Page: http://blog.richardslowry.com/ Richard's Blog
Mar 22nd, 2012 by Richard Lowry
An important anniversary

Nine years ago today, American Soldiers and Marines were racing across the southeastern Iraqi wasteland – charging toward Baghdad. Historians will long argue the righteousness of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. During the last nine years I have tried to avoid the political discussion. It has been my goal to tell the stories of America’s sons and daughters at war and to tell them as accurately as possible.

As I conducted my research to tell these amazing stories, I have uncovered details that have not been presented to the American people. I have painstakingly studied the story of Jessica Lynch, Rafael Peralta and the battles of Nasiriyah and Fallujah. I have amassed and read thousands of pages of documentation. I have become an expert on the war in Iraq and I have tried to tell the stories of American men and women who did not pick this fight, but fought it anyway. March 23 will mark the ninth anniversary of the first major battle of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the bloodiest single day for America in that long war. Twenty nine Americans were killed in the battle of An Nasiriyah. Here is the beginning of their story.

On March 22, 2003, American Soldiers and Marines were charging across the Iraqi desert, on their way to Saddam’s center of power – Baghdad. The Marines of Task Force Tarawa had been ordered to drive toward the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. There were several bridges in, and around, the dusty city that provided the only viable Euphrates River crossing point. Two critical bridges crossed the river and a third forded the Saddam Canal, north of Nasiriyah.

1st Battalion, 2d Marines were ordered to secure the eastern Euphrates River Bridge and to then push through the city to secure the northern bridge which spanned the Saddam Canal. Movement across the Iraqi desert was slow-going and Task Force Tarawa arrived at Jalibah late on March 22, 2003.

Around midnight on 22/23 March, the Marines of 1st Battalion, 2d Marines were awakened and ordered into their vehicles. They waited there for about an hour and then they moved north toward the intersection of Highway 7 and Highway 1. The Marines moved through the cloverleaf intersection and were headed north on Highway 7 toward Nasiriyah when a small column of Army supply trucks, headlights blazing, raced up the road behind the Marines.

Lieutenant Colonel Rickey Grabowski, believing these to be support vehicles for the Army armored unit he was supposed to relieve, ordered his vehicles off the road to let the soldiers pass. But, this was not a 3d Infantry Division logistics unit. It was Captain Troy King and half of his 507th Maintenance Company. King’s company had become separated in the Kuwaiti desert when several of his vehicles broke down. Captain King was racing forward with 32 of his soldiers in 16 vehicles. They sped past the Marines and headed directly into Nasiriyah.

By 0600, Captain King had led his convoy up a deserted winding highway, across a railroad overpass and past a yellow sign displaying “WELCOME” in large black block letters below what was obviously the same message in Arabic. He led his convoy past a company of dug-in Iraqi tanks, and then through an area filled with giant oil storage tanks.  Dozens of large power lines crisscrossed the road and cluttered the sky. King continued forward into the southern portion of An Nasiriyah. He passed a garbage dump and then a gas station. He drove right through a modern intersection equipped with freeway-style traffic signs, stop lights and a small guard shack built to provide shade for a traffic cop. This major intersection was adorned with a statue commemorating the Iran/Iraq War.

At this intersection, Highway 8 went off to the west, through the southern portion of An Nasiriyah. Captain King missed the large signs, missed the traffic lights, missed the statue, and the left turn onto Highway 8. Instead of heading west toward the Third Infantry Division, he led his soldiers straight into Nasiriyah on Highway 7.

He continued past a manned Iraqi Army checkpoint, and then over the Euphrates River Bridge. Iraqi pickup trucks, loaded with armed Iraqis and machine guns mounted in their beds, began shadowing the American convoy.  Captain King pressed on, obviously incapable of reading a map. He proceeded north across the Saddam Canal Bridge and through more Iraqi defenses. By now, he should have been 100% sure that he was lost. Yet King drove right past the 23rd Brigade’s abandoned headquarters building and turned left on Highway 16. Less than a mile down Highway 16, King approached another “T” intersection with Highway 7. He led the doomed convoy past the Al Quds’ Headquarters and north for more than a mile before he finally realized that he was hopelessly lost.

Finally, King decided to retrace his steps back through Nasiriyah to find the correct route. Just as they were turning to head back down Highway 16, they began to receive sporadic small arms fire. Bullets whizzed overhead and hit the vehicles. The shots seemed to be coming from everywhere. The convoy immediately sped up to get away from the hot fire zone.

Leading the convoy in his HMMWV, King sped forward at such a rate that the larger vehicles were unable to keep up. As the convoy raced forward, ever increasing distances separated the beleaguered vehicles. King drove past the right-hand turn that would take his convoy back down Ambush Alley. In his panic, he continued east on Highway 16.

Not far behind, Sergeant First Class Anthony Pierce and Specialist Timothy Johnson noticed that Captain King had missed the turn. Lacking a working radio, they accelerated their 5-ton truck to catch up with Captain King to tell him that they knew the way back to the turn. Meanwhile, First Sergeant Robert Dowdy approached the Highway 7 intersection at the tail of the fleeing convoy. Dowdy radioed ahead to tell Captain King that the convoy had missed the turn. They all needed to turn around – again.

Still under fire, the convoy continued east on Highway 16, frantically searching for a spot to turn the larger vehicles around. They continued to roll east, farther and farther from Highway 7. There was no decent place to turn around. They pushed east for three kilometers before finally coming upon a suitable spot to turn all of the vehicles. In his small vehicle, King quickly turned around and sped back west.

When the soldiers in the convoy, still under fire, reached the intersection where they needed to turn south, they all turned to retrace their path back through Nasiriyah. Captain King bolted south across the Canal Bridge and through the city, leaving his soldiers in the slower vehicles to fend for themselves. Lori Piestewa, First Sergeant Dowdy, Private First Class Jessica Lynch, Sergeant George Buggs, and Private First Class Edward Anguiano stayed behind with the slowest vehicles.

The faster group of vehicles, led by Captain King and his driver, Private Dale Nace, sped through the city under increasing fire. Pierce and Johnson followed King south as they raced their 5-ton tractor-trailer back through the city.  Sergeant Joel Petrik and Specialist Nicholas Peterson managed to keep their tractor-trailer going fast enough to keep up with Captain King’s Humvee. The three vehicles rushed south through “Ambush Alley” as the Iraqis attempted to block their passage with vehicles and debris. Swerving and dodging the obstacles, they pressed forward over the Euphrates River Bridge.

As they drove south, Petrik noticed a dump truck in the road ahead. The Iraqis had driven the truck onto the road to use as a barricade. An Iraqi officer was standing in the road, waiving for Nace and Captain King to stop. Nace accelerated and the Iraqi dove for cover behind the barricade. Pierce and Johnson swerved around the dump truck and followed King south. By the time Petrik and Peterson had reached the roadblock, the Iraqi Officer was back on his feet in the middle of the road with pistol drawn and he was firing at the approaching eighteen-wheeler.

Petrik and Peterson returned fire with their M-16s and the Iraqi jumped to safety again. Petrik swerved around the right side of the dump truck and momentarily off the road. Now there was an Iraqi Technical directly ahead of them. Petrik jerked the wheel back to the left and his large truck jumped back up onto the road. The gunner in the Technical sprayed the passing truck with machine gun fire as Petrik raced past.

Once past the roadblock, there was a short pause in the shooting. Petrik’s rear view mirror had been shot out so he asked Peterson, “How many vehicles are in back of us?” [1]

“None,” Peterson replied.

“None?” Petrik couldn’t believe it. “Look again!”

Peterson checked again. There were no vehicles in sight. Petrik was flabbergasted. Where had all the other vehicles gone? Petrik considered stopping and waiting for the rest of the Company, but the enemy fire picked up again and then he saw four Iraqi tanks. There were two tanks on either side of the road.

Meanwhile, Grabowski’s tanks were approaching the city from the south. As Captain Scott Dyer’s tank approached two farm houses, Major Donald “Hawk” Hawkins looked to the house on the left side of the road and saw a man in a white robe (man-dress) literally picking up children and throwing them into the over loaded rear bed of his small pickup truck. “That’s not a good sign,” Hawk thought, just as small arms fire erupted and mortar rounds exploded nearby.

The lead tanks quickly turned and charged the farm houses. Dyer stopped his tank about 40 yards from the house on the west side of the road. Hawk and Dyer could hear the small arms fire but could not determine where it was coming from.  Suspecting that they were being shot at from the house, Captain Dyer directed Hawk to fire his machine gun into the building and a vegetated area to the north. The tankers violent response drove the enemy fighters from their cover and both farm houses were quickly secured.

As the tankers were fighting at the farm houses, King’s three lead vehicles sped south through a hail of gunfire, past the Iraqi tanks and over the railroad bridge. At the crest of the bridge, Petrik noticed more tanks in the distance. They were American M1 tanks. Petrik thought, “Please don’t let the Abrams shoot, because they don’t miss.”

King, Nace, Johnson, Pierce, Petrik and Peterson raced south toward the Marines on Highway 7. Just as the tanks were pulling back up onto the road, Peeples’ tankers saw the vehicle racing south, pulling a flaming trailer toward the Marines. Despite the adrenalin rush of “first contact” the reserve tankers had the discipline and maturity to wait to fire until they could make a visual ID. To their surprise, it was Captain King’s HMMWV. Everyone held their fire. Around 0730, King’s Humvee, a small truck and a semi barreled south past Peeples’ lead tanks, and screeched to a stop.

Sitting atop his M1 tank, Major Peeples watched the beleaguered vehicles approach. Captain King jumped out, pistol drawn, and took cover behind the passenger side door.

Major Peeples climbed down from his tank and briskly walked over to King. “What in the Hell is going on?”[2]

“I got more people up there!” King replied, motioning north. King was almost hysterical.

“What is the situation up there?” Peeples tried to get a picture of what he was up against. “Where were you receiving fire?”

King was frazzled. He couldn’t provide any useful information.

Peeples tried once again. “How many soldiers are left up there?”

“I, I just need, I need you to go get some people. I got people up there.” King babbled.

“Okay, Fine!” Peeples left King standing in the road and returned to his tank. Major Peeples got on the radio and reported his bizarre find to Grabowski – then ordered a section of his tanks forward. When Hawk saw the tanks moving north he told Captain Scott Dyer, “I have to be with the lead trace.[3]” So Captain Dyer ordered his tank forward too. Dyer’s driver gunned the engine, and followed Peeples north. As they rolled forward, Hawk, unable to contact the Air Officer, started calling out on the guard frequency[4] for Cobra support.

Captains Matt Schenberger, Brian Bruggeman, and Lieutenants Travis Richie and John Parker had parked their two HML/A 269 Cobra helicopters for the night near Jalibah at a nearby makeshift airfield and had slept on the desert floor next to their refueling trucks. On the morning of March 23, 2003, they climbed into their birds, cranked their engines and lifted into the morning sky. As soon as they were airborne, they were alerted to Hawk’s call. They turned north and raced toward An Nasiriyah to help their fellow North Carolina Marines.

Hawk told the pilots to start searching for more of the 507th soldiers with their high powered optics. As Team Tank charged forward to rescue King’s soldiers, other Marines escorted King south to the relative safety of Grabowski’s Battalion Command Post. The bounding maneuver that Hawk had demonstrated, practiced and was admonished for while at Camp Shoup, was now seamlessly being put into practice by the Air-Ground team of Cobras and tanks.

Separated from Captain King and the lead vehicles, Army Specialist Jun Zhang and Sergeant Curtis Campbell led the second group of helpless vehicles in another 5-ton tractor-trailer. Private First Class Marcus Dubois and Corporal Damien Luten followed in a second truck. CW3[5] Marc Nash and Staff Sergeant Tarik Jackson were towing a trailer with their HMMWV and Private First Class Adam Elliot and Sergeant James Grubb followed in their empty fuel truck. Finally, Sergeant Rose and Corporal Francis Carista rounded out the second group in their 5-ton tractor-trailer.

These ten soldiers raced south in their five vehicles. Zhang, Dubois, Jackson, Elliot, and Rose swerved around obstacles and drove over the Euphrates River Bridge. They raced south past the intersection with Highway 8, past the dug-in tanks, and up onto the railway bridge, only to find a terrifying sight.

The Iraqis had blocked the southern end of the bridge by pushing two dilapidated buses across the road. Iraqi fighters peppered Zhang and Campbell’s vehicles with small arms and RPG fire. Campbell recalled, “I have never been so scared in my life.”[6] While rolling down the bridge, their vehicle was hit repeatedly by RPGs and small arms fire. The vehicle rolled forward from momentum only. Mortally wounded, the engine had ceased to work. Somehow Zhang managed to maneuver the truck around the roadblock of buses but their tractor-trailer soon rolled to a terrifying stop.

Zhang and Campbell immediately jumped from their disabled vehicle. Zhang jumped onto Dubois and Luten’s truck as it passed but Campbell, who had been riding “shotgun,” was now left alone with the disabled truck. He tried to return fire and was shot in the thigh.

Nash and Jackson screeched to a stop and picked up Campbell. The HMMWV kicked up dust and stones as it accelerated to continue south. But the three didn’t get very far before their Hummer was hit and disabled. Dubois, Luten, and Zhang raced south and soon they noticed vehicles on the highway ahead – lots of vehicles. They thought the vehicles on the southern horizon were more Iraqis so they quickly turned their truck around and returned to their stranded friends just south of the railroad bridge. Ten soldiers were now huddled in a trench along the side of the road. The small group formed a defensive perimeter. Rose dressed the others’ wounds as they waited for the Iraqis to overrun their position. Each of the ten soldiers had resigned himself to the fact that the situation was hopeless and that he would probably die soon. They all decided to hold on as long as they could. They agreed that they would go down fighting and not be captured. One said, “I am going to take fifteen or twenty of them with me.”[7]

Major Peeples’ tanks tried to advance by bounds up the road, but the narrow road was raised above a muddy delta and there was very little room for the tankers to maneuver around each other. On his second bound, Captain Jim Thompson radioed Peeples. “Hey, I see them,”[8] he reported. Thompson abandoned the bounding over watch and with the cover of the Cobras, raced forward toward the embattled soldiers of the 507th.

Running low on ammunition and with five wounded, the ten stranded soldiers had been lying in the trench for nearly an hour, waiting for the Iraqis to close in on their position. Suddenly, Staff Sergeant Tarik Jackson, the most seriously wounded, cocked his head, “Listen!” he exclaimed. “Do you hear that? It sounds like our tanks!”[9]

Someone peeked up out of the trench and saw Captain Thompson’s tanks approaching. Thompson’s tankers began picking targets and methodically destroying the enemy with main gun rounds while Hawk’s Cobras swooped in and attacked the enemy from above.

After spending forty-five minutes of sheer hell, believing that they were going to die that day, the sound of M1 tanks and Cobra helicopters immediately rallied the despondent soldiers. They would survive. The Marines had saved the day. Peeples’ tanks rolled up and straddled the trench at the “Garbage Dump,” just south of the railroad overpass.

Cobras and Hueys swooped in and braved anti-aircraft fire to protect the soldiers on the ground. The pilots reported large numbers of fighters moving toward the trapped soldiers.  They flew in low and fast, engaging enemy troops and weapons systems.  Every now and then, anti-aircraft artillery fire would climb up after them.

At one point, there was so much air coming in that Hawk couldn’t keep all the call signs straight; many of which were similar sounding names. Because they were ‘troops in contact,’ all priority for air had shifted to Task Force Tarawa. At one point there were two sections of Marine F18s, one section of Navy F14s and a British Tornado that checked on station in addition to the division of Cobras.  Do to his unfamiliarity with the capabilities of the British Tornados, and less than ideal experiences with F14s providing close air support, Hawk elected to stick with using Marine Corps Air whenever it was available.[10]

Working as a combined arms team, Peeples’ tankers, the aircraft overhead and the artillery were able to destroy several platoon-sized enemy formations, two ZSU 23-4[11] antiaircraft weapons, several mortar and artillery positions, as well as two T-55 tanks spotted moving toward the ambushed soldiers.

As soon as Dyer had seen Campbell and his comrades huddled in the ditch, he called for a cas-evac. Alpha Company sent two AAVs with Gunnery Sergeant Justin LeHew and First Sergeant James Thompson’s Casualty Collection Team forward to assist the wounded soldiers. The Iraqis were still firing as Thompson rolled up in his AMTRAC, A312.[12] Peeples’ tankers continued to lay down covering fire as First Sergeant Thompson, Gunny LeHew and their corpsmen ran to the aid of the wounded soldiers.

As they loaded the casualties on to their track, Thompson noticed some commotion near the soldiers who were not wounded. Chief Warrant Officer Marc Nash was refusing to get into the AMTRAC.

“I can’t leave my men behind, First Sergeant,”[13] he protested to Thompson. “I got men all over the place. They ambushed us bad.”

Thompson tried to calm Nash. “Hey Sir, the Marines have landed. You gotta leave them. You can’t stay here.” Thompson didn’t wait for a response: he just dragged Nash into the track. “We will do everything we can to find them.”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Eleven Soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company died in that ambush and eighteen Marines were killed later that day as they moved to secure the bridges. Let us never forget the dedication and sacrifices of these men and women. Please take a moment to remember these Soldiers and Sailors. They will not be completely gone until they are forgotten:

Specialists Jamaal Addison, Specialist Edward Anguiano, Sergeant George Buggs, First Sergeant Robert Dowdy, Private Ruben Estrella-Soto, Private First Class Howard Johnson II, Specialist James Kiehl, Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Mata, Private First Class Lori Piestewa, Private Brandon Sloan and the real hero of the 507th Maintenance Company, Sergeant Donald Walters.

Later that same day, eighteen Marines died in Charlie Company’s battle for the 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.

Please hold these men and women in your thoughts today and read Marines in the Garden of Eden to learn the story of each and every one of these American heroes.


[1] Conversation taken from telephone interview with Sgt Joel Petrik (USA), 5/24/05.

[2] Telephone interview with Major Bill Peeples, 1/29/04.

[3] Major Donald Hawkins, telephone interview, 10/28/11.

[4] The Guard Frequency is an unencrypted general channel used primarily for emergencies. All military aircraft monitor the Guard Frequency.

[5] Chief Warrant Officer 3.

[6] Telephone interview with Sgt Curtis Campbell (USA), 5/11/04.

[7] Telephone interview with Sgt Curtis Campbell (USA), 5/11/04.

[8] Ibid. Peeples.

[9] Ibid. Campbell.

[10] The preceding paragraph taken from interactions between Major Hawkins and Capt Miller in Hammer from Above, Presidio Press, December, 2005.

[11] Russian-built anti-aircraft gun.

[12] Each company in the 1st Battalion had twelve tracks. They were numbered by company, AAV platoon and vehicle. Alpha Company had A301 through A312; Bravo had B201 to B212; Charlie had C201 through C212.

[13] Telephone Interview with 1stSgt James Thompson, Jr., 8/1/04.

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One Response

  • Barbara_H says:

    Great description of a story that is as beautiful as it is sad. It brought tears to my eyes. I bow my head to these men and women every single day of my life. Not even in one thousand years I would find words to describe the magnitude of my admiration for them.
    Cheers, warriors! This Friday my red t-shirt will be worn specially for you.

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