FROM Blackhawk Down by Mark Bowden
IN ORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES, as close to the first crash as they were, the convoy would have just barreled over to it, running over and shooting through anything in its path. But with all the help overhead, Task Force Ranger was about to demonstrate how too much information can hurt soldiers on a battlefield.
High in the C2 Black Hawk, Harrell and Matthews could see one group of about fifteen gunmen racing along streets that paralleled the eight-vehicle convoy. The running Somalis could keep pace with the vehicles because the trucks and Humvees stacked up at every intersection. Each driver waited until the vehicle in front completely cleared the cross fire before sprinting through it himself. To get stuck in the open was suicidal. Every time the convoy stalled, it gave the bands of shooters time to reach the next street and set up an ambush for each vehicle as it gunned through. The convoy was getting riddled. From above, Harrell and Matthews could see roadblocks and places where Somalis had massed to ambush. So they steered the convoy away from those places.
There was an added complication. Flying about a thousand feet over the C2 helicopter was the navy Orion spy plane, which had surveillance cameras that gave them a clear picture of the convoy’s predicament. But the Orion pilots were handicapped. They were not allowed to communicate directly with the convoy. Their directions were relayed to the commander at the JOC, who would then radio Harrell in the command bird. Only then was the plane’s advice relayed down to the convoy. This built in a maddening delay. The Orion pilots would see a direct line to the crash site. They’d say, “Turn left!” But by the time that instruction reached McKnight in the lead Humvee, he had passed the turn. Heeding the belated direction, they’d then turn down the wrong street. High above the fight, commanders watching out their windows or on screens couldn’t hear the gunfire and screaming of wounded men, or feel the impact of the explosions. From above, the convoy’s progress seemed orderly. The visual image didn’t always convey how desperate the situation really was.
Eversmann, still lying helplessly on his back toward the rear of the column, had felt the vehicle turn right after leaving his blocking position, which he expected, He knew the crash site was just a few blocks that way. But when the Humvee made the second right-hand turn, it surprised him. Why were they headed south? It was easy to get lost in Mog. The streets weren’t laid out like some urban planner’s neat grid. Roads you thought were taking you one place would suddenly slant off in a different direction. There were more turns. Soon, the crash site that had been close enough for Eversmann to see from his spot on Hawlwadig Road was lost somewhere back in the hornets’ nest.
The convoy was bearing south when Durant’s helicopter crashed. Up in the lead Humvee, McKnight got the word on the radio from Lieutenant Colonel Harrell.
–Danny, we just had another Hawk go down to RPG fire south of the Olympic Hotel. We need you to get everybody in that first crash site. Need QRF to give us some help, over.
–This is Uniform. Understand. Aircraft down south of Olympic Hotel. Recon and see what we can do after that.
–We are going to try to get the QRF to give us some help. Try to get everyone off that crash site (Super Six One] and let’s get out of here down to the other Hawk and secure it, over.
It wasn’t going to be easy. McKnight was supposed to take this convoy, with the prisoners and the wounded, move to the first crash site, and link up with the bulk of the force there. There was not enough room on the packed Humvees and trucks for the men he already had. Yet the immediate plan called for the convoy to load everyone and proceed south to the second crash site, covering the same treacherous ground they were rolling through now. They pushed on.
Heavy fire and mounting casualties took their toll on the men in the vehicles. Some of the slightly wounded men in Eversmann’s vehicle seemed to be in varying degrees of paralysis, as if their role in the mission had ended. Others were moaning and crying with pain. They were still a long way from the base.
The state of things infuriated Sergeant Matt Rierson, leader of the Delta team that had taken the prisoners. Rierson’s team was with the prisoners on the second truck. Rierson didn’t know where the convoy was going. It was standard operating procedure for every vehicle in a convoy to know its destination. That way, if the lead vehicle got hit, or took a wrong turn, the whole convoy could continue. But McKnight, a lieutenant colonel more used to commending a battalion than a line of vehicles, hadn’t told anyone! Rierson watched as inexperienced Ranger Humvee drivers would stop after crossing an intersection, trapping the vehicles behind them in the cross fire. Whenever the convoy stopped, Rierson would hop down and move from vehicle to vehicle, trying to square things away.
As they passed back behind the target house, an RPG scored a direct hit on the third Humvee in the column, the one McLaughlin had squeezed into. Private Carlson, who had moved over to make room for the sergeant, heard the pop of a grenade being launched nearby. Then came a blinding flash and ear-shattering BOOM! The inside of the Humvee filled with black smoke. The goggles Carlson had pinned to the top of his helmet were blown off.
The grenade had cut straight through the steel skin of the vehicle in front of the gas cap and gone off inside, blowing the three men in back right out to the street. It tore the hand guards off McLaughlin’s weapon and pierced his left forearm with a chunk of shrapnel. He felt no pain, just some numbness in his hand. He told himself to wait until the smoke cleared to check it out. The shrapnel had fractured a bone in his forearm, severed a tendon, and broken a bone in his hand. It wasn’t bleeding much and he could still shoot.
Holding his breath in the dark cloud, his ears ringing, Carlson felt himself for wet spots. His left arm was bloody. Shrapnel had pierced it in several places. His boots were on fire. A drum of .50-cal ammo had been hit, and he heard people screaming for him to kick it out, kick it out!, which he did, then stooped to pat out the flames on his feet.
Two of the three men blown out the back were severely injured. One, Delta Master Sergeant Tim “Griz” Martin, had absorbed the brunt of the blast. The grenade had poked a football-sized hole right through the skin of the Humvee, blew on through the sandbags, through Martin, and penetrated the ammo can. It had blown off the lower half of Martin’s body. The explosion also tore off the back end of one of Private Adalberto Rodriguez’s thighs. Rodriguez had tumbled about ten yards before coming to rest. His legs were a mass of blood and gore. He began struggling to his feet, only to see one of the five-ton trucks bearing straight for him. Its driver, Private Maddox, momentarily disoriented by another grenade blast, rolled the truck right over him.
The convoy stopped and soldiers scrambled to pick up the wounded. Medics did what they could for Rodriguez and Martin, who both looked mortally wounded. The wounded were lifted back into the vehicles, while Rangers spilled out to cover the surrounding streets and alleys. At one, Specialist Aaron Hand and Sergeant Casey Joyce became engaged in a furious firefight. They were positioned at opposite sides of an alley. From just outside his truck, Spalding watched rounds shatter the wall over Hand’s head.
Hand was shooting down the alley, too preoccupied to notice that shots were now coming at him from a different angle. Spalding screamed for Hand to get back to the vehicles but there was too much noise for him to be heard. From where Spalding stood, it looked like Hand was going to be shot for sure. He was doing everything wrong. He was fighting bravely, but he had not sought cover and he was changing magazines with his back exposed. Spalding knew he should go help cover him and pull him back, but it meant crossing the alley where all the load was flying. He hesitated. Hell no, I’m not going to cross that alley. As he debated with himself, SEAL John Gay ran out to help; Gay was still limping from where his knife had deflected an AK-47 round at his hip. He put several rounds up the alley and herded Hand back to the convoy.
Across the alley, Joyce was on one knee facing north, doing things right. He had found cover and was returning disciplined fire, just the way he’d been taught, when a gun barrel poked from a window above and behind him and let off a quick burst. Carlson saw it happen. There wasn’t even time to shout a warning, even if Joyce had been able to hear him. There was just a blaaaap! and a spurt of fire from the barrel and the sergeant went straight down in the dirt on his face.
One of the .50 cals promptly blasted gaping holes in the wall around the window where the gun had appeared, and Sergeant Jim Telscher, ignoring the heavy fire, sprinted out
to Joyce, grabbed him by the shirt and vest, and without even slowing down, dragged him back to the column.
Joyce’s skin was already gray and his eyes were open wide and rolled back so you could only see the whites. He had been hit in the upper back where the Rangers’ new Kevlar flak vests had no protective plate. The round had pierced his heart and passed through his torso, exiting and lodging in the vest’s frontispiece, which did have an armored plate. They loaded him in on the back of Gay’s Humvee, where Delta medic went to work on him frantically, holding an IV bag up high with one hand, despairing, “We’ve got to get him back in a hurry! We’ve got to get him back in a hurry or he’s gonna die!”
The convoy lurched forward again, turning left (bearing east) and then left again, so they were now heading back toward the north. They were moving up a road one block west of the crash site. To get there, all they had to do was drive two blocks north and turn right. But the gunfire was relentless. Up in the lead Humvee, Lieutenant Colonel McKnight was hit. Shrapnel cut into his right arm and the left side of his neck.
At the rear of the convoy, Sergeant Lorenzo Ruiz, the tough little boxer from El Paso who had taken over Private Clay Othic’s .50-caliber machine gun after Othic had been hit in the arm, slumped and slid down limp, into the laps of the men inside the Humvee.
“He got shot! He got shot!” shouted the driver, who raced the Humvee frantically up the column with the .50 cal just spinning in the empty turret.
“Get the fifty up!” screamed one of the sergeants. “Get the fifty up ASAP!”
Packed in the way they were, with Ruiz now slumped in on top of them, no one could climb into the turret from inside, so Specialist Dave Ritchie got out and jumped up on the turret from the outside. He couldn’t lower himself into it because Ruiz’s limp body was blocking it, so he leaned in from the outside as they began moving again, swiveling and shooting the big gun, hanging on to avoid being thrown to the street.
Inside, they pulled Ruiz down to let Ritchie get behind the gun. Staff Sergeant John Burns tore off the wounded man’s vest and shirt.
“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Ruiz gasped and then began to cough up blood.
Burns found an entrance wound under Ruiz’s right arm, but couldn’t locate an exit wound. They propped him against a radio and a Delta medic went to work. Ruiz was in shock. Like many of the men in the vehicles, he had taken the ceramic plate out of his flak vest.
Up in a Humvee turret behind a Mark-19, a machine gun-like grenade launcher, Corporal Jim Cavaco was pumping one 40-mm round after another into the windows of a building from which they were taking fire. Cavaco was dropping grenades neatly into the second-story windows One after another–Bang! … Bang! … Bang!
From his seat in the second truck, Spalding shouted, “Yeah! Get ’em, Vaco!” and then saw his friend slump forward. Cavaco had been hit by a round in the back of his head and killed instantly. The convoy stopped again, and Spalding leapt out to help pull Cavaco out of the turret. They carried him to the back of Spalding’s truck and swung his body in. It landed on the legs of an injured Ranger who shrieked with pain.
The volume of fire was terrifying. Yet Somalis seemed to be darting across streets everywhere. Up in the lead Humvee, Schilling watched the runners with bewilderment. Why would anybody be running around on the streets with all this lead flying? He found that by rolling grenades down the alley it kept the shooters from sticking their weapons out. He tried to conserve ammo by shooting only at the Somalis who were closest. When he ran out of ammo, a wounded Ranger in back fed Schilling magazines from his own pouches.
Over the radio came a hopeful inquiry from the command helicopter, which didn’t seem to understand how desperate the convoy’s plight had become.
–Uniform Six Four, you got everybody out of the crash site, over?
–We have no positive contact with them yet. McKnight answered. We took a lot of rounds as we were clearing out of the areas. Quite a few wounded, including me, over.
–Roger, want you to try to go to the first crash site and consolidate on that. Once we get everybody out of there we’ll go to the second crash site and try to do an exfil, over.
This was, of course, out of the question, but McKnight wasn’t giving up.
–Roger, understand. Can you give me some … we just need directions and distance from where I’m at, over.
There was no answer at first. The radio net was filled with calls related to Durant’s crash. When he did hear from his commanders again, McKnight was asked to report the number of Rangers he had picked up from Eversmann’s Chalk Four. He ignored that request.
–Romeo Six Four [Harrell], this is Uniform Six Four. From the crash site, where am I now? How far over?
–Stand by. Have good visual on you now … Danny, are you still on that main hardball [paved road]?
–I’m on the exfil road. Down toward National.
Harrell apparently misunderstood. He gave McKnight directions as if he were still on Hawlwadig Road, out in front of the target house.
–Turn east. Go about three blocks east and two blocks north. They’re popping smoke, over.
–Understand. From my location I have to go east farther about three blocks and then head north, over.
–Roger, that’s from the hardball road the Olympic Hotel is on, over.
But McKnight was already three blocks east of that road.
–I’m at the hardball road east of the Olympic Hotel. Do I just need to turn around on it and head north?
-Negative. They are about three blocks east, one block north of building one [the target building], over.
In the convoy’s second-to-last Humvee, where Ruiz was fighting for his life, Sergeant Burns couldn’t get through to McKnight on the radio so he took off on foot. He feared if they didn’t get Ruiz back to base immediately the young Texan was going to die. Burns noticed that the gunfire that had hurt his ears initially now sounded muffled, distant. His ears had adjusted to it. As he neared the front of the line he saw Joyce stretched out bloody and pale, with a medic working over him furiously on the back of a crowded Humvee. He was about to reach the front when a D-boy grabbed him.
“You’ve been hit,” the Delta operator said.
“No I haven’t.”
Burns hadn’t felt a thing. The D-boy slid his hand inside Burns’s vest at his right shoulder and the sergeant felt a vicious stab of pain.
“Having trouble breathing?” the D-boy asked.
“Any tightness in your chest?”
“I feel all right,” Burns said, “I didn’t even know I was hit.”
“You keep an eye on it,” the D-boy said.
Burns made it up to McKnight, who was also bloody, and busy on the radio. So Burns told Sergeant Bob Gallagher about Ruiz. Burns thought they should allow a Humvee or two to speed right back to the base with Ruiz, as they had done earlier with Blackburn. But Gallagher knew the convoy could not afford to lose any more vehicles and firepower now. They still had roughly a hundred men waiting for them around the first crash site, then there was the second crash site . . . Gallagher was already kicking himself for sending those three vehicles back with Blackburn. While he knew this might be a death sentence for Ruiz, he told Burns there was no way anybody was leaving.
“We have to move to the crash site and consolidate forces,” he said.
Disgusted, Burns began to make his way back down the column to his vehicle. He had gone only a few steps when the convoy started rolling again. He jumped on the back of a Humvee. It was already jammed. The rear of the vehicle was slick and sticky with blood. Moaning rose from the pile of Rangers. Beside him, Joyce looked dead, even though a medic was still working on him. Sergeant Galentine was screaming, “My thumb’s shot off!” Burns did not want to be on that Humvee.
They were still pointed north. Some of the men were at the breaking point. In the same Humvee with Burns, Private Jason Moore saw some of his Ranger buddies just burying their heads behind the sandbags. Some of the unit’s most boisterous chest-beaters were among them. A burly kid from Princeton, New Jersey, Moore had a dip of snuff stuffed under his lower lip and brown spittle on his unshaved chin. He was sweating and terrified. One RPG had passed over the vehicle and exploded with an ear-smarting crack against a wall alongside. Bullets were snapping around him. He fought the urge to lie down. Either way I’m going to get shot.
Moore figured if he stayed up and kept on shooting, at least he’d get shot trying to save himself and the guys. It was a defining moment for him, a point of clarity in the midst of chaos. He would go down fighting. He would not consider lying down again.