It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since Jessica Lynch and the 507th Maintenance Company rolled through the dusty streets of An Nasiriyah on March 23, 2003. Eleven of Jessica’s fellow soldiers were killed that morning, five were captured and a dozen more injured. Lynch was critically injured and near death when she was brought into a military hospital near the site of her ambush.
Within hours of the ambush, the North Carolina Marines of Task Force Tarawa moved to secure the bridges in An Nasiriyah. LtCol Rickey Grabowski’s 1st Battalion, of the 2nd Marine Regiment rolled into the city and encountered stiff resistance. By mid-morning they had rescued nearly half of the soldiers who had been ambushed and by noon the Marines were charging forward through a hail of RPGs, AK-47 gunfire, mortar and artillery barrages. By sunset, Grabowski’s Marines had secured their objectives but at a terrible cost. Eighteen of America’s finest died and another dozen were wounded.
In all, twenty-nine Americans died that day in An Nasiriyah. Initially, the situation in Nasiriyah was so confusing and filled with the fog of war that no one knew the connection between the 507th Maintenance Company and the brave Marines of the 2d Marine Regiment. At first, Jessica’s capture was kept quiet for fear that the enemy would move her if they suspected that America knew where she was.
As the days and weeks passed, the news media moved on to Lynch’s rescue and then the fall of Baghdad. When the Department of Defense finally sorted things out and released the names of the Marines and soldiers who died that day, the media took very little interest. No one ever realized that that bloody day in Nasiriyah, on March 23rd, was the costliest day of combat for America in these long eight years of operations in Iraq. Twenty-nine American soldiers and Marines were never given a fitting tribute to the ultimate sacrifice they made while in the service of their country.
Before sunrise on the 23rd on March 2003, thirty-three soldiers, traveling in eighteen trucks, stumbled into the dusty desert city of An Nasiriyah. It wasn’t until they had driven all the way through the city that they realized that they were hopelessly lost. As soon as they turned around and tried to retrace their path, every Iraqi with a gun started shooting at the beleaguered convoy. The lead three vehicles managed to run the gauntlet and get back to the U.S. Marines’ front lines.
Five vehicles broke down and ten soldiers scrambled for cover in a nearby ditch. Surrounded, they each vowed to go down fighting. They had fought to hold off the enemy for nearly an hour, when Major Bill Peeples and the Marine tankers of Alpha Company, 8th Tanks arrived to save the day. The Marines beat back the enemy and rushed the ten soldiers to safety.
The remaining seventeen soldiers were not as fortunate. Eleven were killed and six captured. Specialists Jamaal Addison and James Kiehl both died when their vehicle careened through an intersection and rolled over on its top. Private First Class Howard Johnson II and Private Ruben Estrella-Soto’s truck crashed at the same intersection. Sergeant Donald Walters was lost north of An Nasiriyah when his vehicle broke down. He leapt from his disabled vehicle behind enemy lines and laid down covering fire so that the rest of his unit could turn their vehicles and get out of a horrific ambush. Private Brandon Sloan was shot and killed while the vehicle he was in was racing south. Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Mata’s truck shuddered to a stop atop a railroad overpass and burst into flames. Mata was killed, but his driver, Specialist Hudson, survived.
Near the end to the doomed convoy, First Sergeant Robert Dowdy tried to shepherd his soldiers to safety. Private First Class Lori Piestewa was driving Dowdy’s HMMWV. Specialist Edward Anguiano, Sergeant George Buggs and Private First Class Jessica Lynch were riding in the back. Piestewa managed to maneuver around obstacles and raced all the way back through Nasiriyah when the flatbed in front of her jackknifed. Lori was unable to avoid the back of the skidding truck. She plowed into the rear of the flatbed, instantly killing Dowdy.
We know that Lori and Jessica survived the collision. It is not clear what happened to Buggs and Anguiano. Patrick Miller, Hudson, Hernandez, Lynch, Piestewa, Riley, and Shoshana Johnson were all taken prisoner. Lynch and Piestewa were separated from the others and eventually ended up in the Tykar Military Hospital. Lori died while being treated, leaving Lynch alone and near death.
The soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company that were killed that day were from all walks of life and every corner of this nation. They were a swatch cut from the American fabric and the first to die in this protracted war. Lori Piestewa was an American Indian and single mother. Brandon Sloan and Robert Dowdy were both from Cleveland Ohio. Brandon, 19, had left high school early to join the Army, while Dowdy, 38, was a career soldier. James Kiehl, 22, was a friendly computer technician who left behind a pregnant wife. Buggs and Anguiano were not even members of the 507th. Dowdy had convinced them to take one of their vehicles in tow two nights before. Their tow truck ran out of gas north of An Nasiriyah and Dowdy, Piestewa and Lynch had picked them up.
By noon, the Marines were pressing north to secure two vital bridges in An Nasiriyah. The fighting started long before they reached the Euphrates River but it wasn’t until they moved into downtown Nasiriyah that all hell broke loose. Alpha Company secured the Euphrates River Bridge while Bravo Company swung out to the east side of town. Charlie Company raced over the Euphrates River and charged through “Ambush Alley” to the Saddam Canal Bridge.
Eighteen Marines died in Charlie Company’s battle for that northern bridge. Donald Cline was a twenty-one year old husband and father of two young boys. Patrick Nixon loved history and wanted to eventually be a teacher. Phillip Jordan was a career Marine and loving husband and father. Fred Pokorney was a giant of a man who had just been promoted to 1st Lieutenant. Sergeant Michael Bitz was the father of two young boys and one-month old twins. David Fribley and Brian Buesing were both Florida natives. Fribley joind the Corps after 9/11 and Buesing had been in the Marines since he graduated from high school. Brendon Reiss was the son of a decorated Vietnam Veteran and Randal Rosacker was the son of a Navy Master Chief submarine sailor. Jose Garibay and Jorge Gonzalez were both from Southern California. Thomas Slocum was a 22 year old from Colorado and Nolen Hutchings was from South Carolina. They were both troubled teens who had worked to turn their lives around in the Corps.
Tamario Burkett was a young Marine from upstate New York. Kemaphoom Chanawongse was born in Thailand and came to the United States at nine years old. He was the first to have a Buddhist funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. Johnathan Gifford wanted to be a Marine since he was a little boy. Michael Williams joined the Corps late in life. At 31, he was just a Lance Corporal but older than most of the young officers he worked for. On his trip over to Iraq, he emailed his girlfriend and asked her to marry him. Thomas Blair was not a member of Charlie Company. He was part of an anti-aircraft unit that had been assigned to Charlie Company. He too, went directly into the Marine Corps after high school graduation.
Twenty-nine lives ended too soon on that clear Sunday in March. Twenty-nine families grieve to this day. These soldiers and Marines died before there was a daily box score in the newspapers of America. They have been buried under 4000 more stories. Donald Cline and Michael Williams died because they chose to help their wounded comrades.
Many more soldiers and Marines would have died that day had it not been for the Herculean efforts of men like, Private First Class Patrick Miller, Sergeant Michael Bitz, Gunnery Sergeant Jason Doran, Lieutenant Mike Seely, Captain Eric Garcia, and Major Bill Peeples. These men are true American heroes.
Read about these brave young men and women in the only book to tell the entire story of America’s first major battle in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Marines in the Garden of Eden, Berkley, New York, 2006, is available at all fine bookstores and online booksellers. It is available in Hard Cover, Trade Paperback, and in many eBook formats.
Visit Richard S. Lowry’s website to learn about other books he has written.