Fayette County

Dunbar grad fights pirates

As the world watched last week's drama of an American battleship shadowing Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean, a Lexington sailor was in the thick of it.

"When we were following the pirate lifeboat, my primary duty was that I was literally working 22 hours a day," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Tommy Lee Hampton in a satellite phone interview from the USS Bainbridge.

"I was on watch ... manning a .50-caliber machine gun and a 25mm machine gun from 2 o'clock in the morning until midnight," he said. "People would bring food to us so we didn't have to leave our guns."

Hampton, 23, is a graduate of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. He was born in California but moved to Lexington in 2002.

He joined the Navy right out of high school and has been assigned to the Bainbridge for four years. For the last six weeks, the destroyer has been on anti-piracy patrol around the Horn of Africa.

In an interview arranged by the Navy, Hampton said he was happy to be doing the important work he signed up to do.

Last week, that meant being part of the first good news in a piracy problem that had festered for years.

The Bainbridge, which carried about 270 sailors, was 360 nautical miles away when Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama and took Capt. Richard Phillips hostage in a lifeboat from the American-flagged container ship.

The Bainbridge rushed toward the action and arrived in time to play a crucial role.

During the four days the Bainbridge was shadowing the pirates, Hampton and others on the gun crews were watching and waiting, trying to keep the much smaller boat in view.

"We had the night vision (scopes) out so we could make sure nothing happened to Captain Richard Phillips, and if something did happen ... making sure we had our weapons manned so we would be able to do what we needed to do."

The sailors are working under difficult weather conditions.

"It's ridiculously hot," Hampton said. "It's very, very humid. Being from California, I didn't think anything was more humid than Kentucky."

On an average day, he said, the temperature reaches 95. Some days it hits 110, with the heat index making it feel like 115 or 120."

"There's no breeze at all," Hampton said. "It's just stagnant air that lets the sun fry you."

On the night that Phillips tried to escape from his captors, the gunners saw someone — they couldn't tell whether it was him or one of the pirates — jump in the water.

"Before we could do anything, there were already shots fired from the lifeboat at Captain Richard Phillips," Hampton said. "At that point the risk of shooting at anything would have been a big problem for him because they already had him at the end of the boat."

Hampton said he didn't see the dramatic rescue in which three pirates were killed by sharpshooters believed to be Navy Seals.

"Nobody really saw it," Hampton said. "It was a very quick moment.

"We had some people come on board ... and they did their job. They did what they were trained to do in an amazing manner."

After the rescue, Hampton got to meet Phillips and had his picture taken with the captain.

"He is actually a really nice guy," Hampton said. "The day we got him on board ... he sat there and said nothing but thank yous and "I appreciate you so much.'"

Two days after Phillips was rescued, the Bainbridge rushed to another American ship that had been attacked by pirates, and escorted that ship to a safe port in Kenya.

Back in Lexington, Kathryn Jean Hampton was watching CNN when an item popped up about pirates attacking the first ship and the Bainbridge rushing to the rescue. She froze. That was her son's ship.

"I knew he was going to be in that area, but I didn't expect it to be such a big thing right off the bat," she said. "I've been watching CNN every day and every night since."

She hasn't spoken to Tommy lately, she said, but he regularly calls his wife, Nicole, who also is in the Navy and lives in Virginia. Nicole is pregnant with Tommy's first child and Kathryn's first grandchild, due in July. It will be a girl, named Allanah Jean, with the middle name chosen in honor of her grandmother.

While the Bainbridge was following the pirates, Tommy Hampton said he was getting e-mail from relatives back in the States asking if he was safe. But for security reasons, and because he was too busy, he couldn't answer.

Now that things have settled down a little, he said, he has assured everyone he is OK.

On Friday, he cited those same security concerns in explaining why he couldn't talk much about what lies ahead for the Bainbridge.

"But from what I see, we'll be doing a lot more anti-piracy operations out here on the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Oman," he said.