Pearl Harbor. Depending on your point of view it is either “the mother of all conspiracies” or “the mother of all conspiracy theories”. Last year’s 75th anniversary of the attack was rightly marked by solemn remembrance for the dead. The 76th anniversary we mark today should be a time for setting the historical record straight.
Sunday, December 7, 1941. The hour after dawn. An armada of more than 350 Japanese planes begins a bombardment that has been planned for a year. The attack’s purpose is to cripple the Fleet. Four battleships are sunk, others badly damaged. By the time the sun goes down, 2403 Americans are dead, the nation’s leadership in turmoil.
In the days after the attack recriminations flew. Fingers were pointed at the FDR, his Secretaries of State, War, and Navy, military intelligence but most vigorously at Admiral Husband Kimmel, Commander in Chief of America’s Pacific fleet and the Army’s Hawaiian commander, Lieutenant General Walter Short. The stream of blame and denial, accusation and rebuttal, claim and counterclaim, flows on still.
The effluent from the stream, which has become central to it, is the suspicion of a greater evil. Book after book, article after article, has entertained the notion that President Roosevelt and some of those around him knew in advance that Pearl Harbor would be attacked, that they allowed it to happen.
The speculations include the notion, covered in Part 1, that Prime Minister Winston Churchill had sent America advance warning. The theories, though, spread well beyond that. They include suspicion that U.S. code-breakers had intercepted a message signaling the coming break in relations hidden in a Japanese weather bulletin; that senior officials in Washington knew that Japanese warships were steaming towards Hawaii; that President Roosevelt and members of his government concealed a meeting they held, on the eve of the onslaught, at which FDR ordered that no timely warning be sent.
During the research for A Matter of Honor, our book about Pearl Harbor, we yanked hard at the threads of the loosely woven tapestry of conspiracy to see if it would tighten the weave. Instead the fabric unravelled.
An October 1940 Navy intelligence memorandum, unearthed in the 1990s, was said to lay out the steps by which Japan could be lured into firing the first shot, thus propelling the US into war not just in Asia but through the backdoor into the war in Europe. Responses to the memo found by us in 2015, however, show that of three officers known to have seen the report none suggested following such a course. One senior officer explicitly recommended against “precipitating anything in the Orient”.
Then there is the so-called “Winds” message, a code that told Japanese diplomats that they would learn of an impending rupture in relations with any of three possible countries – the U.S., Britain, or the Soviet Union – in a broadcast coded to appear like an ordinary weather forecast.
Captain Laurance Safford, the U.S. Navy’s respected codebreaking chief, testified that a Winds message signifying a break with the United States was intercepted and known in Washington on December 4th. Safford’s version of the broadcast, however, was inconsistent with the prescribed format. A code that doesn’t follow the code is no code at all.
In 1977, in an oral history interview, former navy radioman Ralph Briggs claimed to have intercepted the “Winds” message on December 4th. What he said seemed at first to corroborate Safford, but falls apart on scrutiny. Years after the war, Briggs said, he had searched in official files for a record of the message but it was missing. He had noted that fact, he said, in the file. The file in the National Archives does include a note by Briggs. It relates, however, not to December 4th as he claimed, but to December 2nd. Moreover, a superior whom Briggs claimed could corroborate his story, instead said he had never handled or observed a Winds message.
In what would have been a superfluous and costly exercise had the broadcast been picked up on December 4 as alleged, a host of Army and Navy personnel continued to make searching the ether for Winds a priority long after December 4. “We were continuing to look,” one naval intelligence officer would recall, until “after the bombs had started falling on the Fleet.”
As reported in Part 1, meanwhile, a history of Britain’s code-breaking unit in the Far East, refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting “that the broadcast mentioning “East” and “West” winds had been heard.” “EAST WIND RAIN,” if that is what was indeed heard, was the coded language for an imminent break in relations with the United States. If the British history is accurate, it represents the only known record of the receipt anywhere of a “Winds” message referring to a break with the United States. It was intercepted two hours after the attack on Pearl.
One of the most seemingly credible suggestions of foreknowledge appeared in the book Infamy by the Pulitzer Prize winning historian John Toland. Toland published the recollection of a Dutch Naval officer, Johann Meijer Ranneft, that on a visit to U.S. Navy Headquarters on December 6, he had been shown a map on which two Japanese carriers were positioned at a point “just north of Honolulu.” In support Toland reprinted a portion of Ranneft’s wartime diary. A position to the north would have been significant, as the Japanese attack force approached Hawaii from that direction. Toland’s translation of the diary entry, though, is seriously inaccurate – the relevant passage places the two carriers simply “to the West of Honolulu”.
Two memos written by Ranneft in the 1940s, and located by us in the Dutch National Archives, meanwhile, specify that the position of the two carriers was “at the Easterly border of the Mandate area [Marshall Islands], at a distance of several hundred miles of Honolulu.” The area specified is to the southwest of Hawaii, not the north. Ranneft wrote, moreover, that “neither any of the intelligence officers present nor I spoke of a possible attack by the carriers on Honolulu.”
Finally, there is the allegation of a late-night meeting at the White House on December 6, at which FDR and a coterie of advisors – supposedly with some of intelligence of the attack in hand – gathered to plot. The notion was encouraged by two letters written in the 1970s by publisher James Stahlman. In one letter, in 1973, Stahlman quoted former Navy Secretary Knox as having told him that he and “[Secretary of War] Stimson, [Chief of Staff ]Marshall, [Chief of Naval Operations] Stark, and [presidential adviser] Harry Hopkins had spent the night before [Pearl Harbor] at the White House with FDR, all waiting for what they knew was coming…” In a second letter, in 1975, Stahlman’s list of supposed participants in the late-night meeting expanded to include Knox’s aide Frank Beatty and Stark’s aide John McCrea. Stark and Marshall denied under oath to official investigators that they had been at any White House meeting on the night of December 6th. Told of Stahlman’s claim McCrea, too, categorically denied attending such a meeting.
While there is no reliable evidence that U.S. officials conspired to allow the attack to happen, in the aftermath many of them certainly conspired to cover up the full facts. That conspiracy took place to hide the U.S. code-breaking program known as “Magic”.
Through Magic US intelligence had decoded the Winds message and hundreds of other valuable Japanese messages. So secret was Magic, that its existence was known to only a handful of men, so valuable, that its exposure was deemed too critical to be exposed. Officers who had sworn an oath to never reveal what they knew were cautioned not to speak of it even to official investigators. That major lie, as such lies often do, spawned myriad other lies – lies that covered a multitude of sins. Mistakes, incompetence, lost opportunities, petty ass-covering,
There were, too, egregious errors that the lies about Magic obscured. Two long suppressed “after action” reports made clear how poorly Magic had been used in the months before Pearl Harbor. One, for the Army, concluded that the coded information from Magic had “clearly foreshadowed” the attack. ”The traffic,” the Army’s report concluded, “had not been given sufficiently close attention.”
The decoded messages, the Navy’s report opined, showed the Japanese “had determined to attack Pearl Harbor as early as September 24…evidence for this last statement comes from…the minute attention paid to every inch of Pearl Harbor in the instructions from Tokyo.” None of the decoded messages, though, were shared with the two men who most needed them – Hawaiian commanders Kimmel and Short.
Admiral Kimmel and General Short had been, the Navy’s analyst later said, “scapegoats… for the failures of many.” That is the conspiracy at the heart of years of myth-making and propaganda about Pearl Harbor.
The brave young Americans who faced the Japanese onslaught in 1941, Admiral Kimmel later wrote, “showed themselves fearless, resourceful and self-sacrificing.” The lesson for history is that those young men died not as the result of a vast perfidious conspiracy, but because of tragic human fallibility.
Tomorrow, December 7, is the 76th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The onslaught in Hawaii killed more than two thousand Americans and sunk or badly damaged major U.S. warships. It triggered America’s entry into World War II, changed history. Americans everywhere remember December 7th 1941 as the date that “will live in infamy”.
They mourn, but they also argue. Was the attack really a surprise? Did their President, Franklin Roosevelt, have foreknowledge? If he did, and failed to warn his commanders in the Pacific, was he not guilty of unforgivable treachery? And Britain’s legendary leader, Winston Churchill, features large in such conspiracy theories. Was it he who had foreknowledge, shared it with Roosevelt but then – because both men wanted to see America enter the War – connived with the President to keep the explosive knowledge to themselves?
The facts as now investigated take us closer to the truth than ever before.
Churchill told in his memoirs of how, when he learned the attack had taken place – from a few words on the end of a BBC radio broadcast – he at once placed a call to the President in Washington. Roosevelt told him: “It’s quite true. They have attacked us…We are all in the same boat now.”
Churchill, by his own account, said that “certainly simplifies things.” The United States and Britain now had common cause – in the open. He wrote in his diary: “So we had won after all…the United States is like ‘a gigantic boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate.’…I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”
That has long been the generally accepted version: An attack that took both men by surprise. A development, nevertheless, that happened to coincide with the desire of both men that America would now plunge openly into the fight against both Japan and Hitler.
But is the official account wallpaper that conceals a more complex, sinister truth? Was the attack really a surprise? Had the leaders received some form of advance warning, but concealed what they knew? Had they allowed the attack to go ahead – knowing that it would provoke America’s immediate entry into the war? That is one version of the conspiracy theorists’ scenario.
A recent find in British archives might seem at first glance to support the notion. It centres on a Japanese coded message that the intelligence services of several friendly nations had for days been tipped off to intercept. The words “EAST WIND RAIN”, hidden in what appeared otherwise to be a routine Japanese radio weather forecast, would warn Japan’s diplomats around the world of an imminent severing of relations with the United States. If relations with other nations were to be cut, that would be indicated by different coded weather references. “WEST WIND CLEAR” would mean relations with Britain were to be cut off. “NORTH WIND CLOUDY” would mean Tokyo was going to break with the Soviet Union.
Some were later to allege that such a Japanese message was indeed intercepted before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians, however, have long looked in vain for proof that the message was ever transmitted.
A secret report, prepared for Churchill after the war but not released by the British National Archives until 2004, shows that British code-breakers in South-East Asia did indeed intercept such a message. The report refers to a “priority message from Hong Kong” reporting that “the broadcast mentioning ‘EAST’ and ‘WEST’ winds had been heard.” If this is an accurate account, it reports the only known intercept anywhere in the world of the coded message indicating a Japanese break with the United States. An interception that was made by British intelligence.
Interesting though this is, though, the previously unknown report does not change history. Britain’s listening post in Southeast Asia had intercepted the message only “at 2010Z 7th” – military shorthand for “2010 Zulu” time – or 9.40 a.m. Hawaii time on the morning of the Pearl Harbor attack. The bombs had started to rain down on the Fleet nearly two hours earlier. By the time London received its report of the telltale Japanese weather broadcast, it was already too late.
Other information on supposed British foreknowledge turns out not to be reliable. In the 1970s, the wartime chairman of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, said he recalled a December 5th meeting of the Committee – two days before Pearl Harbor – that discussed information that “a Japanese fleet was sailing in the direction of
Hawaii.” Someone at the meeting , according to Cavendish-Bentinck – he did not name the person – stated that Washington had been informed.
There is no evidence, however, that any Intelligence Committee meeting was held on December 5th. Committee records now available at the National Archives reflect no meeting that day. There was a meeting on the 3rd, but Pearl Harbor was not discussed.
In a draft memoir written in the 1990s, Sir Julian Ridsdale, who in 1941 had served in the War Office’s Far Eastern Section, recalled a meeting of the Committee on November 27th. Those present, he wrote, had discussed the fact that both U.S. and British intelligence in the Pacific “had begun losing track of the movements” of the Japanese fleet. It was observing radio silence. “We concluded,” he wrote, that the Japanese force was “now in a position to be considered a major threat to the American Fleet in Pearl Harbor. It was agreed we should alert the President of the United States.” Years later, Ridsdale wrote, he was assured that the message had been passed on.
If there was indeed such a discussion in the Intelligence Committee, and if a message was passed to Washington, nothing about it has ever surfaced in American archives. The author of “British Intelligence in the Second World War”, official historian F.H. Hinsley, cited a paper the Committee produced on November 28th, ten days before Pearl Harbor. Written the day after the meeting at which an attack on Hawaii had supposedly been discussed, it “excluded the prospect of a direct Japanese attack on U.S. possessions.”
And then there is a startling comment reportedly made by the onetime confidential secretary who served Britain’s wartime intelligence chief in the United States, Sir William Stephenson. “We did know that they were going to attack on December 7,” secretary Grace Garner told a newspaper in her native Canada in 1998, “We told London. We told the Americans. We had quite some considerable warning. Days, days, days.” Given that Garner’s boss Sir William was had contact with both Roosevelt and Churchill, her assertion would seem to indicate that Britain did warn the President.
Is the former secretary’s claim reliable? Perhaps not. She was ninety years old when she spoke with the Canadian newspaper. When we interviewed Garner years earlier, on the phone and in person, and on four separate occasions, she made no such claim.
What then of the assertion, made before the Millennium, that vital information in British government archives was being suppressed? In his two books on Pearl Harbor, historian John Costello wrote that, days before Pearl Harbor, Churchill shared with Roosevelt intelligence that hardened the President’s attitude to Japan. Relevant information, Costello added, was still being kept secret. “A whole section of the Prime Minister’s secret office file relating to Japan,” he wrote in 1994, “is marked ‘closed for 75 years’.” The file in question, however, is in fact now open to researchers. It contains nothing that is remotely relevant.
Those who suspect skulduggery, meanwhile, have long suggested that British intelligence perhaps obtained information on Japanese plans from coded intercepts – but deliberately withheld it from the Americans. That might support the theory that the British held back from sending Washington a warning – hoping to ensure that America would enter the war. Another version of perfidy.
Research, however, has now produced evidence that – far from London having the potential to be ahead of Washington in cracking Japanese coded messages – there were great gaps in what was read by the British. In a detailed post-war analysis of the period just before Pearl Harbor, GCHQ Deputy Director Nigel de Grey concluded that “we did not have all the Americans had.”
Pearl Harbor spawned multiple conspiracy theories. The notion that Roosevelt and Churchill connived to let the attack happen shows no sign of going away. But it is unsupported by the evidence.
HOW IS YOUR BOOK “A MATTER OF HONOR” DIFFERENT FROM OTHER BOOKS PUBLISHED ON THIS 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF PEARL HARBOR?
Mostly, other books recount the saga of the catastrophe itself and the behind-the-scenes events that led up to it. Our investigation of those events led to new discoveries that show, more vividly than ever before how human failure – much of it by the top brass in Washington – led to the surprise attack. Our special focus, too – for the first time – is the tragic inside story of the man who commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl. Admiral Husband Kimmel, the creme de la creme of his naval generation, was removed from his post, accused of “dereliction of duty,” and lived out his life under a cloud of disgrace. Thanks to unprecedented access to tens of thousands of documents – we tell the story straight for the first time.
THAT’S WHY YOUR BOOK’S TITLE IS A MATTER OF HONOR”?
For a military man governed by the code “death before dishonor”, what befell Kimmel was unthinkable. Dominating his thinking, always, was the memory of the men for whose deaths he had been vilified – 2,403 of them. Through nine official investigations and extraordinary challenges – political trickery, betrayal and personal tragedy (his own eldest son, a submarine skipper, was killed in the Pacific) Kimmel fought until he died to clear his name. First his sons, and after them his grandsons, took up his cause, and are fighting it to this day.
WHAT SORT OF NEW INFORMATION HAVE YOU DISCOVERED?
We report on documents never unearthed until now: a naval chart showing that – ten months before the Japanese attack U.S. Naval lntelligence had detailed evidence showing that aerial torpedoes could be successfully launched in water as shallow as that at Pearl Harbor. Kimmel and his command team were vitally interested in such data. lt was never, however, shared with them, and probably lay filed and forgotten at Navy HQ in Washington. That was only one of multiple screw-ups. It has long been known that, eager to safeguard a vital wartime secret, the fact that U.S. codebreakers were reading Japan’s diplomatic message traffic, government and military leaders failed to share it with Admiral Kimmel and General Short, the Army commander in chief in Hawaii. They, more than almost anyone from the military point of view, ought to have been made aware of it. Our book reveals how and why HQ blew it – and how, later, they covered up.
WHY IS A BOOK ABOUT PEARL HARBOR RELEVANT TODAY?
Because history ignored repeats itself. The lead-up to the 9/11 attacks, which we investigated for our 2011 book “THE ELEVENTH DAY”, is a prime example. There is another parallel. The 9/11 story is bedeviled by allegations of high level U.S. foreknowledge – so too with the Pearl Harbor case, and it can be argued that it spawned the age of conspiracy. President Roosevelt’s enemies, who latched on to the holes in the case against Admiral Kimmel and General Short, used multiple apparent mysteries to sow distrust of FDR and his advisers. The mud stuck. A brief look at the Internet shows that vast numbers of people believe, seventy-flve years on, that FDR, and/or Winston Churchill. or the men around them, had foreknowledge of the coming attack on Pearl Harbor. Our book. almost alone among the serious books on Pearl Harbor, tackles the conspiracy theories with irrefutable new evidence.
WHAT LED YOU TO THE PEARL HARBOR STORY, AND HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT TACKLING IT?
We lucked into it, then worked damned hard. We encountered the Admiral’s grandson Tom Kimmel. Jr. a former senior FBI agent and retired naval officer, by pure chance. Tears came to his eyes when he discussed the case, and that piqued our interest. As we probed. we found that the entire extended Kimmel family was imbued with the intense desire to clear their forebear’s name. They opened their archives to us without reservation and said, “Let the chips fall where they may!” Cooperation coupled with evident integrity was hard to resist. We had first-ever access to a treasure trove of unpublished letters, diaries and photos.
We read into the published literature and dissected the forty volumes of testimony and documentary evidence of the Pearl Harbor investigations. That gave us a sense of the holes in the official story, the lingering questions. Then, we combed the archives, dug into obscure diaries, letters, and legal records, and tapped our international connections for research in Holland, Germany and the UK. The mountain of documents that we’ve gathered fill thirty file drawers.
WHAT MOST SURPRISED YOU DURING THE RESEARCH FOR THIS BOOK?
We’ve tackled some of the biggest stories of the last century – from the rise of the American Mafia, to the Kennedy assassination, to Watergate. to 9/11. Every time we start a book, someone says, “But hasn’t that been done before? We’ve always had to dig deep, and “A MATTER OF HONOR” has been no different. Seventy-five years after the attack, we find ourselves holding critical, unknown documents.
YOU’RE MARRIED TO ONE ANOTHER. WHAT’S IT LIKE TO WORK TOGETHER AS CO-AUTHORS?
It depends on what day you ask us….
When weore working on a book, we become barely capable of speaking about anything else. Our children and our friends bear the brunt. Working so closely together can be very intense, and we don’t always agree. In the main, though, we trust each other’s judgments. We feel privileged to be able to work on stories that matter. In the case of “A Matter of Honor”, that has also meant being able to contribute an important correction to the historical record. Admiral Kimmel was scapegoated for the mistakes of many. We hope that our work helps to restore his reputation – and his honor. Both houses of Congress voted in 2000 to recommend that he be posthumously restored to the four-star rank he held at the time of Pearl Harbor. No president has made that a reality. Obama may yet do so.
Back in 2011, with the cooperation of 9/11 Commission Senior Counsel John Farmer and his Commission staff colleague Miles Kara, we had first access to a Commission working paper that incorporated actual audio from the aircraft hijacked on September 11, 2001, and the FAA and military personnel who scrambled to meet the threat.
For this 15th anniversary, we have put the full story of that fateful day together – with the revealing and emotionally charged audio-taped voices of the participants.
Late in 2004, almost three years after the attacks of September 11, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission – then in the final weeks of its work – dictated a memo. It was addressed to the inquiry’s chairman and vice-chairman, and posed a very sensitive question. “How,” Philip Zelikow wanted to know, “should the Commission handle evidence of possible false statements by U.S. officials?”
“Team 8,” he reported, “has found evidence suggesting that one or more USAF officers – and possibly FAA officials – must have known their version was false, before and after it was briefed to and relied upon by the White House, presented to the nation, and presented to us…The argument is not over details; it is about the fundamental way the story was presented. It is the most serious issue of truth/falsity in accounts to us that we have encountered so far…”
The “story” that so provoked the Commission was the military and FAA version of their response to the 9/11 attacks, a response that failed utterly to thwart the terrorists’ operation. The Commission’s belief that it had been deceived would be lost in the diplomatic language of its final Report. Zelikow’s memo on the subject would be withheld until 2009.
COMING IN NOVEMBER 2016 We think we know the story well: In the devastating aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Husband Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, was relieved of command, accused of dereliction of duty, and publicly disgraced. In this conversation-changing book, Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan not only tell Kimmel’s story, they unravel the many apparent mysteries of Pearl Harbor. A Matter of Honor is a heartbreaking human story of politics and war – and epic history.
The Commission’s chairman, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, and the vice-chairman, former congressman Lee Hamilton, however, gave a sense of their frustration in their later memoir. The military’s statements, they declared, were “not forthright or accurate.” To another commissioner, former congressman Tim Roemer, they were, quite simply, “false”. Former New Jersey attorney general John Farmer, the Commission’s senior counsel who led Team 8’s probe of the military’s performance, has said that he was shocked by the “deception”.
Farmer questions not only how the military and the FAA had functioned on 9/11, but also the actions of the President and the Vice President. In his view, “The perpetuation of the untrue official version remains a betrayal of every citizen who demanded a truthful answer to the simple question: What happened?”
Two days after the attacks, Air Force general Richard Myers testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Though the hearing had been scheduled before 9/11, questioning turned naturally to the crisis of the moment. For an officer of distinction, about to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Myers seemed confused as to when fighters had gone up to attempt to intercept the hijacked planes. Memory, he said in an oddly vague way, told him that fighters had been launched to intercept Flight 93, the plane that crashed before reaching a target. “I mean,” he said, “we had gotten somebody close to it, as I recall. I’ll have to check it out.”
Within days, another senior officer flatly contradicted Myers. Major-General Paul Weaver, commander of the Air National Guard, gave reporters a detailed timeline of the military’s reaction. According to him, no airplanes had been scrambled to chase Flight 93. “There was no notification for us to launch airplanes…We weren’t even close.”
What, moreover, asked Weaver, could a fighter pilot have done had he intercepted one of the hijacked airliners? “You’re not going to get an American pilot shooting down an American airliner. We don’t have permission to do that. The only person who could grant such permission was the President, the General pointed out, leaving the impression that Bush had not done so.
By week’s end, however, that notion was turned on its head. Vice President Cheney, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that George W. Bush had indeed made the “toughest decision” – to shoot down a civilian airliner if necessary. Fighter pilots, he asserted, had been authorized to “take out” any plane that failed to obey instructions to move away from Washington.
In spite of denials by General Myers and others, there were people who thought United 93 might in fact have been shot down. Bush himself had asked Cheney, “Did we shoot it down, or did it crash?”
In the absence of good evidence to the contrary, though, few now credit the notion that any pilot shot down an airliner filled with helpless civilians on September 11. No pilot would have fired without authorization, could not have done so without fellow officers, radio operators and others being aware of it. There was no way such an action could have been kept secret.
Shootdown aside, the statements by the military and political leadership begged a host of questions. Had fighters really gone up in time to intercept any of the hijacked planes? If they did get up in time, what had they been expected to do? Could they – would they – have shot a plane down? If pilots were cleared to shoot, was the order given in the way the Vice President described? If so, when did he issue the order and when did it reach military commanders?
The most powerful military nation on the planet had been ill-prepared and ill-equipped to confront the attacks. Time was, at the height of the Cold War, when NORAD could have called on more than a hundred squadrons of fighter aircraft to defend the continental United States. By September 2001, the number had dwindled to a token force of just fourteen “alert” planes based at seven widely scattered bases. Only four of those fighters were based in the Northeast Air Defense Sector – NEADS – which covered the geographical area in which the hijackings took place.
Practice runs aside, moreover, the airplanes had never been scrambled to confront an enemy. They were used to intercept civilian aircraft that strayed off course, suspected drug traffickers, planes that failed to file a proper flight plan. Hijacks were rare, and counter-measures were based on the concept of hijacking as it had almost always been carried out since the sixties – the temporary seizure of an airliner, followed by a safe landing and the release of passengers and crew.
The cumbersome protocol in place to deal with a hijacking involved circuitous reporting, up through the FAA and on to the Pentagon, all the way up to the office of the Defense Secretary. At the end of the process, if approval was granted, NORAD would launch fighters. The pilots’ mission would then be to identify and discreetly follow the airplane until it landed. Nothing in their training or experience foresaw a need to shoot down an airliner.
September 11, 2001. Shortly before 7:30, Gen. Myers, was at the Pentagon viewing the slide presentation that comprised part of his usual morning intelligence/operations briefing. The Air Force had deployed additional forces to Alaska and Canada in response to a major Russian military exercise in the northern Pacific that had begun the previous day. The Russians had scheduled the firing of an air-launched cruise missile as part of the exercise – the first such firing since the end of the Cold War. A “threat-ring” graphic depicting the current range from the continental U.S. of Russian military forces – and the missiles they carried – flashed onto the screen as the briefer described them as “the current air threat to CONUS.” Within the hour, the nature of that threat was to change dramatically.
At 8:00 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 took off from Boston’s Logan airport bound for Los Angeles with 92 people aboard. All appeared well until thirteen minutes into the flight when Air Traffic Control lost contact with the cockpit.
“American 11 [instruction…there is no response]….American 11 [instruction]….American 11, Boston…American 11, Boston…American 11, the American on the frequency. How do you hear me?…He will not respond to me now…He’s turning right….American 11, Boston…American 11, if you hear Boston Center, ident….American, if you hear Boston, ident please, or acknowledge…..American 11, if you hear Boston Center….[THERE IS NO RESPONSE
Increasingly concerned, the Boston controller tried repeatedly over the next nine minutes to raise the flight and check the status of his own equipment. At 8:21, the plane changed course and someone turned off its transponder – severely limiting controllers ability to judge its position, speed or even to identify it accurately.
At 8:18, unbeknownst at the time to the controllers, a telephone rang at an American Airlines office almost a thousand miles away, in the town of Cary, North Carolina. The woman calling was a senior Flight 11 attendant, forty-ﬁve-year-old Betty “Bee” Ong.
Using a seatback Airfone, Ong had dialed a number that crews knew well – they used it to help passengers with onward travel plans. When she got through, finally, to an American Airlines ground supervisor named Nydia Gonzalez, she sounded “calm, professional, and poised. The first four and a half minutes of Ong’s call, the standard duration of the recording system at American, tell the tale.
I’m in my jumpseat, that’s 3R….My name is Betty Ong, I’m number 3 on Flight 11….The cockpit’s not answering their phone. Somebody’s stabbed in business class and, ah, I think there’s Mace that we can’t breathe. I don’t know. I think we’re getting hijacked . . . Somebody is coming back from business . . . hold on for one second . . . Karen and Bobbi got stabbed. [This last sentence, the tape shows, was spoken by a fellow attendant close by.] . . . Our number 1 got stabbed . . . our galley ﬂight attendant and our purser has been stabbed. And we can’t get into the cockpit. The door won’t open.
“Karen” was lead ﬂight attendant Karen Martin, “Bobbi” her backup BarbaraArestegui. Martin, Ong said, lost consciousness, then came around and was being given oxygen. Arestegui appeared not to be seriously injured. The passenger in First Class Seat 9B, however, appeared to be dead.
The man in Seat 9B had perhaps tried to intervene and ﬁght the hijackers. He was Daniel Lewin, an American-Israeli who had served in a crack Israeli commando unit. Lewin spoke Arabic, and may have understood before anyone else what the hijackers intended. Ong said the passenger in Seat 10B, directly to his rear, had stabbed Lewin to death. The man in 10B was one of the ﬁve young Arabs who had boarded that morning. The killer and another hijacker, Ong said had gotten had gotten into the cockpit. The sound of “loud arguing” had been heard.
There is no knowing exactly how or when the hijackers erupted into the cockpit. “There was no warning to be more vigilant,” Captain Ogonowski’s wife Peg would later say ruefully. “These people come in behind him. He’s sitting low, forward, strapped in – the same with his co-pilot. No warning…”
Ogonowski and co-pilot Tom McGuiness had been trained not to respond to force with force. FAA policy instructed pilots to “refrain from trying to overpower or negotiate with hijackers, to land the aircraft as soon as possible, to communicate with authorities, and to try delaying tactics.”
At 8:32, using a borrowed calling card, Ong’s colleague Amy Sweeney placed a call back to the American office back at Logan. She began speaking with duty manager Michael Woodward.
Sweeney said the hijackers had “boxes connected with red and yellow wire” – a bomb, she thought. One, she said, spoke no English. So far, passengers in Coach seemed unaware of what was going on.
As Ong talked on, Nydia Gonzalez passed on what she learned to American’s security office in Texas.
“American Airlines Emergency line. Please state your emergency.”
“This is Nydia, American Airlines, calling. I’m monitoring a call from a flight attendant on Flight 11. …She is advising that the pilots…everyone’s been stabbed. They can’t get into the cockpit. That’s what I’m hearing.”
“Who’s this I’m talking to?”
Raleigh, [Carolina] Ops. Center.”
“What was your name again?”
“Gonzalez. [spells] We’ve got a flight attendant on the line one of our agents.”
“I’m assuming you are declaring an emergency. Let me get APC on here…”
“Betty, you’re doing a great job. Just stay calm, okay….We are absolutely. We’re contacting the flight now. We’re also contacting APC.”….
“Is there a doctor on board?” “You don’t have any doctors on board….”
“You’ve got all the First Class passengers out of First Class? “
“Have they taken everyone out of First Class?”
“Yeah. She says that they have. They’re in Coach.” “What’s going on honey?”
“The aircraft, it’s erratic again. Flying erratically…”……
“They are going to handle this as a confirmed hijacking….They seem to think he is descending.”
“They may have sprayed something. They’re having a hard time breathing.”
Now Ong’s connection was fading in and out. Her colleague Amy Sweeney said she could see they were now “over New York City.” Then Ong exclaimed, “Oh God!…Oh God!…” and began to cry.
Sweeney screamed and said, “Something is wrong. I don’t think the captain is in control. We are in a rapid descent…We are all over the place…I see water! I see buildings!…” Next, a deep breath and, slowly, calmly, “Oh my God!…We are flying low. We are flying very, very low. We are flying way too low.” Seconds later, again, “Oh my God, we are way too low…”
The American Airlines people on the ground could no longer hear either flight attendant. In Boston, duty manager Woodward got only “very, very loud static.” In North Carolina, Gonzalez hung on the line.
“What’s going on Betty. Betty, talk to me. Betty….”
“O, we’ll stay open…”
“I think we may have lost her….”
While Ong and Sweeney had been alerting their colleagues, the Boston air traffic control had picked up an ominous message from the cockpit. Someone in the 767’s cockpit someone had keyed the mike to make an announcement to the passengers – but had instead broadcast a message to controllers.
Controller: “Is that American 11 trying to call?”
Male voice[accented]: “We have some planes. Just say quiet, and you’ll be okay. We are returning to the airport.”
Controller: “Who’s trying to call me here?…American 11, are you trying to call.”
Male voice: “Nobody move. Everything is okay. If you try to make a move you endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
Then seconds later, another transmission:
Male voice: Nobody move. Everything will be okay. If you try to make any moves, you’ll endanger yourself and the airplane. Just stay quiet.
In Herndon, Virginia, the FAA’s new national operations manager Ben Sliney had begun his first day on the job by fielding a routine phone call alerting him pending Russian missile shot. Ten minutes later, though, at 8:28, a call came through from Boston Center advising that American 11 had been hijacked and was heading toward New York.
The nerve center for the military on September 11 was an unprepossessing aluminum bunker, the last functional building on an otherwise abandoned Air Force base in upstate New York. From the outside, only antenna betrayed its possible importance. Inside, technicians manned rows of antiquated computers and radar screens. They did not, though, expect to have a quiet day on September 11. Their commander, Colonel Robert Marr, moreover, expected to have to respond to a hijacking.
A simulated hijacking. For the Northeast Air Defense Sector’s headquarters was gearing up for its part in the latest phase of Vigilant Guardian, one of several largescale annual exercises. This one, old-fashioned in that it tested military preparedness for an attack by Russian bombers, included a scenario in which an enemy would seize an airliner and fly it to an unnamed Caribbean island.
At 8:30 that morning, the exercise proper had not yet got under way. The colonel was munching apple fritters. His mission-control commander, Major Kevin Nasypany, was away from the Ops floor getting a coffee. The general to whom they answered, Larry Arnold, was at the NORAD Command Center in Florida.
On the Ops floor at NEADS, Master Sergeant Maureen Dooley, Technical Sergeant Shelley Watson, and Senior Airman Stacia Rountree, were chatting about furniture at the mall – wondering whether an ottoman and a love seat were on sale. To be sure, the orders for the day’s training exercise provided for the team to be capable of responding to a “Real World Unknown”, but no one expected much to happen.
Then the unknown arrived, in the form of a call from FAA controller Joe Cooper, at Boston Center, to Sergeant Jeremy Powell. It was 8:38.
Cooper: Hi, Boston Center TMU [Traffic Management Unit] We have a problem here. We have a hijacked aircraft headed towards New York, and we need you guys to, we need someone to scramble some F-16s or something up there, help us out.
Sgt. Jeremy Powell: Is this real-world or exercise?
Cooper: No, this is not an exercise, not a test.
The sergeant, and the women who moments earlier had been discussing home furnishings, needed some persuading. Phased by the advent of real-life excitement, Shelley Watson even exclaimed, “Cool!” A moment later, after an “Oh, shit…”, she was all business. “We need call-sign, type aircraft. Have you got souls on board, and all that information?…a destination?” Cooper could say only that the airplane seized was American 11 – as would become clear, the first of the four hijacks. No one could have imagined the destination its hijackers had in mind.
By 8:41, Colonel Marr had ordered the two alert jets at Otis Air National Guard base, on Cape Cod, to battle stations.
Marr immediately passed the order down the chain of command, but it was immediately clear there was a problem.
Weapons Director: I don’t know where I’m scrambling these guys to. I need a direction, a destination.”
At 8:46, having conferred with General Arnold, Marr ordered the Otis planes into the air – to no avail.
Absent any detailed data, they were assigned merely to fly to military-controlled airspace off the Long Island coast. In the same minute, a hundred and fifty-three miles away, American 11 smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
The NEADS technicians, who had a TV set, saw the tower in flames. “Oh, God,” Sergeant Watson said quietly. “Oh my God…”A colleague at her side cried, “God save New York.”
Watch for Part 2 of IN THEIR OWN WORDS: INTHE TRUE STORY OF THE 9/11 BATTLE IN THE SKY to be published in coming days