Twelve years later, USS Cole commander recalls deadly attack

Alexis Levinson | Political Reporter

On Oct. 12, 2000 the USS Cole was bombed by al-Qaida while at port in Yemen. Almost 12 years later, Commander Kirk Lippold, the man in charge of the ship that day, has written a book telling the story of what happened.

Front Burner: Al Qaeda’s Attack on the USS Cole” is scheduled to be released April 10.

“At the moment of the explosion, the entire ship is lifted up into the air, and within seconds I knew we’d been attacked,” Lippold recounted in a phone interview with The Daily Caller. “I was sitting in my cabin working at my desk. I went back and opened the safe where I kept the keys to the missiles and the torpedoes and the guns, and I pulled out a 9mm pistol, took a deep breath and went outside on the ship.”

“I didn’t know if we were going to be boarded. … All I knew was I had chambered a round, I had two clips of ammunition. … The only thing I could think of [was] I might be facing my destiny, but I’m not leaving a single round in the chamber. The only two things that mattered to me in the moment were protecting my crew and protecting my ship.”

Lippold’s book tells a story that he and his crew members have always felt needed to be told.

“Over time, several authors approached the crew and me about writing, but none ever followed through,” he said. Finally, Lippold decided to do it himself.

Twelve years after the attack, Lippold said people often ask him why it took him so long to put pen to paper.

“I lived through that event, just like my crew, and it literally took nine years to get to a point where I could sit down at a keyboard,” he said. “To write this story was to relive this story … to bring up the pain.”

“I think that in the first few years afterwards, people just wanted time and space away from the event,” he recalled. “They didn’t want to talk about it very much, they wanted to try and move their life forward, but there was always this nagging feeling with most of us that we wanted the story told. And everybody knew that telling it was going to be somewhat painful … but they also wanted it to get done.”

For the past three years, Lippold has been conducting interviews with members of the crew and dredging up his own painful memories of the experience. Speaking about his crew, with whom he is still close, Lippold beams with pride.

In the aftermath of the attack, he said, they “responded magnificently.”

“There was no announcing system to tell them what had happened because it had failed. There were no alarm systems on the ship because the system had failed. So without anyone telling the crew what to do, what had happened, where to go, they fell back on their training and immediately set about saving the ship and saving their shipmates,” he said. “We got the ship stable within a couple hours, to where it wasn’t sinking. To tell you how well the crew did in saving their shipmates —that first day we evacuated 33 wounded off the ship, in 99 minutes, and of those 33, 32 would survive.”

Going back and talking to them, Lippold said, was “incredibly gratifying.”

“These were relatively young men and women when the attack occurred, and now here we are 10-plus years on after the attack, and they’re leading incredibly successful lives. They have businesses, they’ve got jobs, they now have families that come too whenever we get together. And it’s just incredibly gratifying to see that this event has not dominated their lives. It’ll always be part of them, but they have made an incredibly good life for themselves.”

As proud as he is, Lippold doesn’t share his crew’s taste in music.

When the ship was being towed out of the Port of Aden, Lippold recalled, “I told my executive officer that I wanted to play some music that would reflect how we felt. And the first song that we played — over loud speakers so the people of Aden could hear it — was “The Star-Spangled Banner,” because I wanted people to hear our national anthem and know that despite what had happened to us, we were leaving with our head held high.”

“And we actually played “The Star-Spangled Banner” twice. First was the regular version; second time was the Jimi Hendrix version,” Lippold said.

“And then, as the captain, I learned a valuable lesson because I told my executive officer, ‘let the crew play whatever music they want.’ And a few seconds later, this absolutely horrific sound came over the loud speaker and I turned to the XO [Executive Officer] and asked him to ‘get that shut off right now.’

“I wanted good American rock. What did the crew want to play? They wanted to play something very appropriate for their feelings, so they played Kid Rock, ‘American Bad Ass,’ to send the signal that what they wanted the Yemenese people to understand was, ‘Up yours, Yemen.’”

“So that was an extremely valuable lesson on just how much leash a commanding officer should give his crew in certain moments in time,” Lippold continued. “But in retrospect, I don’t regret it one bit and it was absolutely the right song to play.”

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