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Heroism on the High Seas


Brian Caulfield

Captain Phillips was released in U.S. theaters Oct. 11. (Jason Boland/© 2013 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

The new movie Captain Phillips, about the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, was released Oct. 11. A tense drama, the film is based on the 2009 hijacking of an American cargo ship by pirates off the coast of Somalia and the successful recovery effort by the U.S. Navy.

The daring Easter Sunday rescue of Capt. Phillips was overseen by Cmdr. (now Capt.) Francis X. Castellano, who is played in the movie by Yul Vazquez. A member of the Knights of Columbus for 27 years, Capt. Castellano belongs to Kempsville Council 10515 at the Church of St. Mark in Virginia Beach, Va., and Holy Cross Assembly in Germantown, Tenn.

In an exclusive Knights of Columbus interview, Capt. Castellano talked about his roots in the Order and the importance of his Catholic faith. An extended version of the interview is published online at kofc.org.

What are some of your early memories of the Knights of Columbus, and what led you to join the Order?

Capt. Castellano: My father was heavily involved with Patchogue (N.Y.) Council 725. He was the grand knight right around the time I was born. He was also a district deputy and a Fourth Degree Knight. My earliest memories are of accompanying my father and mother to K of C events. Our council had a catering hall associated with it, and I used to wait tables and wash dishes there. I became a Columbian Squire and then a chief squire. So, my life was surrounded by the Knights of Columbus.

What drew me to the Knights was the fraternity and fellowship that I saw. My father had many friends. He was a World War II veteran and there were many veterans in his council. I remember them regaling me as a boy with their stories from their time in the service. Growing up, I also remember attending the council’s annual Blue Mass to honor our fallen local firefighters and police officers. I remember helping out with the K of C for those less fortunate in the area, raising funds for charity, and I remember that camaraderie and sense of service. As a result, I was very interested in doing more with the Knights as a young person.

Prior to my departing for the Naval Academy, right around my 18th birthday, I made my First Degree and became a member. A few years back, when I was in Germantown, Tenn., I became a Fourth Degree Knight. With my friends there we started an assembly, and I was a founding member.

I think the K of C, with its fraternity and service, is something that stays with me. It is a rock I can always rely on. As a Knight, you gain lifelong friends and also a support network that can help bring you through troubled times or key decisions in life. Knights are men of faith you can depend on for help.

What attracted you to military service?

Capt. Castellano: Growing up with my father as a veteran, and through interaction with other veterans, I gained a sense of service and a desire to join the military. When I was about 8 years old, I got the idea to go to the United States Naval Academy. I entered at 18 and have been wearing the uniform for 27 years. The former chief of operations had a saying: Every day when you put on the uniform on, you put on the cloth of the nation. That really means a lot to me.

Could you tell us a little about your family life?

Capt. Castellano: I have been married 22 years to my wonderful wife, Lisa. We have two beautiful daughters. My wife has been very strong and supportive of the family as I progressed in my career. I have been on a lot of sea duty, which means long periods away from home. We try as much as we can to have dinner together when I am home, and to discuss what we have done during our day.

Being a father is very important and comes with obligations to be a role model, to go to church, show your faith, pray with your family, and be there in their times of need. You want the best for your children, and the best way to do that is to be a great example for them.

What role has your Catholic faith played in your life?

Capt. Castellano: I grew up around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Patchogue where my granduncle was the pastor. I grew up as an altar boy there, and became an usher, a lector and a eucharistic minister. So I think that the Catholic faith and the power of prayer are very important. My wife and daughters gave me a Mariner’s cross, and also I carry the rosary my dad gave me when I became a Knight of Columbus. My faith played a big role in the rescue mission.

How did you and your crew become involved in the rescue mission?

Capt. Castellano: On April 8, 2009, the Maersk Alabama was attacked by four Somali pirates, 300 miles off the coast of Somalia. This is actually the first act of piracy against a United States flag vessel in over 200 years. The USS Bainbridge, which was under my command, was the closest vessel to the scene, so we were ordered to approach. On the way, we came to learn that the heroic crew of the ship had captured one of the pirates and then taken back their vessel. However, the pirates had taken Capt. Richard Phillips hostage on one of the ship’s lifeboats. So we arrived on scene in the early morning of April 9, and over the next several days we conducted negotiations to attempt to peacefully resolve the incident. Unfortunately, the pirates did not want to resolve it peacefully.

What was it like seeing your character on screen in Captain Phillips?

Capt. Castellano: Seeing myself portrayed was very interesting. I had an opportunity to speak with the actor Yul Vazquez and exchange emails with him. He was most interested in seeing my mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, in order to portray me properly, and I think he did a great job. It was intimidating for me, but from talking to him I found out it was also intimidating for him to portray a real person.

Capt. Richard Phillips of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama, right, stands alongside Cmdr. (now Capt.) Frank Castellano, commanding officer of USS Bainbridge, after being rescued by U.S naval forces off the coast of Somalia April 12, 2009. (CNS photo/U.S. Navy handout via Reuters)

What do you remember most about the experience?

Capt. Castellano: Some of the vivid memories that stuck with me were the professionalism and teamwork of my crew and others. It showed the goodness of the American sailor. I had officers and enlisted personnel on the ship who spent hours and hours on station in very hot conditions in order to ensure that Capt. Phillips was safely returned to his family. It was just an incredible team effort.

In terms of the rescue mission, my Catholic faith and being a Knight of Columbus played a big role in what I believed in — we wanted to bring Capt. Phillips back home safely to his family and protect the greater good.

How do you respond when people commend you for being a hero?

Capt. Castellano: I don’t consider myself a hero. I am a professional naval officer. I was out there doing my job. The heroes were the sailors on the Maersk Alabama who were able to use their wits to recapture the ship and safely extract themselves from the situation. The other heroes are our Special Forces. They are titans of our country. A lot of them have made the ultimate sacrifice over the last few years, and I am proud to call them teammates and shipmates.

I think all fathers are heroes to their families. Their children and their spouses look up to them. I think our call to heroism every day in our lives is to stand up for what we believe in, to be role models as parents and role models in the community, helping the less fortunate and giving our time back. We live in a great country, with a lot to give. Every day we can show heroic traits just being who we are, Catholic men of faith.