INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 17, 1997
WITH BADLY INJURED Pfc. Todd Blackburn on board, the little convoy sped out of the treacherous side streets of Mogadishu to a wide road, and for a stretch the firing abated. As they approached the sea, well south of the target building, the road was mobbed with Somalis. In the lead humvee, Staff Sgt. Jeff Struecker's heart sank. How was he going to get his three humvees back to base through all these people?
His driver slowed to a crawl and leaned on the horn. Struecker told him to keep moving. He threw out loud but harmless flash-bang grenades. Then he told his 50-gunner to open up over people's heads.
The sound of the big gun scattered most of the people, and the column sped up again. They may have run over some people. Struecker didn't look back to see.
About three miles north, near the Olympic Hotel, the Delta Force commandos had 24 Somalian prisoners handcuffed and ready for loading on the main ground convoy. Among them were the primary targets of the raid, two Somalian clan leaders.
Now they came up behind a slow-moving pickup truck with people hanging off the back. It would not pull over, so Struecker told his driver to ram it. A man with his leg hanging off the back screamed as the humvee hit. As the truck veered off the road, the man curled into the back bed, clutching his leg.
They passed through the gates of the beachfront American compound with a tremendous sense of relief and exhaustion. They had run the gauntlet. Dazed and blood-splattered, they piled out. Struecker had expected to find the calm safety of the home base. Instead, the scene was frantic. People were racing around on the tarmac. He heard a commander's voice on the speaker box, shouting, ``Pay attention to what's going on and listen to my orders!''
It smelled like panic. Something had happened.
The medical people ran to the middle humvee to get Blackburn, who was on his way to a long and difficult recovery. They didn't know about Pilla.
Struecker grabbed one as he went past.
``Look, there's a dead in the back of my vehicle; you need to get him off.''
BACK IN THE CITY, at Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann's intersection, things continued to go wrong for Chalk Four. First Blackburn had fallen out of the helicopter. Then they had roped in well off target. And now they were pinned down on Hawlwadig Road, a block north of their proper position at the northwest corner of the target block.
Two of Eversmann's men, Sgt. Scott Galentine and Sgt. Jim Telscher, were crouched behind cars across the street. For some reason, the steady gunfire didn't frighten Galentine. It turned him giddy. He was goofing with Telscher, making faces and grinning, as rounds kicked up dirt between them, shattering the windows and blowing out the tires of the cars. Telscher was a sight. He had blood smeared on his face, having accidentally smacked himself with his rifle coming down the fast rope.
Galentine was a 21-year-old sergeant from Xenia, Ohio, who had gotten bored working at a rubber plant. Now he was pointing his M-16 at people down the street, aiming at center mass, and squeezing off rounds. People would drop, just like silhouettes at target practice.
When they started catching rounds from a different direction, Galentine and Telscher ran to an alley. There, Galentine came face to face with a Somalian woman. She was staring up at Galentine and trying to open a door. His first instinct had been to shoot. The woman's eyes were wide with terror. It startled him, that moment. It cut through his silliness. This wasn't a game. He had been very close to killing this woman. She got the door open and stepped inside.
Galentine took cover behind another car, his gun braced against his shoulder. He was picking targets out of the hundreds of Somalis moving toward them.
As he fired, he felt a painful slap on his left hand that knocked his weapon so hard it spun completely around him. His first thought was to right his gun, but when he reached out he saw that his left thumb was lying on his forearm, attached by a strip of skin.
He picked up his thumb and tried to press it back to his hand.
Telscher called to him. ``You all right, Scotty? You all right?''
Sgt. Eversmann had seen it, the M-16 spinning and a splash of pink by Galentine's left hand. He had seen Galentine reach for the thumb, then look across the road at him.
"Don't come across!" Eversmann shouted. There was withering fire coming down the road. "Don't come across!"
Galentine heard the sergeant but started running anyway. He seemed to be getting nowhere, as if in a dream. His feet seemed heavy and slow. He dived the last few feet.
The sergeant was still contending with the crowd. Men would dart out into the street and spray bursts from their AK-47s, then take cover. Eversmann saw the flash and puff of smoke of rocket-propelled grenades being launched their way. The grenades came wobbling through the air and exploded with a long splash of flame and a pounding concussion. The heat would wash over and leave the odor of powder.
At one point, such a great wave of fire from Somalis tore down the road that it created a shock wave of noise and energy that Eversmann could actually see coming. They had expected some resistance on this raid, but nothing like this.
When one of the big Blackhawks flew over, Eversmann stood and stretched his long arm to the north, directing them to the Somalian gunmen. He watched the crew chief in back, sitting behind his minigun, and then saw the gun spout lines of flame at targets up the street. For a few minutes, all shooting from that direction stopped.
To Eversmann's left, Pvt. 2 Anton Berendsen was prone on the ground and firing his M203, a rifle with a grenade-launching tube under the barrel. Seconds after Galentine had dived in, Berendsen turned and grabbed his shoulder.
``Oh, my God, I'm hit,'' Berendsen said. He looked up at Eversmann.
Berendsen scooted over against the wall next to Galentine with one arm limp at his side, picking small chunks of debris from his face.
Eversmann squatted next to both men, turning first to Berendsen, who was still preoccupied, looking down the alley.
``Ber, tell me where you're hurt,'' Eversmann said.
``I think I got one in the arm.''
With his good hand, Berendsen was fumbling with the breech of his grenade launcher. Eversmann impatiently reached down and opened it.
``There's a guy right down there,'' Berendsen said.
As Eversmann struggled to lift Berendsen's vest and open his shirt to assess the wound, the private shot off a 203 round one-handed. The sergeant could see the fist-sized round spiraling toward a tin shack 40 meters away. When it hit, the shack vanished in a great flash of light and smoke.
Berendsen's injury did not look severe. Eversmann turned to Galentine, who looked wide-eyed, as if he might be lapsing into shock. His left thumb was hanging down below his hand.
Eversmann grabbed the thumb and placed it in the dazed sergeant's palm.
``Scott, hold this,'' he said. ``Just put your hand up and hold it, buddy.''
Galentine gripped the thumb with his fingers.
``Don't worry, Sgt. Galentine, you're going be OK,'' Berendsen said.
With Berendsen hurt, Eversmann had only Spec. Dave Diemer covering the alley to the east with his SAW (squad automatic weapon). Diemer was a boisterous 22-year-old from Newburgh, N.Y., and the company's arm-wrestling champ. Eversmann kneeled beside Diemer behind a car and fired his M-16. It occurred to Eversmann that this was the first shot he'd fired.
It was hectic. Eversmann tried to stay calm. This was his first time in charge. He had three Rangers injured, one critically, and he'd managed to get him out. Neither Galentine's nor Berendsen's wounds were life-threatening.
Glass shattered and showered on Eversmann and Diemer. A Somali had run out to the middle of Hawlwadig Road, just a few yards away, and opened up on the car. Diemer dived down behind the rear wheel on the passenger side and shot him with a quick burst. The Somali fell over backward in a rumpled heap.
Eversmann radioed to First Lt. Larry Perino, the Chalk One commander, that he had taken two more casualties.
From across the street, Sgt. Telscher shouted, ``Sgt. Eversmann! Snodgrass has been shot!''
Spec. Kevin Snodgrass, the machine gunner, had been crouched behind a car hulk and a round had evidently skipped off the car or ricocheted up from the road. Eversmann saw Telscher stoop over Snodgrass to tend to the wound. The machine gunner was not screaming. It didn't look too dire.
Eversmann turned wearily to Diemer.
``A helicopter just crashed.''