Simultaneously, as al Qaeda terrorists were deploying hijacked passenger airliners as weapons against the United States on 11 September 2001—a date that has become known simply and infamously as 9/11—a group of experts, forensic analysts, and historians convened in a building not far from the Pentagon on the Virginia side of the Potomac River. The occasion was to view and react to film footage of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—the same bombs exploding on film, streaming over and over.
The parallels and the ironies were striking. The group sat at a table in a semicircle, partitioned off from a larger room at the headquarters of Boeing Autometric in Arlington, Virginia. The Discovery Channel had convened the meeting as a preview and critique of its upcoming documentary, “Death of the Arizona.” The idea was to film the participants as they reacted to compelling visual evidence that the battleship USS Arizona (BB-39)—which lies permanently on the bottom of Pearl Harbor with the remains of some 900 of the 1,177 crew members who went down with the ship—did not sink from a bomb dropped down her smokestack, as the conventional wisdom up to that time had surmised. The new footage made the case that a “high-altitude” Japanese bomb had torn through the decks of the ship and set off explosions of gunpowder stored in her forward magazine, thus setting off a chain reaction of fatal explosions that sent black smoke upward through the ship’s stack.
(What appears to be the only newsworthy reference to this film sequence is Ed Rampell’s 6 December 2001 article in Tucson Weekly. In it, he writes that the Discovery documentary had been executed “with Oliver Stone-like precision,” and that it has the narrator, actress Stockard Channing, contending “’that reports that torpedoes hit the Arizona, or that a ‘bomb went down the smokestack,’ are ‘legends.’” Rampell goes on to report that the film footage of the exploding Arizona taken by enemy “Imperial pilots” and by U.S. Army Doctor Eric Haakenson “is like the Zapruder film of JFK’s [President John F. Kennedy’s] assassination.”)
For this special screening, I joined Paul Stillwell, well-known prolific author-historian and my predecessor as editor-in-chief of Naval History magazine, who drove us to Boeing Autometric that picture-perfect late-summer morning. As we neared our destination, Paul noted the Pentagon on our right, neither of us dreaming that a horrible scene would play out there within the next few hours, when American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the building and killed 64 passengers and crew and 125 people inside.
On arrival at the Boeing building, we met our host and point-man for the study of the vintage Pearl Harbor film clips, Naval Reserve Commander John Rodgaard. With a group he called “the Gang of Four”—Peter Hsu, retired Naval Reserve Captain Andrew Biache, and Carroll Lucas—John and his team collectively had won the previous year’s Naval History Author of the Year Award for their work on telling the story of the role played by Japanese midget submarines at Pearl Harbor. With John, the whole “gang” was there, too. In attendance as well was the Naval Institute’s longtime friend Daniel Martinez, the National Park Service Chief Historian at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Termite Art Productions cameraman Bill Paris, following guidance from the program’s director, Erik Nelson, panned around the darkened room as the historic Pearl Harbor films showed the precision bombing campaign executed by the Japanese naval aviators that morning in December 1941. We lost count of the number of times the film replayed, with the same devastating outcome.
As the camera rolled, a door in the partition behind me opened slowly, and a man simply tapped me on the shoulder and said, “We’re having another Pearl Harbor right now!” At that point, cameraman Paris yelled “cut!” as he looked at distressing reports on his cellphone (one of the few such devices in the room 20 years ago).
Erik Nelson then shouted, “What do you mean, ‘cut?’ I’m the director!”
Paris replied, “We’re under attack!” as the overhead room lights went on, and someone mercifully turned off the historic bombing footage.
Immediately, the group was ushered into an adjoining room with the biggest of big-screen TVs at the time broadcasting live shots of the World Trade Center towers, both on fire and smoking profusely. In another minute, the south tower collapsed. Women screamed and wept, as the entire room was filled with terrified people from other parts of the building.
Those who had assembled to watch the drama unfolding on television soon were ordered out of the room as we were told that the building was being evacuated. Since all federal government buildings had been ordered closed, the State Department annex next door was steadily emptying its occupants into the parking lot, and Boeing Autometric followed the guidelines.
We then went into the hallway to discuss what our next moves would be. With us were Martinez and Nelson, each of whom had reached into their jacket pockets and pulled out airline tickets, quietly mumbling to themselves. The filming project of which we had all been a part was supposed to have taken place on the day before, 10 September, but for technical reasons it had been postponed to the 11th. Consequently, both of them had tickets for American Airlines Flight 77 out of Dulles Airport—the very plane that had hit the Pentagon just minutes before.
On hearing that all air traffic had been canceled, the two teamed together and, we were told later, hired a Ryder rental moving truck and took turns driving across the country in an attempt to make Los Angeles before the birth of Nelson's child. (Included in that news update was that they had made it just in time.)
While all Paul and I had to do was drive back to the Naval Academy, that too proved to be more of an ordeal than we expected. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge across the Potomac had been closed, so we headed south on I-95 until we saw any promising route that would take us northeast. This was back before the proliferation of GPS, and we did not have a roadmap, so we relied on reports from Chas Henry at WTOP radio for any road closures. The one thing that struck us when we stopped at a rest area was how quiet the skies had become.
We ultimately drove all the way to Fredericksburg before we found an open, circuitous route to Annapolis. Upon our arrival at the Academy’s Gate 8, we were greeted by machine guns set up behind walls of sandbags and manned by Marines who looked like they meant business. At first, they refused to allow us passage through the gate to retrieve my car. But I told them I could see it from where we were standing and they could watch me walk to the car and drive it out to the gate.
I did so at gunpoint, and when I arrived back at the gatehouse, I leaned out the window and thanked them, closing with “So, what do you guys think?” The hasty answer was, “We’re going to kill the bastards, sir!”
And so it went, with a country unified against terrorism, followed by Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the retaliatory death of Osama bin Laden. And now, so it goes, presumably with the end of a 9/11-related war in Afghanistan that lasted for 20 years but with terrorism threats that still linger on.