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The Coast Guard rescued half a million New Yorkers from the 9/11 terror attacks

The U.S. Coast Guard was on scene just over an hour after the first plane hit during the 9/11 attacks. Members of the service evacuated half a million people from Lower Manhattan and stayed on to help clean up New York.


Coast Guard Petty officer Billy Bashaw, from Station Fire Island, bows his head in sorrow onboard his rescue boat Sept. 11. Bashaw has close friends who work in the World Trade Center who are still unaccounted for. (USCG photo by PA2 Tom Sperduto)

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Manhattan was thrown into chaos as more than 500,000 people fled towards the water. They were looking for any way to get off the island and away from the dust, debris, and fire that came from the World Trade Center.

No one on the ground at the time knew for sure what was really happening. What New Yorkers did know is that they wanted to flee to safety, and on that sunny Tuesday morning the Coast Guard took immediate action. The first tower was struck at 8:46, and by 10 AM, more than 40 Coast Guard cutters and boats flooded towards the southern tip of Manhattan.

Coast Guard crewmembers patrol the harbor after the collapse of the World Trade Center. Terrorist hijacked four commercial jets and then crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside. USCG photo by PA3 Tom Sperduto

"We felt the impact of the plane hit the Pentagon as we watched New York on TV," then-Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral James Loy recalls, "and we knew that it was a large-scale terrorist attack."

Seen is an aerial view of Pentagon after a hijacked airline crashed into it Sept. 11. Terrorist hijacked four commercial jets and then crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside. (U.S. COAST GUARD PHOTO)

Loy relied on his junior officers to put into action their exhaustive search and rescue and port security training. Those men and women quickly realized they couldn't go at it alone.

A radio call to any boats that could help came from Lt. Michael Day, the Chief of Activities New York – Waterways Oversight Branch.

"United States Coast Guard aboard the pilot boat New York," he called. "All mariners, we appreciate your assistance."

He went on to ask for any vessels to head for several areas set up by the Coast Guard to help shuttle more than 500,000 people off the island. They also had to recover people who attempted to swim towards Staten Island and Jersey City.

New Yorkers rushed to the Lower Manhattan water front at Battery Park to try to escape the collapse of the World Trade Center towers September 11. They were later evacuated by ferries and tugboats from all over New York harbor. (USCG photo by Chief Brandon Brewer)

Nearly 80 vessels shuttled supplies and personnel between Manhattan Battery and Jersey City as a part of the relief and clean-up efforts in the days following the attack. Loy also changed the course for every cutter on the Atlantic coast to cease migrant and drug interdiction operations and to begin defense readiness and port security operations.

The Coast Guard continued to stand the ready-guard in the weeks and months following 9/11. The world was unsure of whether the attacks would happen again. The Coast Guard guarded every nuclear power plant on navigable U.S. waters. They worked tirelessly and around the clock for months, a part of the recovering and cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center, as well as performing their regular duties.

"You could just see the exhaustion in everyone's eyes as they worked, unrelenting in trying to just find a survivor," reflects Senior Chief Machinery Technician Tina Claflin, who served with Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team as a Machinery Technician 2nd Class, on her time working in the clean up efforts.

Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jeff Bradbury of the Coast Guard Battery Park office in New York City helps deliver supplies to rescue workers at "Ground Zero" the night of September 11, 2001. Van loads of supplies were brought to the Battery Park office where members of Team Coast Guard - including active duty, Reservists, and Auxiliarists - delivered them to the site in lower Manhattan throughout the evening. (USCG photo by PAC Brandon Brewer)

Coast Guardsman were not always in their iconic blue uniforms that morning. Several reservists were in New York as first responders, including Christian Waugh, a New York City firefighter, and Port Securityman 1st Class. Waugh, along with Lt. William Cosgrove, NYPD and Zachary Vause, NYFD, carried the body of Rev. Mychal Judge out of the north tower just moments before it collapsed.

The father of the Coast Guard – the first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton – is buried in the Trinity Churchyard, just steps away from where the World Trade Center stood. In the wake of the attacks, as Loy and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Vince Patton stood near Trinity Church, they realized how powerful the house of worship stood as a monument.

It sustained only a broken window and was a place of refuge for recovery workers. As Loy looked around the ash and debris-strewn churchyard, he looked at Patton and told him that they had to clean it. Patton first looked at Loy and thought "Has the old man lost his mind?" but realized Loy was looking across the yard at Hamilton's grave.

Patton spoke with Senior Chief Petty Officer Steve Koll, the Command Senior Chief at Activities New York, and less than 24 hours later was sent back to New York. Patton estimated the job would take nearly 100 people days to finish. Koll, who had just a few dozen on hand, finished the job in less than a day.

U.S. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Steven Koll and Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Vince Patton, adjust the flag placed at the grave site of Alexander Hamilton, the 'father of the Coast Guard', Thursday at the cemetery of Trinity Church, a few blocks away from the WTC disaster site. (USCG photo by PA2 Mark Mackowiak)

While the Coast Guard remembered its history, it also mourned the loss of current members. Jeffrey M. Palazzo, a New York City Fire Fighter and Machinery Technician 1st Class in the Coast Guard Reserves was trapped as the North Tower collapsed, his remains never recovered. Police officer and Port Securityman 2nd Class Vincent G. Danz also lost his life in the North Tower, looking for survivors with the Bronx's Emergency Service Unit. His remains were lost until December 2001.

The Master Chief of the Coast Guard Vince Patton, reads some of the messages Thursday that have been applied to the first responder fire truck near the World Trade Center disaster site. Patton was visiting the site to pay respects and to visit with the Coast Guard personnel who are assisting in the recovery. (USCG photo by PA2 Mark Mackowiak)

In everything the Coast Guard did in the aftermath of 9/11, the service didn't forget its core values of honor, respect, and devotion to duty. As Patton reflected on the efforts in New York, he said: "When we all rallied around honor, everything just fell into place."

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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