On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11, a former Naval Aviator gives us his story while on board the USS ENTERPRISE in the Middle East.
By CDR William “Libby” Lind
Lots of folks posted ‘where I was’ sorts of stuff on 11 SEP… from the perspective of a Naval Aviator, I was lucky (and I hate using the word in this context for obvious reasons) to be in the right place at the right time…
On 9 SEP 01, CVW-8, embarked on the USS ENTERPRISE, flew its last strike as part of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH in Iraq. It was a Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW) mission, destroying an Iraqi air defense site.
It was the 5 month point of a scheduled 6 month deployment. We spent the night of 9/10 SEP transiting the Arabian Gulf, and proceeded through the Straits of Hormuz the night of 10/11 SEP.
The morning of 11 SEP saw ENTERPRISE sort of idling off the coast of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea, awaiting word of our route home. We were scheduled to return via Capetown South Africa, a departure from the standard Red Sea/Suez return most carriers execute. State Department approval came in the early afternoon, and we pointed south (recall we had a 6/7 hour time differential from the US East Coast). Unusual, as we were right where we’d wind up spending the next two months…
As it was a no fly day, and operations were running down, I had the opportunity for an afternoon run on the flight deck. As I returned to my stateroom, the TV was on the news—they were calmly discussing/showing a large fire at the World Trade Center. There were unconfirmed reports an aircraft had struck the tower. No one seemed particularly perturbed. I saw the crystal-clear weather and wondered what bonehead could have done it. As I returned from my shower, I literally opened my stateroom door to see the second jet hit the other tower.
After the initial ‘holy shit,’ it was clear this wasn’t an accident. I am embarrassed to admit my first thought was ‘well, we’re not going home anytime soon.’ I frankly expected us to sit in the Middle East somewhere, maybe doing a little work, but sort of expected the half-measure drudgery we had been doing with Iraq and in response to the attacks on the USS COLE and the bombing of African embassies (remember those?).
Dressing quickly, I went to CVW OPS, which was eerily calm. Just guys watching TV. But within minutes, 0ur Air Wing Commander CAPT Dave Mercer came in, and told us to start getting a plan together for a robust Alert package.
This means we’d have several fully-armed, manned jets on the flight deck, ready to launch in seven minutes or less. As the flight deck was set for aircraft maintenance vice flight operations, and all ordnance was struck below, this was going to take some time. He also told us the Captain of ENTERPRISE was to address the crew, and put the ship at General Quarters (‘battle stations’). We got to work, coordinating squadrons, maintenance folks, and putting a schedule in place. ENTERPRISE sprung to action. The flight deck crew began the laborious process of rigging the deck for flight ops. Ordnancemen broke out all manners of weapons, and staged them on elevators to the flight deck. Aircrew attempted to prepare for… what?
We had no idea what form, if any, the threat would take. Aircraft, ships, who knew? This was so out of the realm of experience. We also considered an incident could cause someone to shoot down an airliner or other noncombatant—recall, some of the biggest airborne losses at Pearl Harbor on 7 DEC 41 were jittery US antiaircraft batteries shooting down Wildcat fighters from the older ENTERPRISE as they hurried back to the wounded base.
More troubling were some of the crazy reports we were getting from both the news as well as our intelligence sources. One depicted six airliners, all hijacked over the Pacific, headed for the West Coast. Obviously not true, but stuff like this made folks antsy. Throughout 11 SEP, we never lost communications with our immediate Chain of Command, US FIFTH Fleet in Bahrain, the States, and even satellite TV. That said, nobody really had a handle on things until much later.
ENTERPRISE additionally turned back for Hormuz, and started making tracks. The ship is unique amongst US carriers as its hull is significantly narrower than a NIMITZ, making it the fastest of a very fast bunch. We were moving in excess 40 MPH, impressive for a 95,000 ton ship.
As we had no orders, this seemed the most prudent thing; only after a few hours’ steaming did C5F tell us to return to the North Arabian Sea. The idea of ‘bottling’ us in the Arabian Gulf with an adversary yet to be determined, in a world upside down was not appealing. As the days progressed, we slightly relaxed our alert posture. Trained Naval Aviators sometime have troubles finding their carrier if its trying to stay covert; we believed a guy in a hijacked airliner was probably out of luck. It became clear who had perpetrated this act, and where they were. Planning began apace to address these folks. People also forget the first week or two after 9/11 saw a lot of fence-sitting by Pakistan. Nobody really knew how they would respond. Pakistan was a friend of the Taliban, and sees (to this day) the advantages of a fundamentalist Islamic state on its border, and considers Afghanistan strategic depth in case of a war with India. They could very easily have gone the other way in this fight. As the only local US power in the area was CVW-8 aboard ENTERPRISE (soon to be joined by USS CARL VINSON and CVW-14), we started planning how to fight through Pakistan’s air defenses to get to Afghanistan.
Fortunately, this did not occur. By fortunately, I mean for the Pakistanis. We had a good idea of the threats, challenges and targets in Afghanistan; when the folks at Central Command (CENTCOM, guys who ‘owned’ this region of the world) promulgated their plan, it was impressive. No half-measures like after COLE. We were going to take the Taliban and their Al-Quaida guests to the mat.
An interesting sidenote… when we got the plan aboard ENTERPRISE (around 25 SEP 11), it was obviously highly classified. I mean like, only 15 guys on the ship saw it out of the gate. It was called Operation INFINITE JUSTICE.
After we reviewed the plan, I went back to work. CAG soon called me and told me to watch CNN’s ‘ticker’ (those graphics shooting across the bottom of your screen were new in September 2001). Sure enough, we saw a message saying words to the effect ‘Military operations in Afghanistan to be called Operation Infinite Justice.’
So much for compartmentalized security. It was later found the, per the Koran, only God can grant ‘infinite justice,’ so the name shifted to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM.
On 6 OCT 11, led by guys off VINSON (their Admiral was senior, so they went first), we went to war in Afghanistan. Nothing compared to how the men and women of CVW-8 and USS ENTERPRISE (CVN-65) executed the opening days of ENDURING FREEDOM
William “Libby” Lind is a retired Naval Aviator and former F-14 Tomcat RIO. He flew combat missions in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. A graduate of The Citadel, he is now Executive Assistant to the President The Citadel.
Top Photo Taringa.net