as the body count climbs
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 7, 1997
SGT. KENNY THOMAS was just a few feet away when Earl Fillmore went down. Thomas had been firing down an alley. He was one of about 70 Rangers and D-boys fighting their way on foot to Cliff Wolcott's downed Blackhawk an hour into the mission. Thomas happened to be looking right at Fillmore when suddenly the back of Fillmore's little hockey helmet blew out.
He saw Fillmore pitch forward on his face. The sight of the tough, confident Delta sergeant stretched out motionless with his nose in the dirt horrified Thomas. As Fillmore was dragged from the line of fire, Thomas went over to Sgt. First Class Sean Watson.
``He needs a Medivac [medical evacuation] or he's going to die,'' Thomas said.
``There's no way to get him out by helo [helicopter]. No way anybody's getting in here,'' Watson said.
It was dawning on the men who had moved from the target building toward the crash site that they were now cut off from help. They weren't even sure how far they were from Wolcott's bird. They had split haphazardly into several groups, each pinned down somewhere near the crash site. No one was in charge. Rangers answered to Ranger officers, and Delta commandos answered to their own tight chain of command.
The rescue convoy that was supposed to meet them at the crash site had become hopelessly lost. Shredded by enemy fire, it was about to give up and turn back. The Little Bird gunships buzzing overhead couldn't open fire on Somalian gunmen for fear of hitting American soldiers scattered all around. With two Blackhawks shot down already, no helicopter could safely land to evacuate the mounting number of wounded.
It was too late for Fillmore. He was dead. Thomas realized it, and he broke down sobbing.
Then Pfc. Peter Neathery was hit at the same wall where Fillmore had been shot. Neathery had been on the ground, working his big M-60 gun when he screamed and rolled away, clutching his right arm. Pfc. Vince Errico took over the M-60, and seconds later he let out a yelp. He, too, had been hit in the right arm. He joined Neathery on the ground. Both were moaning and writhing.
Spec. Richard Strous, a medic, dashed across the street to tend Errico and Neathery, but then he gestured wildly. He'd forgotten his medical kit. The men against the opposite wall all looked at one another. After some discussion, it was decided that Sgt. Jeffrey Hulst would run the kit across. He darted about halfway out into the road and flung the bag. Strous ran back out and retrieved it, then went to work on the two wounded Rangers.
On the same street, Capt. Mike Steele was on the ground, taking cover behind a tin shack. The big Ranger commander had edged up into the same concentrated field of fire that had felled Fillmore and Neathery. He was talking on the radio. Beside him on the ground was his lieutenant, James Lechner.
Sgt. Norm Hooten, a Delta team leader, tried to warn them away. Hooten was standing in the doorway of a courtyard, waving frantically. Steele saw him, but he put up his hand, gesturing for Hooten to wait until he had finished with the radio.
A spray of bullets kicked sand into Steele's eyes. Lechner tried to roll out of the way. Steele saw rounds tear holes through the tin wall behind them, and he heard Lechner scream.
Steele was still rolling when he saw Hooten waving him toward the courtyard. The captain got up and ran for the doorway. There was a lip at the base of the entrance and he tripped over it, sprawling into a small courtyard head-first.
``We've got to get Lechner!'' Steele shouted.
He stood to run back out, but Delta medic Bart Bullock had already dashed out. He and another soldier dragged Lechner through the doorway. The lieutenant's shin had been shattered. He was howling with pain.
Steele grabbed the radio microphone. Shouting, his words delivered in gasped phrases that sharply contrasted with the even voices of the pilots and airborne commanders watching in aircraft high above. Steele didn't even pretend to be calm:
Romeo 64, this is Juliet 64. We're taking heavy small-arms fire. We need relief NOW and start extracting!
In the command helicopter, Lt. Col. Gary Harrell, the mission commander, responded evenly but with some impatience:
I UNDERSTAND you need to be extracted. I've done EVERYTHING I CAN to get those vehicles to you, over.
He, too, was frustrated by the convoy's failure to find the crash site.
Steele responded wearily:
Roger, understand. Be advised command element [Lechner] was just hit. Have more casualties, over.
In the doorway, Steele was motioning to his men across the street for them to join him in the courtyard. He was still trying to assemble everybody in one place.
But even after those few men were safely inside, the captain had no idea where the rest of the Rangers and D-boys had gone. And he had a courtyard full of wounded men to worry about.
ONE OF THE Delta team leaders, Sgt. Paul Howe, realized he had to get the men off the street and out of the line of fire. He and another soldier slammed their shoulders into the gate of a narrow courtyard between two houses and burst inside, weapons ready. They found a terrified family - a man, his wife and several children cowering in a room.
Howe stood in the doorway, pointing his weapon with his right hand and trying to coax the people out of the room with his left. It took awhile, but they came out slowly, clinging to one another. Howe searched them, and handed them back to his team to be handcuffed and herded into a side room.
When the rooms adjacent to the courtyard had been cleared, Howe waved in Delta ground commander, Capt. Scott Miller and the rest of the men on the street. Miller, who had finally caught up with Howe in his run to the crash site, knew from radio traffic that the ground convoy was hopelessly lost and badly mauled. He welcomed the cleared courtyard as a command post and casualty collection point. They might be stuck there all night.
As the men piled in, a sergeant major ordered Howe to go outside and help the Rangers still on the street. The directive angered Howe. It was the order of a soldier who didn't know what to do next. Howe felt much more aggressive steps should be taken. He believed they should be looking for ways to strongpoint their position, expand their perimeter, identify other buildings to take over to give them better lines of fire. Instead he was being asked to just help hold the fort.
He found one of the Rangers, Spec. Shawn Nelson, firing a handgun at the window of the house Howe had just cleared. Nelson had seen someone moving in the window.
``What are you doing?'' Howe shouted across the alley.
Nelson couldn't hear Howe. He shouted back, ``I saw someone in there.''
``No s-. There are friendlies in there!''
When Nelson found out later that he had fired on his own men, he was mortified. No one had told him that Delta had moved into that space, but, then again, it was a cardinal sin to shoot before identifying a target.
Already furious, Howe now began venting at the Rangers, who he felt were hunkered down in defensive positions waiting for guidance. They weren't shooting as much as Howe felt they should be. They did not seem to appreciate just how desperate their situation had become. Cut off and surrounded, their survival was at stake.
Howe watched several Rangers try to hit a Somali who kept darting out, shooting, and then retreating behind a shed about a block away. The big Delta sergeant picked up a LAW - a light antitank weapon - and hurled it across the road. It landed on Spec. Lance Twombly, who was on his belly, bruising his forearm. He turned angrily.
``Shoot the motherf-er!'' Howe screamed.
Howe looked for a protected spot where he could fire. He found a sort of pocket of invisibility. There was nothing to protect him from fire, but the tree across the street at Nelson's position and the slope of the hill behind him provided excellent, though not obvious, concealment. From there he was able to stand a yard or two away from the wall on the west side and cover the road north. He fired methodically, saving his ammunition, cursing viciously as he shot, still incensed by what he regarded as the Rangers' hesitancy.
Even his ammunition angered him. Howe was firing the Army's new 5.56mm green tip round. It had a tungsten carbide penetrator at the tip that could punch holes in metal. But that penetrating power meant his rounds were passing right through his targets. The rounds made small, clean holes in the Somalian gunmen, and unless they hit the head or spine the men didn't go down. Howe felt that he had to hit each man five or six times just to get his attention.
Across the street, First Lt. Larry Perino and Cpl. Jamie Smith crept along a wall next to a tin shed. Howe watched as Smith and another Ranger moved out away from the wall to shoot up the street. It looked to him as though they were trying to emulate the position he had found, but there was no tree on their side to offer concealment. He shouted across at them impatiently, but in the din he wasn't heard.
They were taking so much fire, it was confusing. Rounds seemed to be coming at them from all directions. Concrete chips fell from the wall over Perino's head and rattled down. He spotted a Somalian muzzle flash and was just about to run out and tap Smith on the shoulder and gesture for him to try to hit the Somali with his grenade launcher when a spray of bullets ripped through the shed.
Then Smith was hit. Nelson, watching from across the street, saw him go down. He actually heard the smack of the round that hit him, like a hard slap. Smith dropped to one knee and then, almost as an afterthought, as if he were commenting about someone else, remarked, ``I'm hit!''
Perino helped move him against the wall. Now Smith was screaming, ``I'm hit! I'm hit!''
Up the street, other men were shouting in pain. Staff Sgt. Ken Boorn was hit in the foot. Pfc. Carlos Rodriguez rolled away from his machine gun, bleeding and clutching his crotch. Eight of 13 men in Lt. Perino's Chalk One had now been wounded.
The lieutenant and a medic pulled Smith into the courtyard, where the medic tore open Smith's pants leg. Smith told Perino, ``Man, this really hurts.''
Smith had been shot in the upper thigh. The medic stuck an IV in him and started shoving Curlex, a pressure dressing, directly up into the wound. Perino didn't know if the medic had made a bigger incision to get up inside Smith or if the round had caused it, but there was a gaping hole in his upper leg and blood was everywhere.
Perino radioed Capt. Steele:
``We can't go any further, sir. We have more wounded than I can carry.''
``You've got to push on,'' Steele told him. He wanted everyone together at the crash site.
``We CANNOT go further. Request permission to occupy a building.''
Steele told Perino again to keep trying.
Perino didn't know it, but the courtyard where he stood was just 50 feet from First Lt. Tom DiTomasso's men from Chalk Two, who had joined the search-and-rescue team at the crash site. They had taken cover in a stone house across an alley from the downed Blackhawk.
Perino tried to reach DiTomasso on his radio.
Tom, where are you?
DiTomasso tried to explain his position.
I can't see. I'm in a courtyard, Perino said.
DiTomasso popped a red smoke bomb, and Perino could see the smoke drifting up in the darkening sky. It was nearly 5 p.m., about 90 minutes into the mission.
Steele's voice on the radio kept pushing Perino to link up with DiTomasso: They need your help.
Perino said: Look, sir, I've got three guys left, counting myself. How can I help him?
Finally, Steele relented: Roger, strongpoint the building and defend it.
In the courtyard, the medic had his hand up inside Smith's leg. Smith looked pale and distant. The medic had started a morphine drip. ``It looks like it's got his femoral artery,'' he said.
He was distressed but focused. ``It's too high for a tourniquet, and I can't put a clamp on it, and I can't put a hemostat on it. All I can do is put direct pressure on it.''
Perino radioed Steele again.
Sir, we need a Medivac. A Little Bird or something. For Corporal Smith. We need to extract him now.''
Steele relayed the request on the command net. It was tough to break through. With Mike Durant's helicopter now shot down and the ground convoy laden with dead and wounded soldiers, every call on the radio was shouted and urgent.
Finally Steele got through. The answer came back from Command: There would be no relief for some time, and putting another helicopter down in their hot neighborhood was out of the question.
The captain radioed Perino back and told him that, for the time being, they would just have to hang on.
Chapter 23: Darkness falls at Crash Site One.