Vice Admiral Michelle Howard has never been one to back down from a challenge. As the first African-American woman to rise to the three star rank in the U.S. armed forces, she’s faced her fair share.
One of the biggest challenges of her career came in 2009, when Howard was just three days into a new job as head of a U.S. Navy strike force charged with combating pirates in the Arabian Sea.
While aboard the U.S.S. Boxer, the amphibious assault ship that served as her command ship, a call came that a U.S.-flagged cargo ship, the Maersk Alabama, had been hijacked by Somali pirates. Howard soon learned that the ship’s captain had been taken hostage aboard a lifeboat.
The captain was Richard Phillips, about whom the new movie “Captain Phillips” is based. And it was Howard’s job to get him back.
The destroyer U.S.S. Bainbridge, 300 miles away at the time of hijacking, was dispatched to get as close as possible to the lifeboat.
“We found out that the life raft was heading to the Somali coast, so very quickly the focus of the mission became don't let the life raft touch land,” Howard told “Power Players.”
“We wanted to bring Captain Phillips back safely to the U.S., but we figured out that if that life raft got ashore before we could rescue him, that'd probably be the last we'd see of him.”
With the lifeboat picking up speed en route to the Somali coast, Howard’s team had to act quickly.
“As the first 24 hours unfolded, we realized … the life raft had picked up the current, and was moving at 3 to 4 knots towards Somalia, and we had about 11 hours or so before we had to figure out how to intercept it, and get it to stop moving,” Howard recounted.
The commander of the Bainbridge found himself in the unusual position of having to negotiate with pirates.
“We're not really the FBI,” Howard said. “We don't normally do hostage negotiation but we said this is where we got to start.”
After two days of trying to convince the pirates to end the standoff peacefully, Howard’s options became increasingly limited.
“As the days went on, the pirates apparently got more frustrated, and they were actually beating Captain Phillips,” Howard said. “We were getting more and more concerned that they were going to get Phil, uh, feel so frustrated or angry that they might actually kill him.”
That’s when a team of Navy SEALs secretly sent to the Bainbridge ended the standoff once and for all, shooting the pirates on board the lifeboat and bringing Captain Phillips to safety.
“In the end, when Captain Phillips was rescued, I was eminently satisfied with the outcome,” Howard said.
To hear Howard’s detailed account of the rescue mission, and to find out how accurate she thinks the new movie is in portraying the standoff, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC’s Luis Martinez, Alexandra Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Chris Carlson, and Bob McHenry contributed to this episode.