Five Years Later: Pacific troops share their memories of 9/11
On the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Stars and Stripes reporters asked servicemembers in the Pacific their memories of that day. Here are their stories:
Paul Fellner was in an economics class at Oak Ridge High School in Oak Ridge, Tenn., when he heard chatter that something was very wrong.
“With something like that, you don’t really think it’s true,” said Fellner, an Army specialist assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division Band in South Korea.
During his next class, Fellner, then a senior, watched with other students as events unfolded on television.
“I had two uncles working at the Pentagon, and nobody knew what was going on with that,” Fellner said. He later learned they were unharmed.
But the day’s events left a lasting impression in Fellner’s mind.
“As a country, we were definitely a lot more internally minded, rather than thinking about the world as a whole,” Fellner said.
The events of Sept. 11 forced that to change, but more change still is needed, he said. America must make teaching world politics a higher priority so that people understand why the nation must successfully engage other nations, he said.
The terror attacks didn’t specifically spur Fellner to join the Army, but they remained on his mind, just as they remained on the mind of an Army officer who gave the commencement speech at Fellner’s high school graduation.
The speaker happened to be another Oak Ridge native, Gen. B.B. Bell, now the commander of U.S. Forces Korea.
“He was a very good speaker,” Fellner said.
CAMP HANSEN, Okinawa — Master Gunnery Sgt. Marc D. Singerhouse’s memories of Sept. 11 are inextricably linked to a typhoon that wouldn’t quit.
“I was here in Okinawa and we were shut down” due to Typhoon Nari, which hit the island twice and lingered for eight days, said Singerhouse, 50, from Menomonie, Wis.
He saw the airliners crash into the World Trade Center while watching Japanese television at his off-base home.
“I saw a plane go into a tower and I thought it was a movie because it was all in Japanese,” said Singer, now deputy director of the senior noncommissioned officer academy at Camp Hansen.
He quickly learned it wasn’t a movie. And despite the military on Okinawa being in a typhoon lockdown, he was called in to help man a base command operation center for the next three days.
“We were sort of like ‘What do we do?’ and there was a lot of confusion,” he said.
But the way Americans think about the world changed that day, he said. “[We] were naive — like nobody could touch us — and this opened our eyes.”
The attacks also changed plans for his life, he said. He was looking toward retirement after about 25 years in the military. But after the attacks, he re-enlisted and soon will retire with 30 years.
“I wanted to go (fight the war on terror),” he said. “I never got to, but I did my part to support those who did.”
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Air Force Lt. Col. Leslie Claravall’s knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks began with a phone call.
Working on the Pentagon Air Staff as a health-care system analyst, Claravall was in a meeting in Falls Church, Va., a few miles from the Pentagon, when a colleague’s phone rang. A call passed on word that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
“We didn’t think too much of it at the time,” said Claravall, now 374th Medical Operations Squadron commander at Yokota. “We thought it was probably just a small Cessna or something.”
When word came that a second plane had hit the Twin Towers, the meeting was stopped and someone turned on a television.
“We were watching the news in the conference room when we heard a plane fly over,” said Claravall. “It was unusual because it was so close that the windows rattled.”
The sound they heard was the plane that struck the Pentagon.
“It was so strange, thinking about the passengers aboard that plane, and how close they were to us,” she said. “It really hit close to home.”
A few days later, Claravall said, she went by the Pentagon and saw the giant American flag draped over the crash site.
“Seeing the flag displayed there was a sign of hope to me,” she said. “That day gave me a better sense of appreciation about what we do as servicemembers.”
NAKIJIN VILLAGE, Okinawa — “What kind of people would do such a thing to America when we try to help people around the world?”
That was the question Cmdr. Manuel Don Biadog Jr., a Navy chaplain, asked himself when he learned of the attacks.
Biadog, 49, was driving in California when he heard about the first plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” said Biadog, now a chaplain for III Marine Expeditionary Force Headquarters Group.“Call me naive, but I always believed in the good of people. This showed me that there are truly evil people.”
Five days later, Biadog, who was assigned to a Coast Guard unit, was in New York City helping families of victims.
“Family members asked me, ‘Where is God in this?’” he said. “They said, ‘God has abandoned us.’
“When [terrorists] bombed the financial center of the country I love, I took it personal,” he said. “So, I didn’t mind when, three years later, I was sent to Baghdad.”
YONGSAN GARRISON, South Korea — In a college library in Albany, N.Y., April Smith went from recruiter to soldier to granddaughter so fast she cannot forget.
Within a few minutes of the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Army sergeant got a call from her first sergeant telling her to get back to her duty station in Syracuse. On the two-hour drive, she listened to the radio and tried to call her grandmother in New York City. She couldn’t get through.
“That was a very long drive,” said Smith, now a sergeant first class and a senior animal specialist with the 18th Medical Command at Yongsan Garrison.
Before Sept. 11, she was assigned recruiting duties in central New York.
Just after the attacks, Smith found herself turning people away from the Army. Former soldiers called to re-enlist because they wanted to help. Most were too old. Some of the younger ones were physician’s assistants, a job slot that was full.
“It was hard to turn them away,” she said.
She got through to her grandmother that night and learned that everyone in her extended family was fine. It made her remember to make an extra effort, write an extra letter, when her job takes her far from home.
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Sept. 11 started out just like any other day for Darren Brown, a petty officer first class working at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“When the first plane hit the World Trade Center, people started going over to the television we had in the waiting room,” he said. “I was thinking to myself ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t really think it was terrorism, and that maybe a plane had just crashed.”
However, once the second plane hit and word came in that the Pentagon had been attacked, things suddenly became more ominous, said Brown, now a chief petty officer and Navy/Marine Corps administrative officer for U.S. Forces Japan.
“I started thinking about if they would try to hit the hospital, since the president, his family and other government officials come here for treatment,” he said.
As the day continued, Brown helped comfort his shaken troops.
“Before Sept. 11, terrorism wasn’t something that I thought about a lot,” Brown said. “The attacks that day made me pay more attention to the news and to what’s going on around the world.
CAMP COURTNEY, Okinawa — Lance Cpl. Shelly Perry was working the day shift at a Denny’s in Rome, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 2001.
The restaurant “was dead the whole morning and we were wondering where everyone was for breakfast,” said Perry, now 26. At about 10 a.m., she and co-workers heard on a kitchen radio that the Twin Towers had been hit.
The rest of the day was spent watching co-workers and friends try to reach loved ones who lived in New York City, she said.
She didn’t see footage of the attacks until about 5:30 that evening.
“I couldn’t believe it really happened until I saw it on TV and even then, it felt like a movie,” Perry said.
She said she knew bad things happened in the world, but “it’s just books and history, then it’s like, wow, this stuff really does happen.”
And because one of the attacks happened in her state, it made it seem like a personal attack, she said: “It was so close to home.”
The events of that day fostered in Perry a sense of patriotism and a desire to help others, she said.
Three years later she joined the Marine Corps.
“I joined for the sense of knowing I actually did go out and do something for my country and to have pride in myself,” she said.
Stars and Stripes reporters Cindy Fisher, Bryce S. Dubee, Teri Weaver and Erik Slavin contributed to this report.