The Thunder Run
Nine hundred and seventy-five men invading a city of 5 million sounded audacious, or worse, to the U.S. troops assigned the mission outside Baghdad last April 6. Ten years earlier, in Mogadishu, outnumbered American soldiers had been trapped and killed by Somali street fighters. Now some U.S. commanders, convinced the odds were far better in Iraq, scrapped the original plan for taking Baghdad with a steady siege and instead ordered a single bold thrust into the city. The battle that followed became the climax of the war and rewrote American military doctrine on urban warfare.
Back home, Americans learned of the victory in sketchy reports that focused on the outcome--a column of armored vehicles had raced into the city and seized Saddam Hussein’s palaces and ministries. What the public didn’t know was how close the U.S. forces came to experiencing another Mogadishu. Military units were surrounded, waging desperate fights at three critical interchanges. If any of those fell, the Americans would have been cut off from critical supplies and ammunition.
Embedded journalists reported the battle’s broad outlines in April, but a more detailed account has since emerged in interviews with more than 70 of the brigade’s officers and men who described the fiercest battle of the war--and one they nearly lost.
Times staff writer David Zucchino, who was embedded with Task Force 4-64 of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), returned to the United States recently to report this story.
On the afternoon of April 4, Army Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz was summoned to a command tent pitched in a dusty field 11 miles south of Baghdad. His brigade commander, Col. David Perkins, looked up from a map and told Schwartz he had a mission for him.
“At first light tomorrow,” Perkins said, “I want you to attack into Baghdad.”
Schwartz felt disoriented. He had just spent several hours in a tank, leading his armored battalion on an operation that had destroyed dozens of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles 20 miles south. A hot shard of exploding tank had burned a hole in his shoulder.
“Are you kidding, sir?” Schwartz asked, as he waited for the other officers inside the tent to laugh.
There was silence.
“No,” Perkins said. “I need you to do this.”
Schwartz was stunned. No American troops had yet set foot inside the capital. The original U.S. battle plan called for airborne soldiers, not tanks, to take the city. The tankers had trained for desert warfare, not urban combat. But now Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), was ordering Schwartz’s tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles on a charge into the unknown.
Schwartz’s “thunder run” into the city the next morning was a prelude to the fall of Baghdad. It triggered a grinding three-day battle, the bloodiest of the war--and dismissed any public perception of a one-sided slaughter of a passive enemy. Entire Iraqi army units threw down their weapons and fled, but thousands of Iraqi militiamen and Arab guerrillas fought from bunkers and rooftops with grenades, rockets and mortars.
The 2nd Brigade’s ultimate seizure of Baghdad has few modern parallels. It was a calculated gamble that will be taught at military academies and training exercises for years to come. It changed the way the military thinks about fighting with tanks in a city. It brought the conflict in Iraq to a decisive climax and shortened the initial combat of the war, perhaps by several weeks.
But when Eric Schwartz got the mission that would prime the battlefield for the decisive strike on Baghdad, he had no idea what he had taken on.
Task Force 1-64, a battalion nicknamed Rogue, rumbled north on Highway 8 toward Baghdad. The column seemed to stretch to the shimmering horizon--30 Abrams tanks and 14 Bradleys, their squat tan forms bathed in pale yellow light. It was dawn on April 5, a bright, hot Saturday.
Schwartz’s battalion had been ordered to sprint through 10 1/2 miles of uncharted territory. The column was to conduct “armored reconnaissance,” to blow through enemy defenses, testing strengths and tactics. It was to slice through Baghdad’s southwestern corner and link up at the airport with the division’s 1st Brigade, which had seized the facility the day before.
In the lead tank was 1st Lt. Robert Ball, a slender, soft-spoken North Carolinian. Just 25, Ball had never been in combat until two weeks earlier. He was selected to lead the column not because he had a particularly refined sense of direction but because his tank had a plow. Commanders were expecting obstacles in the highway.
The battalion had been given only a few hours to prepare. Ball studied his military map, but it had no civilian markings--no exit numbers, no neighborhoods. He was worried about missing his exit to the airport at what fellow officers called the “spaghetti junction,” a maze of twisting overpasses and offramps on Baghdad’s western cusp.
Ball’s map was clipped to the top of his tank hatch as the column lumbered up Highway 8. He had been rolling only about 10 minutes when his gunner spotted a dozen Iraqi soldiers leaning against a building several hundred yards away, chatting, drinking tea, their weapons propped against the wall. They had not yet heard the rumble of the approaching tanks.
“Sir, can I shoot at these guys?” the gunner asked.
“Uh, yeah, they’re enemy,” Ball told him.
Ball had fired at soldiers in southern Iraq, but they had been murky green figures targeted with the tank’s thermal imagery system. These soldiers were in living color. Through the tank’s sights, Ball could see their eyes, their mustaches, their steaming cups of tea.
The gunner mowed them down methodically, left to right. As each man fell, Ball could see shock cross the face of the next man before he, too, pitched violently to the ground. The last man fled around the corner of the building. But then, inexplicably, he ran back into the open. The gunner dropped him.
The clattering of the tank’s rapid-fire medium machine gun seemed to awaken fighters posted along the highway. Gunfire erupted from both sides--AK-47 automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, followed minutes later by recoilless rifles and antiaircraft guns.
Iraqi soldiers and militiamen were firing from a network of trenches and bunkers carved into the highway’s shoulders, and from rooftops and alleyways. Some were inside cargo containers buried in the dirt. Others were tucked beneath the overpasses or firing down from bridges.
In the southbound lanes, civilian cars were cruising past, their occupants staring wide-eyed at the fireballs erupting from the tank’s main guns and the bright tracer flashes from the rapid-fire medium and .50-caliber machine guns. From onramps and access roads, other cars packed with Iraqi gunmen were attacking. Mixed in were troop trucks, armored personnel carriers, taxis and motorcycles with sidecars.
The crews were under strict orders to identify targets as military before firing. They were to fire warning shots, then shoot into engine blocks if a vehicle continued to approach. Some cars screeched to a halt. Others kept coming, and the gunners ripped into them. The crews could see soldiers or armed civilians in some of the smoking hulks. In others, they weren’t sure. Nobody knew how many civilians had been killed. They knew only that any vehicle that kept coming was violently eliminated.
As the column lurched forward, buses and trucks unloaded Iraqi fighters. Some were in uniform, some in jeans and sports shirts. Others wore the baggy black robes of the Fedayeen Saddam, Hussein’s loyal militiamen. To the Americans, they seemed to have no training, no discipline, no coordinated tactics. It was all point and shoot. The machine guns sent chunks of their bodies onto the roadside.
The Americans were suffering casualties, too. A Bradley was hit by an RPG and disabled. The driver panicked and leaped out, breaking his leg. A Bradley commander stopped and dragged the driver to safety.
At a highway cloverleaf, a tank was hit in its rear engine housing and burst into flames. The column stopped as the crew tried desperately to put out the fire. But the flames, fed by leaking fuel, spread.
The entire column was now exposed and taking heavy fire. Two suicide vehicles packed with explosives sped down the offramps. They were destroyed by tank cannons. After nearly 30 minutes of fighting, Perkins ordered the tank abandoned. To keep the tank out of Iraqi hands, the crew destroyed it with incendiary grenades.
By now the resistance was organizing. Fighters who appeared to be dead or wounded were suddenly leaping up and firing at the backs of American vehicles. Schwartz ordered his gunners to “double tap,” to shoot anybody they saw moving near a weapon. “If it was a confirmed kill, they’d let it go,” Schwartz said later. “If it wasn’t, they’d tap it again. We were checking our work.”
At the head of the column, Ball was approaching the spaghetti junction. His map showed the exit splitting into two ramps. He knew he wanted the ramp to the right. He had been following blue English “Airport” signs, but now smoke from a burning Iraqi personnel carrier obscured the entire cloverleaf.
In the web of overpasses, Ball found the ramp he wanted and stayed right. He was halfway down when he realized he should have taken a different one. Now he was heading east into downtown Baghdad, the opposite direction from the airport. The entire column was following him.
He told his driver to turn left, then roll over the guardrail and turn back onto the westbound lanes. The rail crumbled, the column followed, and everyone rumbled back toward the airport.
Behind Ball, a tank commanded by Lt. Roger Gruneisen had fallen behind. Some equipment from the crippled tank had been dumped onto the top of Gruneisen’s tank, obstructing his view from the hatch. With the emergency addition of Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz, commander of the burning tank, and Diaz’s gunner, Gruneisen now had five men squeezed into a tank designed for four.
The gunner had swung the main gun right to fire on a bunker. In the loader’s hatch, Sgt. Carlos Hernandez saw that the gun tube was headed for a concrete bridge abutment. He screamed, “Traverse left!” But they were moving rapidly. The gun tube smacked the abutment. The entire turret spun like a top. Inside, the crewmen were pinned against the walls, struggling to hold on as the turret turned wildly two dozen times before stopping. It was like an out-of-control carnival ride.
The crew was dizzy. Hernandez looked at the gunner. Blood was spurting from his nose. His head and chest were soaked with greenish-yellow hydraulic fluid. The impact had severed a hydraulic line. Except for the gunner’s bloody nose, no one was hurt.
The main gun was bent and smashed. It flopped to the side, useless. The tank continued up Highway 8, Gruneisen on the .50-caliber and Hernandez on a medium machine gun. They rolled up to the spaghetti junction into a curtain of black smoke--and missed the airport turn. They were headed into the city center.
Hernandez saw that they were approaching a traffic circle. As they drew closer, he saw that the circle was clogged with Iraqi military trucks and soldiers. It was a staging area for troops attacking the American column.
From around the circle, just a block away, a yellow pickup truck sped toward the tank. Hernandez tore into it with the machine gun, killing the driver. The tank driver slammed on the brake to avoid the truck, but it was crushed beneath the treads. The impact sent Hernandez’s machine gun tumbling off the back of the tank.
The tank reversed to clear itself from the wreckage, crushing the machine gun. A passenger from the truck wandered into the roadway. The tank pitched forward, trying to escape the circle, and crushed him.
The crew was now left with just one medium machine gun and the .50-caliber. Firing both guns to clear the way, the crewmen helped direct the tank driver out of the circle. As they pulled away, they could see a blue “Airport” sign. They were less than five miles from the airport.
They caught up with the column. They passed groves of date palm trees and thick underbrush, and everyone worried about another ambush.
In the lead platoon, Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker was leaning out of his tank commander’s hatch, firing his M-4 carbine because his .50-caliber machine gun had jammed. Enemy fire was so intense that Booker had ordered his loader, Pvt. Joseph Gilliam, to get down in the hatch. As Booker leaned down, he told Gilliam: “I don’t want to die in this country.” As he resumed firing, he shouted down to Gilliam and the gunner, Sgt. David Gibbons: “I’m a baad mother!”
Gilliam, 21, and Gibbons, 22, idolized Booker, who, at 34, was experienced and decisive. He was a loud, aggressive, extroverted lifer. His booming voice was the first thing his men heard in the morning and the last thing at night.
As Gibbons, in the gunner’s perch at Booker’s feet inside the turret, fired rounds, he felt Booker drop down behind him. He assumed he had come down to get more ammunition. But then he heard the loader, Gilliam, scream and curse. He looked back at Booker and saw that half his jaw was missing. He had been hit by a machine-gun round.
The turret was splattered with blood. As Gibbons crawled up in the commander’s hatch, he saw that Booker was trying to breathe. He radioed for help and was ordered to stop and wait for medics. Gibbons and Gilliam tried to perform “buddy aid” to stop the bleeding.
The medics arrived and, under fire, lifted Booker’s body into the medical vehicle. The driver sped toward a medevac helicopter at the airport, just as the physician’s assistant radioed that Booker was gone. The assistant covered the sergeant’s bloodied face and, not knowing what else to do, held his hand. Booker’s body arrived just ahead of the rest of the column, which rolled onto the tarmac in a hail of gunfire. Some of the tanks and Bradleys were on fire and leaking oil, but they had survived the gantlet.
At the airport that morning, Col. Perkins spoke on the tarmac with his superior, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, the 3rd Infantry Division commander. Rogue battalion had lost a tank commander and tank, but they had killed almost 1,000 fighters and torn a hole in Baghdad’s defenses.
Blount wanted to keep the pressure on Saddam’s forces. He had seen intelligence suggesting that Saddam’s elite Republican Guard units were being sent into Baghdad to reinforce the capital. But, in truth, he really didn’t have good intelligence. It was too dangerous to send in scouts. Satellite imagery didn’t show bunkers or camouflaged armor and artillery. Blount had access to only one unmanned spy drone, and its cameras weren’t providing much either.
Prisoners of war had told U.S. interrogators that the Iraqi military was expecting American tanks to surround the city while infantry from the 82nd Airborne and 101st Airborne cleared the capital. And that was the U.S. plan--at least until the thunder run that morning altered the equation.
Blount told Perkins to go back into the city in two days, on Monday the 7th. Blount wanted him to test the city’s defenses, destroy as many Iraqi forces as possible and then come out to prepare for the siege of the capital.
Perkins was eager to go back in, but not for another thunder run. He wanted to stay. He had just heard Mohammed Said Sahaf, the bombastic information minister, deliver a taunting news conference, claiming that no American forces had entered Baghdad and that Iraqi troops had slaughtered hundreds of American “scoundrels” at the airport.
When Perkins got back to the brigade operations center south of the city, he told his executive officer, Lt. Col. Eric Wesley: “This just changed from a tactical war to an information war. We need to go in and stay.”
The brigade was exhausted. It had been on the move day and night, rolling up from Kuwait and fighting Fedayeen and Republican Guard units--sprinting 435 miles in just over two weeks, the fastest overland march in U.S. military history. Their tanks and Bradleys were beat up. The crews had not slept in days. Now they had just one day to prepare for the pivotal battle of the war.
The charge up Highway 8 on April 7 was similar to the sprint by Rogue Battalion two days earlier. Fedayeen and Arab volunteers and Republican Guards fired from roadside bunkers and from windows and alleys on both sides of the highway. Suicide vehicles tried to ram the column.
Gunners pounded everything that moved, radioing back to trailing vehicles to kill off what they missed. It took only two hours to blow through the spaghetti junction and speed east to Saddam’s palace complex. Schwartz’s lead battalion, Rogue, rolled to Saddam’s parade field, with its massive crossed sabers and tomb of the unknown soldier. Rogue also seized one of Saddam’s two main downtown palaces, the convention center and the Rashid Hotel, home to the Baath Party elite.
Lt. Col. Philip deCamp’s Task Force 4-64, the Tusker battalion, swung to the east and raced for Saddam’s hulking Republican Palace and the 14th of July Bridge, which controlled access to the palace complex from the south.
The targets had been selected not only for their strategic value, but also because they were in open terrain. The palace complex consisted of broad boulevards, gardens and parks--and few tall buildings or narrow alleyways. The battalions could set up defensive positions, with open fields of fire.
The Tusker battalion destroyed bunkers at the western arch of the Republican Palace grounds, blew apart two recoilless rifles teams guarding the arch and smashed through a metal gate. The palace had been evacuated, but there were soldiers in a tree line and along the Tigris River bank. The infantrymen killed some, and others fled, stripping off their uniforms.
At a traffic circle at the base of the 14th of July Bridge, Capt. Steve Barry’s Cyclone Company fought off cars and trucks that streaked across the bridge, some packed with explosives. There were three in the first 10 minutes, six more right after that. The tanks and Bradleys destroyed them all.
By midmorning, Perkins was meeting with his two battalion commanders on Saddam’s parade grounds. They gave live interviews to an embedded Fox TV crew. Lt. Col. DeCamp and one of his company commanders, Capt. Chris Carter--both University of Georgia graduates--unfurled a Georgia Bulldogs flag. Capt. Jason Conroy toppled a massive Saddam statue with a single tank round.
As his tankers celebrated, Perkins took a satellite phone call from Wesley, his executive officer. Wesley ran the brigade’s tactical operations center, a network of radios, computers, satellite maps and communications vehicles set up on the cement courtyard of an abandoned warehouse 11 miles south of the city center.
It was hard for Wesley to hear on his hand-held Iridium phone; a high-pitched whine sounded over his head. He thought it was a low-flying airplane.
Wesley shouted into the phone: “Congratulations, sir, I--" and at that instant an orange fireball blew past him and slammed him to the ground. The whine wasn’t an airplane. It was a missile. The entire operations center was engulfed in flames.
Wesley still had the phone. “Sir,” he said. “We’ve been hammered!”
“We’ve been hit. I’ll have to call you back. It doesn’t look good.”
Rows of signal vehicles were on fire and exploding. A line of parked Humvees evaporated, consumed in a brilliant flash. Men were writhing on the ground, their skin seared. A driver and a mechanic were swallowed by the fireball, killed instantly. Another driver, horribly burned, lay dying. Two embedded reporters perished on the concrete, their corpses scorched to gray ash. Seventeen soldiers were wounded, some seriously.
The brigade’s nerve center, its communications brain, was gone. The entire mission--the brigade’s audacious plan to conquer a city of 5 million with 975 combat soldiers and 88 armored vehicles in a single violent strike--was in jeopardy.
It got worse. As Wesley and his officers tended to the dead and wounded, Perkins was receiving distressing reports from Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, a battalion commander charged with keeping the brigade’s supply lines open along Highway 8. One of Twitty’s companies was surrounded. It was “amber” on fuel and ammunition--a level dangerously close to “black,” the point at which there is not enough to sustain a fight.
The Baghdad raid, launched at dawn, was now approaching its sixth hour--well past the Hour Four deadline Perkins had set to decide whether to stay for the night. That benchmark was critical because his tanks, which consume 56 gallons of fuel an hour, had eight to 10 hours of fuel. That meant four hours going in and four coming out.
To conserve fuel, Perkins ordered the tanks set up in defensive positions and shut down. They couldn’t maneuver, but they could still fire--and each hour they were turned off bought Perkins another hour.
Even so, time was running out for Twitty, whose outnumbered companies were clinging to three crucial interchanges.
“Sir, there’s one hell of a fight here,” Twitty told Perkins. “I’ll be honest with you: I don’t know how long I can hold it here.”
Even after Twitty received reinforcements, tying up the brigade’s only reserve force, his men had to be resupplied. But the resupply convoy was ambushed on Highway 8; two sergeants were killed and five fuel and ammunition trucks were destroyed. The highway was a shooting gallery. If Perkins lost the roadway, he and his men would be trapped in the city without fuel or ammunition.
American combat commanders are trained to develop a “decision support matrix,” an analytical breakdown of alternatives based on a rapidly unfolding chain of circumstances. For Perkins, the matrix was telling him: cut your losses, pull back, return another day. His command center was in flames. He had spent his reserve force. And now his fuel and ammunition were burning on the highway.
On the parade grounds, Perkins stood next to his armored personnel carrier, map in hand, flanked by his two tank battalion commanders. The air was heavy with swirling sand and grit. Black plumes of oily smoke rose from burning vehicles and bunkers.
Perkins knew the prudent move was to pull out, but he felt compelled to stay. His men had fought furiously to reach the palace complex. It seemed obscene to make them fight their way back out, and to surrender terrain infused with incalculable psychological and strategic value.
Sahaf, the delusional information minister, was already claiming that no American “infidels” had breached the city’s defenses. Perkins had just heard Sahaf’s distinctive rant on BBC radio: “The infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad.” A retreat now, Perkins thought, would validate the minister’s lies. It would unravel the brigade’s singular achievement, which had put American soldiers inside Saddam’s two main palaces and American boots on his reviewing stand.
Perkins turned to his tank battalion commanders. “We’re staying.”
Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty is right-handed, but early that morning he found himself drawing diagrams with his left hand. He was crouched in a Bradley hatch, holding a radio with his right hand while he tried to diagram an emergency battle plan.
Over the radio net, Twitty had heard the tank battalions in the city celebrating and discussing the wine collections at Saddam’s palaces. He was only a few miles away, at a Highway 8 interchange code-named Objective Larry, but he was in the fight of his life. Twitty had survived the first Gulf War, but he had never encountered anything like this.
His men were being pounded from all directions--by small arms, mortars, RPGs, gun trucks, recoilless rifles. The two tank battalions had punched through Highway 8, but now the enemy had regrouped and was mounting a relentless counterattack against Twitty’s mechanized infantry battalion.
As he scratched out his battle plan, Twitty spotted an orange-and-white taxi speeding toward his Bradley. A man in the back seat was firing an AK-47. Twitty screamed into the radio: “Taxi! Taxi coming!”
He realized how absurd he sounded. So he shouted at his Bradley gunner: “Slew the turret and fire!” The gunner spotted the taxi and fired a blast of 25mm rounds. The taxi blew up. It had been loaded with explosives.
Twitty’s China battalion, Task Force 3-15, would destroy dozens of vehicles that day, many of them packed with explosives. They would blow up buses and motorcycles and pickup trucks. They would kill hundreds of fighters, as well as civilians who inadvertently blundered into the fight. Twitty ordered his engineers to tear down highway signs and light poles and pile up charred vehicles to build protective berms. But several suicide cars crashed through, and Twitty’s men kept killing them. Twitty was astonished. He hadn’t expected much resistance, but the Syrians and Fedayeen were relentless, fanatical, determined to die.
Twitty saw a busload of soldiers pull straight into the kill zone. A tank round obliterated the vehicle--burning alive everyone inside. The driver of a second busload saw the carnage, yet kept coming. The tanks lit up his bus, too.
From Objective Moe, about two miles north, and from Objective Curly, about two miles south, Twitty received urgent calls requesting mortar and artillery fire--"danger close,” or within 220 yards of their own positions. Mortars and artillery screamed down, driving the Syrians and Fedayeen back. But at Curly, a stray round wounded two American infantrymen, and the artillery was shut down there.
At Curly, Capt. Zan Hornbuckle had enemy fighters inside his perimeter. He sent infantrymen to clear the ramps and overpasses. It was dangerous, methodical work. The infantrymen crept up behind a series of support walls, tossed grenades into trenches, then gunned down the fighters inside as they rose to return fire.
The Americans were killing fighters by the dozens, but the infantrymen were getting hit, too. Their flak vests protected vital organs, but several men were dragged back with bright red shrapnel wounds ripped into their arms, legs and necks.
Dr. Erik Schobitz, the battalion surgeon, treated the wounded. Capt. Schobitz was a pediatrician with no combat experience. He had never fired an automatic rifle until a month earlier. Schobitz wore a stethoscope with a yellow plastic rabbit attached--his lucky stethoscope. It was hanging there when a sliver of shrapnel hit his face, wounding him slightly.
With Schobitz was Capt. Steve Hommel, the battalion chaplain. He moved from one wounded man to the next, talking softly, squeezing their hands. Hommel had been a combat infantry sergeant in the first Gulf War, but even he was alarmed. He feared being overrun--there were hundreds of enemy fighters bearing down on just 80 combat soldiers, who were backed by Bradleys but no tanks. Hommel tried to appear calm while comforting the wounded.
Enemy fighters were firing on the medics, and some of them fired back. The chaplain grabbed one medic’s M-16 and shot at muzzle flashes east of the highway. Hommel didn’t know whether he hit anyone, and he didn’t want to know. He was a Baptist minister.
Several miles north, at Objective Moe, Capt. Josh Wright was struggling to keep his perimeter intact. Two of Wright’s three platoon sergeants were wounded, and two engineers went down with shrapnel wounds. A gunner was hit with a ricochet. An infantryman dragging a wounded enemy soldier to safety was hit in the wrist and stomach. One Bradley’s TOW missile launcher was destroyed. Another Bradley had a machine gun go down. One of the tanks lost use of its main gun.
Wright radioed Twitty and asked for permission to fire on a mosque to the north. Through his sights, he could see an RPG team in each minaret and another on the mosque roof. Under the rules of engagement, the mosque was now a hostile, nonprotected site. Twitty granted permission to fire. All three RPG teams were killed, leaving smoking black holes in the minarets.
By now, Wright had managed to get infantrymen and snipers into buildings north of the interchange. They were able to kill advancing fighters while mortar rounds ripped into soldiers hiding in the palm grove.
Then the mortars stopped. The platoon mortar leader at Objective Curly radioed Wright and apologized profusely. He was “black"--completely out of mortar rounds. He couldn’t fire again until the resupply convoy was sent north.
Wright’s own men were now telling him they were “amber” on all types of ammunition. Wright wasn’t certain how much longer he could hold the interchange.
At Objective Curly, Hornbuckle tried to sound positive on the radio but Twitty could hear the stress in his voice. He asked the captain to put on the battalion command sergeant major, Robert Gallagher. A leathery-faced Army Ranger of 40, Gallagher had survived the battle at Mogadishu, where he had been wounded three times. Twitty knew Gallagher would be blunt.
“All right, sergeant major, I want the truth,” Twitty said. “Do you need reinforcements?”
“Sir, we need reinforcements,” Gallagher said.
Twitty radioed Perkins and told him he could not hold Curly without reinforcements.
“If you need it, you’ve got it,” Perkins assured him.
Twitty called Capt. Ronny Johnson, commander of the reserve company defending the operations center, which was still burning.
“How fast can you get here?” Twitty asked.
“Sir, I can be there in 15 minutes,” Johnson said. It was only about two miles from the operations center to Curly.
“That’s not fast enough. Get here now.”
Johnson and his platoon raced north on Highway 8, fighting through a withering ambush. With 10 Bradleys and 65 infantrymen, the convoy bulked up the combat power at Curly. They plunged into the fight, stabilizing the perimeter.
At the burning operations center, executive officer Wesley was directing casualty evacuation and trying to build a makeshift command center, combining computers and communications equipment that had escaped the fireball with gear salvaged from burning vehicles. Within an hour, they had fashioned a temporary communications network across the highway from the scorched ruins.
Back in radio communication, Wesley resumed helping Perkins direct the battles. He offered to send the rest of Johnson’s company to Curly to solidify the interchange. That left the stripped-down operations center virtually unprotected.
At Objective Larry, Twitty’s men were beginning to run low on ammunition. He could hear his gunner screaming, “More ammo! Get us more ammo!”
Twitty had to get the supply convoy to the interchanges, a dangerous endeavor. The fuel tankers were 2,500-gallon bombs on wheels. The ammunition trucks were portable fireworks factories. In military argot, they were the ultimate “soft-skin” vehicles. Worse, there were no tanks or Bradleys to escort them; they were all fighting in the city or at the three interchanges.
Twitty called Johnson at Curly and asked for an assessment.
“Sir,” Johnson said, “what I can tell you is, it’s not as intense a fight as it was an hour ago but we’re still in a pretty good fight here.”
Twitty asked to hear from Gallagher. “Boss,” Gallagher said, “I’m not going to tell you we can get ‘em through without risk, but we can get ‘em through.”
Twitty put the radio down and lowered his head. He had to make a decision. And whatever he decided, American soldiers were going to die. He knew it. They would die at one of the interchanges, where they would be overrun if they weren’t resupplied. Or they would die in the convoy.
He picked up the radio. “All right,” he said. “We’re going to execute.”
Just north of the burning operations center, Capt. J.O. Bailey was in a command armored personnel carrier, leading the supply convoy--six fuel tankers and eight ammunition trucks. He felt vulnerable; he had no idea where he was going to park all his combustible vehicles in the middle of a firefight.
The convoy had gone less than a mile when Bailey spotted a mob of about 100 armed men across railroad tracks. He was on the radio, warning everyone, when the convoy was rocked by explosions.
Near the head of the convoy, Sgt. 1st Class John W. Marshall opened up with a grenade launcher in the turret of his soft-skin Humvee. Marshall was 50--one of the oldest men in the brigade--and had volunteered for Iraq. Marshall had just sent grenades crashing toward the gunmen when the top of the Humvee exploded. In the front seat, Spc. Kenneth Krofta was stunned by a flash of light. Black smoke was blowing through the Humvee. Krofta looked up into the turret. Marshall was gone. He had been blown out of the vehicle by a grenade blast.
The driver, Pfc. Angel Cruz, stopped and got out, looking for Marshall. He saw gunmen approaching and squeezed off a burst from his rifle. Bullets ripped into the Humvee.
The radio squawked. Cruz was ordered to move out. Soldiers in another vehicle had seen Marshall’s body. He was dead. The convoy was speeding up, trying to escape the kill zone. A week would pass before the battalion was able to retrieve Marshall’s corpse.
As the convoy raced through the ambush, an RPG rocketed into a personnel carrier. Staff Sgt. Robert Stever, who had just fired more than 1,000 rounds from his .50-caliber machine gun, was blown back into the vehicle, killed instantly. Shrapnel tore into Chief Warrant Officer Angel Acevedo and Pfc. Jarred Metz, wounding both.
Metz was knocked from the driver’s perch. His legs were numb and blood was seeping through his uniform. He dragged himself back into position and kept the vehicle moving. Acevedo was bleeding, too. Screaming instructions to Metz, he directed the vehicle back into the speeding column with Stever’s body slumped inside.
Riddled with shrapnel, the convoy limped into the interchange at Curly--and directly into the firefight. Bailey was trying to move his convoy out of harm’s way when something slammed into a fuel tanker. The vehicle exploded. Hunks of the tanker flew off, forming super-heated projectiles that tore into other vehicles. Three ammunition trucks and a second fuel tanker exploded. Ammunition started to cook off. Rounds screamed in all directions, ripping off chunks of concrete and slicing through vehicles. The trucks were engulfed in orange fireballs.
Mechanics and drivers sprinted for the vehicles that were intact. They cranked up the engines and drove them to safety beneath the overpass, managing to save five ammunition trucks and four fuel tankers--enough to resupply the combat teams at all three intersections.
Fuel and ammunition were unloaded under fire. The surviving vehicles headed north to Objective Larry, escorted by Bradleys, breaking through the firefight there and arriving safely.
Twitty felt overwhelming relief. He knew he could break the enemy now, and so could the combat team at Objective Curly. But he still had to resupply Capt. Wright at Objective Moe.
Capt. Johnson, whose Bradleys had escorted the convoy to resupply Twitty, headed north toward Moe. By radio, Johnson arranged with Wright to have Highway 8 cleared of obstacles so that the convoy could pull in, stop briefly and let the resupply vehicles designated for Wright peel off. Then Johnson’s vehicles were to continue on, obeying a new order from Perkins to secure the mile-long stretch of highway between Objective Moe and Perkins’ palace command post in the city center.
The convoy broke through the battle lines and stopped at the cloverleaf at Moe. But there had been a communication breakdown. The full convoy, including the supply vehicles, pulled away under heavy fire, leaving Wright’s company still desperate for fuel and ammunition.
Wright’s heart sank. He had been forced to tighten his perimeter to save fuel, giving up ground his men had just taken. Now he watched his fuel and ammo disappear up the highway. But the smaller perimeter also meant Wright could afford to send two tanks to a supply point a mile away that Johnson set up near the palace. There the tanks refueled as their crews stuffed the bustle racks with ammunition. A second pair of tanks followed a half-hour later, bringing back more fuel and ammunition. Wright’s men were set for the night.
In the city center, the tank battalions led by Schwartz and DeCamp were holding their ground but still desperately low on fuel and ammunition. With the combat teams at all three interchanges able to hold their ground, two supply convoys were now sent up Highway 8 toward the city center. It was a high-speed race. Every vehicle was hit by fire, but the convoys rolled into the palace complex just before dusk, fuel and ammunition intact. Tankers at the 14th of July circle cheered, and there were high-fives and handshakes when the trucks set up an instant gas station and supply point next to the palace rose beds. Perkins was convinced now that Baghdad was his. He didn’t need to control the whole city. He just needed the palace complex and a way to get fuel and ammunition in.
Now he had both.
“We had come in, created a lot of chaos, lots of violence and momentum all at once,” Perkins said later. “We had speed and audacity. And now with the resupply, we were there for good and there was nothing the other side could do about it.”
The next morning, Capt. Phil Wolford’s Assassin tank company would repel a fierce counterattack at the Jumhuriya Bridge across the Tigris River. Rogue battalion would engage in running firefights throughout central Baghdad. At the three interchanges on Highway 8, Syrians and Fedayeen mounted more attacks for much of the day, bringing the China battalion’s casualties to two dead and 30 wounded. But the American forces now fought from a position of strength. On the third day, April 9, Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed.
On the night of April 7, after a long day of sustained combat, there had been an extended lull at the palace complex and up and down Highway 8. The tankers and the infantrymen sensed a shift in momentum. Some dared to speak of going home soon, for they now believed the war was nearly over. There would be two more days of fierce fighting before Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed. But on the night of April 7, theirs would be a decisive victory, the last one in Iraq for a long time.