USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, At Sea (NNS) -- Sailors aboard the U.S. Navy's forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) gathered for a ceremony to mark the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The event, organized by George Washington's chief petty officer selectees, heritage committee and religious ministries, consisted of several speakers who spoke about what the events of 9/11 meant to them as people and as Sailors.
"I was stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River getting ready to fly another series of weapons flight tests on the F/A-18E Super Hornet," said Capt. G.J. Fenton, George Washington's commanding officer. "I remember that day well because when I drove into work it was a sunny, clear day; it struck me that it was the perfect day to go flying. As I returned to my office to make final preparations, a colleague came to my office and told me to turn on CNN because an airliner just crashed into the World Trade Center."
On the morning of September 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.; the opening salvo fired in what is now known as the War on Terrorism.
"My initial thoughts were that the aircraft had some kind of malfunction or a pilot got hurt and it just accidentally flew into the World Trade Center; my focus returned to taking care of the business of the day and prepare for the test flight," said Fenton. "A short time later, more people were gathered watching another airliner fly into the second tower and it became quite clear to all of us that this was not an accident."
United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower at 9:02 a.m.; at that moment, most Americans realized that we were under attack.
"My world pretty much turned upside down that day," said Fenton. "I was assigned the task of providing air defense for Patuxent River, which was an interesting challenge because most of our aircraft weren't configured to fire live missiles or shoot live guns; they were test weapons. We had a total of two live A-9 Sidewinders to mount on our aircraft, but we set up a few aircraft to be launched at a moment's notice to defend us in case we were called."
The terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., while United Airlines Flight 93, widely believed to be targeting the White House or the Capitol, crashed in a field in Shanksville, Penn., at 10:03 a.m.
"I look back and think if we would have been called upon to carry out that [air defense] mission," said Fenton. "I doubt it, but that was the mindset at the time. Our nation was under attack and we had some tools to do something about it in case the attacks continued, so we set to the task to prepare to defend our nation."
Airman Nicholas Belknap, from Rexburg, Idaho, was in 5th grade when 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger jets and carried out the attacks.
"I could tell something was different because when I came to class, my teacher had the news on and was watching intently," said Belknap. "I could see from a distance that there was smoke on the [television] screen but I thought nothing of it at the time."
Belknap was starting class when he and his classmates learned that the towers had been hit, and what this meant for the United States.
"None of us knew we would always remember where we were when the twin towers came down," said Belknap. "The question 'where were you when the towers fell' has been asked many times and holds different meaning to those asked: from the fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters who all had family members in the towers; to the fire fighters and police officers who saw their friends and colleagues running to the towers to never return; to those in their homes watching in horror as the towers came down."
Chief Aviation Ordnanceman (Select) Joseph Paul, from Roanoke, Ind., was stationed in Hawaii when he learned about the attack on the United States. At 3 a.m. he arrived from the airfield after a long night of work to discover several people watching the towers fall.
"As the plane flew in slow motion toward the second tower, I knew with everything that my life was about to change," said Paul. "Something was different when this plane flew toward the tower; you could feel it and you knew it was going to hit it ... I wanted desperately to close my eyes and wake up, then get chewed out by my chief for falling asleep in the shop but I knew it wasn't going to happen. This was actually happening, and no amount of wishing was going to change what I was watching."
George Washington was conducting carrier qualifications off the coast of Virginia the morning of the attacks. The ship was diverted north and arrived in New York the next day to provide air defense over the city. George Washington was bequeathed a piece of structural steel from the World Trade Center that today rests in the ship's mess decks.
"I didn't join the Navy in a war; the war came to the Navy," said Paul. "I was in the military but I couldn't see the enemy that threatened my home. I watched as my countrymen and women begged for help in the towers and watched as the towers fell. Where was I when the world stopped turning? Helplessly watching as a whole nation realized that we are now touchable."
NATO declared the Sept. 11 attacks an attack on all NATO nations; then-President George W. Bush announced the War on Terrorism. U.S. House of Representatives Joint Resolution 71, approved by a unanimous vote, requested that the president designate Sept. 11 of each year as Patriot Day, which was signed into law by Bush.
"We've engaged in the effort to defend our nation against those who perpetrated that act of war for a long 11 years now," said Fenton. "As I reflect on that now, it's an effort that has borne fruit, but it's an effort that continues to this day and reflects George Washington being at sea right now carrying out our mission. Everybody on this ship, every member of the air wing and the embarked staff, plays a role in continuing to carry out that mission to defend our nation and defend our national interest."
George Washington and its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5, provide a combat-ready force that protects and defends the collective maritime interest of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
For more information, visit www.navy.mil, www.facebook.com/usnavy, or www.twitter.com/usnavy.
For more news from USS George Washington (CVN 73), visit www.navy.mil/local/cvn73/.