding the captain, an American, at gunpoint. The captain was rescued uninjured.
In comments Thursday after the German ship was freed, the Turkish admiral who heads the anti-piracy task force expressed resolve in the fight against piracy.
"We are completely committed to bringing the disruptive acts of piracy to an end," Turkish Rear Adm. Sinan Ertugrul said.