By Larry Shaughnessy
The Pentagon's public affairs apparatus put on a full-court press Friday after the U.S. Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen from a group of suspect pirates. But for all the back-patting of U.S. efforts to save sailors even from an "axis of evil" country, it turns out the true hero in the whole incident was the quick-thinking Iranian captain.
Not always known for being forthcoming, the Pentagon press office nearly went into a shock-and-awe operation with the story, in likely recognition of the goodwill it hoped to demonstrate to the Iranian people.
Rear Adm. Craig Faller, commander of the USS John Stennis Strike Group, and Cmdr. Jennifer Ellinger, commanding officer of the USS Kidd, held a conference call with reporters that went past midnight in their time zone to discuss the incident.
The call came hours after the office of the Navy's chief of naval information released two videos and numerous still photos of the incident.
Shortly after the call was over, Pentagon reporters were sent an e-mail letting them know that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta had called Faller to congratulate him and his team for a "well executed effort."
The initial news release about the rescue came hours before the conference call and said little about the captain or "master" of the Iranian dhow, the Al Molai.
But during the call, Ellinger said that when the Navy established radio contact with the Al Molai, the captain used some trickery to let her crew know what was happening.
"When he had the opportunity, he would tell us in a foreign language that they were physically abusing them, they had pirated them and that they were five to 15 people on board and that they were scared," Ellinger said. "We reassured them that we would be on our way."
He risked his life, using a dialect of Urdu which is primarily spoken in Pakistan. "He did convey that he was trying to talk to us hoping that the Somalis did not understand him," Ellinger said. The Navy happened to have an Urdu linguist on board who was able to talk with the captive captain.
It's not clear why a fishing boat captain from Iran would be familiar with Urdu, but it's similar to Hindi, which is common in Indian movies that are popular throughout that part of the world.And fishermen in the region often pick up dialects through interactions with other high sea farers.
The captain didn't just tell the Americans about the pirates, Ellinger said, he also used the approaching American warship to threaten the pirates who had held his vessel and crew hostage for more than 40 days.
"He increased the threat to the pirates, saying that we were coming on board, and that we knew they were there, adding tension to the pirates to the point where they were willing to surrender their weapons," Ellinger said.
After the pirates were taken into custody and moved to the USS Stennis, the U.S. sailors began sending food and water over to the dhow.
Ellinger said the Iranians were extremely grateful. "When we left they expressed their sincere thanks for helping free them."
Faller said they are now on their way back home. "Once we released them today, they went on their way - quite happily, I might add, waving to us wearing USS Kidd Navy ball caps. We believe they are headed back to Iran to their home port."
The Pentagon public affairs organization, which can at times be glacial in its response to reporters' questions, was so quick to blow the military's horn in part because of to recent tensions between the United States and Iran.
"We wanted to turn the temperature down on the situation," said a senior defense official who would speak only on background. "We want this to be an example for the Iranians to follow."
At the State Department, the chance to show the United States took the high road was not missed.
"This is an incredible story. This is a great story," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "The very same ship and set of vessels that the Iranians protested on its last voyage through Hormuz, the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, just rescued this Iranian dhow from pirates."