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04-20-04, 05:00 PM #1
Into the wasps’ nest: 1/5 Marines stare down the enemy in Fallujah
Issue Date: April 26, 2004
Into the wasps’ nest
1/5 Marines stare down the enemy in Fallujah
By Gidget Fuentes
Times staff writer
FALLUJAH, Iraq — The crippled amphibious assault vehicle left the leathernecks of 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, with a tough decision.
Earlier that day, when an MH-53J Pave Low helicopter was forced down 12 miles east of the embattled Iraqi city, the call was simple: Send the battalion’s quick-reaction force to collect classified materials aboard, clear out and blow up the aircraft.
But the amtrac was different.
It was in an unexplored industrial area a half-mile farther into the besieged city than the Marines had gone before. And after learning the amtrac had been torn apart by a force of nearly 100 Iraqi fighters, the Marines were wary of what they might come up against.
They knew they’d be heading into what Capt. Jason Smith, the commander of Bravo Company, 1/5, called “the wasps’ nest.”
But there was a fallen Marine aboard, Cpl. Kevin T. Kolm. And the battalion wanted to bring him back.
The quick-reaction force Marines — still grieving at the loss of Pvt. Noah L. Boye in an ambush as they were wrapping up the helicopter mission — scrambled to saddle up for their second emergency response of the day.
“There were Marines who went in there last night who were willing to die just to get that Marine’s body back,” Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, 1/5’s commander, said in an April 14 interview, the day after the mission.
“That’s a hell of a thing.”
A tense ‘cease-fire’
Team Red Cloud, as Bravo Company’s quick-reaction force is known, was on edge April 13. The force and the rest of 1/5 were in the fifth day of a pause in offensive operations, ordered so that senior military and Iraqi officials could negotiate with local Sunni Muslim leaders an end to the uprising in the war-torn city.
Marines with 1/5 and 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, went on the offensive in an operation dubbed Vigilant Resolve after the March 31 slaying and public mutilation of four U.S. civilian security contractors. A third battalion of Marines moved into Fallujah on April 9 to reinforce units already in the fight.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said April 15 that the order to halt the offensive came also because the Marines had battled their way so deeply into the city that the risk of harming civilians had grown too high.
Although the Marines have allowed some food and supplies into the beleaguered city, the worry here is in the longer term, said the 1st Marine Division’s top officer.
“Our concern right now is what’s happening to the innocent people the longer we stay here,” said Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis. He spoke with reporters April 14 at a 1/5 outpost on one edge of Fallujah.
“Eventually, we have got to open this town up,” he said. More than 60,000 residents fled after the Marines entered the city the week of April 4.
Despite the cease-fire and ongoing negotiations, attacks from insurgents continued throughout the week; Boye and Kolm were among 13 Marines confirmed killed between April 9 and 15.
Like other Marines here, the situation has frustrated Mattis, who said the enemy isn’t abiding by the spirit of the cease-fire.
“This is bulls—t right now, and you can quote me,” said Mattis, a commander who is popular with his Marines for his plain-spoken, pointed style.
Mattis did not think it would be long before the Marines moved on the city.
“I have no doubt that we will respond appropriately if they don’t knock it off,” he said. “And when they tell us it’s time to go, the Marines will be fired up and ready to go.”
By April 16, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s chief spokesman, Dan Senor, and other officials were saying the standoff couldn’t continue much longer, given the number of attacks on Marine forces.
The Marines of Team Red Cloud shared those same frustrations.
A rescue, then an ambush
The quick-reaction force scrambled during the early morning hours of April 13, rushing to a site about 12 miles east of Fallujah where an MH-53J Pave Low helicopter had been forced down.
The team quickly secured the site, searched two homes nearby and removed sensitive information and equipment from the helicopter. So far, so good.
But about 8 a.m., as the team prepared to leave the site, the fireworks began. Rocket-propelled grenades flew in from all around, getting closer and closer, as if enemy fighters were walking toward their targets.
Staff Sgt. Daniel Santiago, the force’s platoon sergeant, spotted three insurgents race off in a pickup truck and alerted his commander, 1st Lt. Joshua Glover, a 25-year-old infantry officer from Dallas.
They gave chase, racing down roads and through fields, but soon realized they were being led into an ambush. Even as they realized the situation they were in, the firefight began. In moments, three Marines were wounded, one taking shrapnel in the arm after jumping in front of a Navy corpsman.
They turned around and sped off, ending up in a village where the hail of fire continued.
“It seemed like every house that was there was pretty much attacking us,” said Santiago, 30, of Ponce, Puerto Rico.
It was there that an RPG struck the Humvee that was carrying Boye and other members of the reaction force. The explosion killed Boye, a 21-year-old mortarman from Grand Island, Neb., and injured two others.
The Marines sped out of the kill zone to stop and give first aid to the wounded, then raced to an aid station set up at a highway interchange, where Navy corpsmen were waiting to stabilize them.
‘Gauntlet of fire’
Later that day, Bravo Company got into a gunfight of its own, one that led the quick-reaction force back into the fray.
The attacks the Marines were seeing throughout the day presented a threat to a Humvee convoy that was to resupply food and water for some of Bravo Company’s Marines.
04-20-04, 05:00 PM #2
By 5 p.m., Smith, the company commander, had the supplies placed on two amtracs instead, and he sent along a squad in each vehicle to protect the delivery.
But soon after they left Bravo Company’s command area they came under heavy RPG fire. One amtrac turned back and the other, already aflame, headed off in the opposite direction — toward a previously unexplored residential area of the city. They were headed for more trouble.
Crossing intersection after intersection, the vehicle was under almost continuous fire from a force of as many as 100 armed Iraqis. Several Marines were wounded, including 1st Lt. Christopher Ayres, 2nd Platoon commander for Bravo Company.
“They got into a running gun battle. They ended up running a gauntlet of fire,” Byrne said. “They were engaged the entire time.”
The amtrac crew soon stopped the vehicle and Kolm, the crew chief, ordered the 20 or so Marines out of the vehicle. The squad members darted to a nearby house, taking positions inside as Kolm fired 40mm grenades from his MK19. Within minutes, an incoming RPG round struck the vehicle, killing Kolm, a 21-year-old from Hicksville, N.Y.
The men inside the house were trapped, receiving fire from all around. Some Iraqis were near enough to throw grenades over the house’s gate, but the Marines tossed them back, Smith said the day after the battle.
By 6 p.m., word reached the company headquarters that the amtrac was lost, smoking and under fire. In fact, they could see smoke rising from the vehicle’s position, not far from the company’s headquarters area.
Now came the battalion’s decision: Destroy the amtrac, with its crew chief’s body inside, or send a force to bring it back?
On the wrong side of town
Within moments, the decision was made — recover the amtrac and bring the fallen Marine home.
Within minutes, a dozen Marines from Team Red Cloud swung into action and raced to Bravo’s post. For extra protection, Byrne dispatched four M1A2 Abrams battle tanks.
The tanks and Red Cloud Marines joined Bravo’s quick-reaction force to form a team of about 40 Marines, and raced off to find the amtrac.
“Everything was happening so fast, but it felt like it wasn’t going fast enough,” said Cpl. Josh Elmore, a 24-year-old rifleman with Bravo Company’s quick-reaction force. “We did know that we had men trapped down there, but we couldn’t do it ourselves.”
Fortunately, the Marines had help from above — a pair of Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles. Marines at 1/5’s main camp stretched their necks and climbed on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the spectacular display as the fighter jets swooped low and fired their cannons west of the Marines’ position, into an area where they were getting heavy fire.
Santiago, then in his Humvee, saw it close up.
“All of a sudden, the jets come,” he said, “and it was a blessing from the sky.”
Soon the Marines found the burning amtrac. As they neared the site, gunfire erupted from some houses to their left, and the quick-reaction force team saw muzzle flashes coming from another house — the building where the Marines from the amtrac had holed up. The tanks took positions near the house as the grunts secured the area and laid heavy fire into the other houses aiming at the Marines inside.
The reaction force evacuated Ayres, the wounded lieutenant, and put him safely in the Humvee, which sped back through the city to the aid station.
If they took fire, Gunnery Sgt. Daryl Hill never noticed.
“My adrenaline was running, [too] much to even realize whether we were taking fire,” he said. “I just knew he was getting paler and paler. We had to get him out as fast as possible.”
With the tanks providing cover, the Marines raced back across the lines, with the burnt amtrac in tow behind one of the tanks. By 8:30 p.m., the Marines were safely back at the camp.
Aside from the initial casualties, no other Marines were wounded in the rescue.
“Those tanks were taking RPG rounds for us,” Santiago said. “I thank God every day for these tanks being there to protect me and my Marines.”
Vince Crawley contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
04-15-12, 04:10 AM #3
Most intense day of my life.
Great article. One correction, Red Cloud was a Weapons Company platoon.
I was driving the rear humvee that day. My brother was in the front. Neither of our trucks were hit by bullets in the morning ambush, but from what I recall most, or all, of the middle 7 trucks were riddled. Bullet holes all over, tires shredded and running on run flats. I believe half the platoon couldn't go to the second call because of that, although I doubt it was as low as 12 of us.
We had a grenade lodge in the barrel of our MK-19 automatic grenade launcher during the ambush. My vehicle commander was standing on the roof of the humvee as we were tearing down those dirt roads, changing it out for the 50. We had been under a lot of fire from the tall grass along the road before we even got to the village. Being the last truck, I knew that if he flew off, we were screwed. Fortunately he got the 50 up before we hit the village.
My truck was alone leading out the medivac. I didn't know that area at all, but luckily made the right turns because there was a good period where it was just the two trucks hauling balls through enemy territory. We were definitely being shot at, even though the Gunny in the other truck didn't know. I was watching bullets kicking up dirt in front of mine as we went.
Oh yeah, and because of the pathetic armor plates they had jokingly given us, the door had fallen off the passenger side a few days earlier. So we did this whole thing with no door!
And Boye was a badass.
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