INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
November 27, 1997
IN ORDINARY circumstances, as close to Cliff Wolcott's crash site as they were, the convoy would have just barreled over to it, running over and shooting through anything in its path. But with the surveillance helicopters and P-3 Orion spy plane overhead, the convoy was about to illustrate how too much information can hurt soldiers on a battlefield.
From above, commanders could see Somalis throwing up roadblocks and preparing ambushes in Mogadishu. A group of about 15 gunmen was running along streets parallel to the convoy, keeping up because the two five-ton trucks and six humvees were stopping and then darting across intersections one at a time. This gave the gunmen time to get to the next street and set up to fire at each vehicle as it came through.
The men in the vehicles had been ordered to fight their way to Wolcott's crash site, help rescue the crew, then get over to pilot Mike Durant's crash site about a mile south. But the convoy couldn't get anywhere because it was lost - and getting riddled.
The choppers and the spy plane, flown by U.S. Navy aviators, tried to steer the convoy clear of Somalian gunfire, dodging the soldiers left and right on the labyrinthine streets. It was like negotiating a maze. But the Orion pilots were handicapped. They were not allowed to communicate directly with the convoy. Their orders were to relay all communications to the Joint Operations Center (JOC) back at the beach. So when the Orion pilots said, ``Turn left,'' that message went first to the JOC and then to the convoy. The pilots watched with frustration as the convoy drove past the place they had directed it to turn, then, getting the delayed message, turned left down the wrong street.
There was another problem. Watching on screens, the commanders weren't hearing the pop of bullets and feeling the bone-rattling, lung-sucking blast of grenades. The convoy's progress seemed orderly. The video images were't conveying how desperate the situation was.
Lying helplessly on his back, Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann felt his vehicle steer left when he knew the crash site was back to his right. There was another turn. Then another. It was easy to get lost in Mogadishu. Roads you thought were taking you one place would suddenly slant off in a different direction.
At the rear of the convoy, SEAL John Gay, his right hip still aching and bloody from where an AK-47 round had been stopped by his knife, was also getting frustrated. There were about seven wounded Rangers in his humvee who seemed to be in varying degrees of paralysis. As far as Gay could see, none had life-threatening or immobilizing injuries. All were capable of fighting, but few of them were. They seemed to believe that their mission had ended with the capture of the Somalis back at the target house. It was already evident to Gay that they were not on their way home but were fighting for their lives.
Sgt. First Class Matt Rierson, leader of the Delta team that had taken the Somalis, did not know where the convoy was going. He was riding blind. Standard procedure on a convoy was to tell each driver where he was headed. That way, if the lead vehicle got hit, the convoy could continue.
But convoy commander Danny McKnight, a lieutenant colonel more accustomed to commanding a battalion than a line of vehicles, hadn't told anyone. McKnight was in his lead vehicle with a radio plugged in his ear, relying on his eyes in the sky to direct him. The inexperienced Ranger drivers kept stopping at intersections, or stopping just beyond them, leaving the vehicle immediately behind exposed to a wicked crossfire.
It was a nightmare. The sun was low now, so turning west meant a blinding stab of dusk. At one point, after driving through a hail of gunfire, the column stopped, then made a U-turn and drove straight back through the same maelstrom.
Every time the ungainly five-tons turned around, they would have to pull clumsily up and back, up and back, to negotiate the narrow streets. The whole exercise seemed maddeningly foolhardy. Veterans such as Gay and Rierson wondered, Who's calling the shots here?
The driver of Gay's humvee, Howard Wasdin, who had been shot in the left leg back by the target house, was hit in the right leg. Pfc. Clay Othic's shattered right arm ached but wasn't bleeding. He was shooting through his second magazine of M-16 ammo when Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz, a tough little ex-boxer from El Paso, Texas, who had taken over the .50-cal, suddenly slumped down.
``He got shot! He got shot!'' shouted the driver, who raced the humvee frantically up the column with the .50-cal just spinning around in the empty turret.
``Get the .50-cal up!'' screamed Sgt. First Class Bob Gallagher. ``Get the .50 cal up ASAP!''
Inside, the men pulled Ruiz out of the turret. They tore off his flak vest and shirt, and found a hole in his lower right chest and a bigger exit wound in his back. He was bleeding heavily and seemed to be in shock. Ruiz, like many of the men in the vehicles, had taken the armored plates out of his flak vest to reduce the weight he had to carry in the African heat.
They made another stop. Rangers piled out to provide cover.
At opposite sides of one alley stood Spec. Aaron Hand and Sgt. Casey Joyce, the Ranger who had earlier run alone through gunfire to get help for Pvt. First Class Todd Blackburn, the Ranger who had fallen 70 feet off the fast rope at the start of the mission. That seemed like hours ago.
Joyce and Hand were in a furious firefight. Spec. Eric Spalding, who had just leaped from his truck to provide cover, watched rounds shatter the wall just over Hand's head. They had to get out of there.
``We're going to move!'' he screamed to Hand.
Hand didn't hear him. From where Spalding stood, it looked as if Hand was going to be shot for sure. He was doing everything wrong. He had not sought cover; he was changing magazines with his back exposed. Spalding knew that he should go help cover his friend and pull him back, but that meant crossing the alley where bullets were flying. He hesitated. Hell no, I'm not going to cross that alley.
As Spalding debated with himself, Gay ran out to help. The SEAL fired several rounds up the alley and herded Hand back to the vehicles.
Across the alley, Joyce was on one knee, doing things right. He'd found cover and was returning disciplined fire, just the way he'd been trained. Then a gun barrel poked out a window above Joyce and let off a quick burst. There wasn't even time for Spalding to shout a warning, even if Joyce had been able to hear him. There was just a blaaaap! and a spurt of fire from the barrel, and the sergeant went straight down in the dirt on his face.
Immediately, a .50-cal on one of the humvees blasted gaping holes in the wall around the window where the gun had appeared. Sgt. Jim Telscher, weaving through the heavy fire, sprinted out to Joyce, grabbed him by the shirt and vest, and dragged him back to the vehicles.
Joyce's skin was white. His eyes were open wide but empty. He looked dead. He had been hit through the vest in the upper back where the Rangers' new flak vests had no protective plate. The round had passed through his torso and had come out his abdomen. It lodged in the front of the vest, which did have an armored plate. They loaded Joyce in back with the mounting number of wounded.
Chapter 13: Chaos on the lost convoy.