Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq
A renowned historian contends "that the American warrior, not technology, wins wars." (Patrick K. O'Donnell, author of Give Me Tomorrow)
John C. McManus covers six decades of warfare in which the courage of American troops proved the crucial difference between victory and defeat. Based on years of archival research and personal interviews with veterans, Grunts demonstrates the vital, and too often forgotten, importance of the human element in protecting the American nation, and advances a passionate plea for fundamental change in our understanding of war.
Taken from Chapter 9: Grunts in the City: Urban Combat and Politics—Fallujah, 2004
Staff Sergeant David Bellavia, a history-conscious rifle squad leader in Alpha Company, 2-2 Infantry, was determined to remember every detail of the coming battle. He peered at the many vehicles around him and at the battered city he and his men would soon attempt to take. “This is the moment we’ve trained for since we were raw recruits,” he thought, “I’ve got to be able to tell my grandkids someday. I need to be able to tell them what this day meant to all of us.” Like an electrical current, a ripple of eager anticipation pulsed through the troops. “It was something to see,” Lieutenant Colonel Bellon later wrote. “You could just feel the intensity in the Marines and Soldiers. It was all business.” The troops were excited, on edge, nearing a fever pitch as they waited tensely for the word to attack.
They were like actors waiting for the curtain to rise on opening night or football players gathering in the locker room before the Super Bowl. Only this was not a performance or a game; it was life and death. After so much preparation and anticipation, they had reached a state of total impatience, a point at which facing imminent danger becomes more desirable than even one more minute of inconclusive, but safe, waiting. Rather than sit around much longer and contemplate their uncertain future, they wanted to take action and end the cursed anticipation, a common human emotion when facing danger. “Come on, what the hell are we waiting for, let’s get moving” was a common thought among the grunts. To make matters worse, a misty curtain of light rain began to descend.
The railroad tracks and embankment ringed this northern approach to the city. The Fallujah side of the embankment teemed with mines and IEDs, as did many of the first streets and buildings the Americans would attempt to capture. The initial stage of the Fallujah assault called for the engineers to breach this formidable belt of deadly obstacles (in stark contrast to the Gulf War, the breach would not be made this time by knife-wielding Marines on their hands and knees). Blowing an opening into Fallujah was dangerous work and the engineers needed a great deal of fire support to prevent the enemy from pinning them down among the IEDs, raking them with RPG and machine-gun fire. The grunts liked to razz combat engineers for being demolitions nerds but, in truth, as one infantry soldier indicated, they deeply respected them as “the intellectuals of the combat arms branches. They have a million crafty solutions to problems that would make us knuckle-dragging infantry types scratch our heads and pause.”
In the weeks leading up to Operation Al Fajr, the Americans, for political reasons, actually refrained from pasting Fallujah in the same way they had bombarded objectives in earlier wars (Guam, Peleliu, and Aachen, for instance). Every fire mission and air strike had to be approved at I MEF level or above. Because of this, some of the ground troops were concerned that they would pay a fearsome price in blood for the conniving of the politicians. By the time they were about to tear through the breach, though, the restraints were long gone. Artillery shells, fired from 155-millimeter self-propelled Paladin howitzers a few miles away, tore into houses. Plumes of smoke and dust billowed in the gathering darkness. Masonry flew everywhere. The air was filled with a low but steady rumble of detonating shells, so many that the ground seemed to be quaking. “The Air Force, Navy and Marines send waves of F-16 and F-18 fighter jets,” Staff Sergeant Bellavia wrote in a present tense format. “They whistle over the city to drop laser-guided bombs and satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions. The whomp-whomp of their detonations can be both heard and felt, even at this distance. Fallujah is smothered in bombs, shrouded in smoke. Buildings collapse. Mines detonate.”
In many instances, the bombs set off a chain reaction of explosions as lines of IEDs and car bombs cooked off. Attack helicopters swooped in and disgorged rockets and 30-millimeter shells any place that the pilots spotted enemy fire. Propeller-driven AC-130 gunships hummed overhead, unleashing their terrifying panoply of cannon and Gatling gun fire. Distinct lines of blue tracers slashed from these planes to the ground, creating a sight reminiscent of a light show. Tanks, Bradleys, AAVs, and other supporting vehicles shot up any building that overlooked the railroad tracks, adding to the pyrotechnics. “The results were exactly as we had hoped, creating massive casualties and chaos within the enemy ranks, disrupting their ability to defend against the breach,” Captain Paul Fowler, a tank company commander, said.
Even so, the insurgents unleashed a disconcerting amount of RPG, machine-gun, and mortar fire as the engineers rolled their D9 armored bulldozers and other vehicles up to the embankment. Bullets sparked off the dozers and up-armored Humvees. There was so much rifle fire coming from the buildings that it reminded Colonel Shupp of camera flashes at a big sporting event. “The whole city was lit up with those flashbulbs, but the flashbulbs were actually small-arms fire coming against our forces.” The bullets smashed into the embankment and whizzed past vehicles. Many of the Americans were observing the city through night vision goggles, but the light of so many flashes and explosions almost made those devices useless. “There were red streaks which were RPGs coming from the city and going over our trucks [Humvees],” Lance Corporal Sven Mozdiez recalled. He and the Marines around him saw a three-man RPG team huddle together in a hole as they got set to fire. Their weapon malfunctioned, emitting a flash out of the back but not the rocket. The surprised muj stared at one another for a long moment. A Marine Mark 19 gunner spotted them and showered their hole with 40-millimeter grenades, killing them all. Mozdiez saw another fighter lean over the third-story railing of one house and spray his AK-47 in the direction of the Americans. “We got a bead on him and Lance Corporal [Kevin] Weyrauch fired a TOW missile in that level of the building and we didn’t receive any more fire from that position. The problem was taken care of.”
To forge their respective breaches, the engineers employed mine-clearing line charges (MICLIC, or “mick lick”), a weapon that had worked well in the Gulf War. The MICLICs were anything but elaborate. Each one was nothing more than a one-hundred-meter-long rope adorned with about one thousand pounds of C-4 explosive affixed to the rope in clumps. A trailer-like vehicle with a hydraulic launcher propelled the rope deep within the minefield. “When detonated, anything surrounding the MICLIC gets vaporized,” one soldier explained. “What the explosions don’t destroy, the concussion waves finish off.” The MICLIC would basically set off a chain reaction of mine and IED detonations, clearing paths three meters wide and one hundred meters long through the obstacle belt. In this case, the explosions would also punch holes through the embankment and railroad tracks.
When the engineers were finally ready, they radioed all the units with the message to button up inside their vehicles. Then they blew their MICLICs. Multiple explosions detonated. Roiling orange balls of flame lit up the night. A massive concussion wave shook vehicles. Debris flew in every direction. A chain reaction of sympathetic detonations touched off as IEDs and mines exploded. “There were at least five daisy chained IEDs that went off,” Major Lisa Dewitt, the battalion surgeon for 2-2 Infantry, recalled. “When that big boom occurred, there was a collective celebratory shouting and cheering, like somebody scored a touchdown.” The engineers then marked the new breach lanes with chem lights and special tape.
In a few spots, the Marines experienced difficulty in getting across the tracks and exploiting the breach lanes, mainly because of equipment problems. RCT-1, for instance, was delayed for several hours because one of its engineer vehicles tipped over. For the most part, though, the advance through the breach lanes was rapid as tanks, Bradleys, armored bulldozers, and AAVs began rumbling into the gaps. The crew of one Bradley had painted the nickname “Bada Bing!” on their Bradley in honor of the strip club in The Sopranos.
The soldiers of Lieutenant Colonel Newell’s Task Force 2-2 Infantry were leading the way for RCT-7. They were the first Americans to enter the newly created lanes and head straight for the muzzles of insurgents, who had weathered the bombardment by hunkering down in sturdy buildings. Newell had arranged for the Big Red One’s 3rd Brigade Reconnaissance Troop to cover his vulnerable lead vehicles as they negotiated their way through the narrow lanes. East of the city, on high ground at a crossroads known as the cloverleaf, Bradleys, tanks, and Humvees equipped with special long-range surveillance equipment (known as L-RAS) kept the insurgents at bay with devastating, accurate fire. “Their whole job in life was to get in position where they could see deep into the city, behind where we were moving,” Newell said. “[They] pretty much destroyed a platoon’s worth of insurgents right at the breach point. You couldn’t move within a hundred meters of that thing without somebody in Recon Troop shooting you.”
The L-RAS resembled a square box. Mounted atop a Humvee, its thermal laser could identify enemy fighters several kilometers into the city. Once an enemy was identified, a soldier would simply push a button to target the insurgent. “Hit the laser button and it’ll give you a ten-digit grid and direction—basically everything you need for a perfect call for fire to take them out,” Staff Sergeant Jimmy Amyett, a section leader in the troop, recalled. “And the whole time they have no idea you’re watching them.” They called down accurate artillery and mortar fire. They also shot enemy fighters with a blend of 25-millimeter and machine-gun fire.
In the meantime, Newell’s Bradleys, accompanied by escorting tanks, gingerly rolled through their slender lanes. Staff Sergeant Bellavia was packed inside one of the Bradleys with his rifle squad. They were laden down with M16A4 rifles, M4 carbines, M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) machine guns, grenades, shotguns, body armor, Kevlar helmets, and a variety of other weapons and pieces of equipment. They were hot, sweaty, and generally uncomfortable. The air was stale, leaden with body odor and foul exhalations. “Our asses grow sore,” he wrote. “When we try to reposition ourselves, we squash our balls.” The sergeant and his men could hear mortar shells exploding outside, uncomfortably close to their track. They also heard the booming of friendly artillery shells and Abrams main guns. The Bradley started and stopped several times, nearly driving them crazy with anticipation. At last, the driver gunned the engine. “As our Brad works up to its top speed, we’re thrown around like bowling pins. My head cracks against the bulkhead, then I’m thrown against the ramp. Gear starts flying around us. Outside, the explosions grow in volume and intensity.” Some of the explosions were from nearby IEDs.
Bellavia was sitting in the very rear of the Bradley, near the ramp. He leaned forward and looked through the periscope viewer and saw tracer rounds sailing past his own vehicle and nearby Bradleys. The world outside was little more than a blur of muffled explosions, smoke, and swirl. He could see well enough, though, to spot the engineer’s chem lights and tape. A few seconds later, the track was through the breach lane, and with several tanks and other Bradleys it began rolling toward the city. RPGs streaked out of the urban haze. One scored a direct hit on the turret of the platoon sergeant’s Bradley. “Fire scorches its flanks as the vehicle lurches forward,” Bellavia remembered. “Seconds later, it runs across an IED, which explodes with such force that the entire back end of the Bradley leaves the desert floor.”
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