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 The book includes previously unpublished photographs of the wreckage, aircraft parts and rescue efforts.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.

In the end, the authors used more than 300 of the interviews in crafting their account, using corroborative testimony of two or more witnesses whenever possible.

"The focus is on what happened to people and to the building on 11 September 2001 as seen chiefly through the eyes of participants and observers," Goldberg notes in the book's preface.

"What we tried to do with the book was show how it affected people on a personal level," said co-author Nancy K. Berlage, an editor in the OSD Historical Office. "I hope what comes across is the real human condition and the experience of this tragic event."

Particularly noteworthy, in Papadopoulos's view, was the instinctive rush by many military personnel in the building to try to rescue victims from the fire. "They got up from their desks and ran toward it," Papadopoulos said. "That is really impressive."

"There could not have been as many survivors of the attack on the Pentagon without the persistent and selfless acts of others -- military and civilian -- who were themselves caught in the maelstrom or came unhesitatingly from elsewhere in the building to respond to the desperate circumstances facing the many victims trapped in the wreckage," the authors wrote.

"Pentagon 9/11" was published by the OSD Historical Office, in collaboration with the Naval Historical Center and with the assistance of the historical offices of the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps. Other co-authors are Diane T. Putney with the OSD Historical Office and Rebecca Hancock Welch, who headed the oral history program for the office.

Goldberg was determined to see the "Pentagon 9/11" project through before he retires this year. "It's one of the reasons I'm still here," he said.

D.C. Guard to Advise Afghan Army

Sixteen soldiers from the D.C. Army National Guard are mobilizing this week to go to Afghanistan.

The soldiers will be part of an Army embedded training team that will advise the Afghan National Army. The team will assist the Afghans with "tactics, military decision-making process, counter-insurgency warfare, leadership, team work, communications and urban combat," according to a D.C. Guard statement.

The deployment is being led by Col. Gregory Castello. "This is a difficult day for families," Maj. Gen. David F. Wherley Jr., the D.C. National Guard commander, said during a departure ceremony Saturday at the D.C. Armory. "There is a lot of angst about them leaving."

The troops were scheduled to depart today for Fort Riley, Kan., for more than three months of training before deploying to Afghanistan around December.

Military Matters is published twice each month in the Extras. Steve Vogel may be reached atvogels@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company