This is the
story of the "Thunder Run" into Baghdad that collapsed
the Iraqi resistance.
It looks like the "Thunder Run"
will replace the Battle of 73 Easting as the most studied ground
engagement in U.S. History.
Los Angeles Times Magazine
December 7, 2003
The Thunder Run
'Are you kidding, sir?': Fewer than 1,000 soldiers were ordered
to capture a city of 5 million Iraqis. Theirs is a story that may
become military legend.
By David Zucchino
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The crew was now left with just one medium machine gun and the
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
"We've been hit. I'll have to call you back. It doesn't look
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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.
David Zucchino is a Times national correspondent based in Philadelphia.