Friday, January 30, 2004


Into Iraq
Part 2 of a frontline account of the liberation.

Monday, February 2, 2004 12:01 a.m.

(Editor's note: Mr. Taylor joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1996 and was called up for service in February 2002. His enlistment expired in November 2003. He kept this journal while deployed with Fox Company, Second Battalion, 23rd Marines in Kuwait and Iraq. Comments in italics were added after his return to clarify and expand his account and to define military terminology for the benefit of civilian readers. Four-digit numbers followed by "Z" are time codes in Greenwich Mean Time; codes of the format "38RQU 29141756" are 8-digit MGRS grid coordinates indicating his location at the time. This is the second of five parts; click to read Part 1.)

20 Mar 03

Two days ago convoy left Logistics Support Area 1. We moved to a dispersal area to the North in empty desert. Last night GWB announced war. We are waiting to cross phase line Arnold into our AO (area of operations). Radio reports mass surrender. Mixed feelings, mostly relief.

Today we started malaria pills. They made some Marines nauseous. Garrard voided his stomach off the side of our truck.

Yesterday we drew full loads of ammo. I have 20 HEDP (high explosive, dual purpose; in this case 40mm grenades fired from my M203 grenade launcher) rounds and a few smoke and pyro. We have one AT4 (84mm antitank shoulder-fire rocket, single shot, disposable) per team. I also carried eight 30-round magazines of 5.56mm rifle rounds, and several hundred more rounds in bandoliers in my pack. Marines are eager to get into Iraq and get on to the next thing.

0929Z--Gas alert. Reportedly Iraq launched two missiles at British camps in Kuwait. They missed, but we MOPPed up (Mission Oriented Protective Posture; to "MOPP" up is to put all the chemical gear on, including suit, boots, gloves and masks). Garrard and Jensen were selected for unmasking. It was a heavy thing watching them take their masks off and waiting for signs of chemical sickness. But the "all clear" sounded.

Speckled Jim, the company NBC pigeon (a caged pigeon for chemical detection. If the bird died, then there might be chemical contaminants in the area. Ours was named Speckled Jim) was "non-recced" for promotion yesterday. There are NCOs who allege that he was disrespectful so his fast track to staff has been put on hold.

1128Z--The scud attacks have begun. Three times now the words "Gas! Gas! Gas!" or "Incoming!" have rung out and sent Marines into the swelter of MOPP suits and masks. We have dug hasty holes in the desert to protect us against the improbable bull's eye that sends shrapnel flying. One time we heard a distant thud, presumably a scud slapping the desert. It is unknown to us whether these are chemical attacks. But it is all great fun so far; Marines are happy to be busy.

1700Z--H hour (the time the invasion begins) was 1500. We will be rolling by 1815. Some miles to the north the sound of terrible bombardment can be heard. It is unending, rolling thudding bass. The flashes can be seen on the horizon through night-vision goggles.

Saddam has reportedly ignited the oil fires. The RCT (Regimental Combat Team) will be thrusting north through the night to prevent such destruction where it can and neutralize units that elect to fight. I only ever saw one distant jet of flame that looked like an oil fire. We never encountered any others in our sector.

All the team and individual gear has been checked. Everything is ready. I said a fervent prayer for my fire team and my family. May it be granted.

21 Mar 03 0515Z

Mounted hardened trucks and rode through the night. Very cramped and cold. We are nearing the border. The sound of artillery is getting closer. The convoy of vehicles moves at a snail's pace. We should join the fight today. 38RQU 29141756

22 Mar 03 0830Z

We are waiting for permission to cross phase line Arnold into 1st Marines AO. It has been two nights and a day of continuous convoy ops. Slow going. We passed through miles and miles of scattered Iraqi tanks, tanks shattered during the last war. The Kuwaitis cleaned up their side of the border. The Iraqis did not.

BBC reports massive surrender and pockets of intense fighting at Basra and in the oil felds in the north. We are waiting to see what's in store for us.

1306Z, dug in at 38RPU 73268567--The convoy is momentarily out of gas so we are paused. At this rate we may never get to the fight. The Army has beaten us to Nasiriyah. How will Col. Dowdy sleep at night? The snail pace of this RCT convoy is mystifying.

Weather is cooler in Iraq. The desert has a film of green on it.

I know Shari and my family are watching the war and worrying about me. If they knew what a lackluster show RCT 1 is putting on, they might rest easy. Perhaps there is a reason for this, but I can't imagine one myself.

23 Mar 03 1408Z

We are 27 kilometers south of Nasiriyah. The BBC reports 50 Marine casualties from small arms there. I believe that alone will qualify it as the bloodiest single engagement since Vietnam. The battalion commander halted the convoy and left to consult with the regimental commander about new routes, and how to secure bridges for allied use. Understandable.

But allowing any passing civilian to halt the convoy for an hour or more just because he approaches with hands high is incomprehensible. We have CAAT teams (combined anti-armor teams) patrolling the convoy. They could pin these folks while we pass. But instead we all halt while vehicles and persons are searched, then we shoo them away with an HDR (humanitarian daily ration; MRE lite). Meanwhile there is fighting in Nasiriyah, 27 kilometers away.

24 Mar 03 0755Z

We are still stopped in the same place. My team stood a couple of watches during the night. We tracked a steady procession of pedestrians crossing a bridge to surrender. Some were even in the military. Sheep herders surrender to us. Bedouins surrender. Passing bicyclists who apparently hadn't considered it until they saw us, they surrender.

A larger ambush in Nasiriyah has forced the RCT to adjust its plan. The city evidently belongs to the Second Marine Expeditionary Force. They will escort us through so we can get to our places around Al Kut.

There was some small-arms fire to be heard to the east of here this morning. I reported it. By the time the word reached the battalion net, the word had been changed to "We are being fired upon." A CAAT team and a confused, angry first sergeant sped up demanding to know where the firefight was. We said, "Somewhere east of here." And they sped off.

26 Mar 03 0737Z

Yesterday was the day the war really began for Fox Company. We rolled into Nasiriyah at first light, past the burnt hulks of T62s (Soviet-built tanks) entrenched in groves of date palms and into Task Force Tarawa's firefight. The truck in which I was riding stopped right in the main intersection of town under fire. Twenty Marines were lying down in rank blasting away at enemy guns. The eye can follow a burst of machinegun fire and I watched a 240G (machine gun) send a burst clattering into a vehicle, and another pinging off high-tension lines. We just hunkered down and watched until someone cleared us through the intersection. Broberg opened up with his SAW (squad automatic weapon) in the next vehicle back from the top of the cab and his firing pin broke. Third Platoon's truck took two rounds but no injuries.

Once through to the other side of town we saw evidence of hard fighting. Two AAVs (amphibious assault vehicles) burned up, all Marines inside reportedly dead. And we saw numerous enemy lying about machine-gunned, blasted apart, smashed flat by a tank, etc. Serious business.

Then 12 kilometers or so north of Nasiriyah we came to a town called Al Garraf, from which the lead element of the convoy (Alpha battery 1/11) had just been ambushed. Fox got the order to attack with Second Platoon as its main effort. We trucked up (to the objective) and immediately started hearing shots and initiated our attack. Jensen, on orders from Sgt. McMullen, leaned out the side of the truck and sent SAW bursts into a nearby bunker. We scrambled out of the truck and behind a berm toward our position looking across the highway straight into town. Iraqi machine-gun fire was zinging and snapping overhead, but we were covered by the crest of the road.

While moving the 40 meters or so from our covered assembly area up to where we could see and shoot down the main street, I saw Staff Sgt. Cawley of First Platoon coming back the other way. He had run up there to get a quick view of things. He was moving south as I glanced up at him and he gave me a friendly smile. This was before the Iraqi machine gun and AK-47's had been suppressed. Rounds were snapping overhead and he had the composure to smile at me. A minute earlier I had emphasized the importance of calm thinking to my fire team, but Staff Sgt. Cawley galvanized that feeling in me with that smile. He made me feel better.

My squad crawled on line right up to the road and started suppressing enemy fires with M203s (grenade launchers), M16s (rifles) and SAWs. This allowed Sgt. Biemer to bring his assault team with rockets and smash holes in buildings and bunkers. They fired about six rockets.

Then we moved across the highway to get a better view into town. Men were still shooting at us, so we returned fire for a time. First Squad reported seeing the most fighters and shooting them. In Third Squad, Biggers and his team entered the first building across the road and found it empty. They moved to the next smaller structure to the east and entered. Once all four of them were inside, the room began to explode with enemy machine-gun fire from without. Bauer sprayed the room to the east with his SAW and the team ran out. But Pvt. Donnely fell down in the doorway.

Outside a confused sergeant (not Sgt. McMullen, who seemed immune to confusion) thought Donnely must be hit since he didn't come out, and he ran to throw a grenade into the room where Donnely remained. Biggers stopped him and the sergeant panicked, saying, "What do I do with this thing?!" He thrust the pinless grenade into Lance Cpl. Brent Bauer's hands. Bauer successfully contained the spoon long enough to throw the grenade down Main Street toward our attackers.

Our company commander, a well-liked man named Maj. Kirkpatrick, was doing what COs do, coordinating things by radio or runner. He had air assets at his disposal but he gave us a few extra minutes to complete the mission rather than calling in an air strike. He was concerned about bombs dropping so close to us and into the village where there were civilians. Within four minutes of our counterattack beginning down the main street, the volume of enemy fires sharply fell off and the convoy was moving again as we crossed the road. Maj. Kirkpatrick waved off the bombers.

The resistance melted away. Echo Company swept through town from south to north (we were attacking to the east). We became the base of fire for Echo's maneuver, but it quickly ended. The whole shootout had lasted about 40 minutes.

Afterward, Broberg described a moment when an Iraqi in a white robe, perhaps a hundred meters away, mounted a roof with a rifle and began throwing grenades. There were no Marines within his throwing range. Broberg opened up with his SAW, and his team with him. He said the man just stood in a hail of fire for several seconds and then slumped. Wade said later, "I've hunted all my life and killed all kinds of things, but my mind just kept saying, 'Hey, that's a dude.' "

During the initial skirmish I suppressed a shooter behind a one-story building 180 meters down the main street. He kept stepping out from behind a building with a green flag on the roof and loosing bursts of AK fire. I sent an HEDP grenade down there with a bang. Long. Two more with proper range and he didn't come out anymore. Staff Sgt. Ivers congratulated me, saying, "Good job suppressing those targets." But for me there was just that one.

There were a couple of nightmarish scenes of Iraqis waving white flags and using the lull in the firing this created to move to better firing positions. But far worse was the way they herded women and children into the street and then shot from behind them. We didn't have to go into town after the fight, but it is generally supposed that several of those innocents were killed in the crossfire.

I talked to a battalion sniper who operated in support of Fox Company that day. He said he saw an Iraqi emerging from behind a building to take quick shots with an AK-47. He emerged twice while the sniper was making ready to shoot. The sniper loosed a round as the target appeared for the third time, but the man thrust a child out by the arm instead. The sniper was very upset at the scene and at the thought that he had shot at a child. The incident reminded me of Saddam's promise not to use unconventional weapons, but unconventional tactics. Saddam's unconventional tactic was to make collateral victims of his own people.

After the attack was over, Fox Company returned to its vehicles and performed some quick weapons maintenance. We talked about what we had seen and done and marveled that no one had been hurt. But I learned that Staff Sgt. Ivers had in fact been hit. His job as platoon sergeant had required him to cross the highway under fire more than once. While making his way back to the safe side, a round struck his bayonet and flak vest. It bent the blade irretrievably inside its scabbard and bruised his kidney. He got checked out and cleared, but for the rest of the invasion he grimaced every time he pulled himself into the cab of his truck. That guy is tough.

28 Mar 03, 0315Z, 38RNA 92893306

Yesterday we were tasked with defending a road junction so the convoy could safely pass. First Platoon searched a couple buildings and found some AK-47's, a Mauser 98, a pistol belt and a Baath Party certificate. The certificate had Saddam's smiling face and a picture of the member.

Second Platoon slogged through a kilometer of mud to search two more buildings to the west. My team was tasked with the first one. A CAAT team spotted some movement on the roof and people hiding objects in the tall grass. We patrolled up in a wide wedge formation and then I initiated verbal contact with the family I found in the courtyard. "Irfa ya dayeka!" I yelled ("Hands up!"). Everyone's hands went up. "Enta lan toodar!" ("You will not be harmed!") They seemed to sigh and relax a little. I said, "You will not be harmed." We found Iraqi army uniforms they had thrown out and searched the house--nothing.

We asked, by the aid of our translation cards, if anyone had medical problems. Doc Parks gave Motrin to a three-year-old girl with a fever. And we left. "Asalam walecum." Peace be unto you.

The discarded uniforms didn't concern us. There were a few shabby men of military age in the group who probably owned the items, but the men seemed to belong to the household and had no weapons. If they belonged to the army at all, they were most probably discharged or deserters.

While searching this home I found a suitcase suspended from the ceiling by a strip of cloth in the upper bedroom. It hung down at eye level in the middle of a bare room. Lance Cpl. Garrard and Sgt. McMullen were there too. We didn't know what to make of it. I volunteered to search the bag, so they stepped out of the room. I stuck my hand into the open flap and felt only loose cloth. I pulled it down from the ceiling; the cloth strip parted easily. I opened the old soft-sided bag and found only civilian men's clothes, shirts and pants. I felt foolish about treating someone's old clothes like a bomb threat, but the hanging bag had confused us and somehow alarmed me. I searched a stack of bedding in the corner, declared, "All clear," and left.

Using the Arabic phrases from my translation card was gratifying to me. However bad I must have sounded to the locals, it always seemed to soothe people who were confronted by armed American invaders and scared.

Now it is morning. We slept in a freezing ditch. My feet are cold and I am running a serious sleep deficit. Fifty percent alert is considered a gift. I average two to three hours of sleep a night, and sometimes I get none. I don't feel the effects yet, but surely they will come.

"Fifty percent alert" refers to the watch rotation, meaning half of the platoon was awake and keeping watch at all times. For the first three weeks of the invasion the watch was usually 50%, sometimes 100% (no one sleeps, everyone watches), occasionally 25%. I could rarely correlate the figure with my assessment of the tactical situation. Someone between the company commander and me made those decisions, and we just stood the required watches. The watch was generally reduced during the day and Marines could nap.

0630Z--Two nights ago at dusk, and as we had completed a security operation on a section of road, an Iraqi voice sounded out in the distance in English. "Please! Somebody help me! Help, please!"--this continuously. We had just loaded ourselves into our trucks and the sound, some 250 meters away, rang out clearly. Staff Sgt. Ivers called out, "F--- No! We're not falling for that old trick!" But a few Marines from H&S Company (Headquarters and Services; it contains all the odd jobbers that support the rifle companies, clerks, cooks, armorers, snipers, drivers, etc.) worked their way around toward the voice and found the man all shot up on the ground. He had an AK-47 and an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade). The story goes that they secured the weapons, gave him something for his pain, and watched him die.

Staff Sgt. Ivers was referring to that old John Wayne movie, "The Sands of Iwo Jima," in which Japanese fighters lured Marines to their deaths by feigning agony. The Iraqi had very probably sustained his wounds in action against Marines at the head of our convoy. His weapons were in the trunk of his car behind which he laid on the ground. I was unaware of the severity of his wounds, but no great concern or effort was expended on his behalf.

This morning at 0530Z shouting along the line woke us from our comfortable nap in the morning sun. An old Toyota truck was rolling up on our position. Our job here is to deny access to the main north-south highway immediately behind us. The truck was moving slowly. No weapons had been seen. But when the truck got within 150 meters Third Platoon opened up with small arms, shattering the windshield and killing the driver. Sgt. Biemer loosed a SMAW (shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon) rocket and incredibly missed. The rocket flew to the right and exploded in the dirt 50 meters beyond.

Now there is a crowd of angry locals on the road. I think they want the body. They produced an English speaker and are negotiating on the road. There are 40 white flag waving locals out there and more on the way.

Third Platoon did not open fire on that truck until it had failed to stop at our wire roadblock. The driver also ignored warnings to stop shouted in Arabic.

29 Mar 03, same place

Last night we suffered our first serious casualty. Staff Sgt. James Cawley, formerly of the Salt Lake City Police Department, died instantly when a Humvee rolled over his head in the night. Capt. Porter was injured in the same incident. His jaw was broken. They are First Platoon's senior leadership. Who knows how this will impact First Platoon?

I've known Staff Sgt. Cawley for about three years. He was my own platoon sergeant when we were both in headquarters platoon. He has a wife and children. God bless them.

About yesterday's shooting: Intel reports to us that he was a Baath Party official in the town one mile southwest of here. He had a large amount of cash in the truck and had been paid by the Iraqi army to probe our lines. The crowd that gathered on the road actually cheered when they learned the identity of the victim, Baath officials being unpopular in Shiite towns. That has eased some of the trepidation about the shooting, but not all.

A rumor eventually filtered back to us that Donald Rumsfeld reviewed the shooting and said approximately, "That's what you get when you ignore a Marine Corps roadblock."

This morning two tanks and two CAAT Humvees raced into town under the cover of tank shelling to do a quick recon of conditions at the bridge. The Iraqis are up to something over there, but facts are scarce when you live in a dirt hole.

(Next week: Part 3--The March to Baghdad)
To PART 3, Here!

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