INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
December 10, 1997
LT. COL. BILL DAVID knew very well the consequences of delay. There were wounded Rangers out in the city who were going to die unless the rescue convoy got there soon.
But David, ground commander of the 10th Mountain Division's Quick Reaction Force, was coping with overwhelming complications trying to put the multinational convoy together. It was late in the evening now, more than five hours into the battle.
David and the rest of Charlie Company, about 150 men on a convoy of nine flatbed trucks and a dozen humvees, had already tried to fight their way out to the city once. Before sunset they had made a bid to reach the southern crash site, where pilot Mike Durant and his crew were about to be overrun by Somalis. The convoy had made it only to K-4 Circle, more than a mile from the crash site, before being turned back by a blistering ambush.
Now he had been ordered to hastily assemble a massive rescue force from four Pakistani tanks, 28 Malaysian armored personnel carriers (APCs), his own men along with 150 men in the 10th's Alpha Company, a platoon of eager Ranger volunteers along with D-boys, and the still-ambulatory remnants of the lost convoy.
There was a chaotic scene at the New Port facility in Mogadishu, a few miles up the coast from Task Force Ranger's base. The Rangers and D-boys were in a desperate hurry to get going, and they didn't hide their frustration. But assembling this patchwork convoy presented a host of problems.
``Sir, if you're telling me to drive it, I'll drive it. But I've never driven a truck before,'' Squeglia said.
He was terrified by the thought of grinding gears in the middle of a convoy, where one stalled vehicle could hold up an entire force or, worse, get left behind.
The lieutenant made a face, and walked off to find someone else. Squeglia felt deflated and guilty. Everybody was scared. Some guys were racing to the front of the column while others were looking for a way to avoid going out. Squeglia was somewhere in the middle. After what he had seen of the lost convoy, part of him felt that going out into that city was committing suicide. But they had to do it. He thought about his parents at home on a Sunday morning, reading the newspaper, without the slightest idea that, at this very moment, he was probably living the last minutes of his life.
He made sure he got into the truck after most of the others. He had decided that the safest place was toward the rear, where the spare tire and muffler came up. He wedged himself behind that.
Most of the Malaysian and Pakistani commanders spoke English, but their men did not, so decisions took longer to implement. Soldiers gathered around and held up flashlights to illuminate David's map. The West Point graduate had the delicate task of explaining to the Malaysians that their vehicles were needed but their men were not. David wanted to load his own better-trained soldiers onto the APCs, place the tanks in front of the column, move out midway between the two crash sites, and then send one company to each site.
WITH ALL THE DELAYS, it was 11:20 p.m. before they were ready to pull out of the gate. The Pakistani leader sprinted to David's humvee. He said they had been ordered not to lead the convoy. So David worked out a compromise. The tanks would escort for the first few miles, through any ambushes or roadblocks, then pull back and let Alpha Company pull out front in the APCs.
The formation moved out as planned. As it got close to the Black Sea neighborhood, the stronghold of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the Somalis unleashed vicious ambushes.
Phil Lepre, 24, a specialist from Philadelphia, was inside one APC with about nine other men from the 10th. There was only a little night-light in the darkness, and they could not see out. They listened to the mounting storm of gunfire and explosions pinging off the sides of the vehicle. Lepre had joined the Army to serve his tour and collect his college money. Like many men in the 10th, he was not a career soldier, and certainly not battle-hungry like the Rangers - who, while admired, were considered a little bit crazy.
Lepre heard his APC enveloped by the storm and thought, Holy s-, what am I going into?
``Saddle up, men. Say a prayer,'' said the platoon sergeant.
Lepre said a silent prayer. He reached inside his helmet and pulled out a snapshot of his daughter, Brittany, who was about to turn 2. He kissed the picture and said: ``Babe, I hope you have a wonderful life.''
Spec. Aaron Ahlfinger, 19, was in the second APC with eight other American soldiers. A Malaysian was driving, with two countrymen up front and a Malaysian gunner in the turret. Ahlfinger had never been in a vehicle like this. No one inside could see anything; they didn't realize it when the driver took a wrong turn and they, with a line of vehicles behind them, went rolling off in the wrong direction.
Then something big hit. The dim light in the back went out. Ahlfinger sat in the darkness with the other men until the door of the APC swung open and a Malaysian soldier shouted for them to get out.
An RPG had hit the carrier in front of them. It was burning. They found they were stranded in a radio dead zone, unable to communicate with the main column. They got out and blew a hole in a wall and moved inside for shelter. Along the way Sgt. Cornell Houston was shot in the leg.
Stranded now, they found themselves in a horrific gunfight. Houston was shot again, in the chest by a sniper, a wound that he would die from a few days later in Germany. At one point, some in Ahlfinger's group realized that one of the wounded Malaysians was still stuck inside the smoldering APC.
Sgt. Hollis ordered Cpl. Richard Parent to send someone out to get the Malaysian. Parent commanded two men, both married with children. They looked at each other worriedly. Parent had to choose. He hesitated a moment, then took off himself, running for the APC through the gunfire, screaming at the top of his lungs. He dragged the man out of the vehicle and pulled him back to cover.
The convoy was so big that Capt. Drew Meyerowich, saw from a humvee further back in the column that the vehicles had made a wrong turn, but was unable to make radio contact. There was nothing he could do but hope they doubled back.
The convoy split into two companies. One headed west to the crash site of Durant's Super 64, overrun by Somalis hours earlier. The other pushed on north to the first crash site, Cliff Wolcott's Super 61, where 99 Rangers and D-boys were pinned down and waiting.
The Malaysian driver leading the northbound platoon drew to a stop in front of a flimsy barricade. In the past, Somalis had mined such barricades, so plowing through could be dangerous. The Rangers and D-boys cajoled and finally threatened, but the APC driver wouldn't budge.
So the soldiers piled out of the vehicles and began pulling the barricade apart by hand, under heavy fire. Spec. Lepre and several other men got out and ran for cover, then started firing. Lepre shot his M-16 over the heads of an approaching crowd. The Somalis kept coming, so he shot into them. He saw several people fall, and the crowd melted away, dragging the people he had hit.
For the next half hour, Lepre and his team were hunkered down, taking heavy fire from a nearby building. Lepre was behind a short wall, and he wanted to move a few yards away for a better vantage to fire back.
``Private, get over here and take my position,'' he called back to 23-year-old rifleman James Martin.
Martin hustled up and crouched behind the wall. Lepre had moved only two steps away when Martin was hit in the head by a round that sent him sprawling backward. Lepre saw a small hole in his forehead.
``Medic! Get up here, medic!'' he shouted.
A medic swooped over the downed man and began loosening his clothes, to help prevent shock. He worked on Martin for a few minutes, then turned, and told Lepre: ``He's dead.''
The medic dragged Martin's body over to the wall, inadvertently tugging the dead man's pants down around his knees. Few of the guys wore underwear in tropical Mogadishu. Lepre felt terrible, and somehow responsible. He couldn't bear seeing Martin lying out with his trousers pulled down like that.
Despite the gunfire, he ran out and tried to pull Martin's pants back up and give the man some dignity. Two bullets struck the pavement next to where he stopped, and Lepre scrambled back for cover.
He was pinned there for a long time, gazing out on Martin's half-naked body. He wondered what it felt like to get shot in the head and killed. He pinched himself a couple of times, hard. Would it feel like that? He felt terrible.
``Sorry, man,'' he said to Martin.
Chapter 26: The rescue convoy reaches the trapped soldiers.