INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 19, 1997
AFTER ROPING DOWN from their Blackhawk, the Rangers on Chalk One fanned out around the southeast corner of the target house in Mogadishu.
As far as Chalk One knew, things were going well. The mission had been quieter for them than for the Rangers one block west on Hawlwadig Road. But now gunfire was picking up, and in a matter of minutes Cliff Wolcott's Blackhawk would be shot down just five blocks away.
Dirt popped up all around Ranger Sgts. Mike Goodale and Aaron Williamson, who were crouched behind the rusted hulk of a burned-out car. A Somali with an AK-47 leaned out from behind a corner and rattled a burst.
Goodale hopped and ran, but there was no safe place to hide. He dived behind a pipe protruding from the road. It was only 7 inches wide and 6 inches high. He felt ridiculous cowering behind it. When the shooting ceased momentarily, he rejoined Williamson behind the car, just as the Somali opened up again.
``If he sticks his head out again I'm taking him,'' he told Goodale.
Severed fingertip and all, Williamson coolly leveled his M-16 and waited, motionless. Bullets were still snapping around them.
When the shooter showed his face again, Williamson fired. There was a spray of blood, and the man fell over hard. With his uninjured hand, Williamson exchanged a high five with Goodale.
Moments later, another Somali sprinted away from them. As he ran, his loose shirt billowed out to reveal an AK-47, so Goodale and Williamson shot him. As the man lay on the street, Goodale asked Chalk One's medic if they should check him out. The medic shook his head and said, ``No, he's dead.''
That startled Goodale. He had just killed a man. Only two years earlier, he had been partying hard at the University of Iowa, flunking out and joining the Rangers. His two years with the Rangers had been mostly a great time. Soldiering was fun. This was something else. The man had not actually been shooting at him when he fired, so was it right to shoot? Goodale stared at the man in the dirt, his clothes tangled around him, splayed awkwardly in the alley.
Perino sprayed rounds from his M-16 at their feet. They ran away again.
Then a woman began creeping toward Staff Sgt. Chuck Elliott's M-60 machine gun, which the men called a ``pig'' because of the grunting sound it made when fired.
``Hey, sir, I can see there's a guy behind this woman with a weapon under her arm!'' Elliott shouted.
Perino told Elliott to fire. The 60-gun made its low, blatting sound. The man and the woman fell dead.
At 23, Nelson was a little older than his buddies. When the corporate training program he attended after high school in Atlanta abruptly folded, he had enlisted. He felt protective of his fellow Rangers, and not just because of his big gun. They were the first real family he had ever had.
He could see Somalis aiming guns at the southwest corner of the target block, where Chalk Three had roped in. One Somali, an old man with a bushy white afro, was so intent that he didn't run like the others when Nelson fired.
``Shoot him, shoot him,'' urged Nelson's assistant gunner.
``No, watch,'' Nelson said. ``He'll come right to us.''
Sure enough, the man practically walked up to them. He ducked behind a tree 50 yards up and was loading a new magazine in his weapon when Nelson put about a dozen rounds into him. The bullets went right through the man, chipping the wall behind him, but still he got up, retrieved his weapon, and fired again. Nelson was shocked. He squeezed another burst. The man managed to crawl behind the tree. This time he didn't shoot back.
``I think you got him,'' said his assistant gunner.
But Nelson could still see the afro moving behind the tree. He blasted another long burst. Bark splintered off the tree and the man slumped sideways. His body was quivering and he seemed to have at last expired. Nelson could not believe how hard it was to kill a man.
Taking cover next behind a small car, Nelson saw a Somali with a gun prone on the dirt between two kneeling women. He had the barrel of his weapon between the women's legs, and there were four children actually sitting on him. He was completely shielded by noncombatants.
``Check this out, John,'' Nelson told Spec. John Waddell.
``What do you want to do?'' Waddell asked.
Nelson threw a flash-bang at the group, and they fled so fast the man left his gun.
Crouching nearby, Staff Sgt. Ed Yurek's attention was called to a nearby tin-walled shed.
``Hey, we've got people in the shed!'' shouted Chalk Two's medic.
Yurek sprinted across the street, and, with the medic, plunged into the shed, nearly trampling a huddled mass of terrified children. With them was a woman, evidently their teacher.
``Everyone down!'' Yurek shouted, his weapon ready.
The children wailed, and Yurek realized he needed to throttle things back.
``Settle down,'' he pleaded. ``Settle down!'' But the wailing continued.
Slowly, Yurek stooped and placed his weapon on the ground. He motioned for the teacher to approach him. He guessed she was a young teenager.
``Lay down,'' he told her, speaking evenly. ``Lay down,'' gesturing with his hands.
She lay down, hesitantly. Yurek pointed to the children, gesturing for them to do the same. They got down. Yurek retrieved his weapon and addressed the teacher, enunciating every word, vainly trying to bridge the language barrier. ``Now, you need to stay here. No matter what you see or hear, stay here.''
She shook her head, and Yurek hoped that meant yes. As they left, Yurek told the medic to guard the door. He feared somebody would barge in shooting.
Just then, a Blackhawk slid overhead and opened up with a minigun. The cow literally came apart. Great chunks of flesh flew up. Blood splashed. When the minigun stopped and the helicopter's shadow passed, what had been the cow lay in awful, steaming pieces.
Those powerful guns overhead were deeply reassuring to the men on the ground. On the streets of a hostile city with bullets snapping past, where the smell of blood and burnt flesh mingled with the odor of garbage and dung, the thrum of the Blackhawks reminded them they were not alone.
As the helicopter moved off, yet another crowd of Somalis began to form. Nelson tried to direct his fire only at people with weapons, but those with guns were intermingled. He debated only momentarily before firing. The group dispersed, leaving bodies in the alleyway. Quickly another, larger group began to mass. People were closing in, just 50 feet up the road, some of them shooting.
Nelson wasn't weighing issues anymore. He cut loose with the M-60, and his rounds tore through the crowd like a scythe. A Little Bird swooped in and threw down a flaming wall of lead. Those who didn't fall fled. One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.
``Goddamn, Nelson!'' Waddell said. ``Goddamn!''
Chapter 5: Shock after Rangers lose a trump card.