News | Sept. 13, 2021

DLA Distribution Susquehanna springs into defense mode after 9/11 attacks

By Diana Dawa, DLA Distribution Public Affairs

Sept. 11, 2021, marks the 20-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on America. It was a day that impacted the lives of so many Americans as well as people around the world.

Many know exactly what they were doing on that fateful day, and those memories still linger 20 years on.

Retired Navy Capt. Chris McKelvey, a former commander of Defense Logistics Agency Distribution Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, recalled in vivid detail where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.

“My wife Namoi and I, were on vacation visiting our close friends Uva and Sabine in Germany when the attack happened. Uva was working with NATO at the time. We were sitting in a cafĂ© with Sabine in Cologne when Sabine’s phone rang. It was her husband, Uva, who called from his office and asked to speak to me. “I don’t know what’s going on, but an aircraft has struck the twin towers in New York. Something isn’t right, I needed to call you, just wanted to let you know. I’ll keep you … Oh my God … a second aircraft has hit the second tower. I’m watching it right now. America is under attack. You two and Sabine, go to our home and stay there, and we’ll get you details as we get more information,” recalled McKelvey.

McKelvey would soon learn that another attack happened at the Pentagon, and that an aircraft was brought down in Pennsylvania.

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VIDEO | 00:53 | Former DLA Distribution Susquehanna commander reflects on 9/11 attack

“At that point in time we had no idea what or who we were up against, just that we were under attack and the fact that we commanded the largest Department of Defense supply organization is a viable target, kept going through my mind,” said McKelvey.

McKelvey was able to reach his boss, retired Army Lt. Gen. James Pillsbury, who at the time was a Brig. Gen., and was a fairly new DLA Distribution commander as well.

Pillsbury, along with McKelvey’s deputy, were away on temporary duty to DLA Distribution San Joaquin, California. In their absence, Pillsbury appointed Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Fisher, DDSP’s executive officer, to serve as acting commander while they were away.

Not long after the plane hit the Pentagon, and after the one that crashed in the field in Pennsylvania, Fisher received a call from Pillsbury.

“I didn’t realize I was the next senior guy up, but since the general’s chief of staff wasn’t here either, I got the baton passed to me. His guidance was real simple, ‘Protect my depot.’”

“I agreed with that assessment,” said McKelvey. “If you’ve got a job to do, get a Marine in there.”

Two specific events happened in Germany that have had a lasting impression with McKelvey.

“While we were at Sabine’s house an older German gentleman walked in the door and came up to me while speaking German,” said McKelvey. 
Sabine said she would translate. “This is Uva’s [her husband’s] dad. He is not welcome in my house, but he came here to talk to you. He said, ‘I am a German. I fought your country during the war. I killed Americans; I did what I had to do. But I just want you to know that this is an attack on all mankind, and I stand beside you.”

McKelvey said he then turned around and walked out.

“That has probably stayed in my mind as the biggest thing that occurred during that time. One other event that has stayed with me happened the following day. Sabine, and my wife and I, were in a grocery store. At about 3:00 p.m., an announcement came over the speaker and nearly everyone in the store got down on their knees. Sabine explained that across Germany, people were taking one minute to pray for America.”

Trying to connect via phone lines to get back to the states was a challenge and it took nearly a week to get the McKelvey’s back to home station in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania.

Fisher, who was appointed acting DDSP commander, was brand new in his assignment as the executive officer.

“I don’t think my check-in sheet was even complete,” said Fisher. “I show up, check in and meet Capt. McKelvey. We high-five it, and he goes off to Germany. I’m still checking in and trying to figure out how things work here, how the chain of command works here.”

And then 9/11 hit.

Fisher said there was a young lady in the office watching the tragic events unfold on the computer.

“I thought to myself, this isn’t good, as I looked out the window and noticed there wasn’t a fence around the depot and not enough DoD policeman to cover the gates properly. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that 50-90% of all supplies that the military services get come from DLA/DDC depots and with DDSP being the largest, it had the lion share of pieces and parts that the services were ordering. So, strategically it’s an extremely important place that warrants protection,” said Fisher.

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VIDEO | 00:57 | Former DLA Distribution Susquehanna commander reflects on 9/11 attack

Fisher went into immediate defense mode. Being new in his position didn’t deter him from his mission, and he was able to rely on tenured workers to get things done.

He initiated 100% vehicle searches and ID checks at the gate and stood up a perimeter defense.

“Realizing we didn’t have a large enough DoD police force, especially in those first 12 hours, prompted us to reach out to military members to help out at the gates. Back then, about 50% of employees were Vietnam veterans who, God Bless ‘em, wanted to volunteer. They were ready to come to work and help protect the depot and man gates and stuff, of course I really couldn’t let them do that,” said Fisher.

“I was very proud of our workforce. They were ready, able, capable and wanting to move out. I was very proud of what the installation personnel here were capable of – they absolutely came through,” said McKelvey.

Over the next few weeks and months, the installation saw additional security measures put in place to deter future attacks.

Twenty years later, security has been updated even more and the changes were pleasing to Fisher.

“It did my heart good to see that this installation still maintains a focus on security, and continued improvement in that area, and I think that’s great.”