Do you recall the sickening feeling you had the day you learned of the attack and destruction of the USS COLE in Aden, Yemen, and the instant fury that news provoked? As an old sailor, my hatred was for the unnecessary murder of the swabbies aboard the USS COLE. Then, that fury was directed toward the chain of command. Will they ever learn?
The attack blew a huge hole some forty by fifty feet in diameter in the ship’s hull and destroyed the bulkhead of the port engine room, distorted the lady’s spine, corrupted her internal and external communications, so that the crew had to rely on 1941 sound power, twisted powerful sheet steel like paper, and destroyed electrical power. COLE was dead in the water.
Commander Lippold took control with flank speed and he and his keenly organized crew brought the vessel back to power, and saved the ship. The story of COLE’s voyage back to the United States is unique. The BLUE MARLIN, a Norwegian Drydock with an engine on one end and a pointy nose on the other lowered herself next to the COLE and inserted herself beneath that vessel. Then, pumped water out of her tanks, and the drydock rose and lifted the COLE aboard – an incredible operation.
Lippold made only three mistakes, in some opinions. The Commander was in a race to load bunkers and get back out to sea, and since he already was cognizant of the sagas of the USS LIBERTY and the USS PUEBLO, he might have stationed some 20 mm, 50 cal., and grenade launch Gunners on the vessel’s deck, to be on lookout during the period bunkers were being loaded. He might have discharged his picket boat with public address system and speed, to ward off enemies, and he should not have depended upon Sana’a, Yemen to tell him Aden had al Qaeda people to worry about. Otherwise, Lippold was outstanding, as was his superbly trained crew. Both did heroic jobs sustaining the USS COLE in its throes of terror.
But, with 26 years in the Navy, the Commander should have known where the buck stopped, and that the top guy in naval tales is almost always the fall guy.
The Commander tells of the pain of retrieving bodies and body parts of those shipmates he knew by name, and recalled with fatherly love. The job was a nightmare of grief and tears, and a long losing fight against city hall.
In his excellent auto-biography cum mea culpa, “FRONT BURNER,” Commander Lippold explains: “On Thursday, October 12, 2000, the guided missile destroyer USS COLE, DDG-67, under my command, was attacked while refueling in the harbor of Aden, Yemen, by two suicide bombers who were members of the al Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. Because U.S. intelligence had no idea that an al Qaeda cell was present in Aden and planning an attack, we were taken completely by surprise when what we expected to be a garbage removal barge approached the port side of our ship and blew up. The devastating explosion blasted a hole through the hull amidships destroying one of the main engine rooms as well as the galley where scores of Cole’s crew were gathered for lunch. The explosion killed seventeen sailors, wounded thirty-seven others, and took the ship out of action.
“If not for intelligence and military failures, the tragedy might have been avoided. As it was, the Navy, my ship, and I were left unprepared to deal with a new kind of terrorist threat that should have become apparent by 1998 at the latest, as a series of coordinated attacks simultaneously destroyed U.S. embassies and killed hundreds of people in Kenya and Tanzania.
“I do not wish to minimize or excuse my own failure as captain to prevent this tragedy.”
We believe the Commander of the COLE, Kirk Lippold, is a fine man, a thoughtful and safety conscious Skipper, but that he and his peers, AND THE NAVY DEPARTMENT’S PLANNERS in the Washington ‘chain of command,’ may not have given credence to the extent of the bin Laden inspired Muslim terrorist network that was plotting against foreign MILITARISTS in Arabic countries of the Middle-East: (all of North Africa from Morocco to Somalia in the Mediterranean and Red Seas, all of the countries lining the Persian Gulf, and Indonesia, South Philippines, Pakistan and far South Russia, are Muslim.)
The Middle East has been a hotbed of murder and destruction for centuries, but in contemporary terms, the Saudi Kingdom has become the source for the ideological roots of terrorism and has financed widespread death and destruction in its wake. Osama bin Laden was a Saudi from a prominent Saudi family. Dore Gold, author of Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (2003), reveals (p.182) the extent of Saudi support for the planning, supply and financing of the USS Cole attack launched from Yemen, located on the Arabian Peninsula. “Those who planned the Cole attack,” Dore writes, “apparently escaped from Yemen and sought sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. Their choice made sense, since the commander of the operation against the USS Cole, Abdul Rahim al-Nashiri, was himself a Saudi citizen who had founded the first al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia. He had also been involved in planning the attacks on the East African embassies in 1998.”
Americans are forgiving, feeling people, but the COLE incident killed our boys. Could it have been avoided? A Command should always be aware of potential dangers, especially in war zones. Commander Lippold blames the CIA at the Capital, Sana‘a, Yemen, but enemies are really like the weather, and their behavior can’t always be foretold.
Do we ever learn, or do chains of command just report after the fact that “A panel has been set up to find the cause of the disaster,” and “pin the tail on the donkey.” We may not stop attacks, but with better preparation, we may attenuate them.
(Aden, Arabia has been a bunker port, particularly for British passenger ships, for 130 years. In my first stop at Aden, for bunkers, enroute to India aboard an ancient Liberty ship, in the late 1970s, our pilot was British, explained that he and his wife and baby were having breakfast that morning, when a rocket went through their apartment and out the kitchen window. Unbelievably, they were not harmed, but immediately bought plane tickets home, to London.)
“FRONT BURNER,” by Commander Kirk S. Lippold, USN (Ret.) is an intriguing work, a Naval officer’s text, to be read by all ensigns and warrants, when they first put those magnificent identity pins in place. “Burner” details the horror of a Muslim Judas attack by smiling killers, that destroyed and maimed a large group of American lads, in Aden, Yemen, features triage, and the resurrection of those members wounded, care for the dead, and reveals the politics involved in the Navy Department, with Congress and the media, covers most every facet of life aboard a fighting ship.
All Americans should be concerned, need to read FRONT BURNER, in order to help understand the enemies our nation faces. The people with but one goal in mind, “Kill the infidels,” not only supported and turned a blind-eye on the attack of the USS Cole, but supported bin Laden and his Muslim jihadists worldwide; we must keep in mind and never forget that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers also were from Saudi Arabia and its “ultimate commander,” Osama bin Laden was “born and raised in Saudi Arabia.” We have political dangers on all sides our grandfathers and grandmothers never lived with, and we have only begun to see them.
The syllabus of every SEAGOING command should be imprinted upon the Commanding Officer’s bulkhead. First order: safety of the Vessel; Second order: safety of the Complement. No one, or thing, is totally secure from harm, but if the vessel is secure, the complement is secure.
Bruce Branick served his nation for over 5 decades at sea. After three years of North Atlantic convoy duty as a Radioman in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Greenland Patrol and a fourth year attached to the Richmond Naval Air Station, a Florida Blimp Base concerned with Anti-submarine Warfare, he spent 50 years in the U.S. Merchant Marine as a Radio Officer, voyaging the world over from the Arctic to Antarctica, from Galveston to Istanbul, from Suez to Hong Kong. Mr. Branick, a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis , is author of Memoirs of a Loose Cannon and Two If By Sea (1970).