USS SAN ANTONIO, At Sea (NNS) -- The Navy and Marine Corps boast a heritage of core competencies outlined in the maritime strategy, namely forward presence, deterrence, power projection, sea control and maritime security - all of which are employed as part of Combined Task Force (CTF) 151's counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
Marines from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the crew of the amphibious transport dock ship USS San Antonio (LPD) 17 and several other embarked units, including U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment (LETDET) 405, Fleet Surgical Team 8 and Helicopter Anti-submarine Squadron (HS) 3 have teamed up to tackle a historical menace: piracy.
"We are a lean, agile, adaptable force capable of rapidly leveraging our capabilities from an expeditionary, amphibious platform at a time and place of our choosing in order to disrupt and prevent criminal activities on the high seas which violate international laws and threaten free trade and basic human rights," said Maj. Ken Goedecke, assistant operations officer, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit. "I would argue that that is as true today as it was 200 years ago."
The Continental Navy was established on Oct. 13, 1775, and the Continental Marines were originally established on Nov. 10, 1775. After the American Revolution ended and the Treaty of Paris resulted in the selling of all ships, both services were disbanded in 1783. On March 27, 1794 the U.S. Navy was re-established, quickly followed by the Marine Corps July 11, 1798, in response to the rising piracy problems off the northern coast of Africa, known as the Barbary Coast.
Throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the Barbary pirates, based in the African port cities of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, preyed on ships in the Mediterranean Sea, forcing European ships to make tribute payments. When the United States became independent after the American Revolution, its ships lost the protection of the British Royal Navy and found themselves suddenly vulnerable to pirate attacks.
At first, Presidents George Washington and John Adams agreed to pay the ransoms and tribute to the Barbary pirates in exchange for peace. By the time Thomas Jefferson took office, the United States was spending approximately 30 percent of its budget on pirate tributes.
Jefferson despised these tributes, and in 1801, he decided to send a fleet to the Barbary Coast to put a stop to the pirates, effectively starting the First Barbary Wars. Between 1801 and 1806, Jefferson sent five squadrons of naval vessels to Northern Africa to fight the Barbary pirates. Each squadron consisted of at least one super frigate as well as four to 12 smaller frigates, sloops, schooners and gun brigs.
The first naval battle of the Barbary War occurred Aug. 1, 1801 between the 12-gun schooner Enterprise and a Tripolitan corsair, the Tripoli. U.S. Marines initiated the engagement when they opened fire from aloft and from the decks with accurate, deadly musket fire. At least three times during the engagement, Tripoli attempted to come aside to board Enterprise, and each time, the maneuver was repulsed by cannon fire from the ship's gun crews and accurate small arms fire from the Marines.
"Way back in the 1800s, when the Marine Corps and the Navy first got together, we were fighting piracy way back then and to find out, it being the year 2009, that we're still doing that as a team is really unique," said Gunnery Sgt. Jeffery Benkie, scout sniper platoon sergeant, 26th MEU.
"One of the things that is specific to myself and to what my Marines do in the scout sniper role is that snipers back then were the sharpshooters, and they were placed up on top of the crow's nest and rope ladders during the piracy activity, and they would engage with accuracy fire from those positions," Benkie added.
Nowadays, there are no rope ladders or crow's nests, but the snipers still fulfill the role of overwatch while manning the Mk-11 or 50-caliber rifle, firing from a helicopter during boarding operations or from the ship if necessary.
With the accuracy of the Marines and the dedication of Enterprise's Sailors, the Tripoli feigned surrender twice before finally capitulating with more than 60 men killed or wounded. The crew of Enterprise boarded Tripoli and rigged her to limp back to shore. The Enterprise suffered no injuries to her crew or significant damage to the ship despite a three-hour engagement.
The Navy and Marines would fight several other battles with various gangs of Barbary pirates, until the wars finally ended after the War of 1812, and tribute payments and harassment of American merchant ships stopped.
"The heritage, or the legacy, of the Marine Corps is not ever built on the people that are doing the job currently," said Benkie.
"It is built on battles of the past, time-honored tradition, and the heroes, the fellow Marines, which have come before them."
Much of the Marine Corps' heritage is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago, thanks in part to these historical counter-piracy operations. Much of the Marine Corps' persona dates back to the Barbary Wars -- from the echoes in the words "to the shores of Tripoli," the second stanza of the Marine Corps Hymn; to the quadrifoil of an officer's garrison cap; to the Mamaluke sword still carried by Marine officers. Even the term "leatherneck," which was a nickname given to Marines because of the leather high collar on their uniforms during this period to protect them against cutlass slashes while boarding hostile ships, dates back to those initial efforts to detect and deter piracy to ensure security and stability in the maritime environment and the free flow of legitimate shipping and fishing.
Today, Sailors and Marines aboard San Antonio are working together once again to detect and deter piracy to ensure that the sea lanes remain open for free trade and commerce throughout the world.
"We are proud to be among the pioneers of modern counter-piracy operations," stated Goedecke. "There is no manual or doctrinal publication on counter-piracy operations, but the Marines, Sailors, Coast Guardsmen and over one dozen international coalition partners are laying the groundwork for operations that will soon persuade these criminals to seek a different line of work."
For more news from Combined Task Force 151, visit www.navy.mil/local/CTF-151/.