INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 4, 1997
Rangers' positions by the target
Once the ground convoy had rolled away from the target house with the 24 Somalian prisoners, there wasn't much left for Yurek and his men to do. He decided to radio the Chalk leader, First Lt. Tom DiTomasso, for guidance. He was afraid the entire assault force had taken off and left them.
DiTomasso's voice came over the radio: You need to find your way to me.
The lieutenant and his men had fought their way to Wolcott's Blackhawk. Now, an hour into the mission, he wanted Yurek and the rest of Chalk Two to run the same gauntlet: three terrifying blocks, with Somalis firing madly down the alleyways in every direction.
Reluctantly, they abandoned the relative safety of their position and began moving east down an alley about 10 yards wide. Ahead they heard the sounds of pitched battle. Yurek stayed away from the walls. One of the D-boys had warned him that walls act as funnels for bullets. Rounds would ride walls for hundreds of feet. Huddling tight against a wall, while instinctual, was as dangerous as standing in the middle of the street.
As soon as the little group stepped out to move, the Somalis opened up. Gunmen popped up in windows, in doorways and around corners, spraying bursts of automatic fire. At each intersection the Rangers stopped and covered one another. Yurek ran while his men laid suppressive fire north and south. Then they ran while he covered them. In this way they leapfrogged across each street.
Yurek shot one man in a doorway just 10 feet away. The man had stepped out and taken aim. He was a bushy-haired, dusty man with baggy brown pants. He didn't shoot instantly, and that's what killed him. Yurek's eyes met his for an instant as he pulled the trigger. The Somali pitched forward without getting off a shot.
It struck Yurek how similar killing a man was to shooting targets in training. In practice, targets would pop out unexpectedly. The rules were to shoot at blue triangles, but to hold fire if a green square appeared. Now, in actual battle, he had seen a target, identified it, and taken it out. He was grateful for all the tedious hours of training.
The fire grew so intense down the alley that Yurek was surprised that none of his men was hurt. They turned a corner three blocks down, and there was the crash site. The other half of their Chalk had set up a small perimeter. Lt. DiTomasso was crouched behind a green Volkswagen. Chalk Two's M-60 gunner, Shawn Nelson, had taken cover behind another car and a tree across the street.
Yurek sprinted to DiTomasso. As he crouched to speak to the lieutenant, the Volkswagen began rocking from the impact of heavy rounds. Somebody with a very powerful weapon had a bead on them. The rounds were slicing through the car.
Yurek shouted across the street. Maybe Nelson had a better vantage point. ``What is it?'' he shouted.
``It's a big gun!'' Nelson called back.
Yurek and DiTomasso looked at each other and rolled their eyes.
``Where is it?'' Yurek shouted.
Nelson pointed up the street, and Yurek edged out to look around the car. He saw three dead Somalis in the dirt. He stacked them into a little mound. Sliding out into the street behind the bodies, he was able to get a better view. Now he could see all the way up the street, where two Somalis were stretched out on the ground behind a big gun mounted on a tripod. From that position, they could control the whole street.
Yurek had a LAW, a light antitank weapon, strapped to his back. He'd been carrying it around on every mission for weeks. It was a disposable plastic launcher weighing only three pounds. He unstrapped the weapon and climbed up and leaned forward on the Volkswagen. He took aim through flip-up crosshairs.
The rocket launched with a powerful back blast. Yurek watched it zoom in on the target and explode with a flash and a loud whoom! The big Somalian gun flipped into the air.
Yurek was accepting congratulations from the other Rangers when the thunk thunk thunk resumed against the car. The rocket had evidently landed just short, close enough to send the weapon flying and kick up a cloud of dirt, but not close enough to destroy the gun or kill the gunners.
He saw them up the street now, kneeling behind the gun, which they had righted again on the tripod. Yurek picked up another LAW that someone had discarded. It was bent and crushed. He couldn't get it to open up. So he loaded a fist-sized M203 round into the grenade-launching tube mounted under the barrel of his M-16.
This time his aim was better. He could actually see the fat 203 round spiral into the target. The two Somalis toppled over sideways in opposite directions. When the smoke cleared, Yurek could see the gun just lying there between the two dead gunners. No one else came out to get it. For the rest of the day, until just past dusk, Yurek kept a good eye on that gun.
AT THE CRASH SITE, Spec. Rob Phipps was feeling edgy. He was all alone, crouching next to the hole in the stone wall where Wolcott's Blackhawk had hit on its way down. At 22, Phipps was the youngest of the men who had roped down on the combat search-and-rescue team. He would feel a lot better, he thought, if he had some of the veterans around him.
He got on his hand-held radio and called Sgt. First Class Al Lamb to ask for help. Lamb, 32, was an experienced member of the rescue team. He had taken cover on the other side of the Blackhawk, in one of the holes where the Somalis dumped their household garbage.
Before Lamb could respond, Phipps noticed a Ranger sergeant, Steven Lycopolus, move up and take cover across the alley. Within minutes, to Phipps' relief, Lamb and several Rangers from Chalk Two also moved into position around the downed helicopter.
Their job was to pick off gunmen who were sending an almost steady flow of rounds up the alleyway, and to prevent any from approaching the crash site. Phipps saw a man in a loose white shirt and sandals creeping up the alleyway, crouching with his AK-47 held forward. Phipps shot him and he fell to the road. Minutes later, another Somali ran out to retrieve the gun. Phipps shot him. Then another man ran out to get the weapon. Phipps shot him, too.
Rounds were chipping the walls around him, and he could hear them puncturing the helicopter's thin metal hull. They were coming from a clump of trees about 20 yards away. Lamb told the men to heave some grenades over the wall. A Ranger lit up the trees with his SAW while Phipps and some of the other Rangers flung grenades.
There were explosions, then silence. Then one of the grenades they had thrown came flying back. The Ranger who threw it had forgotten to take the safety strap off.
``Grenade!'' several voices screamed.
Phipps dived away from it. The explosion was like a gut punch. It sucked all the air out of him. He felt as if he was on fire, and his ears rang from the blast. When the initial ball of fire was gone, he still felt terrible burning on both legs and on his back. His nose and mouth stung with a bitter taste. His face was blackened and bruised, and his eyes had begun to swell shut.
When Phipps regained his senses, he lifted his head to look over his shoulder just as a Somali ran into the roadway and picked up the AK-47 from the pile of dead and wounded where Phipps had been shooting earlier. The man was taking aim at him when one of the D-boys back by the wall dropped him with a quick burst. The man's head just came apart.
A Delta medic shouted at Phipps from the hole in the wall across the alley. If Phipps could move, it wouldn't be necessary to brave fire retrieving him.
``Come on! Come on!'' the medic urged.
Phipps tried to stand, but his left leg gave out. He tried again and fell again. He started to crawl. He still felt a fierce burning along his back and legs, and his left leg wasn't working right. When he crawled close enough, the medic grabbed his face and pulled him the rest of the way in.
``Holy s-! I'm hit! I got shot! I got shot!'' Phipps screamed.
``You're all right,'' the medic reassured him. ``You'll be all right.''
He tore open Phipps' pants and applied a field dressing. The young Ranger joined the growing ranks of the wounded at Crash Site One.
Chapter 20: Delta and Rangers at odds.