"Colonel, turn on your TV; a plane just hit the World Trade Center."
The young Marine who had poked his head into my office to make that announcement, hovered at the door while I fumbled with a remote for the set across the long office from my desk. When CNN came on, the anchor was saying something about the history of light aircraft losing their way in bad weather and running into skyscrapers accidentally. But, the TV screen showed clear sky. The only cloud in the sky in New York that morning was the cloud of smoke billowing from the top fifth of one of the towers. My first thought was that that fire was going to kill a lot of people before it got put out. The movie "Towering Inferno" came to mind.
Three or four Marines were now at my door, craning their necks to see the TV, and I waved them on into the office. One said, "They say it was a Cessna that crashed accidentally." The huge gash in the tower was clearly not from a small plane and I said so. We were all watching, stunned, when the second airliner slammed into the other tower.
The youngest Marine in the room, a corporal, said what I had been thinking, but had been hesitant to say out loud. "Sir, this is a terrorist attack." I agreed and we continued to watch, transfixed by the TV shot of two towers on fire.
It wasn't until the attack on the Pentagon was announced that the thought occurred to me that this was a full scale attack on America. I was CO of Marine recruiting in the Southeast, so there was no operational response for which I was responsible. But, I did have over 500 Marines in small offices scattered from Louisiana to South Carolina and I felt the requirement to communicate to them immediately, and I told my secretary to set up a conference call as fast as possible with my eight subordinate commanders--eight Marine majors who each would, in turn, relay my communications to the rest of the force.
When the call began, I started by telling my subordinate commanders everything I knew; which was limited by what I had witnessed on TV. I next told them that I had heard nothing from higher headquarters, yet, but would call them back as soon as I got any orders. I then told them to relay to their Marines that I wanted them to do two things: Stay focused on their jobs as recruiters, and keep their eyes open for anything suspicious. When I finished my brief comments, I asked for questions.
"Sir," one of my majors chimed in, "I just got a report from the field that the other services' recruiters have been told to get out of uniform and go home."
I didn't believe that to be the case and told them so. "Sir, I just heard the same thing from one of my guys," another major said immediately. "So did I," said a third. A fourth voice cut through the chatter and announced. "Sir, I heard the same thing, and I told my Marines to stay in uniform and stay put."
That was the most sensible order or report I had heard that morning and I said so. I added, "Gentlemen, our country is clearly under attack, and may begin to panic. We will not contribute to that panic. Tell your Marines to stay in uniform and stay very visible." That there was not one voiced worry over their Marines becoming targets is to their credit. In fact, we later all shared that we hoped to be attacked by the cowards who were instead hitting civilians.
I hope someday to meet the Navy, Air Force, and Army officers who gave the orders for their people to run and hide. I want the opportunity to call them cowards and idiots to their faces.
Some are probably generals or admirals by now--that would make it all the more satisfying.