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Cooking for a captive

Nelson man served on Navy ship that served, saved Captain Phillips

NELSON – Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009, started out like any other day for Dustin Brockman.

A cook on the USS Bainbridge, Brockman – a Nelson native and graduate of Rock Falls High School – was stationed in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa when a call came over the radio that the ship and crew were needed.

The reason: A group of Somali pirates had hijacked an American cargo freighter and taken its captain hostage on the ship’s lifeboat. The captain’s name: Richard Phillips.

Phillips’ story is being told in “Captain Phillips,” a film starring Tom Hanks, that debuts in theaters this weekend.

This is Brockman’s story:

On that Easter Sunday, he woke up at 3:30 a.m., took a shower, and headed to “breakouts” – the daily task of moving the ingredients needed for the day’s meals from the ship’s storerooms to the kitchen. As in most kitchens, Easter supper is a massive production on a Naval ship: prime rib, roast turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and more.

Brockman completed the day’s tasks. During dinner, a Navy SEAL walked up to him and asked for a to-go-box for “Richard.”

“We were like, ‘Who’s Richard?’” Brockman recalled while sitting at the kitchen table of his Nelson home on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. “To us, he was Captain Phillips.”

The USS Bainbridge supplied Capt. Phillips with meals throughout the hostage situation, as negotiations between the pirates and officers on the ship continued. On that Sunday, hours before three Navy snipers got the order to kill his captors, Phillips was getting an Easter dinner.

“We gave him a bottle of A.1. [steak sauce] because we had prime rib, and I remember there were a bunch of people who were angry because there was a camera on the lifeboat, and as they were passing across the bottle of A.1., everyone saw it and thought it was a beer,” Brockman said with a laugh.

Things had been tense among the sailors on the ship, Brockman said. They knew about the hostage situation, but didn’t have many details or understand what was taking so long.

“I just remember thinking, like, let’s just get this over with,” Brockman said. “Let’s just get rid of the hostage situation, bring him on board, and let’s get out of here.”

The ordeal began on April 8, when four Somali pirates hijacked the Maersk Alabama 240 nautical miles off the coast of the Somali port city of Eyl, taking the ship’s captain and crew hostage in the process.

The USS Bainbridge reached the Alabama the next morning. By then, Phillips and his captors had fled in the ship’s lifeboat.

The Bainbridge found them, and during the course of the next 4 days tried to negotiate with the pirates. On Sunday, negotiations broke down, and with one of the pirates pointing an AK-47 at Phillips’ back, Bainbridge Commander Frank Castellano gave the order to a sniper team of Navy SEALs to shoot and kill the three pirates onboard. They did, almost simultaneously, with a bullet to each pirate’s head.

It wasn’t until 9:15 that night that Brockman knew what had happened.

It was after dinner, and Brockman was sitting on the messdeck. A voice came over the ship’s main speaker calling for the coremen – the ship’s medics – to report to the flight deck.

“As soon as they called it, it was kind of obvious,” Brockman said. “I didn’t necessarily know that they’d shot the pirates, but I knew something had happened.”

In fact, Brockman said, most of the men he spoke with thought that Phillips had been killed.

Shortly thereafter, with Phillips safely onboard, a new sort of scramble began – the captain needed clothes.

“We were like, ‘Well, how big is he? How tall is he?’” Brockman said. “Because I’m fairly certain the pirates didn’t let him pack a bag of luggage before they put him in the lifeboat. There was the question of what he was going to wear.”

Brockman said he is about the same size as Phillips. So he and another man donated coveralls to outfit him until the Bainbridge met up with the Maersk Alabama in Kenya, where it and its remaining crew had been escorted days earlier by a team of 18 Navy sailors.

“We were relieved that it was all over,” Brockman said. “We could move on, finally. We didn’t have to be in such a tense situation the whole time. But we were also kind of thinking, ‘This is pretty cool – this might make it into a history book one day.’”

Brockman has been excited about the big-screen adaptation of that story since he found out about it. His family attended a screening Friday – opening night – at the Sauk Valley 8, decked out in USS Bainbridge shirts. Brockman sporting a Bainbridge softball jersey.

“It’s something no one else would have,” he said.

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