Today’s romanticized version of pirates depicted by Disney and Johnny Depp are not too far afield from the children’s fairytale depictions of the infamous 18th century pirate Blackbeard, or Errol Flynn’s 1935 portrayal of a swashbuckling pirate out to save his lady love.
Today’s pirates are real, they are in the Gulf of Aden and they are every bit as nasty as history has proven the real Blackbeard to have been.
You can ask Rear Admiral Terence E. McKnight, USN (Ret.) about piracy today and he will give you an earful – and an eyeful of documents, charts and photos about his time as the first Commander of Combined Task Force 151. The Admiral has also co-authored a new book “Pirate Alley: Commanding Task Force 151 Off Somalia” that is a riveting story about these 21st century brigands.
According to the US Navy’s CentCom, “CTF 151 is a multinational task force established in 2009 to conduct counterpiracy operations under a mission-based mandate throughout the Combined Maritime Forces area of responsibility to actively deter, disrupt and suppress piracy in order to protect global maritime security and secure freedom of navigation for the benefit of nations.” It operates in the Gulf of Aden off the east coast of Somalia and covers approximately 1.1 million square miles – about 4 times the size of the United States.
Historian Angus Konstam, author of “Piracy: The Complete History”, reports that Blackbeard and his cronies’ goal was to capture a ship by intimidation, strip it clean of all valuables and then leave it – or sometimes commandeer it for their own use. Konstam reports that to make himself appear even more imposing, Blackbeard was reported by one of his 1724 captives to have stuck lighted matches under his big hat in order to “emphasise (sic) the fearsome appearance he wished to present to his enemies”.
Somali pirates, though small in stature play the same game with flamboyant displays of weaponry, ammunition belts, elaborate head scarves and aggressive behavior. According to RADM McKnight their “pirate code” is not to harm the captives or the ships, but to hold them for significant ransoms and often commandeer the ship for their own use. With grudging admiration he describes the pirates as coming from the dirt-poor hill country of Somalia, having never been to sea and are likely unable swim. Yet they get into tiny boats and travel hundreds of miles from shore gambling they will survive and escape their generational poverty and hopelessness.
At the time McKnight accepted his new assignment to CTF 151, he was told by Vice Admiral William E. Gortney that the pirate mantra was “They will not shoot at me. I will get their money. No one will arrest me. It’s a good job.” It was up to Admiral McKnight and CTF 151 to change all that.
“Pirate Alley” is a first person account of not only McKnight’s time as task force Commander, but also a first person account of what it took to build the task force from scratch. Some will be dismayed to learn of the hours spent consulting with military attorneys and PR officers as he built his group. But, as he explains in the book, in WWII it took fighters to know how to win the battles. Today, the “two most important people are my JAG Officer and my Public Affairs Officer. Those are the people who may not help you win the battle, but they’re going to keep your backside out of trouble.”
A live news video report from embedded ABC news reporter, Lara Setrakian, aboard the USS Lewis & Clark in 2009 told the story of a pirate attempt to hijack two commercial ships. The ships evaded the attack but the pirates were not able to evade Admiral McKnight’s task force who chased down the pirates and captured all 16. Of course, what happened to the pirates afterwards is the subject of more than one chapter in the book and worth the price of the book alone – but have a Scotch or stress reliever handy.
If you want a no-holds barred account of life in the Navy as a pirate-chaser, this is an excellent adventure story and it should be made into a movie that will finally put to rest the images of Errol Flynn jumping over the ship’s gunnels with sword in hand. On second thought, in the Preface to the book, Admiral McKnight says “at times, I felt like Peter Pan chasing Captain Hook in the Neverland of Somalia.”