What really happened in the Gulf of Aden

The Somali smugglers were taken prisoner and placed on Navy vessels that came to the scene, and the dhow sent to the bottom.

7 mins read
The USS Lewis B. Puller departs Naval Station Norfolk in July 2017. / US Navy photo by Bill Mesta.

This is a painful story for the families of three Navy SEALs. Two of the SEALs were lost at sea and a third was critically injured on a mission on January 11 in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia. It was a mission that never should have been ordered, and when everything went wrong, it was covered up with a series of lies. 

Why report a story about two deaths and an injury when there is a president who has put America indirectly into wars in Ukraine, Israel, Yemen, and elsewhere in the Middle East? I have learned in six decades of chasing down hidden stories that it is delving into the little lies that reveals much about the bigger lies. So it has been in the past month with the story of the dead and injured SEALs.

Their target was a wooden smuggling vessel, operated by Somalis, that was suspected of delivering modern ballistic missiles or missile parts to America’s new enemy: the Houthis of Yemen. Somalis have been smuggling goods through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean in their wooden sailing vessels, known as dhows, since biblical times. Few have motors or any means of electronic communication, and the larger dhows, like the one targeted by the SEALs, often serve as living quarters for the smugglers’ families.

The SEALs were assigned to a ship named the Lewis B. Puller, after a fabled combat general, the most decorated marine of all time, who fought in World War II against the Japanese, as well as in Haiti, in Central America, and in the Korean War. The ship, modeled on an oil tanker, is what the Navy calls an Expeditionary Mobile Base, which means that it is capable, with its landing decks, of supporting a vast number of air and sea military activities from all the services, including those of the Navy SEALs. The Puller was commissioned in 2017 in a port in Bahrain and was not much in the news until it became known that the failed SEAL mission took place.

On January 13, the New York Times, citing two current and two former Pentagon officials, published the first account of the two deaths, which were said to have taken place while the SEALs were attempting to board a dhow at night. 

The sea was rough, and one SEAL slipped off the boarding ladder. The initial report claimed that a second SEAL jumped into the water in an effort to save his colleague and both drowned. It was not clear whether he was also on the ladder or jumped from the inflatable speedboat known as a RHIB, for rigid hulled inflatable boat, that the SEALs used to approach the ship. A January 22 Times article about the incident, by Dave Philipps, known for his excellent sources in the special operations community, revealed that a third SEAL attempted to climb the ladder to board the dhow. He fell during the attempted boarding and struck the speedboat. He was rescued and today remains in critical condition. 

Philipps quoted a former SEAL senior chief explaining that he and his retired colleagues were convinced the story, as told by administration officials, “doesn’t make sense. Something else must have gone wrong.” 

There were questions at the time about President’s Biden decision in early January to expand the American war portfolio. He has taken on the Houthis, who had survived a seven-year war with the Saudi air force, supported by American bombs and targeting intelligence. That war ended with what amounted to a Saudi surrender. The American attacks, still being supported by British air power, are in their second month, and the world’s major shipping companies are still choosing not to chance a ten-day shortcut by sailing from Europe via the Suez Canal into the Red Sea. The Houthi threat is still there, pending an Israeli decision to cease its onslaught in the Gaza Strip. Ironically, or tragically, Biden is now said to be telling the Israelis that a ceasefire is needed. The world is coming to its own judgment about Biden, who is now seeking a second term.

The Somali dhow offered the White House a chance to justify its new offensive. It had been tracked by American intelligence since leaving Somalia because it was believed to be carrying ballistic missile parts needed by the Houthis in their ongoing campaign against Western shipping; The basis for that intelligence, which proved to be wrong, has not been made known.

Back to the Lewis B. Puller. The more than a dozen senior officers from all services assigned to the ship’s command center were gung-ho to send the hot-shot SEAL team to intercept the dhow, compel the boat to stand to, and board it to find ballistic missiles or parts of weapons that were coming to the Houthis from Iran, known to American intelligence as a longtime supporter and supplier of weaponry to Yemen. But there was a serious problem. The issue is what is known in the Navy as the Sea State Code, which is based on terminology used in oceanography to describe the general conditions of the ocean’s surface, as determined by three key factors: wind, waves, and swell.

There are ten categories of sea state, and SEALs can operate with ease and safety up to sea state 3One experienced retired senior American Navy officer told me that even four- and five-foot waves can sometimes create difficulties for a Navy tanker attempting to refuel an aircraft carrier, but it can be done with skilled maneuvering. No ship loaded with high-octane fighter fuel wants to crash into the side of a carrier.

When the seas get higher, to level 4 or 5, the waves and stronger current make boarding a targeted vessel, even a wooden dhow, an extremely dangerous prospect, in part because of the difficulty in handling steel ladders, known as caving ladders, that are standard SEAL boarding gear. The steps are lightweight aluminum tubes linked by equally lightweight steel cables.

What is hard to do at sea state 3 is deadly dangerous at sea state 4 or 5, a retired Navy officer, with years of experience in special operations, told me. “The waves are going up and down eight feet and more and you do not board a ship in heavy sea,” he said. He added that Navy captains of combat ships finishing a long deployment understand that crews due for shore leave are not permitted to leave the ship in such churning waters.

The retired officer said that when the officer on the Puller who was in charge of all special operation missions, an Army colonel, told “the SEAL team leader to ‘saddle up,’ the team leader told him to look outside the window.” His message was that “it was dark, and the sea was too rough. And it was beyond the capabilities of his team.” The retired officer added: “It was an argument between the on the scene commander and a guy in charge of the SEALs.”

The SEAL team leader said no. But he was ordered to carry out the mission, despite the obvious weather issues, and he did so. 

The questions that were not asked, the retired officer said, were these: “Do we know if the dhow is carrying a ballistic missile or a box full of missile parts?” No. “Can you get a key to a launch site?” No. “Or a map of all the Houthi launch sites?” No. “Do Somali smugglers know the difference between a case of Johnny Walker Red and one of Johnny Walter Black?” Yes. 

The decision to ignore the concerns of the SEAL commander has been seen by the angered SEAL community in America as “beyond rational planning” and “a disaster waiting to happen.” I learned that one high-ranking member of the community, now retired, wrote a private letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, asking that the officer who overruled the SEAL commander be court-martialed for dereliction of duty as the buck-stops-here boss of the operation. “It will never happen,” the former officer told me. “Dead SEALs will go down in Navy annals as heroes, not victims.” His point was that the Navy would never acknowledge that the SEAL team had no business being sent on a search-and-destroy mission in such weather.

As many as nine SEALs may have been aboard the SEALs’ inflatable speedboat—there was a second boat with no SEALs aboard as backup—as it dashed to the dhow that, as ordered, came to a stop and acknowledged that it was to be boarded. Three SEALs began the treacherous climb aboard the vessel. It is not known just what happened—did one fall off the special ladder, made up of steel tubes and chain links? Or did the ladder, swaying to and from in the heavy sea with two SEALs making the climb and a third waiting to do so, suddenly get rocked by a huge wave that flung the men against the side of the dhow, leaving both unconscious or worse, with only to drop into the sea? The badly injured third SEAL survived only because he fell into one of the speedboats. 

The SEALs who made the climb into the dhow “did find the treasure,” the retired officer sardonically told me. “There were some obsolete rocket motors, all Iran-made, and some pieces of Styx missiles from the 1950s and ’60s, but no significant missile components among the cargo, other than ancient engines and some random tubes that had been used in missile attacks. There was the usual cargo of liquor, cigarettes, random knock-off clothing, porn cassettes.”

The Somali smugglers were taken prisoner and placed on Navy vessels that came to the scene, and the dhow sent to the bottom.

The two deaths were reported, but over the next few days, the retired officer said, all involved “were playing the game,” keeping as many details as possible under wraps. The Lewis B. Puller was locked down in extreme secrecy. The names of the dead were made public, but not that of the survivor, if he does survive. His is a story that no one in the Navy wants told. I learned that the commanding officer of the Lewis B. Puller, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 2000 and spent his career in Navy aviation—not as a pilot but as a backseat radar intercept officer—may be quietly retired, if the system works as it usually does.

There is a Navy history for such arrogance and deception that dates to the end of the Second World War. The chief of Naval Operations was crusty Admiral Ernest King, a brilliant officer who played a key role in advising President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on military matters. When asked at one point by an aide what to tell the press about the progress of the war against the Japanese fleet, King famously said: “Don’t tell them anything. When it’s over, tell them who won.”

Seymour Hersh

Seymour Myron "Sy" Hersh is an American investigative journalist, and political writer. Hersh first gained recognition in 1969 for exposing the My Lai Massacre and its cover-up during the Vietnam War, for which he received the 1970 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting.

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