INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 9, 1997
AS DARKNESS FELL, tensions continued to build between the Delta and Ranger commanders. Over the radio, they argued over where to best position the 99 men now scattered through the narrow streets around pilot Cliff Wolcott's downed Blackhawk.
Capt. Scott Miller, the Delta ground commander, wanted Capt. Mike Steele, the Ranger commander, to take the nearly two dozen men holed up with him and move a block north to where Miller had taken cover with his men. Steele was reluctant.
Lt. Col. Gary Harrell, the mission commander, radioed from his Blackhawk helicopter circling high over the city. He agreed with Miller that everyone should be gathered in one place near the crash site to form more effective crossfire zones and give helicopter gunships a better shot at the Somalian gunmen surrounding them. The Little Birds were making dazzling gun runs, raining brass links from the miniguns on their heads.
I know it's tough, said Harrell, and you're doing the best you can, but try to get everyone at one site and have one guy talking down there if you can.
Steele responded: OK. Hoo-ah.
He told a sergeant, Sean Watson, to get ready to move out. Watson immediately confronted his captain. Many enlisted men would lack the confidence to challenge their commanding officer, especially in battle, but Watson was a highly respected sergeant first class. He spoke bluntly.
``Hey, sir, uh-uh,'' he said. ``No way.''
Watson said he thought the idea was foolhardy. They could expect a hail of bullets and grenades the second they stepped out the door. They had five wounded men, two of whom would have to be carried. The body of Delta Sgt. First Class Earl Fillmore, who had been shot in the head, would also have to be hauled. Four men would have to carry each litter, making convenient cluster targets. Watson pointed out that it would take a lot to overrun their well-defended courtyard.
The Rangers listened nervously. To a man, they sided with Watson. They thought moving only invited more trouble when they had plenty already. Steele took a deep breath and reconsidered.
``I think you're right,'' he told Watson.
Steele conferred briefly with the D-boys in the courtyard, then relayed word to Miller:
Right now we're not going to be able to move, not with all these wounded.
Miller was perturbed. Technically, as he understood it, even though he and Steele were both captains, his D-boys were in charge on the ground. He wanted Steele and his men to move.
Steele did not consider Miller his superior officer. He relayed word to Miller, no, and suggested the question be settled by Col. Harrell. If Harrell said move, they'd move.
Harrell refused to decide the issue. He told both captains:
If you stay separated, I cannot support you as well. You're the guy on the ground, and you have to make the call.
Steele had made his call. He was not going to waste time arguing about it. He ignored Sgt. John Boswell when the Delta soldier offered him his headset and urged him to discuss the matter further with Miller.
Miller then made his own call. He ordered the Delta soldiers pinned down with Steele's men to move up and join him, leaving the Rangers behind. Steele was bitter, but he didn't try to stop them.
He watched as the D-boys lined up in the courtyard, preparing to make their dash out the door. Then the first group of four went charging out into the night. Gunfire exploded the instant they passed through the door. The whole neighborhood erupted. Within seconds, all four D-boys came flying back into the courtyard, tripping over the same metal doorway rim that had tripped up Steele earlier. They wound up in a heap on the ground, their gun barrels clinking together as they untangled.
Steele watched with mild amusement and satisfaction. Nobody was going anywhere.
Inside the stone house adjacent to the crash site, the men blew a hole in one of the walls and began moving the wounded and dead into the adjacent space. Through the new hole a Somalian woman in a flowing orange robe stepped in screaming words the men couldn't understand. When she stepped out, gunfire ripped through windows and openings. Then the woman came back, screamed more, and left. Again came the rain of gunfire.
``If that bitch comes back, I'm going to kill her,'' one of the D-boys grumbled.
She did, and he did.
Sgt. First Class Al Lamb helped moved CWO Donovan ``Bull'' Briley's body into the newly opened space. Briley had died in the crash of Wolcott's helicopter. When Lamb set Briley down, the copilot's head hit the wall with a mushy thud that sickened Lamb. He flattened him out so that when rigor mortis set in the body would not be folded at the waist. Lamb remembered seeing Briley the day before, running, wearing spandex shorts, a powerful man. He thought, Jesus, this is a sad day.
IN A COURTYARD less than 50 yards away, First Lt. Larry Perino, medic Kurt Schmid and others were taking turns sticking their fingers up inside Cpl. Jamie Smith's wound, trying to keep the severed femoral artery pinched shut. Smith had been in awful pain from a gunshot wound to his upper thigh, but a morphine drip had quieted him. He was still conscious, but barely. He looked pale and distant. Schmid kept telling Perino: ``We need help. He's not going to make it.''
Earlier in the evening, a Blackhawk had dropped fresh supplies of fluids and medicine, along with more ammunition. But Smith needed a doctor and a hospital.
Perino radioed down the block to Steele: Hey, Captain, we've got to get Smith out. He's getting worse.
Steele knew this was doubtful, but radioed Harrell and urged him to put a helicopter down in the wide intersection outside his doorway. Harrell was not encouraging. He said the resupply helicopter had been badly shot up and had barely made it out - and it had only hovered, not landed.
Even so, Steele could hear Harrell pleading with his superiors at the Joint Operations Center at the airport base. Harrell stressed that both Smith and Pfc. Carlos Rodriguez, who had been shot in the groin, were in critical condition. He asked about the quick reaction force, which was still being assembled at the base to drive into the city and smash through to the surrounded soldiers.
Harrell was insistent:
If the QRF [quick reaction force] does not get there soon, there will be more KIAs [killed in action] from previously received WIAs [wounded in action].
But to no avail. Rescue convoys had failed. The other helicopter crash site, Mike Durant's Blackhawk, had been overrun. The forces of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, fully mobilized, had dug trenches and erected burning barricades on all roads leading to Wolcott's crash site.
Harrell reluctantly delivered the verdict to Steele:
We are going to have to hold on the best we can with those casualties and hope the ground reaction force gets there on time.
Steele sadly passed the word to Perino: It's just too hot.
Perino took the news badly. It was one thing to weigh these matters rationally, but quite another to have a young man's blood splashed all over your hands and arms, to have your fingers up inside his wound, feeling his life ebbing away.
They had pushed as much fluid from the resupply into Smith as they could, but he needed blood.
Perino could tell that even though Smith had become weak and silent, he was still alert enough to be very scared. His father, James Sr., had been a Ranger in Vietnam and had lost a leg in battle. He had tried, before Jamie enlisted, to instill a respectful fear of combat into his son, describing in graphic detail the horrors he had seen in Vietnam.
Jamie had grown up wanting to be nothing but a Ranger. As a boy, he had sometimes worn his father's old Army jacket to school in Long Valley, N.J. His younger brother, Matt, was planning to enlist and enter Ranger school.
Three years earlier, when he was still in basic training, Jamie had written to his father: ``Today while walking back from lunch I saw two Rangers walking through the company area. It's the dream of being one of those guys in faded fatigues and a black beret that keeps me going.''
Now the life was flowing from him. There was nothing more Perino and Schmid could do.
Not long after the refusal of the helicopter, Perino radioed Steele: Don't worry about the Medivac, sir. It's too late.
The news was broadcast over the command net: One of the critical WIAs has just been KIA.
Chapter 25: The rescue convoy mobilizes.