Capt. Castellano and his family pose with actor Tom Hanks during filming.
The new movie “Captain Phillips,” about the high seas rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, will be released on October 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 Capt. Francis X. Castellano, a member of the Knights of Columbus for 27 years, who is played in the movie by Yul Vazquez.
In an exclusive Knights of Columbus interview transcribed below, Capt. Castellano talks about his roots in the Order through his father, who was a grand knight and general agent, and the importance of his Catholic faith in all aspects of his life, especially in tough situations as a naval officer.
Capt. Castellano belongs to Kempsville Council 10515 at the Catholic Church of St. Mark in Virginia Beach, Va., where this interview took place, and is a Fourth Degree member of Holy Cross Assembly in Germantown, Tenn.
Your father was a grand knight and general agent for the Knights of Columbus on Long Island, N.Y. What are some of your early memories with the Knights?
Capt. Castellano: My father was very heavily involved with Patchogue Council 725, and I grew up around the council and around the K of C. My dad had been the grand knight for two different terms right around the time I was born. He was a district deputy, he was a member of the Fourth Degree, he was a commodore of the Fourth Degree assembly. Additionally, later in life he became a field agent and a general agent. So the Knights of Columbus was part of my growing up, and my earliest memories are of accompanying my father and mother to some of the K of C events. I became a Columbian Squire and then a chief squire. Additionally, our Patchogue Council had a catering hall associated with it and I used to wait tables and wash dishes there. So my life was surrounded by the Knights of Columbus.
What values did you get from the Knights?
Capt. Castellano: Growing up, I remember attending the annual Blue Mass, where the council would honor fallen firefighters and police officers in the Suffolk County (N.Y.) area. I also remember helping out with the K of C for those less fortunate in the Patchogue area, and raising funds for charity, selling Tootsie Rolls in front of the supermarkets for the mentally handicapped, and I remember that camaraderie. There was the sense of service, and I think that leads to a more fulfilling life.
When did you join the Knights of Columbus?
Capt. Castellano: What drew me to the K of C was the fraternity and fellowship that I saw. My father had many, many friends. He was a World War II veteran and there were many veterans in his council. I remember as a boy sitting down with them, and them regaling me with their stories from their time in the service, and that actually is what helped attract me to military service. As a result, I was very interested in doing more with the K of C as a young person. We did not have a Squires circle in our area, but there was one being formed in a neighboring town, so I was able to join that and participate. And then prior to my departing for the Naval Academy, right around the time of my 18th birthday, I made my First Degree and became a member before I left for school.
You kept up your membership over the years?
Capt. Castellano: It was important for me to continue to be a Knight of Columbus throughout my time at the Naval Academy, and then throughout my Navy career. I made my degrees up to my Third Degree while I was still at the Naval Academy and the first few years into my commissioned service. When I was in Germantown, Tenn., a few years back, I became a Fourth Degree Knight.With my friends in Germantown, we were able to start an assembly, and I was a founding member of that assembly.
I think the K of C, with its fraternity and its service, is something that stays with me, and something that is a touchstone for all of us. I also know if ever I am not participating, and then I go back to participate, I am always welcomed with open arms. Everyone definitely in this council, and in my previous councils, understands the level of commitment we all can make. Being a member of the Knights of Columbus enables you to feel a sense of camaraderie and fellowship that some people may find missing in their lives. As a Knight, you will gain lifelong friends and also a support network that can help bring you through troubled times or if you need to make any decisions in life. Knights are men of faith you can rely upon for help.
What attracted you to military service?
Capt. Castellano: Growing up with my father as a veteran, and then also through interaction with other veterans, especially those who were members of the K of C, I gained a sense of service and a desire to join the military. When I was about 8 years old, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to go to the United States Naval Academy. So from that time, I charted a path to gain acceptance at the Naval Academy, and with school, with service, with athletics, with everything else, going to the Naval Academy was a calling. I entered the Naval Academy when I was 18 years old. I am 45 now. I have been wearing the uniform for 27 years. There is a saying that the former chief of operations used to say: Every day when you are putting the uniform on, you are putting on the cloth of the nation. That really means a lot to me. I am putting on the cloth of our nation every day, and protecting our values.
Tell us about your family life.
Capt. Castellano: I have been married 22 years to my wonderful wife, Lisa, and we were actually dating for four years before that, so we have been together for 26 years. We have two wonderful daughters: Amanda, who is 21, and Kathleen, who is 17. They are a great Navy family. 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, and my wife has raised our daughters a lot of times on her own, and they are now wonderful young ladies. We try as much as we can to all have dinner together when I am home, and to discuss what we have done throughout our day so that way we can spend that time together. We also have done vacations together, and it is important to take time out, along with celebrating holidays. That has been very big for us.
What does it mean for you to be a father?
Capt. Castellano: Being a father is very important and comes with obligations to be a role model for your children, to go to church, show your faith, pray with your family, and be there in their times of need. You imbue your children with the values that they need to be productive members of society, and you pass on your traditions and your history to them. You want the best for your children, and the best way to do that is to be a great example for them.
How important is your Catholic faith?
Capt. Castellano: Being a Catholic is important to me. In addition to growing up around the K of C, I grew up around Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Patchogue, N.Y. My granduncle was a priest and the pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I grew up as an altar boy there, and became an usher, a lector and a eucharistic minister. My mother was the secretary at the parish, so growing up I spent a lot of time in the rectory, and being raised around the Catholic Church, and I think that has imbued me with positive values.
Capt. Castellano consults with actor Yul Vazquez, who portrays him in the movie.
Tell us about the movie “Captain Phillips.”
Capt. Castellano: The movie is based upon a book that Capt. Richard Phillips wrote approximately a year after the hostage incident with the Maersk Alabama and the Somali pirates. It is a human story. It shows what Capt. Phillips went through, along with members of his crew from the Maersk Alabama, and then it also shows some of the efforts that the United States Navy went through to rescue him.
How was it seeing your character on screen?
Capt. Castellano: Seeing myself portrayed was very interesting. I had an opportunity to actually speak with the actor Yul Vazquez on a few occasions and exchange emails with him. He was most interested in seeing my mannerisms and some idiosyncrasies that I had, 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 intimidating for him to portray a real person.
Can you give a thumbnail sketch of the story?
Capt. Castellano: On the 8th of April 2009, the Maersk Alabama was attacked by four Somali pirates, approximately 300 miles off the coast of Somalia, near Mogadishu. The USS Bainbridge, the ship of which I was the commanding officer, was the closest vessel to the scene, so we were ordered to make best speed towards the Maersk Alabama. During our approach there, which took approximately 14 hours, we came to learn that the crew of the Maersk Alabama, that heroic crew, was able to capture one of the pirates, and then take back their vessel. But, unfortunately, 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 the 9th of April to help control the situation. 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 and made several threats against Capt. Phillips’ life, in addition to other things that they had done. When there was a risk of Capt. Phillips’ life, we determined there was hostile intent, and when we thought that Capt. Phillips was going to perish, then the threat was neutralized.
What are some of your most vivid memories?
Capt. Castellano: Some of the vivid memories that stuck with me throughout the whole situation were the professionalism and teamwork of my crew and of the other ships and personnel that were involved in the overall operation. 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. I had one officer who spent 16 hours on the bridge, conning the ship, conning Bainbridge in order to block the lifeboat from getting closer to shore. I had enlisted personnel manning the boat deck, who were confidently running our ship’s boats in order to provide the lifeboat with food and with water, and to monitor Capt. Phillips’ health and well-being. So it was just an incredible team effort by those on the Bainbridge, as well as those on the USS Halyburton and those at higher headquarters.
Did you ever expect a situation like this?
Capt. Castellano: We in the United States Navy will do our deployments for seven, eight, nine months, throughout all corners of the world, and we are trained for numerous situations. This is actually the first act of piracy against a United States flag vessel in over 200 years, so while you don’t expect it to happen, you know that there is a possibility of it happening. You train and train and train for multiple situations, and the main thing is to train your team to act as one. And I am so proud of the team that was supporting me on board Bainbridge, that we could actually bring Capt. Richard Phillips home to his family.
Most people would say you’re a hero.
Capt. Castellano: I don’t consider myself a hero. I am a professional naval officer. I am a sailor. I was out there doing my job. The heroes of the story were the sailors on the Maersk Alabama who weren’t trained for this, who were able to use their wits to recapture the Maersk Alabama and safely extract themselves from the situation. The other heroes are our Special Forces. Those men are incredible. They are titans of our country, and we should be very, very proud that we have them on our side. A lot of them have made the ultimate sacrifice over the last few years, and I am proud to call them teammates and shipmates.
Did your faith help you in tough situations?
Capt. Castellano: In terms of the rescue mission for Capt. Richard Phillips, my Catholic faith and being a Knight of Columbus played a big role in what I believed in, that we wanted to bring Capt. Phillips back home safely to his family and protect the greater good. That is related to the Knights of Columbus, that every member is not doing it for himself but is doing it for the greater good of mankind.
Not all men can be sea captains, but can all men be heroes?
Capt. Castellano: 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 be continuing members of the community, 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. You don’t have to be a captain of a naval warship or the president of a company or anything else to be a hero. Every day we can do something little by little, to go ahead and show heroic traits, and just be who we are, be Catholic men of faith.