The Marine Band has the privilege of performing many other duties outside of its primary mission. Not the least of these is its ceremonial role – using music to both honor the extraordinary and memorialize the fallen.
On this 20th anniversary of 9/11, “The President’s Own” reflects back on the day that so radically changed our modern time, and how the band has taken part in moments of the nation’s healing process.
September 11, 2001:
The rehearsal hall was silent at the time of the attack. The band’s schedule was light that Tuesday, so it was mostly just the band’s staff in the offices that morning. The day’s events are documented as a historical addendum to the daily library log:
At about 0850 SSgt Preston Mitchell came into the library with the news that a plane had struck the World Trade Center in New York City. All in the library rushed to the Santelmann lounge to see the large TV showing live coverage of the event: flames and black smoke were billowing from near the top of one of the two towers.
Most of the support staff sat in disbelief, watching the disaster for several minutes. As we sat watching the tower burn we watched in horror as a second plane struck the other tower. Immediately it became obvious to all that this was a deliberate act of terrorism, not an accident.
All television stations abandoned their regular programming to cover the disaster. The images we saw were unbelievable and not describable. The scene looked much like the currently popular disaster movies but with the sober realization that this was real, not fantasy.
Some on the support staff returned to their jobs shortly after 0930, not out of disinterest with the event, but possibly unable to just sit and watch. At about 0945 SSgt Jane Cross received a phone call from the civilian computer programmer who was visiting at 1030 to continue work on the library database. He had just heard that the Pentagon had been attacked and he was canceling his appointment. Jane rushed to the lounge to check on the news and immediately discovered that it was true.
We all rushed back to the lounge to watch the news coverage. It was obvious that the United States was under attack by an unknown enemy. With the possibility of additional attacks on military facilities, a terrible uneasiness spread through the staff. As we watched, several members clearly heard what sounded like an explosion not too far from Marine Barracks. We all considered evacuation to the underground parking garage. This explosion turned out to be the sonic boom of military jets racing through the skies over Washington.
After several minutes it was decided to cancel the all-hands muster that was scheduled for 1530. The entire barracks was to be addressed by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James L. Jones. MSgt Bill Perry and GySgt Fred Lemmons began calling the entire band as the staff continued to watch the news. GySgt Karl Jackson and I joined Bill and Fred in the Operations Office to help with the calls.
As we were making the calls, those watching the TV yelled in total disbelief as they watched the second tower that had been struck collapse straight down to the street. Huge clouds of smoke and dust almost totally obscured the view of the lower Manhattan area. The time was 10:05.
Rumors were being heard that other explosions were occurring in Washington. The news reported that a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. There was a rumor that another plane was headed for Washington. All of these rumors proved to be false but helped to add to the tension.
Colonel Foley gathered the support staff several times to discuss the plan. At the first meeting he wisely asked all to stay at the barracks, believing that it was safer to remain indoors at the barracks then [sic] to try to get home. The city streets and major highways were already clogged with the cars of people trying to escape the city. All chose to stay but it was very difficult to do any work.
At 1028 the first of the Trade Center towers collapsed to the ground, adding huge amounts of dust, debris, and smoke throughout lower Manhattan. In a distant aerial view of New York City the entire southern third of Manhattan Island was obscured in smoke and dust. The enormity of the disaster was difficult to comprehend.
At 1045 all federal office buildings in Washington, DC were evacuated. The support staff continued to monitor events on the TV and tried to accomplish some work. In a second meeting with the support staff held at 1215, Colonel Foley relayed Marine Barracks Commanding Officer Colonel Tryon's desire for the barracks to remain open and operational. It was decided that we would be on a stay-by-your phones status for Wednesday, September 12. Because the US military went to Threat Condition Delta worldwide, guards at the various posts at Marine Barracks were doubled and were wearing full combat gear.
At 1615 I left Marine Barracks and headed home. 8th street was amazingly quiet, almost deserted. I discovered that all of the streets and highways were nearly empty of traffic, a very unusual and eerie sight at a business day rush hour. I headed west on the South East-South West Freeway to go south on I-395. There was very little traffic. My route took me directly past the still-burning Pentagon. Thick brown and orange smoke drifted southward across 395. As I continued south on 395 and circled around the Pentagon I got a quick glimpse of the West side of the building where the jet crashed. I was able to see the gaping hole in the building and the black charring extending along much of the wall. I continued on my way home, arriving about 1700. I turned on my TV at home to continue watch the coverage of the attack on the United States.
MGySgt Mike Ressler, Chief Librarian
Most of the band’s scheduled commitments were cancelled for the coming days while the nation came to grips with what had transpired, but new ones came into place as America tended to its fresh wounds.
September 12, 2001:
A congressional prayer vigil was held in the U.S. Capitol rotunda in memorial of those lost in the attacks, and the Marine Band was called upon to provide music for the gathering. WATCH
With the weight of the previous day’s events hanging heavy on their shoulders, members of Congress gathered under the white dome while director Col. Timothy W. Foley led the Marine Band.
“My concern was to ensure that our music was suitable for the service,” Foley said. “As I approached the podium to begin the prelude, I was surprised to see the great cellist and former music director of the National Symphony, Mstislav Rostropovich seated in the front row, immediately next to me. How I was hoping that he might have been prepared to play one of the Bach solo cello suites and how appropriate that eloquent lone cello might have been.”
Instead, the band played Bach’s Prelude and “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Vaughan William’s “Rhosymedre,” Verdi’s “Ave Maria,” and Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus.”
“If carefully chosen, music provides an emotional component and connection with the departed that words rarely convey,” Foley said.
As the final strain of “God of Our Fathers” echoed throughout the halls, the last few lawmakers were seated and Senate Chaplain Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie took the podium. (Watch at 2:59).
After the Chaplain gave remarks and paused for a moment of silent prayer, a joint service color guard entered for the national anthem, performed by the band and vocalist Staff Sgt. Kevin Bennear. (Watch at 14:11).
“To interrupt the private reflection of those inside the rotunda on that dark night with any music seemed jarring and abrupt,” Foley said.
But the previous day’s events had been jarring enough.
“I remember looking at the members of Congress singing along with me, many with tears in their eyes, and I thought to myself – this is the best of our spirit. I was incredibly moved,” Master Gunnery Sgt. Bennear recalled.
Following additional moments of prayer and remarks from representatives and senators, the Marine Band closed the ceremony with “God Bless America.” This offered a moment for all in attendance, politics aside, to lift their voices in unity (Watch at 44:08).
September 11, 2002:
Though a year had passed since the attacks, the nation’s healing was still in its earliest stages. A gaping hole was still left in many hearts.
On the one-year anniversary, musicians of “The President’s Own” were tasked to perform at both the Pentagon and Ground Zero.
That morning, a ceremony was held to remember the lives lost at the Pentagon and to rededicate the Pentagon as a symbol of the nation’s might and resolve.
During the event, President George W. Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld looked on while a massive United States flag unfurled over the Pentagon’s newly reconstructed wall. Again Staff Sgt. Bennear was present to sing the National Anthem, this time with a banner waving with a sense of renewal, and an audience filled with greater hope. (Listen at 37:07).
“That was hands-down the most memorable performance of my career,” Bennear said. “I remember the sea of people, I remember the President unveiling our flag over the restored Pentagon, and the palpable sense of pride emanating from all those gathered.”
Later that afternoon a 42-piece ensemble from the Marine Band arrived in New York.
Flutist Master Gunnery Sgt. Betsy Hill related her experience from the band’s trip:
“While riding the bus north to New York City, I remember watching the city come into view and being struck by the fact that the twin towers were absent from that familiar skyline. It was like a piece of a puzzle was missing.”
At the site, the band descended 70 feet below Manhattan streets to the bottom of Ground Zero.
“It was very windy and I recall how hard it was to keep our music from blowing every which way. A water truck was spraying the ground, trying to keep the debris from swirling, but the dirt still got in our eyes. Of course, most of us were tearing up anyway. Watching the family members slowly walking down the ramp to pay their respects was a sight I’ll never forget.”
“Despite all that,” Foley remembers, “the members of the band played in the most beautiful and musical way - as they always do, and as I knew they would on that day.”
At the event, President Bush and the First Lady laid a wreath in honor of the thousands of lives lost the year before, then spent time comforting families who had gathered together in remembrance of their loved ones.
September 11, 2011:
Like each year that had passed before it, the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 was a milestone in its own right, but a decade is no insignificant amount of time. It was a special cause for recognition of the events that unfolded in 2001 – a moment to once again honor those whose absence had been felt for so long, to reflect on how the country was still healing, and to gather in hope for a way forward.
Washington National Cathedral organized a three-day observance to provide such a space to honor, heal and hope. Under the baton of Col. Michael Colburn, the Marine Chamber Orchestra performed two concerts as part of the Cathedral’s “A Call to Compassion.”
The second of these tributes was held on September 11, 2011, in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (due to earthquake damage at the Cathedral). The televised “Concert for Hope” featured the orchestra accompanying special guest artists Alan Jackson singing “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning,” Patti LaBelle performing “Two Steps Away” and Denyce Graves closing with “Amazing Grace.”
Colburn elaborated on this significant performance:
The mood was somber and respectful, as you would expect, but somewhat different and more distant than I remembered experiencing in the events held in the more immediate aftermath of the event. It had the perfect balance of remarks from a number of speakers, including President Barack Obama, as well as a variety of music that addressed different perspectives on this national tragedy. But the highlight for me was our performance with the National Cathedral Choir of the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s searingly beautiful Chichester Psalms.
In the middle of the Bernstein performance it suddenly struck me that the boy singing the solo so beautifully was certainly too young to remember experiencing 9/11, if he was even alive, and then I realized the same was true for all the young singers in the choir loft. In that single moment, I was reminded of the importance of marking this type of anniversary, and of the serious obligation we in the Marine Band have to use our art form to help our citizens remember the many acts of heroism and sacrifice that have been made throughout the history of our great country.
Watch “Concert for Hope”
September 11, 2021:
Two decades after the September 11th attacks, the Marine Band paid tribute to that day in new ways:
For the first time ever, the band took part in ceremonies at the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pa. The event included remarks from former President George W. Bush, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolfe, among others. At 10:03 a.m., the moment Flight 93 crashed, the names of the passengers and crew members were read with the ringing of the Bells of Remembrance. The Marine Band performed all music during the ceremony, including a prelude as family and friends of the plane crash victims were seated for the ceremony, and a postlude as they passed through the Memorial Plaza gate and gathered at the hemlock grove impact site. Watch the full Flight 93 National Memorial ceremony.
“The President’s Own” also premiered a new piece on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Composed by Marine Band Assistant Director Maj. Ryan Nowlin, “These Lights, Which Shine” draws inspiration from a Yiddish poem which uses the light of stars as a metaphor for how the memories of those we have lost live on well after they are gone. Read more here.
Watch "These Lights, Which Shine"