2012 Redux US Marine, Force Tarawa – Battle of Nasiriyah, 2003
“God, I hate this … place. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
“God, I hate this … place. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Edited from an account by: Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, California. August 26, 2003. (Copyright © The Times Mirror Company)
Charlie Company had reached Nasiriyah after pushing up 85 miles from Kuwait. Another Marine unit had seized a bridge leading into the city over the Euphrates River.
Charlie Company’s mission on March 23 was to take a second bridge three miles north. Controlling both spans was crucial to moving a massive Marine Expeditionary Force to Baghdad. Had things gone as planned, the 200 Marines in their lightly armored vehicles would have avoided the densely populated heart of Nasiriyah, a city of 500,000. They were supposed to take a roundabout route to the north bridge, swinging east of the city behind a dozen M1-A1 Abrams tanks and a second Marine unit, Bravo Company.
But Bravo Company’s vehicles sank several feet deep in mud flats east of Nasiriyah. Its 200 men could not help take the bridge. The tanks were also out of the fight, diverted on a rescue mission. The Army’s 507th Maintenance Company had taken a wrong turn that morning and been ambushed near the city. Eleven soldiers were killed and seven captured. The Marines’ tanks rushed to retrieve survivors, burning their fuel in the process. When they returned, they were sent to the rear to refuel just as Charlie Company was preparing to push north.
“Where the hell are the tanks going?” Cpl. Randy Glass recalled thinking. “Why the hell aren’t the tanks in front of us?”
Despite the lack of armor and the stranding of Bravo’s men, Charlie Company was ordered to take the north bridge and to get there by the most direct route — a three-mile stretch of highway lined by buildings and alleyways. Some intelligence reports called it “Ambush Alley.” Lt. Col. Rick Grabowski, the battalion commander, said that going ahead made sense at the time. Though concerned about Ambush Alley, commanders did not anticipate a tough fight for the bridge, he said: “None of us really knew what was on the northern side of the city.” And time was of the essence. If they waited for the tanks to return or for troop reinforcements, the Marines risked fighting for the bridge in darkness, Grabowski said. There was another factor driving the Marines forward that day. It reflected a state of mind as much as the state of the battlefield. “Keep moving” was the motto of Charlie Company’s battle regiment.
“Once we were in the city and we made contact,” Grabowski said, “there wasn’t going to be any backing down.”
When he got the order to move into the city, Sgt. William Schaefer thought he’d heard wrong. “Say again,” he called into his radio.
Schaefer was a commander at the head of Charlie Company’s 11 amphibious assault vehicles. The men inside were from the beach towns of Southern California, the hamlets of upstate New York and many places in between. One planned to enroll at Rutgers University in New Jersey when he got home. Another wanted to be a Reno cop. Some were immigrants. Others were from proud military families.
They were part of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and had shipped out in January from their base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Their tub-shaped assault vehicles, called “tracks,” are a 30- year-old design made for taking and holding beachheads. They are 26 feet long, carry up to 20 Marines each, and are armed with .50- caliber machine guns and grenade launchers. Their reinforced-aluminum skin is vulnerable to artillery and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs – – unlike the heavy armor on tanks. Thick steel plating can be attached to the tracks, but none was available to outfit Charlie Company’s vehicles when they reached the war zone, the Marines said.
“Eight Ball, Oscar Mike,” Schaefer barked into the radio, and with that signal the company was on the move.
The tracks crossed the Euphrates on the bridge captured earlier and moved single file up Ambush Alley. It was a little before noon. On both sides, a dense warren of mud-colored buildings pressed up against the road.
At first, the Iraqis seemed to welcome the Marines. A few waved white flags. Then, in a breath, the convoy was under attack from all directions. Iraqis were firing from rooftops, from around corners, from machine-gun nests hidden in side streets.
“We saw women shoot at us with RPGs…. We saw children shoot at us,” recalled the company commander, Capt. Daniel J. Wittnam. “We never saw one person in uniform.” Returning the fire, Schaefer alternated between his machine gun and grenade launcher, working a foot pedal that spun his turret right, then left.
Schaefer, 25, of Columbia, S.C., said the Marines tried to distinguish between Iraqi fighters and noncombatants. “But at that point, it was hard.” The enemy, the Marines learned later, was a combination of Iraqi army soldiers, Fedayeen Saddam militiamen and Baath Party loyalists. One man knelt and aimed an RPG at Schaefer’s track. A burst of .50-caliber fire cut off the top half of the Iraqi’s body.
“Pieces of people were all over the street,” said Lance Cpl. Edward Castleberry, 21, who was at the wheel of Schaefer’s vehicle.
Near the rear of the convoy, Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, 31, of Ventura was driving a track crowded with more than 20 Marines. Bitz and his crew had picked up extra men when the company’s 12th track broke down outside town. Men were crammed on bench seats amid boxes of ammunition. Several were riding atop the vehicle. In the middle of the column, Marines on another track shouted for more firepower to answer the torrent of incoming rounds. Lance Cpl. Eric Killeen, 22, a weightlifter from Florida’s Gulf Coast, popped out of the hatch with his 15-pound squad automatic weapon, a machine gun that can spray 1,000 rounds per minute. Killeen poured fire down side streets, into doorways, at second- story windows.
“My adrenaline was pumping so high,” Killeen said. “Every emotion you can imagine was running through your body.”
Castleberry, a Seattle snowboarder who’d joined the Marines the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, steered the lead vehicle with one hand and fired his M-16 rifle with the other.
“I figured one more gun couldn’t hurt,” he said.
The convoy pushed north, the tracks pausing and pivoting at times to allow gunners a better view. They were almost through the gantlet of Ambush Alley. Their objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, was a few hundred yards away. Inside Bitz’s overcrowded track, it was dark and noisy. The air reeked of diesel fumes. Marines were on top of one another. Some stood on the shoulders of their comrades, firing M-16s from a hatch near the rear.
Glass, a 20-year-old from Pennsylvania who had joined the Marines hoping to see combat, was sharing a menthol cigarette with Sgt. Jose Torres when an explosion lifted the 28-ton vehicle into the air.
- Pushing forward through the city, the entire Charlie Company had nearly traversed the four kilometer gauntlet when the second to last track, C211, was hit in the right rear by an RPG. The explosion spewed shrapnel into the crowded troop compartment, wounding five Marines. Sergeant Randy Glass was the closest to the impact. A large chunk of metal almost completely severed his leg. Smoke poured out of the troop compartment as the entire right rear of C211 continued to burn. The crippled track continued forward and managed to get across the northern bridge before it ground to a stop and more than twenty Marines scrambled out, taking the wounded with them. Source: militaryhistoryonline.com
“Immediately, I went deaf,” Glass recalled. An RPG had punctured the track’s aluminum body — and with it the Marines’ faith in their technological edge. Their tubs were not meant for this kind of fight — especially without the bolt-on armor plating.
“My eyes! My eyes!” shouted Torres, temporarily blinded.
“Glass is dead!” someone screamed in the chaos.
Glass wasn’t dead, but his left leg was a bleeding mass. Up top, the explosion had torched rucksacks tied to the track, turning them into balls of fire. Bitz drove the burning vehicle forward. This was no place to stop.
“Keep it tight! Keep it tight!” Schaefer shouted into the radio, not wanting any stragglers left behind.
The tracks finally crossed the Saddam Canal Bridge, a nondescript concrete span over an irrigation channel. Though it seemed an eternity, the trip had taken only a few minutes. On each side were swampy irrigation ditches and brush. Beyond was open flatland. The road was raised, and Charlie Company was an easy target.
The tracks fanned out over a quarter-mile-wide area. Marines in charcoal-lined chemical suits and Kevlar flak vests poured out of the vehicles and sought cover on both sides of the road. They had taken the bridge. Holding it was another matter. Small-arms fire exploded from the fields to the east and west and from the city to the rear. Marines scrambled out of Bitz’s burning track. A release on the rear loading ramp didn’t work, so the men piled out through a small hatch, climbing over the wounded. Schaefer helped carry out Glass, whose left leg had been tied with a tourniquet. Bitz was carrying injured Marines to cover when a shell exploded, spraying him with shrapnel. Blood streamed from his face and back as he continued hauling the wounded to safety.
“He was acting like nothing was wrong,” Schaefer said.
A plume of black smoke rose from Bitz’s track. Mortar shells landed on each side. The Iraqis quickly adjusted their aim and slammed the vehicle. Burning ammunition began punching out the track’s sides. Cpl. William Bachmann, 22, a New Jersey skateboarder, was wedging his lanky frame into a nearby depression when he saw a flash of light from the vehicle. A large-caliber round flew past him. “If I was standing up,” he said, “I would have been hit.”
Cpl. Randal Rosacker of San Diego set up his machine gun, providing cover for other Marines. His is a military family; his father is chief of boat on a Navy submarine. Rosacker, 21, was cut down by an Iraqi artillery round or mortar shell, said Wittnam, the company commander. He was one of the first Marines to die that day.
The company’s 15-man mortar squad set up a row of launchers on the east side of the road. The squad had no time to dig foxholes. The Marines worked three launchers furiously, knocking out Iraqi mortar positions across the canal. They fired so many rounds so quickly that their mortar tubes were glowing, almost translucent. “They were pretty much melting their tubes,” said Castleberry.
Outnumbered by the Iraqis’ mortar positions, the squad was a prime target. Incoming shells were landing closer and closer. Finally, the Iraqi mortars found their mark. Nine members of the squad would die before the battle was over.
Second Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr., a 6-foot-7-inch former basketball player, tried to call in artillery strikes on the Iraqis. A 31-year-old father from Nevada, he was the company’s forward artillery observer. He had trouble getting through on his field radio and moved to higher ground for better reception. An RPG hit him in the chest, fatally wounding him.
As the casualties mounted, Wittnam wanted helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But there was “no way in hell” they could land, he said. “It was too hot.” Navy Corpsman Luis Fonseca, 22, was giving morphine to Glass and another wounded Marine in one of the tracks. With a black marker, he scrawled “1327” on Glass’ head, indicating the time the painkiller was administered. The medic ran up and down the road looking for wounded when he saw Wittnam. “We’re starting to win this battle,” Fonseca recalled the captain saying.
Fonseca wasn’t convinced. “I know there’s a bullet with my name on it,” he recalled thinking. “I’m gonna do my job until I get hit.”
Machine gunners needed more ammunition. Sgt. Brendon C. Reiss, 23, a squad leader, and Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, 22, a Thai immigrant from Connecticut, ran to get more ammo boxes from one of the vehicles. An artillery round exploded, killing Chanawongse and fatally wounding Reiss. Around 1:30 p.m., Schaefer decided to evacuate the wounded, even though it meant going back through Ambush Alley. All 11 tracks had made it across the bridge. Schaefer lined up six of them in a column to head south.
“I was willing to take a chance because we had guys bleeding to death,” he said. “I was tired of seeing people getting killed.”
Bachmann and Lance Cpl. Donald Cline, 21, a former surfer raised in La Crescenta, were firing from behind a mound of earth. Word came that volunteers were needed to load the wounded onto the vehicles. “I’m going to go help,” Cline said, running toward the tracks spread out north of the bridge. It was the last time Bachmann saw his friend alive.
The Marines heard the plane before they saw it. The Air Force A- 10 Thunderbolt, known as the Warthog, flies ground-support missions, using its heavy gun. Cpl. Jared Martin, 29, a former high school wrestler from Phoenix, was outside Schaefer’s track when he heard the growl of the jet fighter’s twin engines. Its 30-millimeter cannon, which can shoot 3,900 rounds per minute, whipped up dense clouds of sand. “He was low,” Martin said. “He was coming right toward us. The next thing I know I’m feeling a lot of heat in my back.” Blood streamed from his right knee and left hand. A piece of shrapnel lodged below his eye. “My fingers, they were pretty much dangling,” Martin said. Lance Cpl. David Fribley, 26, of Florida, was just steps from the cover of Schaefer’s vehicle when rounds from the A-10 tore into his chest. “I wore what was inside of his body on my gear for a couple of days,” Martin said.
To ward off the friendly fire, the Marines shot flares, which streaked the sky with green smoke. The Marines said the A-10 made several strafing runs before it broke away. Schaefer hoisted a U.S. flag on his turret. He hoped the Warthog pilot would see it and hold his fire. He also wanted the tracks behind to be able to keep him in sight. “Watch for the flag,” he radioed to the convoy of six vehicles heading south with the wounded.
As the column started back toward Ambush Alley, one of the tracks exploded. Inside another track, Marines heard bullets bouncing off the aluminum skin. Glass, who had already been in one track that broke down, turned to Cpl. Mike Meade, whose leg was also injured.
“If this track stalls and we’re getting out,” Glass said. “It’s a death trap.”
A minute later, the vehicle stopped. Glass and Meade struggled out. Fonseca, the medic, heard the whistle of incoming shells and shoved a sergeant on top of Glass and another injured Marine. Then he piled on top to give added protection. Three RPGs flew by and exploded about 100 feet away.
“I need to save these boys,” he recalled thinking. “I need to take them back home.”
Glass saw an A-10 fire on one of the tracks. It’s unclear whether it was the same jet that had flown over earlier. Two of the aircraft appeared to be operating in the area, Marines said. “The A-10 came down hard and lit the track up,” Glass said. “There’s no mistake about it.” Torres was lying nearby when he saw the jet bearing down on him. “It was slow motion,” he said. “I turned at the last moment to avoid a direct hit.” Still, the Warthog’s rounds tore through his left side. “When he pulls the trigger,” Martin said of the pilot, “it’s just a wall of blood.”
Grabowski, the battalion commander, said that as many as six Marines may have been killed by A-10 fire. Wittnam believes it was one. Schaefer’s convoy, now down to five vehicles, was crossing the bridge. In front, a track that normally carried the mortar squad had several Marines inside. As the track came off the bridge, an Iraqi shell dropped down the left-side cargo hatch, ripping the vehicle in half. “A hand and arm bounced across the front of my vehicle,” said Schaefer. The remaining vehicles raced around the burning track. The rear of one track was crushed by an Iraqi shell, killing the wounded Bitz. The driver kept going.
The four surviving tracks made it to Ambush Alley. They were met by gunfire from all sides. Bullets ripped through Schaefer’s transmission fluid tank, and Castleberry felt the steering wheel freeze. “Hold on!” he shouted over the intercom as the track careened toward a light pole. Castleberry gunned the 525-horsepower diesel engine, hoping to knock down the pole. But the track slammed to a halt, swinging to the left toward a two-story concrete house. An RPG blew away the track’s front hatch, six inches above Castleberry’s head. Stunned, his face and hair singed, he jumped into the street. Schaefer radioed to the three surviving tracks: “Don’t stop. Keep going.”
Inside the disabled track, a dozen Marines grabbed ammunition containers and the wounded and headed for the house. Schaefer and two other Marines, one injured, were pinned down outside the track. “Then all hell broke loose,” Schaeffer said. “They just started coming out of nowhere, hundreds of them. “Iraqis were charging the Marines. Schaefer aimed his M-16 and quickly used up two 29-round clips as he killed some of the attackers and forced others to take cover.
“When you’re scared,” he said, “you pull your finger pretty fast.”
Two of the other Marines, meanwhile, scaled an 8-foot wall and went into the house. An Iraqi man and woman ran out the back door. The Marines hoisted the wounded over the wall and put them inside. The windows of the house were hidden by piles of sandbags and sacks of flour. In one room were pictures of Saddam Hussein and a man who looked like Jesus. Out on the street, Schaefer and the two other Marines were holding off the advancing Iraqis. Then the driver and a crewman from the track that had been ripped in half at the bridge appeared in the street. One was blind. The other was limping. “We’re laying cover fire for them,” Schaefer said, “and they hobbled inside.” Schaefer was on his last magazine clip. This is it, he recalled thinking: They’re going to overrun me. Then he heard the roar of a track driven by Cpl. Michael Brown. He had disregarded Schaefer’s instructions to continue and had turned around. Scooping up the three Marines, Brown took off in a rain of enemy fire. “He saved my life,” Schaefer said.
About seven Marines took up positions on the roof of the house. Martin, his wounds patched up, spotted two men peeking around a corner with an RPG. He fired and they fell. Martin looked at his watch. It was about 3 p.m. “We have about two hours before the sun goes down,” he thought. “Then we’re gonna be real screwed.” The man who lived in the house burst through the back door yelling. He entered the room where the wounded were being guarded, Castleberry said, and was shot dead. A lance corporal with the only operable radio called other units at the south end of the city for help. But the battery was low, and he couldn’t tell whether the message was getting through. With Iraqis now 20 yards from the building, the Marines on the roof were going through hundreds of rounds. Castleberry had fired so many grenades from his M-16 that the plastic hand grip on his launcher was melting. Two Iraqis sped by on a motorcycle, the passenger firing an AK- 47. On a second pass, one Marine hit the driver, spilling the bike. As the gunman tried to escape on the motorcycle, Castleberry unleashed another grenade. He saw a flash and the man’s body blew apart. The ammunition was running low. Castleberry and another Marine dashed to the disabled track, grabbing antitank missiles and crates of bullets as they dodged enemy rounds. On the roof, Martin and other Marines were trying to use shards of broken glass to reflect sunlight and get the attention of U.S. Cobra helicopter gunships overhead. Below, Iraqi fighters were trying to reach the abandoned track, with its load of weapons and ammunition. “We’re hitting them,” Martin recalled, “watching them drop.” He remembers a strange sensation. “Your body and brain ain’t working like a normal person’s would. Some people will snap. Some people will go off the edge. Everyone reacts differently,” Martin said. “I was having fun.” Marines at the south bridge had picked up the radioed pleas for help and organized a rescue party.
The first vehicle to arrive was a Humvee carrying a grizzled gunnery sergeant from another company. He was firing a pump-action shotgun out the passenger window as Marines on the roof sprayed cover fire. “What do you need?” he shouted. Water and radio batteries, the Marines answered. “I’ll be back,” the sergeant said. An M1-A1 tank arrived soon after and took away the wounded. The gunnery sergeant returned with Humvees to rescue the remaining Marines. As the vehicles unleashed heavy fire in several directions, forcing the Iraqi fighters to take cover, the sergeant stepped onto the street and lit a cigarette.”God, I hate this … place,” he said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Part of Charlie Company was still pinned down at the north bridge. Lance Cpl. Killeen, the Florida weightlifter, and his platoon were in the swamp near the span. He could hear enemy soldiers nearby. “I thought they were going to sandwich us,” Killeen said. “I figured my life was all over.” It was nearing 4 p.m. and the sun was getting low. The ground rumbled and Killeen climbed toward the bridge. If Iraqi tanks were coming, then the company was almost certainly lost, he recalled thinking.
As the tanks neared the canal, he saw they were American. These were the tanks that had spent their fuel retrieving members of the Army maintenance company that had been ambushed. Refueling had taken longer than expected because the pumps malfunctioned; it had to done by hand. When they learned that Charlie Company was taking a pounding, the tank crews cut short the refueling and rushed back to Nasiriyah. Now they were firing their 120-millimeter guns at Iraqi positions.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Killeen recalled.