Operation THUNDER RUN narrative

Officer of Engineers

May 22, 2009
A detailed account of TF-1-64's charge into Baghdad...

"The battle for Baghdad had begun two days earlier, at dawn on April 5, a bright, hot Saturday. Task Force 1-64, a battalion nicknamed Rogue, pulled out from the operations center, led by 30 Abrams tanks and 14 Bradleys, their squat tan forms bathed in gold morning light.

This was to be a ``thunder run’’ up Highway 8, a quick, violent strike through 17 kilometers of uncharted territory. Rogue would be the first American unit inside Baghdad. The U.S. command wanted the battalion to conduct ``armored reconnaissance,’’ to blow through enemy defenses, testing strength and tactics. They were to slice through Baghdad’s southwest corner, linking up at the airport with the division’s First Brigade, which had seized the facility the day before.

In the lead tank was First Lieutenant Robert F.Ball, a slender, soft-spoken North Carolinian. Just 25, Ball had never been in combat until two weeks earlier. He was selected to lead the column not because he had a particularly refined sense of direction but because his tank had a plow. Commanders were expecting obstacles in the highway.

Ball had been stunned by the order to push into Baghdad. Since leaving Kuwait, the division had been told that no tanks would enter the capital. The division’s role would be to seal the city while airborne troops cleared it block-by-block. And on this day, the brigade’s other two battalions were still well south of Baghdad, killing off remnants of the Republican Guard’s Medina Division protecting the capital’s southern flank.

The Rogue commander, Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz, had been left speechless when Col. Perkins called him into the command tent the previous day to tell him he was going into Baghdad. All Schwartz could think to say was: ``Are you kidding, sir?’’

They had only a few hours to prepare. Ball had studied his 1:100,000 military map, but it had no civilian markings – no exit numbers, no neighborhoods. He was worried about missing his exit to the airport at what fellow officers called the ``spaghetti junction,’’ a cloverleaf maze of twisting overpasses and off-ramps on the cusp of downtown Baghdad.

Ball’s map was clipped to the top of the tank commander’s hatch as the column lumbered up Highway 8. He had been rolling only about ten minutes when his gunner spotted the first targets of the morning. A dozen Iraqi soldiers in uniforms were leaning against a building, chatting, drinking tea, their weapons propped against the wall.

``Sir, can I shoot at these guys?’’ the gunner asked.

``Uh, yeah, they’re enemy,’’ Ball told him.

Ball had fired at soldiers during battles in southern Iraq, but they were murky green figures targeted with the tank’s thermal imagery system. These soldiers were in living color. Through the tank’s sights, Ball could see their eyes, their mustaches, their steaming cups of tea.

The gunner mowed them down methodically, left to right. As each man fell, Ball could see a shocked expression cross the face of the next man before he, too, pitched violently to the ground. The last man managed to flee around the corner of the building. But then, inexplicably, he ran back into the open. The gunner dropped him.

The clattering of the tank’s coax, its rapid-fire medium machine gun, seemed to wake up the soldiers posted along the highway. Gunfire erupted from both sides – AK-47 automatic rifles and RPGs, followed minutes later by recoilless rifles and anti-aircraft guns.

Soldiers and militiamen were firing from a network of trenches and bunkers carved from the highway’s shoulders. They were shooting from rooftops and windows and alleyways. Some were inside cargo containers buried in the dirt. Others were tucked beneath the overpasses or firing down from bridges.

Schwartz had instructed his tank commanders to keep moving. Momentum was crucial. Schwartz wanted a steady 15-kilometer-per-hour clip and a tight, disciplined column. He didn’t want anyone slowing down to finish off a kill; they were to kill everything they could hit, then radio back to pass on the targets to other tanks and Bradleys.

In the southbound lanes, civilian cars were cruising past, their occupants staring wide-eyed at the fireballs erupting from the tank’s main guns and the bright tracer flashes from the coax and 50-caliber machine guns. From the on-ramps and access roads, other cars packed with gunmen were attacking the column. Mixed in were troop trucks, armored personnel carriers and motorcycles with sidecars. Maj. Rick Nussio, the battalion’s executive officer, killed a soldier driving a garbage truck.

The crews were under strict orders to identify targets as military before firing. They were supposed to fire warning shots, then shoot into engine blocks if a vehicle continued to approach. Some cars screeched to a halt. Others kept coming, and the gunners and tank commanders ripped into them. Some vehicles exploded. Others smashed into guardrails, their windshields streaked with blood.

The crews could see soldiers or armed men in civilian clothes in some of the smoking hulks. In others, they weren’t sure. Nobody knew how many civilians had been caught up in the fight and killed. They knew only that any vehicle that kept coming at the column was violently eliminated.

As the column lurched forward, buses and trucks unloaded soldiers, some of whom stood in the open and fired from the hip. Some were in uniform, some in jeans and sports shirts. Others wore the baggy black robes of the Saddam Fedayeen, Hussein’s security militia. To the Americans, they seemed to have no training, no discipline, no coordinated tactics. It was all point and shoot. The coax sent chunks of their bodies splattering into the roadside.

The Iraqis, and the Syrian and Jordanian gunmen fighting alongside them, seemed to have little appreciation of the destructive firepower of the tanks and Bradleys. Some approached to within 20 meters, an easy kill for weapons systems designed to hit targets up to several kilometers away.

The tank gunners had learned down south to shatter tree trunks with 120mm tank rounds, turning them into lethal shards of wooden shrapnel. The 50-cals and the coax pulverized brick or concrete structures, killing anything behind them.

At a nursery on the west side of the highway, Schwartz saw about 30 soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades crouched behind a row of huge clay flowerpots. He ordered several Bradleys to open up with 25mm high-explosive rounds from their main guns. They pumped nearly 100 rounds into the pots. Schwartz watched the pots explode and the men behind them topple, one by one.

The Americans were beginning to take casualties, too. A Bradley was hit by an RPG and disabled. The driver panicked and leaped out onto the highway, breaking his leg. He rolled on the pavement, directly in the path of the oncoming column. A tank commander on the Bradley behind him stopped, leaped out and dragged the driver to safety.

A rifle round tore into the communications helmet of a tank commander. He radioed his company commander, Capt. Jason Conroy, and said: ``I’ve been shot in the head.’’

``You have? You sound like you’re pretty fine,’’ Conroy said.

``No, seriously, something hit me in the head.’’

``You all right?”

``I guess.’’

The tank commander took off his helmet. A bullet was lodged inside.

``Keep moving,’’ Conroy told him.

At Objective Curley, a major interchange on the approach to Baghdad, Staff Sergeant Jason Diaz was watching his gunner rip holes in roadside bunkers when he was jolted by an explosion at the rear of his tank. He thought the tank directly behind him had fired its main gun.

He radioed back and asked if the crew had fired. No, they told him.

He continued on. Two minutes later, Diaz’ driver radioed up to him in the commander’s hatch. His fire warning light was on. Diaz looked over his shoulder and saw flames shooting up. A projectile, probably a recoilless rifle round, had penetrated the rear engine housing. The tank’s automatic fire control system switched on, dousing the flames with Halon, a fire retardant.

The tank lurched to a halt just beyond an overpass. The crew piled out, launching into a fire evacuation drill. The fire was still smoldering. Diaz pulled a red handle on the side of tank, firing the Halon system again. The flames seemed to go out.

The entire column was stopped now, and gunfire and grenades from the bunkers and overpasses intensified. Diaz and his crewmen fired automatic rifles at muzzle flashes from bunkers as they worked furiously to put out the fire. Other tanks pulled up beside them to provide cover fire.

The crew quickly trained the tank’s hand-held fire extinguishers on the flames. Crewmen from other tanks ran up and down the column, collecting two dozen more extinguishers from other tanks. With each new attempt, the fire would die down, then burst to life again.

After the fire extinguishers were expended, the crews collected five-gallon water jugs from other tanks. Diaz and his men poured the water on the flames, but it was hopeless. Nobody knew it then, but the round had penetrated a fuel cell. Fuel was pouring onto the super-heated turbine engine, bursting into flames after each new attempt to douse it.

Commanders decided to try to tow the tank. Several times, they hooked a tow bar to another tank. But each time the flames shot up again, they had to unhook the tow bar to move the towing tank to safety.

Enemy gunfire mounted. An RPG whizzed past Diaz’ head as he stood on the turret, firing a 9mm pistol at gunmen attacking from the highway shoulder. An RPG team was shooting at him from a bunker. A tank round ripped into the bunker, demolishing it.

From an exit ramp, a blue truck emerged and sped down the ramp toward the tanks. The crews fired warning shots. The truck kept coming. The gunners blew it up.

A minute later, a white Toyota pickup with three armed men inside rolled down another ramp towards Capt. Conroy’s tank. The tanks and Bradleys opened up, killing the driver as the truck careened down the ramp and smashed into a guardrail a few feet from Conroy. He could see one of the passengers moving around, a young man wearing a white headband. A tank fired again and the pickup exploded in a red mist.

From his armored personnel carrier just behind Diaz’s crippled tank, Col. Perkins had seen enough. The thunder run had lost momentum. The entire column was halted and exposed to withering fire. Perkins decided to abandon the tank. He had his driver pull up next to Diaz.

``Get off the tank! Now!’’ he screamed.

The crews were shocked. They had never heard the colonel raise his voice. He was a calm, controlled commander.

``Leave the tank, get your crew, get off – let’s move on!’’ Perkins hollered.

Diaz didn’t want to leave his tank. He was the commander, the captain of the ship. Tankers had a code: You don’t abandon your tank. Diaz cursed under his breath, readied an incendiary grenade, and tossed it into the turret. He jammed a second incendiary grenade into the breech. He leaped off the tank. The grenades exploded and burned.

His crew had already unloaded equipment and weapons and sensitive items like radios and communication codes and night vision goggles. They tossed some of the gear onto a tank commanded by Lt. Roger Gruneisen, Diaz’ platoon leader, and the rest onto the first sergeant’s armored personnel carrier.

Diaz assigned his crew to the first sergeant’s vehicle. Diaz joined Gruneisen’s crew, squeezing into the loader’s hatch with Sgt. Carlos Hernandez, who had helped try to put out the fire. There were now five men in tank designed for four, its turret and decks piled so high with gear and weapons that Gruneisen’s view from the commander’s hatch was obstructed.

They headed north up the highway. Behind them, Lt. Shane Williams, reluctantly following orders, fired a round from his main gun into the stricken tank to destroy it. His commanders didn’t want any part of the tank to survive and fall into Iraqi hands.

The column was back on the move. By now, the resistance was becoming more organized. Men who appeared to be dead were suddenly leaping up and firing at the backs of American vehicles as they rumbled past.

Col. Schwartz got on the radio and ordered his gunners to ``double tap,’’ to shoot anybody they saw lying near a weapon. ``Always check your work,’’ he told them.

The 30-minute delay caused by the burning tank had given the Iraqis and Syrians an opportunity to get off more effective shots. On foot and in vehicles, they were closing to within 20 meters of the tanks and Bradleys.

A military truck loaded with soldiers sped towards Perkins’ personnel carrier. At that moment, the 50-caliber machine gun on Perkins’ vehicle ran out of ammunition. Behind him, the 50-cal. gunner on a trailing personnel carrier fired into the truck’s windshield, sending the vehicle crashing into a guardrail.

Some of the troops survived the impact. They crawled out and kept coming, firing AK-47s. All but one was cut down by 50-cal. and shotgun blasts from the carrier behind Perkins. One Iraqi kept moving forward, pointing an AK-47. Perkins’ gunner, out of ammunition, threw a metal 50-cal. ammunition box at the man, but he kept advancing.

Perkins reached for the 9mm pistol on his thigh. He had not fired it the entire war. He squeezed the trigger and the soldier went down. It occurred to him at that moment that if the brigade commander had to whip out his pistol, they were in serious trouble.

At the head of the column, Lt. Ball was approaching the spaghetti intersection. His map showed the exit ramp splitting into two ramps. He knew he wanted the ramp to the right. He tried to focus. He was under fire, talking on the radio, looking down at the map, searching for highway signs to the airport. He had been following blue ``Airport’’ signs all the way up Highway 8, but now black smoke from a burning Iraqi personnel carrier obscured the entire cloverleaf.

In the web of overpasses and off-ramps, Ball found the ramp he wanted and stayed right. He was halfway down when he realized the exit had three ramps, not two. He should have taken the middle one. He was heading east into downtown Baghdad, the opposite direction from the airport - and the entire column was following him.

Ball looked across the divided highway and saw ``Airport’’ signs pointing in the opposite direction. He radioed back to his commander and his platoon and told them: ``I took the wrong turn. I’m going to jump this guardrail and go back left.’’

Officer of Engineers

May 22, 2009
He told his driver to slow down, turn left and roll over the guardrail and onto the westbound lanes. The rail crumbled, the column followed, and everyone rumbled back towards the airport. Ball looked up and was relieved to see a blue sign: ``Airport.’’

Lt. Gruneisen, carrying Sgt. Diaz from the crippled tank, had fallen behind during the confusion of loading up his tank at the fire scene. Still on Highway 8, he could barely see the roadway because of the gear and weapons piled in front on him and the black smoke from burning vehicles. And because tanks ahead of him had warned that gunmen were shooting down from overpasses, he got down into his hatch, scanning the road through murky glass vision blocks.

His gunner had swung the main gun left to fire on a bunker. In the loader’s hatch, Sgt. Hernandez was able to see that the gun tube was headed straight for a concrete bridge abutment. He screamed to warn the driver. They were moving rapidly. The gun tube smacked into the abutment.

The entire turret spun like a top. Inside, the crewmen were pinned against the turret walls, struggling to hold on as the turret spun wildly. They were helpless. It was like an out-of-control carnival ride. The turret whipped around and around two dozen times before it slowed and stopped.

The crew was dizzy and disoriented. Hernandez looked at the other gunner. Blood was spurting from his nose. His head and chest were soaked – not with blood, but with greenish-yellow hydraulic fluid. The impact had severed a hydraulic line. The gunner had a broken nose, but no one else was hurt.

The main gun was bent and smashed. It flopped to the side, useless. Worse, the impact had sent some of the weapons and gear and sensitive equipment from the top of the tank flying onto the highway. They couldn’t retrieve it because they were under fire and needed to catch up with the column.

The tank continued up Highway 8, the main gun dead, Lt. Gruneisen on the 50-cal. and Hernandez on a medium machine gun. One of the spare machine guns was back on the highway somewhere. They rolled up to the spaghetti junction into a curtain of black smoke – and missed the airport turn. They were headed into the city center.

A voice came over the radio: ``Hey Eleven’’ – their tank number - ``Where’d you go?’’ The tail of the column was waiting for them on the airport highway – 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

In the loader’s hatch, Hernandez saw that they were approaching a traffic circle with a statue in the middle. He got on the radio and asked the main column if they had passed a traffic circle with a big statue. A voice replied, ``Negative.’’ They were officially lost.

As they got closer, Hernandez saw that the circle was clogged with military trucks and weapons and soldiers. It was a staging area for troops attacking the American column.

The tank pulled into the circle. The Iraqis looked up, startled, and stared. The Americans stared back. From around the circle, a yellow pickup truck picked up speed and headed for the tank. Hernandez blasted it with the machine gun, killing the driver. The tank driver slammed on the brake to avoid the truck, but the truck kept moving and was crushed beneath the treads. The impact sent Hernandez’s machine gun tumbling off the back of the tank.

The tank backed up to clear itself from the wreckage of the truck, crushing the machine gun. A passenger from the truck stumbled out of the wreckage, wandering in the roadway. The tank pitched forward, trying to escape the circle, and crushed him.

The crew was now left with just one medium machine gun and the 50-cal. Firing both guns to clear the way, the crewmen helped direct the tank driver out of the circle and back onto the airport highway. As they pulled away, they could see a blue sign: ``Airport.’’ In the hazy distance they saw the pale forms of the column’s tanks, and they raced towards them.

At last the column was whole again. The tanks and Bradleys resumed the march west to the airport. They had to pass groves of date palm trees and thick underbrush on both sides of the highway, and everyone worried about another ambush.

In the lead platoon, Sgt. Stevon [cq] Booker was leaning out of the commander’s hatch, firing his M4 carbine towards the right side of the highway. He had been using a 50-cal, but the big gun had jammed. His platoon was under heavy fire, so now Booker was using his carbine against foot soldiers - ``dismounts,’’ the tankers called them – to keep them away from the column.

The enemy fire was so intense that Booker had ordered his loader, Private Joseph Gilliam, to get down in the hatch. As Booker leaned down, he told Gilliam: ``I don’t want to die in this country.’’ And as he got back up and resumed firing, he shouted down to Gilliam and the gunner, Sgt. David Gibbons: ``I’m a baad mother!’’

Gilliam, 21, and Gibbons, 22, idolized Booker who, at 34, was experienced and decisive. He was a loud, aggressive, extroverted lifer. His booming voice was the first thing his men heard in the morning and the last thing at night. They were not surprised when Booker opened up with his carbine instead of taking cover down in the hatch after his 50-cal. jammed.

As Gibbons fired coax rounds from his gunner’s seat at Booker’s feet inside the turret, he felt Booker drop down behind him. He assumed the sergeant had come down to get more ammunition. But then he heard the loader, Gilliam, scream and curse. He twisted back to look at Booker and saw that half his jaw was missing. He had been hit by a chunk of rocket-propelled grenade. His upper body was a mass of blood.

The turret was splattered with Booker’s blood. Gibbons got on the radio net and announced that the TC, the tank commander, was down. ``He’s dead,’’ he said. Gibbons was ordered to take charge of the tank and continue fighting. Booker’s body would be evacuated later.

As he rose to get up in the commander’s hatch, Gibbons noticed that Booker was trying to breathe. He called it in. He was ordered to stop the tank and wait for medics. Gibbons and Gilliam tried to perform ``buddy aid,’’ to stabilize Booker and try to stop the bleeding. But they looked at him again, and he was no longer trying to breathe.

Under fire, the medics arrived and everyone struggled to lift Booker’s body out of the hatch as small arms fire pinged off the tank and the medical vehicle. They loaded him up and to rush him towards a waiting helicopter at the airport, just as the physician’s assistant treating him radioed that they could slow down now because Booker was gone. The assistant covered the dead man’s bloodied face and, not knowing what else to do, held Sgt. Booker’s hand all the way in.

Badly shaken, Gibbons crawled up into Booker’s hatch and got back into the fight, directing the driver to follow the column into the airport. Gilliam was numb and in shock, but he got back up on the loader’s medium machine gun and went back to killing dismounts.

In Lt. Gruneisen’s tank, the crew listened to the news of Booker’s death. They were stunned. They all knew Booker well. They were all sitting inside the turret, heads bowed, hatches locked. The 50-cal. had run out of ammunition and the last medium machine gun on the tank had jammed, so everyone just got inside and rode it out. They were out of the fight.

They lit cigarettes and stared in silence. Then, over the radio, came a report of two soldiers wounded. They waited for the names. It was two of the crewman from Sgt. Diaz’ burning tank. They had been hit while firing their rifles from the open hatch of the first sergeant’s personnel carrier. Diaz and the others listened in silence to the frenzied shouts of the first sergeant as he struggled to find his way to the medevac helicopter at the airport.

``Damn, damn, damn,’’ somebody said softly.

In the lead tank, Lt. Ball was approaching the airport entrance, where the Iraqis had laid a trap. The vehicles started running over RPGs wrapped in rags, triggering muffled explosions. Then Ball saw concrete highway barriers blocking the highway at the final overpass. On either side of the roadway, and on top of the overpass, dozens of soldiers opened fire on the approaching column.

Ball slowed and radioed back to his commander, who asked if there was any way to bypass the barriers. They were nearly three feet tall and a foot thick. Ball looked again and saw that they were strung together tightly, blocking the roadway and the shoulder.

``There’s no bypass,’’ he said. ``I’m going to ram it and try to create a lane.’’

Ball ordered his driver to speed up to 25 mph and look for a soft spot. The driver responded, ``Sir, there’s no soft spot. I’m just going to ram it.’’

He revved the engine and sped forward. The tank’s front plow smacked into the barrier and pitched up and over. The tank rode up the barrier, plunged forward and went airborne. It sailed across the barrier and slammed down, jolting the crew inside. The plow was bent backwards and the end connector on one of the tracks was hanging by two bolts, but the tank survived. Ball kept moving.

The Iraqis stopped firing, transfixed, and watched a 70-ton tank try to fly. Then they opened fire again, trying in vain to stop the column. The impact of Ball’s tank had sheared off the top of the barrier. The rest of the column crashed over it, gradually grinding the obstacle to dust.

Ball was in the stretch run now, a mile from the airport entrance, still under fire, when his gunner screamed: ``Identify tanks!’’ He had spotted tanks. Intelligence officers had warned tank commanders that some Iraqi units still had tanks. Ball prepared to fire and radioed his captain.

``Can you identify if they’re enemy or friendly?’’ the captain asked.

As he rolled closer, Ball could see through his sights that the tanks were Abrams. It was the division’s First Brigade, stationed at the airport entrance. The column was home free. It had killed 800 to 1,000 fighters, destroyed 30 to 40 vehicles and unknown numbers of bunkers and anti-aircraft guns. They had even captured a top Iraqi officer, a middle-aged man who had had crashed his Volkswagen Passat into a Bradley while driving to his office.

As each tank and Bradley rumbled in, enemy gunfire stopped. It was like turning off a faucet. The column rolled to the runway. The crews piled out, exhausted and soaked with sweat. Every vehicle had been peppered with holes and dents. Some were smeared with leaking oil or hydraulic fluid. A few were streaked with blood. There was shattered glass from the windshields of cars that had rammed the tanks, and thousands of expended ammunition casings. Rucksacks and gear on exterior bustle racks had been ignited by RPGs and were still burning.

The crews flopped on the tarmac in the shade of their vehicles. The sun was up and the tarmac was radiating heat. Some of the crewman thought they had been fighting for most of the day. They assumed it was mid-afternoon.

Actually, it was mid-morning. The battle had lasted just two hours and 20 minutes."

Global Defence