11 September 2006

11 Sep 2001

It started out a day like almost any other at sea. We were in the Arabian Sea, approaching the Gulf of Aden; we’d left Bahrain a few days before, and the plan was to go through the Suez Canal, spend a few days at Soudha Bay, Crete, and then continue on home. (Earlier in the deployment we’d visited Toulon, La Maddalena, Cartagena and Rota.) We may have run a drill or two that day, but maybe we didn’t – there was nothing special about the day to remember.

A little after 2300 local we came to PD to copy one last broadcast before the skipper went to bed. In Radio, I was in my usual spot at #2 teletype, ready to copy the downlink. Dustin, the radio sup, was in his usual post at the EHF stack, and Dan was between us, operating the patch panel as needed and watching the VLF broadcast print out. Shortly before downlink time the captain came in, carrying a message he’d edited; it was the usual sort of CO message, with lineouts, words written in, and arrows showing where words, phrases and whole sentences were to be moved, and he read the whole thing to me to make sure I understood exactly what he had in mind. He had just finished reading it when the downlink came – and Flash traffic started printing out.

Messages on the downlink are sorted by precedence – Flash first, then Immediate, then Priority, and Routine last – and within each precedence the messages print out in reverse order, newest first, so that one doesn’t have to wait for all the old traffic to print out before getting the new traffic. It was already mid-afternoon back home, several hours after the attacks, so the first message that printed out had the whole story: Commercial jets had hit both towers of the World Trade Centre, both towers had collapsed, a third plane had hit the Pentagon, a fourth plane was down somewhere in Pennsylvania. I tore the message off the teletype, reread it quickly, and handed it to the captain, saying, “I don’t see ‘drill’ or ‘exercise’ anywhere in this, sir.”

He took it and read it, while I turned my attention to the next – slightly older – Flash message. As each message finished printing out I tore it off the teletype and handed it to the captain. Dustin, Dan and the ESM watch (Marcus, I think) were all staring at us, wondering what was going on, because all I was saying was “Here’s another one, sir,” each time I handed the captain a message, and he wasn’t saying anything at all.

After reading the last Flash, the captain turned and left Radio, carrying all the printouts I’d given him. The others immediately started asking what was going on, but before I could answer the door opened up and the captain came back in. “Get Group Seven on voice and ask what they want us to do,” he said to Dustin, and was gone again almost before getting a response.

This time I was able to tell the others what had happened before the captain came back. He talked to Group Seven briefly, and by the time we finished at PD we were already turned around and heading back toward the northeast. In middle level, I found out later, the XO was going from stateroom to stateroom, flipping on lights and telling everyone to meet him in the wardroom. (The commo told me that his first thought was that we’d been involved in a collision.) The COB did the same in the goat locker, turning on the lights and yelling at everyone to wake up.

It was a week or so before we got the first photos – three pictures (one of them actually a group of three showing the second plane hitting the WTC) e-mailed to the navigator by a friend. Another week went by, basically doing nothing but wait, until we surfaced near an AOE so they could send over supplies via small boat. Along with the stores, repair parts and consumables we’d requested, some kind soul included a stack of magazines (multiple copies each of Time, Newsweek and People), plus a video of CNN’s live coverage of the 11th, so we were finally able to get a good look at what had happened.

3 comments:

Mega Munch said...

That's chilling. Even more so because you and I served together as radiomen and I can picture exactly what you're talking about.

I can't imagine what that must have been like...living the event at sea (and receiving the message as it came across the teletype). Being somewhat sheltered from the media frenzy of it all, did the magnitude of the event sink in for you in the days after or did you only realize the horrificness of it when you finally got to a TV and watched those people jumping out of the buildings and saw the smoldering ruins? But by then it was weeks afterword, right? Not nearly the same as seeing it live.

Like you said, you didn't even see pictures of it until a week later, unlike most other people who watched it live on CNN. We had to see it over and over and over and over again. I was glued to the news for what seemed like a week. Go to class, come back and watch the news. Go to dinner, come back and watch the news.

I wonder if I'd rather have been on a submarine throughout it all. Hard to say, though the sense of duty to your country at that point must have been unbelievable!

Anonymous said...

well - i am not a submariner (just an aquanitance of the author) and my military time is a long time ago (mandatory year as com tech in the austrian army) .. but i do remember the situation..

i was sitting the office and the owners wife came down from the flat upstairs and told us (we have a "no radio" rule in the office) that there had been a bad accident in new york - a plane crashed into the world trade center .. half an hour later she told us a second plane had crashed there ..

and i do remember thinking "that cannot be an accident..."

Markus

PigBoatSailor said...

RM1-

I can not say it in enough places - as chilling and terrible as the events were, you guys handled it like pros, and were on point to respond ASAP. The President might ask, "Where is the nearest carrier" when stuff hits the fan, but that is because there is a good chance a sub is already there.