All posts in “N51”

Remembering Sept 11, 2001

Some number of years ago I had the honor of making the acquaintance of a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  A young seaman then stationed on the battleship Nevada, he related his story, his memories.  And as he talked about the aching beauty of that peaceful Sunday morning – of standing at quarters for morning Colors, and of how he still remembered the sound of the bugler’s notes right before the first bomb fell, I wondered.

I wondered how I would feel and react to a similar situation if it happened to me.

And I think I now know…and will never forget.

Continue Reading…

Remembering Fallen Shipmates – Part II (N513)

 Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

 

Yesterday, we remembered those we lost in the Navy Operations Center (NOC) who were from within the larger N3N5 organization.  Today we focus on those who were from N513 (note, the Branch Chief, CAPT Bob Dolan, will be part of the post for tomorrow, 11 Sept)N513 is the Strategy & Concepts branch, part of the N51 Strategy & Policy Division of N3N5. N513’s personnel were the folks who looked at “the big picture” focusing on warfighting concepts and maritime strategies in defense of the US and our Allied partners. This is the branch that in the past had worked on the Maritime Strategy and provided the basis of the Navy’s input to the National Security Strategy among other vital documents.

Husbands, fathers, sons – aviator and SWO; all were Sailors and all are missed.  Rest in peace…

Continue Reading…

Reflections – Pentagon 9/11 “Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”-Part II

“Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”-Part II

South Parking was a scene of unparalleled confusion — fire trucks from Arlington and other communities were flying into the lot at speed, accompanied by law enforcement vehicles of all sorts. At the same time private vehicles were dodging around people on foot, trying their best to get out. Pentagon security forces, suddenly armed with heavy weapons that had never been seen before, were directing people away from the building and over to a far corner of the lot.

“Move away from the building – there’s another plane coming”

Pushing, prodding — willing the mass of humanity to move along, farther away from the burning building.

Our group stopped at the end of the lane our (pre-9/11) evacuation plan had designated and we started looking for others from the office. I quickly scanned the recall roster I grabbed on the way out of the office. Seeing a few other N51 personnel we signaled them over and did a quick huddle.

“Guys, I need you to get home by the most expeditious means possible  stay by the phone, for what I don’t know yet. Just be ready. I am staying here to see what we can do in terms of reconstitution.”

With that they left and with the N3N5 admin officer and our flag assistant, we began to move again. The police had other ideas though as they continued to herd us back from the building, towards I-395.

A sonic boom. More panic around us.  Some screams and muffled cries; “There’s the other plane! They’re going after the Capitol! They’ve hit the White House”

Never mind the fact the Capitol was still clearly visible and undamaged. I catch a glint of sunlight on high — looks like an F-16 setting up low CAP over the White House. How many times had I seen that overseas in exercise after exercise — now here, in real life, F-16’s flying low CAP over our nation’s capitol

“Let’s get on some high ground and see if we can figure out what’s going on”

We climb the embankment up to an eerily quiet and empty I-395, only to be chased off again by the police. The crowd continues to be pushed/herded back into Pentagon City now. It is obvious a general evacuation is underway as one car after another emerges from the many underground parking garages in the area. Caution is thrown to the wind as some come flying out of the garages looking for all the world like Tomahawks shot from an SSN. Once they merge onto the street though, the combination of traffic, wheeled and foot, brings everyone to a halt. Pausing by one vehicle the driver tells us that the WTC towers have fallen and there are attacks going on all over the country. All air traffic has been ordered to land and the Air Force will begin shooting down non-compliers. Too much info (and how much was just plain wrong?) to assimilate just now…

After several attempts I finally join-up via phone with my counterpart from N31 — he ended up in North Parking and was headed up the hill to the Navy Annex and the Marine Corps Ops Center. We agree to meet there and our small band strikes off on foot for the rendezvous.

As we pass under I-395 and head up the hill, we pause near the Citgo station, stunned at the sight before us. There, across the way the smoke had lifted and we saw where the plane hit and the building had collapsed. First responders were arrayed all around the area and fire had spread laterally from the impact site.

There, several windows down from the collapsed portion I see my old office, flames climbing out the window. The thought I’d kept buried in the back of my mind suddenly sprang forward — that there were going to be many casualties and people I’d known and worked side by side with were going to be on that list. Just who and how many I didn’t know, yet.  I turned to our small group and told them to look closely and remember this moment, because everything hereafter was going to be different.

It was a quiet group that made its way up the hill to the Annex — Arlington Cemetery to our right and the burning edifice of the Pentagon behind us. Pausing one last time to look back we then headed inside and to the Marine Corps Ops Center. Joining up there we divided into two prime areas of responsibility — the N31 folks, who were Current Ops, went about trying to reconstitute their functions from the Navy Ops Center, reaching out to touch the Fleet. Our group, smaller in number, set about assessing the damage to N3N5; more particularly, what was the extent of our losses.

With recall lists in hand we set about calling to conduct the muster. At the other end of the phone lay mixtures of joy and anxiety.

“Yes, he’s here, Thank God”

“Yes, he reached me by phone a few minutes ago and said he was on his way home”

“No, no I haven’t heard anything — have you? What should I do? Is there someone I can call?”

The hours passed and soon the numbers weren’t changing. One last round of calls before contacting the Casualty Assistance Center that was being established at the Navy Yard across town. The receiver grew heavier in my hand with each call dreading what I would have to say…

“No, he’s not coming home is he?” “What will I do?” The pain and anguish were clear over the phone.

“I don’t know yet — we’re checking with local hospitals were the wounded have been evacuated. The instant I hear something I’ll call you. I also understand folks are still trying to get out of the city and get home and are being held up in traffic jams. The best we can do right now is pray; here’s my cell phone number — call me anytime with any questions or concerns”

Twenty-seven (later to be corrected to twenty-nine) missing. Twenty-seven families who would not have a husband or wife, father or mother, sister, brother, daughter or son coming home. Word had it that the Army lost even more folks, and how many up in New York? There was also a rumor of an airliner that had either crashed or been shot down — we didn’t know yet. I hadn’t seen any TV since prior to the strike on the Pentagon (and wouldn’t until the following day). Right now though, Twenty-seven MIA. Between a fifth and a quarter of a typical VAW squadron. With heavy heart and pounding head I picked up the phone to call the Casualty Assistance Center to pass along the information. As I do I ask about the CACO’s (Casualty Assistance Call Officer) who will be assigned. As a list of junior officers, many of them stash Ensigns were read off, I offered the services of our officers. We had enough remaining from N51, N52 and some from N31 that were more senior and could accompany the notification teams. Everyone, not just uniformed personnel would have a team assigned — government and contractor civilian, retired as well as Reserve and active duty. They all would have a team assigned. I started making the calls and to a man, there was no hesitation. As time passed, these initial assignments stretched out to weeks and months afterwards, but they provided our families with continuity and an experienced POC to steer them through the challenges that lay ahead long after the official CACOs had been reassigned. (ed: To this group — Sean, Don, Dutch, Hozer, Tim, John, Jeff, Kevin, Darryl, Chris, Steve, and all the rest, I am eternally indebted)

By now, it was well after midnight and the events of the day had finally caught up in physical and emotional form. Heading back down the hill to South Parking to pick up my car for the long drive home we passed the triage area set up under the 110 overpass, passed the fire trucks and ambulances still working the fire (which had continued to spread and was now in the attic). It would be a short turnaround — quick nap, shower and back in the Annex @ 0400. My boss had finally made it into town, driving all the way back from Memphis with his foot still in the cast from foot surgery the previous week. He concurred and underscored that whatever any of our families needed, we would pitch in to help and we did. The tone he and VADM Keating set was such that I can’t think of two other warriors I would have wanted in those positions — the losses deeply affected them, yet we also had a war to get on with and they were our leaders.

(ed. I was standing just outside the open door as this call was being made – witness to a historic moment being made that I fervently wished was different…)

I was tasked as the overall N3N5 Casualty Coordinator (in addition to being the N51 Deputy and now, the N513 Branch Head) and twice daily worked through the casualty conferences that ID’d our MIAs, changing their status from missing to killed. We did have one survivor who was in the burn unit in Washington Hospital with burns over 40% of his body. It was dicey there for a while and one day we thought we’d lost him, but he pulled through and is today working in DHS. On top of this we had a multi-front war to plan and fight, one that was familiar and yet again, altogether different than those we had previously fought as well as the challenge of getting ourselves back into the Pentagon.

The days passed — about a week later we were allowed to re-enter our spaces to retrieve vital material that had not been compromised by water or the now ever present mold. Donning protective suits and masks we entered the building and were transported to a scene beyond belief. Everywhere there was mold — either black spotty mold that was half-ways up the wall or long, rope-like strands hanging from the ceiling. The overpowering stench of wet smoke filled our nostrils (to this day just the whiff of wood smoke pulls me back to those corridors). Power was out and with no air circulation our time was limited — only what we could carry and that which had been enclosed in drawers or file cabinets was allowed to be taken out. Coming out of the building we had to pass through decontamination. Again, one was struck by the sights and smells — who would have thought…?

By the end of the month the funerals had begun. From small, family only services to a Naval Academy chapel filled to the rafters — some at Arlington and others back in their home states; we buried our shipmates. Catholic, Protestant, Hebrew, Buddhist — a deep, painful slice of America was being buried. Each had a story to tell — whether they were a former ship’s CO, retired P-3 aviator, a second generation Vietnamese immigrant, a sailor from Chicago, a husband on his first shore tour with his bride — all represented this great nation.

In this weekend’s posts I hope to relay some of those stories and lives. For now, please keep their families and our troops serving overseas in your prayers.
-SJS


Reflections – Pentagon 9/11 “Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”-Part I

“Admiral, we’ve taken a hit…and we’re on fire”

Tuesday, 11 Sep 2001 0937:25. Reflexively I glanced at my watch at the moment of impact, burning the time into my memory as I passed to my boss who was in Memphis for a promotion board that we had just been struck.

“Sir, looks like we’ve been hit pretty bad – I have to go. Will try to reach you via cell as possible.”

And with that I completed a voice report that I never imagined I would be making from a shore station. Over the years, through ramped up tensions during the Cold war and in the Gulf I always had in the back of my mind the possibility of having to make just such a call. Never under these conditions…

Sept 11th was a day that started generally unremarkably. I had joined the OPNAV staff some five months previously taking the billet as the deputy N51(Strategy & Policy Directorate) for my 1-star submariner boss. In turn, we were part of the Plans, Policy and Operations Division (N3N5), headed by VADM Keating. I’d had Washington duty before, serving my first Joint penance tour in the Pentagon with DIA on the airborne reconnaissance systems desk – as close to an operational job as one could get inside the beltway. Now I was back, getting acclimatized to the job, intrigued by some aspects, patiently suffering others. An early riser, I was usually in by 0400 in the hopes of knocking out pieces of work that required serious concentration and uninterrupted study as well as preparing the day’s agenda for the boss before the 0600 N3N5 daily ops/intel brief. Today was no different, except that he was out TDY and I was overseeing the office and would sit in for him at the brief. Following the brief I’d have a short Branch officer mtg with my three branch chiefs, also O-6’s or O-6 selects and the flag assistant to pass along any action items. Following that I’d head over to the POAC (antiquated fitness facility next to the Pentagon) and try and get a mile swim in to clear my head and prepare for the day’s onslaught.

All through that morning routine, it was fairly normal. Most of the concern (angst) was over the soon to be released ’01 Quadrennial Defense Review and the possible impact it would have on Navy. Rumours of cuts as deep as 4 CVBGs had folks deeply concerned – doubly so as they tried to continue to puzzle out what the new Administration in general and the SecDef and his “transformation cabal” in particular really wanted from the Services. Those thoughts were foremost in my mind as I headed off to the greound floor for the N3N5 daily brief.

Our office had just recently (the week prior) moved from the old part of the Pentagon to the renovated wedge, and the N3N5 daily briefs were just starting to be conducted in the new Navy OPS Center in the basement of the renovated wedge. While it was nice to have new furniture and surroundings, I did miss the view I had from the E-ring out to Arlington Cemetery – now my view was to the backside of the E-ring as our combined N51, N52 and N31 offices were in the D-ring. Looking back on it now, it seemed so mundane, sitting there in the cheap seats that morning, trading a joke w/the N3N5 intel officer about the stiffness of the JO giving the brief. There was something (undefined) that might be brewing in Saudi Arabia and Khobar Towers flashed through my mind, soon to be crowded out by the multitude of other items, significant and trivial that formed the remainder of the brief and subsequent discussion.

With the Admiral gone, I jumped at an opportunity to get to the pool early so I wouldn’t have to worry about sharing a lane with 2 or 3 other swimmers – passed the tasking list to the branch officers and headed to the POAC. I remember looking at the early September sky on the way over, following a jet launching out of National and marveling at how clear it was – none of the trademark DC hazy grayness was present. ‘CAVU to the moon’ I thought, quickly followed by a heartfelt wish to be strapping into a cockpit that morning rather than the prospect of logging in to my computer. What a day to go flying…

It was after the workout I started catching the bits and pieces passed on the radio playing in the background. Snatches of “airliner” “New York” “World Trade Center” could barely be heard above the noise of the locker room. On my way out I stopped to check out the TV in the weight room. On the screen was the first tower and the headline of an airliner striking the WTC. Unbelievable I thought, on a day such as this to hit something like that? No sooner had the thought passed than the second tower was hit.

Crap – this was no accident.

Quickly leaving the POAC I headed back to the Pentagon, a thousand questions racking my mind. Suddenly I stopped and listened, hearing – nothing.

When one grows up on the Great Plains, one acquires a certain sensitivity to what nature is telling you. A sudden stillness, a cessation of the ever present wind usually portended an approaching storm. You would get a feeling of unease – the hair standing up on the back of your neck. All those indicators were upon me now. Encountering one of my AOs (action officers) I told him to stop by the Ops Center, get a quick dump on what they had found out thus far and come see me up in the office. I was going to check in with the boss then head back down myself to get a more detailed round-up.

Back in the office, people were clustered around the few TVs we had working at that point (show me any move where everything worked right off the bat). Seeing some of my banch chiefs I give the 10 sign, indicating I wanted to meet with them in 10 minutes and to find the other branch chief.

0935 and I finally get through to the Admiral – they’ve been apprised of what is going on and he’s going to try and catch the first flight back to DC that day.

0937:25. Leaning against the wall of my ‘cube while talking on the speaker phone, I’m looking out the window when suddenly I see a billowing cloud of smoke, flame and debris hurtling across the roofline towards my window. Simultaneously the building begins to shake, and a rumbling, almost like a train passing nearly beneath us is felt. Having seen my share of plane crashes and leaping to the earlier events of the day, it was clear in my mind what had just happened – we’d been hit, probably with an airliner just like the WTC.

Interrupting my boss I pass that we’ve been hit, the building is on fire and it looks bad. We’re going to evacuate the spaces and I’ll try to reach him via cell later in the day. He rogered and signed off with a ‘good luck.’

Looking about it was clear no one needed prompting to evacuate the space. No smoke yet, but it couldn’t be far and flame not soon afterwards. The N3N5 admin officer is quickly making the rounds and I pitch in to secure the classified material, close and lock the safes and make one last check of the space before we evacuate.

Out in the passageway – panic. I look towards the A-ring and see a mass of people, pushing, shoving, and going – where? The courtyard and possible entrapment? Uh-uh. Two of my branch chiefs and a couple of AOs with them are coming back up the corridor from the A-ring and I tell them to follow me – I knew a short-cut through the construction area that would get us out to South Parking and away from the building. At the intersection with the E-ring we come across VADM Keating who is genuinely concerned.

“Will, take your folks, get them out of the building and to safety”
“Aye sir – are you sure there’s nothing we can do here?”
“No, get them out and stand by – I’ve got a bad feeling about the command center”

The Navy Command Center – home to one of my three branches as there wasn’t enough space in the new offices for them. Glancing down the E-ring the smoke is already thick in the overhead and getting lower.

“Follow me”

Out through the construction zone and through the doors to the outside. A crush of humanity – faces at once angry, confused, fearful and focused. Under the thick, acrid cloud of smoke and into the chaos of South Parking we pressed …