The Attack Recounted, By Those Who Were There

By Steve Vogel
Thursday, September 27, 2007

Within days of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, military historians were at work reconstructing what had happened.

Interviewers began gathering oral histories from survivors, rescuers and other witnesses to the attack on U.S. military headquarters.

After six years, the results have been published in "Pentagon 9/11," co-written by five Defense Department historians led by Alfred Goldberg of the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The decision to write the book was made soon after the attack, and events since have borne out the significance of the date, noted Goldberg, 88. He began working as a historian with the Air Force Historical Division after military service during World War II and has been chief historian for the Defense Department since 1973.

"It ranks with Pearl Harbor as a defining moment in American history -- and world history," Goldberg said. "It's quite clear that as a consequence of the attacks in New York and on the Pentagon, much of the world has been affected."

The attack on the Pentagon, the book jacket observes, was "stunning for its shattering of the nation's sense of security."

A second reason to write the book was to produce a scholarly work recording precisely what happened that day, part of an effort to address the skepticism and conspiracy theories suggesting that the U.S. government was responsible for the attack and that the building was hit by a missile rather than a hijacked aircraft.

"There's been a great deal of speculation about what happened, and apparently a great deal of disbelief in this country and abroad about the nature of the attack, and who was responsible," Goldberg said. The authors went to great lengths to document the events of the day with eyewitness accounts.

"It took an awful lot of work," Goldberg said. "To nail things down was awfully difficult."

More than 1,300 interviews were gathered for the project, conducted by members of the historical offices of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, as well as Army and Navy reservists who were called to active duty to assist with the project. The book includes previously unpublished photographs of the wreckage, aircraft parts and rescue efforts.

"We really do know more about what happened here than at the World Trade Center," said co-author Sarandis "Randy" Papadopoulos of the U.S. Naval Historical Center.

The volume of oral histories threatened to overwhelm the historians. "Trying to assemble the interviews into something coherent was very difficult," noted Papadopoulos, who wrote the first draft.

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