Tragedy, Heroism and Betrayal
My name is Jack W. I was born in New York City on September 1, 1941.
My grandparents were immigrants from Europe. Two of my earliest memories are the day Franklin Roosevelt died and VJ Day. I always loved art and music. I attended the City’s High School of Music and Art, was educated as an architect and taught myself to be a folksinger. I moved to London, England for work and experience, joined the resistance to the Vietnam War, supported Vietnamese liberation, was sought as a fugitive by the FBI, wrote and sang songs. By 1977, when I was granted amnesty by President Jimmy Carter, I was settled permanently in England. I married an English girl 43 years ago. We have three grown children, one of whom lives in New York, and three grandchildren. I’ve never ceased to feel an American who loves and cares for the country where my journey started and cultural heritage was imparted.
Around 12 noon on September 11th 2001 I was at my day job as an architect, in central London, restoring an early 18th century historic building. My phone rang. It was my daughter, Stella, then 22 years. She’d just got news that New York, where I was born and grew up, was under attack. She was describing the WTC in smoke and fire, and security sources warning of an attack on London. Someone went to find a radio. I looked out the tall first floor window onto the Covent Garden Piazza below. A lot of people were scurrying across it, very fast. Holding the phone to my ear I joined the mass exit, racing the 10 or 12 minutes across the square, over Waterloo Bridge, down to Waterloo Station. I boarded the first available train for home in Hampshire, about 50 miles southwest.
Arriving home, the rest of the day was spent watching, over and over, the Twin Towers being hit and finally collapsing in seconds, accompanied by shock-horror commentary from TV presenters, observers and politicians. I tried to phone my relatives in and around New York to see if they were safe.
As the day went on, news came of other hijacked plane attacks on Washington.
It continued, late into the night and early next morning before I turned in, to a sleepless night, thinking about the coming years, after watching George W Bush’s address, our time being 5 hours ahead of New York. My wife Jane, a British civil servant, also at work would later tell about how a colleague in the same room, on learning of the attack, immediately remarked “It’s Bin Laden.”
Following events ever since, I’ve seen the America, whose values I grew up believing in, corrupted and overturned more completely than even the Vietnam war, which had made me an exile. Comparisons made with the noble defeat of world Fascism after Pearl Harbor are shredded. I learned how American leaders and institutions knew about Bin Laden’s fanatics for years, how they nurtured fanaticism in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban, how the New World Order elite spread lies and fake news which led directly to the Iraq invasion, installation of puppet governments in Baghdad and Kabul and huge loss of life.
Worst of all, they instill fear, mass surveillance, suppression of opposition, hate and suspicion of Muslims, systematic withdrawal of free expression, deportations and toleration of injustice against minorities in America.
Conspiracy theories took hold. Social media acquiesced in claims powerful Jews planned the attacks to blame Islam, get richer, achieve world domination or all of those. One or two of my friends even believed it. Edward Snowden has joined Daniel Elllsberg as heroes, for revealing the truth about cover up, surveillance and media complicity.
I joined the largest demonstration in British history, against invading Iraq.
The government and Parliament, acting on the body of lies about WMDs decided it was perfectly legal to invade. Neither America nor Britain could hide the extent of slaughter, torture, rendition, arbitrary imprisonment without charge or trial at Guantanamo. A small number of very rich people, corporations and selected contractors benefitted from the trillions that could have helped heal deepening divisions, poverty, poor health care and failing infrastructure at home. How many millions American lives were cut short during the 20 years of war and occupation of Afghanistan because there was no money to help them out of poverty and sickness? To me the safeguarding one’s country against fanatical acts of terror is not a reason to unleash war. We had not learned from Vietnam.
Nevertheless, I do hold onto stories of heroism that accompanied tragedy, such as celebrating those, now enshrined in the American pantheon, heroes who stood for all the valor Americans profess, defying terror by giving their lives for their country- the passengers and crew of Flight United 93.
Failing to find a song that could express the immortality of their act, I set out to make one, drawing from my live-long immersion in American folk songs.
Woody Guthrie’s song from World War II, “The Sinking of the Reuben James,” about a merchant ship sunk by a German submarine, soon came to mind. A perfect model, it told the story factually and economically, like a news report. But it’s rousing chorus. “…What were their names, tell me what were their names? Did you have a friend on the good Reuben James?...” made it immortal.
I read the account carefully. This was before a movie was made of it. Thirty seven passengers boarded the flight in Newark, for San Francisco. Half an hour after takeoff, the assassins entered the cockpit, killed the pilot and co-pilot, took over the plane and changed course for Washington DC. The passengers, realizing it was a suicide mission ending with their certain death, decided to fight. Their actions caused the plane to crash, failing to reach the intended target, alleged to have been the White House.
I knew Woody had taken the tune for “Reuben James” from the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower.” Why not borrow it in the time honored folk process, for “United 93?”
93/ Lyrics - Jack W. Music - “Wildwood
It was on a Tuesday morning, the sun was shining bright
37 passengers were boarding for the flight Destination San Francisco, they’d never get to see Departure boards were flashing United 93
United 93, remember their names
Come tell of the time on that great silver plane The bravest band of travellers that ever flew the sky Said “We’re bound to fight ‘cause we know we’re bound to die.”
Half an hour in the air, four hijackers attacked Blood flowed in the cockpit, the passengers forced back They could see that these assassins were bent on suicide Their dark and deadly plan must surely be defied
Time was short, they all phoned home, said what they had to do “We’re gonna take the plane back even if we go down too”
Five men led the charge, a voice called out “Let’s roll”
They crashed at Stoney Creek and became immortal souls
A fireball of lightening broke across the hills that day God knows what greater terror they defeated by the way So when we sing of heroes who keep our country free We’ll remember the passengers on Flight 93
Flight United 93….
I made a Youtube video and recorded it on the album “Good Road” with Stuart Burns. It was featured on BBC folk music radio.
I’ve been singing it ever since for folk audiences in clubs and on line.
The abiding memory of that event lifts my spirits out of the darkness of tragedy, terror, senseless destruction and death, carefully orchestrated by a powerful band of vengeful Americans in the name of freedom.