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Nov 9th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Semper Fi! And Happy Birthday
The Government Center

The Government Center

“On November 10, 1775, a Corps of Marines was

created by a resolution of the Continental Congress.

Since that date many thousands of men have borne

the name Marine. In memory of them it is fitting that

we who are Marines should commemorate the

birthday of our Corps by calling to mind the

glories of its long and illustrious history…”

MajGen John A. Lejeune, USMC

1 November, 1921

The United States Marine Corps’ 229th birthday would be a blue sky, sunny day in Fallujah. The soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines of the Task Force Blue Diamond would have little opportunity to celebrate on this day of intense combat. As Kilo Company, 3/5 prepared for the coming fight through the Jolan District, Captain Drew McNulty went on the HET[1] loudspeaker to read General Lejeune’s and the Commandant’s birthday message. McNulty’s voice echoed through the assembly area in the early morning light. After reading the birthday messages, he concluded with, “slow is smooth and smooth is Fast. Today, I expect the enemy to stand and fight. Kill him and kill him twice. HooRah, Semper Fi and happy birthday.”[2]

The enemy woke up in the center of town and found that Avenger had occupied the Government Center during the night. They started firing on the Marines around 0730. Cunningham’s Marines returned the fire from every building that faced south. Enemy snipers and machine gunners continued their fierce duel with the Marines. Meyers’ tanks knocked down a wall and Markley and Meyers pulled their tanks up in between the parade ground bleachers, next to the buildings where Cunningham’s Marines were taking fire. They started shooting across MICHIGAN into an insurgent-filled mosque and hotel on the other side of the main east-west thoroughfare.

Meyers and Markley were pounding the enemy from the protected positions among the concrete bleachers. The enemy fired back from the mosque and charged out in groups of two or three onto MICHIGAN with RPGs and AKs. Most were quickly mowed down by the tankers’ machine gun fire. One determined insurgent ran to flank Meyers’ tank on his right and fired his RPG. The rocket whooshed toward Panzer 6 and exploded against the side of the tank, rocking the entire vehicle off the ground a couple inches. The anti-armor projectile penetrated the hull, nearly missing the fuel cells. Fortunately, none of Meyers’ crew was injured. They kept fighting. They would worry about the damage later.

After quickly checking to insure that he wasn’t wounded, Ball returned to scanning for targets, his turret whining like a vacuum cleaner as it rotated from side to side. He caught a glimpse of the tip of an RPG at the corner of the building next to the mosque. He told Meyers and got the order to fire a main gun round. Ball fired at the corner and watched the HEAT[3] round blow away the side of the building. Bodies flew when the round exploded. Meyers and Markley fought from their protected positions for most of the morning.

Colonel Tucker, the RCT-7 Commanding Officer, had handed out MRE pound cakes and cards with the Commandant’s message to all the squad leaders. They were told to read the birthday message to their Marines when there was a break in the fighting. Then, they would slice the birthday cakes in their timeless ceremony. As a final ceremonial touch, Tucker had asked his commanders to try to play the Marines Hymn at some point during the day.

During a lull in the fighting on the afternoon of the 10th, LtCol Gary Brandl turned to Tucker, his boss. “Maybe we should play the Marines Hymn now.” Brandl called over to the Army psyops team and told them to play the Hymn over their loudspeakers. As soon as the music started, every enemy fighter within earshot opened fire. They were either incensed at the brazen taunt or they anticipated that the music was heralding an attack. They lost their discipline and began showing themselves, firing on the Marines. The Marines cut down the exposed fighters as if they were shooting pop-ups at a carnival shooting gallery.

The Marines Hymn was playing. Brandl’s Marines were killing the exposed enemy fighters. The spontaneous battle raged until the final note. As if on queue, the enemy quit firing. Brandl turned to Tucker, “That worked pretty well, let’s play it again.”[4]

Three-Five had nearly finished its second long day of clearing. A few more buildings and Kilo Company could rest for the day. Suddenly, McNulty’s Marines encountered two enemy positions a block apart. Sergeant Jeffery Kirk single-handedly assaulted a machine gun team in the first house. He couldn’t seem to find a spot to get a clean shot at the machine gunners without exposing himself. Wounded, Kirk had to fall back again and again. But, he continued his assault. Finally, on his third try, he overcame the enemy machine gunners and killed them.

As Kirk’s fight raged, three close friends, Private First Class Chris Adlesperger, Lance Corporal Erick Hodges and Corporal Ryan Sunnerville came to a corner house, only a block east of Kirk. They entered their umpteenth courtyard of the day. Lance Corporals Alston Hays and John Aylmer and Corporal Jeremy Baker were right behind them in the gate to the street. Adlesperger went to the right and kicked in the first door. Hodges and Sunnerville headed for the second door across the courtyard and walked into a hail of machinegun fire from inside the building. The enemy had been lying in wait for the Marines. One had positioned himself so that he could shoot out into the courtyard through a small hole in the wall. His first burst of gunfire cut Hodges down.

Inside the courtyard, Navy Corpsman Alonso Rogero and Sunnerville were also hit, Rogero in the stomach and Sunnerville in the leg. The Marines exchanged fire with eleven insurgents, less than twenty feet away. Adlesperger rushed to Rogero and Sunnerville’s aid, firing toward the hidden machinegun position. All three made it into an outside alcove out of the enemy’s line of fire.

Aylmer and Hays had just started into the courtyard when the enemy machine gunner opened fire. They hugged the left wall and backed out into the street. Aylmer grabbed Hays. “Hang on.” He told Hays, “just chill right here until we know what’s going on.” Corporal Baker could see Adlesperger, Sunnerville and Rogero huddled just inside the courtyard gate. He waited for the machine gun to stop and then he rushed through the gate. Hays crossed the line of fire behind Baker and rushed into an adjacent courtyard, leaving Aylmer at the corner of the house. Inside the courtyard, Baker noticed a stairway in their alcove, leading to the roof. Baker stood at the door covering the courtyard and he sent Adlesperger to the roof.

The Darkhorse Marines had stumbled into a Chechnyan ambush. The enemy had planned to surprise the Marines as they entered the courtyard and then kill more Marines rushing to their aid. Down the alley, another enemy machine gunner patiently waited on an adjoining rooftop. With the courtyard now empty, the Muj gunner inside the house continued to fire into Hodges’ lifeless body.

Adlesperger cleared the stairway and checked the roof and then raced back to Baker and the others. “The roof is clear,” he told Baker. Baker and Adlesperger helped Sunnerville and Rogero to their feet and up the stairs, none too soon. The enemy threw several grenades into the courtyard and then they went on the attack. Several enemy fighters rushed the stairs. Adlesperger cut them down as they rounded the corner in the alcove.

Lieutenant Cragholm was just south of the house. When the shooting started, he had to make a decision – attack or take cover. In an instant, he pulled a grenade from his vest and started to round the corner into the open. Corporal Fernandez placed his hand on Cragholm’s shoulder. “Sir! No,” the corporal cautioned.

Cragholm shrugged the corporal’s hand from his shoulder and started to move forward. Fernandez grabbed Cragholm, spun him around. “Dude! NO!” He shouted into his platoon commander’s face just as a hundred machine gun rounds peppered the wall just outside the courtyard. Had Cragholm moved into the open, he would have been dead. Cragholm, stopped, took a deep breath and immediately calmed. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” From this point forward, he became a warrior, not an excited, green lieutenant.

Aylmer was in the second machine gunner’s line of fire. Bullets hit all around. One punctured his pant leg. Miraculously, none of the rounds found their target. Aylmer waited for the gunner to stop to reload and then he sprinted south in Hays’ footsteps into the adjacent courtyard.

Cragholm started positioning his men to support Adlesperger and his wounded comrades. Corporal Terrence van Doorn’s Third Squad rushed to the adjacent rooftop and found a brick wall separating them from the trapped Marines. They pushed on the wall and it toppled over. Still, the enemy machine gunners were holding Kilo Company at bay. The Marines could not get at the barricaded enemy fighters and they couldn’t call in artillery or close air support while Adlesperger, Rogero and Sunnerville were on the roof.

Inside, two more insurgents charged into the courtyard. Adlesperger greeted them with a fragmentation grenade. One tried to run up the stairs to avoid the explosion, the other ran into the street. Adlesperger shot the man as he ran up the stairs and a dozen Marines sprayed the other man as soon as he stepped into the street. Then, three more insurgents charged out of the house into the courtyard. One tried to get Hodges’ SAW. Adlesperger killed all three from his perch above.

McNulty was in the street between Kirk’s and Hodges’ houses. He had the company’s FiST team and his CAAT vehicles with him when the fighting broke out. He could hear the machine gun fire and his Marines yelling, but he couldn’t figure out where the fight was developing. Gunshots rang out on his right as Kirk made his repeated charges toward the entrenched enemy machine gunners and then shots echoed on his left as Adlesperger fought to protect his friends. An AMTRAC was parked just ahead of the CAAT vehicle. McNulty quickly ordered the up-gunner to open fire. The Marine opened fire on Adlesperger’s house at point blank range, with his .50 caliber machine gun, chipping away large chunks of the building with each round.

McNulty rushed across the street with his First Sergeant, Steve Knox, and some of Taylor’s SEALs to get a better view of the fight. They rushed a building that was catty-corner to Adlesperger’s house, quickly cleared the rooms and then rushed to the roof.

Baker kept trying to call his company commander to tell him that Hodges was trapped in the courtyard. All McNulty could make out was “Hajis in the courtyard.”

By now, van Doorn and his squad had reached Baker, Adlesperger, Sunnerville and Rogero. They helped them climb onto their roof and then rushed the wounded down to a waiting casevac vehicle.

As McNulty positioned himself to command the assault, nearly all of Kilo Company was moving in on Hodge’s house. Once McNulty understood the situation, he moved back down into the street and crossed over to the south wall of the courtyard. He ordered the AMTRAC to push in the blue courtyard gate. The moment the track backed away from the crumpled gate, McNulty pitched two grenades into the courtyard.

By now, Adlesperger, Baker and van Doorn’s squad were down on the street. Adlesperger’s face was bloodied by shrapnel. His blouse was riddled with bullet holes, but he refused to be casevaced until Hodges’ body was recovered. Finally, Baker, also with a bloody face, could finally report to his Company Commander. He told him, “Hodges is in the courtyard.”

McNulty immediately ordered his Marines into the courtyard. Adlesperger led the three-man stack through the collapsed courtyard wall with Baker and McNulty following. As McNulty entered the courtyard, he noticed a wounded insurgent reaching for his weapon. McNulty turned and shot and killed the last holdout as Adlesperger and Baker looked for Hodges’ body. They finally found their friend, buried in the rubble of the collapsed wall. They cleared the rubble and removed his body. Then McNulty had the house completely demolished. Adlesperger, Hodges and Sunnerville had entered an enemy command center. By the time Darkhorse’s fight was over, the Marines had killed fifty enemy fighters in that area. From this point forward the enemy would fight to the death with a fatal fanaticism.

Read the entire story of the fight to free Fallujah in New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah.

[1] Human Exploitation Team

[2] Captain Andrew McNulty, USMC. Raw ABC news footage taken by Geoffrey Thorpe-Willett. Disk #4 18:45

[3] High Explosive, Anti-Tank.

[4] Col Tucker telephone interview, 1/10/08.

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Nov 5th, 2010 by Richard Lowry
Remembering Fallujah

FallujahSix years ago, at 7 PM local time in Iraq, the 10,000+ Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines of Task Force Blue Diamond started Operation Phantom Fury with their movement to take the western Peninsula and block the two bridges across the Euphrates River. Task Force Wolfpack moved to secure the Fallujah General Hospital and an Iraqi National Guard facility first. The western diversion by The Wolfpack masked the mass movement of the 1st Marine Division into its attack positions all along the northern edge of the city and blocked the enemy’s ability to resupply from the west.

Fallujah has always been a restive city. With the ever-shifting political climate, the tribes and clans in, and around, Fallujah have had little regard for the artificial international boundaries. To the people of Anbar, smuggling is all in a day’s work; a necessity of commerce. So, Fallujah is peppered with trucking industry businesses. Flatbeds and long-haul trucks continually clog the main road. Truck stops, machine shops and junkyards dominate the industrial area. If you need a tire changed, a chassis welded, radiator soldered or a new radio in your truck, Fallujahans stood ready to provide the service. Once the Americans arrived in 2003, the city had the talent and resources to turn to a new industry – the manufacture of IEDs[1] and the smuggling of weapons.

Fallujah’s main thoroughfare contained a mixture of magnificent mansions, majestic mosques, multi-storied concrete buildings, and mud brick shanties. The road was teeming with BMWs, donkey carts and long-haul trucks. More large mansions and estates lined the banks of the Euphrates River. Throughout the city, there were many poor neighborhoods, some middle class areas and enclaves which contained luxurious homes.

Like most Iraqi cities, Fallujah was a city of cinder blocks. Nearly every building was surrounded by a wall. Some walls had been meticulously constructed, obviously the work of a proud stonemason. Others were thrown together in a helter-skelter fashion and many had the look of the repetitive cycle of destruction, repair, more destruction and hasty re-assembly. Blocks were stacked upon blocks with little or no mortar, just waiting to be pushed over again. Most houses were small two or three story buildings with concrete slab floors and thick roofs. Compound walls protected large homes with landscaped courtyards, marble floors and ornate furnishings.

Fallujah’s homes were built to shelter their residents from the sweltering heat of the Iraqi summers and the continuous cycle of senseless violence. Concrete walls and roofs were sometimes three feet thick, with another three feet of dirt piled on the flat roofs. They were veritable bunkers. Most courtyard doors were made of sheet metal with two or three locks. Doors leading into homes were either metal or protected by a locked metal gate. Fallujah could not have been more attractive to the resistance. The population was distrusting of outsiders and naturally rebellious. Its workers provided the where-with-all to smuggle weapons, explosives and foreign fighters, its craftsmen provided the talent to build bombs and every home was a fortress.

As 2003 turned to 2004, the cancer inside Fallujah was growing.  Most Fallujahans were unemployed. The insurgents were able to launch attacks on nearby Baghdad and to control commercial traffic. The city was home to gunrunners and smugglers. It seemed that every storefront had a back room full of weapons. Everyone knew who specialized in particular items. Some sold machine guns while others provided sophisticated night vision devices. The local bazaars were crawling with merchants of death.

Sunni dominated Fallujah was home to many of Saddam’s elite followers. The city was filled with former Iraqi Army, Republican Guard and Ba’ath Party officials who were all cronies of Saddam Hussein. Many of these Iraqis wanted to continue the struggle to return Saddam Hussein to power and all had been put out of work with the dissolution of the Ba’ath Party and the disbanding of the Iraqi Army. The disgruntled bureaucrats and soldiers wanted to reestablish the privilege, power and prestige they once held during Saddam’s reign. Some former officers saw the violence in Fallujah as an opportunity to regain their influence. So, they formed the “Fallujah Brigade.”

The Brigade was made up primarily of out-of-work Iraqi soldiers. Their officers were corrupt and bore no loyalty to the fledgling, Shia-dominated Iraqi government. They hated the Americans and, more likely than not, supported the insurgents. At best, the Fallujah Brigade was ineffective and at worst, was part of the problem. But, in April of 2004, the Fallujah Brigade was a necessary evil. The American military leadership wanted to put an Iraqi face on the solution to the violence in Fallujah. The Marines sincerely hoped that the Fallujah Brigade could start the much-needed reconciliation process between the powers in Fallujah and the Iraqi government. “We tried to get the Iraqis help us solve the problem.”[2] As it turned out, the Fallujah Brigade’s dismal failure would finally show the government in Baghdad that they needed help in curing the ills within Fallujah. Prime Minister Iyad Alawi and his leadership finally understood that the Iraqis themselves were not yet prepared to solve this problem.

Within months, the Fallujah Brigade vaporized and the city once again became an enemy sanctuary. Emboldened insurgents began spreading terror from their safe haven in Fallujah. Roving gangs attacked convoys. Foreign jihadists rallied in Fallujah, then spread terror in a hundred-mile radius through kidnappings, torture and murder. The city filled with local and foreign Islamic extremists at an alarming rate. They allied with local criminals, thugs and warlords. There were scores of neighborhood gangs and a dozen key leaders.

Most of the tribal Sheikhs viewed the Americans as usurpers of their authority. Sheikh Abdullah al-Janabi, cleric, chieftain and mystic, was the foremost insurgent leader.  He led the town’s governing council and was a mover and shaker.  He viewed the Americans as invaders and wanted to drive them out of Iraq. Janabi’s principal henchman was a local electrician turned jihadi. Omar Hadid was Janabi’s enforcer and motivator. He had allied himself with Janabi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the early days of the Fallujah insurgency and had become a front-line leader during the first fight. Hadid was a dangerous man, eager to die in the fight to rid his land of the infidel.

Abu Musab Zarqawi was probably the most famous of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leaders.  Jordanian-born, he fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan where he was wounded in 2002. He fled to Baghdad where he was treated and recuperated in an Iraqi hospital. Then he dropped out of sight.  The militant leader built the largest terrorist training camp in the world on a small finger of Iraqi land near Muqdadiyah, surrounded by Iranian mountains on three sides[3]. When American Special Forces chased him out of his hilltop stronghold in March of 2003, Zarqawi fled and eventually ended up in Fallujah where he became the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Janabi and Zarqawi had claimed victory in the first Fallujah fight. They used their claims to recruit jihadists from around the world. The call went out – come to Fallujah and kill Americans. They knew the fight was not over. Inside the city, they set out to fortify their positions, knowing the Marines would return. They built bunkers, roadblocks, and obstacles. They set up ambush sites and buried thousands of mines and IEDs. They dug trenches and fortified fighting positions. They knocked holes in walls that were just large enough for a man to crawl through. These “rat holes” allowed the insurgents to move from compound to compound within the city without having to go out into the streets. They did everything they could to prepare to kill as many Americans as possible in the next round of fighting. If the Marines could overcome these defenses, crush the resistance inside the city and break the enemy’s grip on the people of Fallujah, it would herald the beginning of the end for the insurgency. Victory in Fallujah would bring a New Dawn of hope to the people of Iraq.

The Iraq government and the US military command knew that the January, 2005 elections would not succeed under the threat of bombings and reprisals from the thugs in Fallujah. They knew that they malignancy needed to be cut out. But, the New Dawn would have to wait for sunset. Major General Richard F. Natonski wanted to attack under cover of darkness. At 1900 on November 8th, the sky lit up on the eastern horizon and a distant rumble rolled in from Camp Fallujah. Then, a smoke barrage shrouded the entire northern edge of the city. More 155mm howitzer rounds came screaming in like freight trains, exploding on enemy targets and shaking the ground a mile from their impact. Then, the main attack was launched with several coordinated breaching operations at key points along the railroad tracks.

The fight would last for several bloody weeks and would be the largest American urban fight since Hue City, Vietnam. By Christmas every enemy fighter would be cleared from the city. Operation Phantom Fury would end up being the most important fight in the war and would mark the beginning of the end for al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Nine Navy Crosses and twenty-two Silver Stars were awarded for heroism in Fallujah. Read these stories and more in the most detailed account yet published. New Dawn: The Battles for Fallujah tells a story you will never forget.

[1] Improvised Explosive Device

[2] LtGen John Sattler telephone interview, 12/3/07.

[3] Robinson, Linda Masters of Chaos – The Secret History of the Special Forces, PublicAffairs, New York, 2004. Operation Viking Hammer.

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