We Watched the Twin Towers Fall — Nobody Could Imagine What Came Next


For some reason I chose to listen to public radio in the car that morning instead of music. A few miles down 5 South, the KPBS anchor announced a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Someone on-air speculated that it was a single-engine Cessna.

As I drove, my mind recalled a History Channel special about an incident in the 1940s where a U.S. Air Force bomber flew into the Empire State Building in heavy fog.

Nothing to worry about, I thought. Probably bad weather. An accident.

When I passed through the gate at Naval Station 32nd Street and walked up the brow of my ship, I went to the wardroom and found all the other officers there quietly watching TV. The skies in New York City were cloudless and blue that morning. And the first tower was engulfed in flames.

It was no accident. 

My boss turned to me and said, “John, you should probably put your uniform on and get ready to brief the Captain.”

Brief him? With what?

I knew that a big plane hit a building in New York City. That was about it. 

Regardless, order given. Aye, sir. Khakis on, I grabbed a couple binders that contained our security plans. That day, I was Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Ismay, and I was the Gunnery Officer onboard USS Oldendorf – a Spruance-class destroyer based in San Diego, California.

Twelve years later, I’m talking to my new classmates at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and it’s always a little weird when they say they were in junior high — or even fourth grade — when the attacks occurred.

For them, the wars have mostly been background noise. For me, they directed the course of nearly my entire adult life. But I didn’t know that yet in 2001.

All I knew was that it would be a very busy day at the office, and I had a job to do. As the gunnery officer, my responsibilities included training all the security and weapons teams, and I’m proud to say that we were ready for the challenge. 

Before our last deployment in 2000, I looked at the pitifully small amount of ammunition we were allowed to train with and I approached my counterpart at our squadron headquarters, Master Chief Kincaid, with a solution. I showed him we couldn’t man the ship at the highest level of preparedness for longer than a couple hours without burning out the qualified watchstanders.

He agreed, and approved vastly increased ammunition expenditures. So we shot and shot, and then shot some more. Chain guns with incendiary rounds. Hand grenades to drop in the water so we could take out enemy frogmen. Soon we were even getting the engineers qualified on machine guns — something only the gunner’s mates had done before.

On Sept. 11 and the weeks that followed, we needed every single one of those sailors to man the guns.

At that time, I was getting ready to leave the ship for my second tour, and in the middle of turning over anti-terrorism duties to my friend Lt. Matt Sladky.

Together, Matt and I went up to brief our commanding officer: then Commander Chuck Gaouette.  The captain had a small television strapped down to the top of a stand-up locker, and the news was playing with the sound turned low. I can’t remember what it was, but something made us all look up at the TV screen at the same time.

We watched the first tower fall in complete silence. 

Matt and I looked back at our notes, not making eye contact, and resumed our briefing. None of us made any acknowledgement of what happened on television. We had a job to do here.

The captain approved our plans, and he stationed us in the pilothouse until further notice. Matt and I switched on and off every four hours, with no idea how long we’d be doing this.

Our orders: Maintain command and control over the machine gun teams, and kill anyone or anything that threatened the ship.

On Sept. 11, the suicide boat attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, was fresh in everyone’s mind. It happened just the previous October — less than a year before.

When Cole was hit, Oldendorf had just left the Straits of Hormuz on our way to a liberty call in Thailand. The fleet commander in Bahrain ordered us back through the Straits and into cruise missile “launch boxes,” areas of the Arabian Gulf designated for launching preplanned airstrikes.

Cole was fighting for her life with a 30-foot hole in her hull. Many of us had friends onboard. 

Oldendorf had 36 Tomahawks, and we wanted payback. But the order to shoot never came. So we steamed back to San Diego unsatisfied and angry.

Less than a year later, the whole U.S. was under attack.

Information from the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington D.C. arrived sporadically. In San Diego we waited and stewed.

Would we deploy right away? Go launch some Tomahawks at whoever did this?

We maintained a high alert. And one thing in particular I remember about that September day is something that is so weird that I haven’t mentioned it to many people.

On the fly, I had to develop a plan to shoot down a civilian airliner over San Diego.

As the Federal Aviation Administration scrambled on Sept. 11 to ground every plane in the sky, there was an intelligence report (later proven false) saying that one jumbo jet was overdue to land in Los Angeles and might be headed south for a kamikaze attack on one of the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers tied up across the bay from us. 

At that point, we knew four airliners had been hijacked, and all four were down. A fifth seemed more than plausible.

By happenstance, Oldendorf had just onloaded several sea sparrow anti-aircraft missiles. My commanding officer and I very calmly outlined the process by which we could shoot the airliner down while our ship was still tied up at the pier, and briefed our squadron commodore about the plan.

The LAX-bound plane turned out to be a ghost, a phantom dot on a radar screen that never materialized.

Out of all the things we had to do that day, we were spared the burden of having to shoot down an airliner and kill hundreds of our fellow citizens.

But if our commodore or fleet commander told us to defend the aircraft carrier, that’s exactly what we’d have done. If there had been a threat, we would have pressed the “fire” button and splashed the jet.

Seems strange to write this now. I was 24 years old then. 

READ: PolicyMic's special 9/11 coverage featuring the stories of veterans.

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