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Black Hawk Down
Inquirer Staff Writer
Staff Sgt. Matt Eversmann's lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down.
Pray for us sinners, now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.
It was midafternoon, Oct. 3, 1993. Eversmann's Chalk Four was part of a company of U.S. Rangers assisting a Delta Force commando squadron that was about to descend on a gathering of Habr Gidr clan leaders in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. This ragtag clan, led by warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, had challenged the United States of America.
Today's targets were two top Aidid lieutenants. Delta Force, the nation's elite commando unit, would storm the target house and capture them. Then four helicopter loads of Rangers, including Eversmann's men, would rope down to all four corners of the target block and form a perimeter. No one would be allowed in or out.
Waiting for the code word to launch, which today was 'Irene,'' they were a formidable armada. The helicopter assault force included about 75 Rangers and 40 Delta Force troops in 17 helicopters. Idling at the airport was a convoy of 12 vehicles with soldiers who would ride three miles to the target building and escort the Somali prisoners and the assault team back to base.
They had left behind canteens, bayonets, night-vision devices (NODs) - anything they felt would be dead weight on a fast daylight raid.
Mogadishu spread beneath them in ruins. Five years of civil war had reduced the once-picturesque African port to a post-apocalyptic nightmare. The few paved avenues were crumbling and littered with mountains of trash and debris. Those walls and buildings that still stood in the heaps of gray rubble were pockmarked with bullet scars and cannon shot.
The Rangers had been issued strict rules of engagement. They were to shoot only at someone who pointed a weapon at them, but already this was getting unrealistic. Those with guns were intermingled with women and children. The Somalis were strange that way. Whenever there was a disturbance in Mogadishu, people would throng to the spot: men, women, children - even the aged and infirm. It was like some national imperative to bear witness. And over this summer, the Ranger missions had stirred up widespread hatred.
In this African city people spent their days lounging outside their shabby rag huts and tin shacks. There were gold-toothed women in colorful robes and old men in loose, cotton skirts and worn, plastic sandals. When the Rangers searched the men, they would often find wads of the addictive khat plant they chewed to get high. When they grinned their teeth were stained black and orange. In some parts of town the men would shake their fists at the Rangers as they drove past.
Galentine was a 21-year-old sergeant from Xenia, Ohio, who had gotten bored working at a rubber plant. Now he was pointing his M-16 at people down the street, aiming at center mass, and squeezing off rounds. People would drop, just like silhouettes at target practice.
As [Galentine] fired, he felt a painful slap on his left hand that knocked his weapon so hard it spun completely around him. His first thought was to right his gun, but when he reached out he saw that his left thumb was lying on his forearm, attached by a strip of skin.
He picked up his thumb and tried to press it back to his hand.
The sergeant was still contending with the crowd. Men would dart out into the street and spray bursts from their AK-47s, then take cover. Eversmann saw the flash and puff of smoke of rocket-propelled grenades being launched their way. The grenades came wobbling through the air and exploded with a long splash of flame and a pounding concussion. The heat would wash over and leave the odor of powder.
Eversmann turned wearily to Diemer.
"A helicopter just crashed.''
The Rangers wore body armor and helmets with goggles. Aden could see no part of them that looked human. They were like futuristic warriors from an American movie.
As he ran back to his house, one of the Blackhawk helicopters flew over him at rooftop level. It made a rackety blast, and wash from its rotors swept over the dusty alley like a violent storm. Through this dust, Aden saw a Somalian militiaman carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher - an RPG - step into the alley and drop to one knee.
The militiaman waited until the copter had passed overhead. Then he leaned the RPG up and fired at the aircraft from behind. Aden saw a great flash from the back end of the launcher and then saw the grenade explode into the rear of the helicopter, cracking the tail.
The body of the aircraft started to spin, so close to Aden that he could see the pilot inside struggling at the controls. The pilot could not hold it, and the helicopter started to flip. It was tilted slightly toward Aden when it hit the roof of his house with a loud, crunching sound, and then slammed on its side into the alley with a great, scraping crash in a thick cloud of dust and rock and smoke.
More Somalis came now, with guns, shooting at the American. He dropped to one knee and shot many of them, but the Somalis' bullets also hit him.
There wasn't enough time for anyone to consider all the ramifications of that helicopter's sudden end, but the sick, sinking feeling that came over officers watching on screen went far beyond the immediate fate of the six men on board.
America's 10-month mission to Somalia, handed off by one president to another, the latest symbol of the nation's commitment to a New World Order, had just taken a crippling hit. The ambitious nation-building hopes of United Nations bureaucrats were lying in a twisted hunk of smoldering metal, plastic and flesh in an alley in northern Mogadishu.
"Hey, sir, I can see there's a guy behind this woman with a weapon under her arm!'' Elliott shouted.
Perino told Elliott to fire. The 60-gun made its low, blatting sound. The man and the woman fell dead.
Up the alley, Nelson saw a man with a weapon ride out into the open - on a cow. There were about eight other men around the animal, some with weapons. Nelson didn't know whether to laugh or shoot. In an instant, he and the rest of the Rangers opened fire. The man on the cow fell off, and the others ran. The cow stood stupefied.
As Wolcott's Blackhawk passed overhead, Nelson's eye caught the distinctive flash and puff of an RPG - a rocket-propelled grenade. He saw the rocket climb into the helicopter's path. Then came a thunderclap. The bird's tail boom cracked, the rotor stopped spinning with an ugly grinding sound, and a chug-chug-chug coughing followed. The whole helicopter shuddered and started to spin - first slowly, then picking up speed.
We got a Blackhawk going down! We got a Blackhawk going down!
We got a Blackhawk crashed in the city! Sixty-one!
It was more than a helicopter crash. It was a blow to the sense of invulnerability in all the young men on the ground. The Blackhawks and Little Birds were their trump cards. The helicopters, even more than the Rangers' rifles and machine guns, were what kept gunmen at a distance.
Busch, a devoutly religious man, had told his mother before leaving for Somalia: "A good Christian soldier is just a click away from heaven.''
With the roar of his engines and the radio din, Durant could not tell for sure if he was being shot at. He assumed he was. He was busy trying to orient himself to the ground while listening to the radio and varying his airspeed and altitude, trying to make his Blackhawk a more challenging target.
It was on his fourth or fifth circle, just as things were starting to make sense below, that he felt his chopper hit something. It felt like an invisible speed bump.
It hit hard.
The man fired. The grenade hit the Blackhawk's rear rotor. Big chunks of it flew off in the explosion. And then, for a few surprising moments, nothing happened.
Inside Super 64, Durant and his copilot, Ray Frank, felt the airframe begin to vibrate rapidly. They heard the accelerating, high-speed whine of the dry gear shaft in its death throes. Then came a very loud bang. With the top half of the tail fin gone, a big weight was suddenly dropped off the airframe's back end, and its center of gravity pitched forward.
As the nose lunged down, the big bird began to spin. After a decade of flying, Durant's reactions were instinctive. To make the airframe swing left meant pushing gently on the left pedal. He now noticed he had already jammed his left pedal all the way to the floor and his craft was still spinning rapidly to the right. The rotation of the big rotor blades wanted to make the airframe spin that way, and without a tail rotor there was no force to stop it.
The spin was faster than Durant ever imagined it could be. Details of earth and sky blurred, the way patterns do on a spinning top. Out the windshield he saw only blue sky and brown earth.
In crash simulators, pilots are taught to eliminate torque by shutting off the engines. But the controls for the engines were on the roof of the cockpit, so Frank had to fight the spin's strong centrifugal force to raise his arms. In those frantic seconds he managed to flip one engine switch to idle and turn the other halfway off.
Do you have video over crash site number two?
Indigenous personnel moving around all over the crash site.
That's affirmative, over.
The pilot was at their mercy. It occurred to Mo'Alim that this American was more valuable alive than dead. The Rangers had spent months capturing Somalis and holding them prisoner. They would be willing to trade them, perhaps all of them, for one of their own.
"I'm going out,'' he told Cash.
"You can't go out there with that cast on your elbow,'' Cash said.
"Then I'll lose it.''
Sizemore ran back into the hangar, found a pair of scissors, and cut straight up the inside seam and flung the cast away. Then he came back and climbed onto a humvee.
Cash just looked at him and shook his head. 'OK,'' he said.
Private Clay Othic shot a chicken. In the melee that began as soon as the nine-vehicle ground convoy turned the corner at the Olympic Hotel, Othic had seen people running, men with AK-47s firing wildly, and chickens flying. He had opened up from the turret of his humvee with the powerful .50-cal, and one of the rounds turned a chicken into a puff of feathers.
Everything was getting blown apart in this battle - brick walls, houses, cars, cows, men, women, children.
[Spec. Eric Spalding] was amazed at the ferocity of the Somalian attacks. There were people with guns in alleyways, at windows, on rooftops. Each time his M-16 magazine was used up, Spalding shot with his 9mm Berretta pistol while he replaced the rifle magazine with his free hand.
"Don't shoot,'' Spalding shouted at him. "She's got a kid!''
At that moment the woman turned. Holding a baby on one arm, she raised a pistol with her free hand. Spalding shot her where she stood. He shot four more rounds into her before she fell. He hoped he hadn't hit the baby. They were moving fast, and he didn't get to see whether he had. He thought he probably had hit the baby. She had been carrying the infant on her arm, right in front. Why would a mother do something like that with a kid on her arm? What was she thinking?
Joyce's skin was white. His eyes were open wide but empty. He looked dead. He had been hit through the vest in the upper back where the Rangers' new flak vests had no protective plate. The round had passed through his torso and had come out his abdomen. It lodged in the front of the vest, which did have an armored plate.
After several failed attempts he ran around to the cab, where Spec. Aaron Hand stepped out to let Othic squeeze between himself and the driver, Pfc. Richard Kowalewski, a skinny, quiet kid from Texas whom they all called "Alphabet'' because they didn't want to pronounce his name.
Othic was struggling in the confined space to apply a pressure dressing to Alphabet's bleeding shoulder when a grenade rocketed in from the left. It severed Alphabet's left arm and ripped into his torso. It didn't explode. Instead the two-foot-long missile was embedded in Alphabet's chest, the fins protruding from his left side under his missing arm, the point sticking out the right side. He was killed instantly.
Hand found the lower portion of Alphabet's arm on the street. All that remained intact was the hand. He picked it up and put it in his side pants pocket. He didn't know what else to do, and it didn't feel right leaving it behind.
You'll have to find us another route, Struecker radioed to his guide high above.
There ain't another route.
Well, you need to find one. Figure out a way to get there, Struecker said.
The only other route is to go all the way around the city and come in through the back side.
Fine. We'll take it.
They shot their way back to the base, blasting everything they saw. Rules of engagement were off. Sizemore saw young boys, 7 and 8 years old, some with weapons, some without. He shot them all down. He saw women running in crowds alongside men who had rifles, and he mowed down the crowds. He didn't care anymore. He just felt numb - numb and angry and full of fight. He just wanted to hit as many Somalis as he could. He didn't even care anymore if he got shot. These Rangers were his buddies, his best friends in the world, closer to him than family had ever been, and he was going to do anything he could to return them safely.
Fales ducked into a deep hole that the crashing helicopter had left in the alley wall. He cut open his pants and saw that the bullet had passed through his calf muscle and out the front of his leg. Nothing was broken. By the look of it, with flaps of muscle tissue spilled out of the wound, Fales figured it ought to hurt badly. But other than the stabbing sensation right after he'd been shot, there was little pain. He figured his fear and adrenaline were acting as an anesthetic.
He folded the muscle tissue back into the wound, packed some gauze into it, and applied a pressure dressing.
Yurek shot one man in a doorway just 10 feet away. The man had stepped out and taken aim. He was a bushy-haired, dusty man with baggy brown pants. He didn't shoot instantly, and that's what killed him. Yurek's eyes met his for an instant as he pulled the trigger. The Somali pitched forward without getting off a shot.
It struck Yurek how similar killing a man was to shooting targets in training. In practice, targets would pop out unexpectedly. The rules were to shoot at blue triangles, but to hold fire if a green square appeared. Now, in actual battle, he had seen a target, identified it, and taken it out. He was grateful for all the tedious hours of training.
Mogadishu was in turmoil. Buses had stopped running, and all of the major streets were blocked. American helicopters were shooting at anything that moved in the southern portion of the city, so many of the wounded could not be taken to hospitals. Wails of grief and anger rose from many homes, and angry crowds had formed in a broad ring around Cliff Wolcott's Blackhawk, the first of two helicopters that crashed. People swarmed through the streets, seeking vengeance. They wanted to punish the invaders.
KASSIM SHEIK Mohamoud's little burial convoy got to the cemetery just before dusk. Sounds of gunfire crackled over the city. There were many people at the cemetery digging holes for the newly dead.
As they carried the bodies of Ismail Ahmed and Ahmad Sheik, a helicopter swooped down at them and passed so close that they dropped the bodies and ran away. They hid behind a wall, and when the helicopter continued on, they returned and picked up the bodies.
They carried them to a place on a hill and lay the bodies on the ground and began to dig. They dug until another helicopter buzzed down at them. In fright they ran.
Kassim went back out at 3 a.m. with the men and finished the job. There were many others digging. Mogadishu had become a city of the dead.
Even his ammunition angered him. Howe was firing the Army's new 5.56mm green tip round. It had a tungsten carbide penetrator at the tip that could punch holes in metal. But that penetrating power meant his rounds were passing right through his targets. The rounds made small, clean holes in the Somalian gunmen, and unless they hit the head or spine the men didn't go down. Howe felt that he had to hit each man five or six times just to get his attention.
Everyone dreaded the approaching darkness. They were without their main technological advantage - their NODs (night optical devices), which allowed them to see in the darkness. The men had left them behind, assuming the midday mission would only take an hour. Most of them had left without their canteens, too, thinking they could do without water for an hour.
Now the force faced the night thirsty, tired, bleeding, running low on ammunition, and literally in the dark.
Wilkinson cut open Rodriguez's uniform and saw that a round had ripped through his buttock and bored straight into his pelvis, blowing off one testicle as it exited his upper thigh. Into the gaping wound Wilkinson stuffed wads of Curlex, loosely rolled gauze that expands as it soaks up blood. He slipped pneumatic pants over Rodriguez's legs and pumped them with air to apply more pressure to the wound. The bleeding stopped.
Wilkinson slid the boot off smoothly and slowly and removed the sock. Stebbins was shocked to see a golf ball-sized chunk of metal lodged in his foot. He realized for the first time that he'd been hit. He had noticed that his trousers looked blackened, and now, illuminated by the medic's white light, he saw that the blackened flaking patches along his leg were skin. He felt no pain, just numbness. The fire from the explosion had cauterized his wounds.
"Hey, man, you've got to turn that white light out,'' he said. "It's dark out there now, and we've got to be tactful.''
Stebbins was amused by that word: Tactful. But then he thought about it - tactful, tact, tactics - and it made perfect sense.
Inside the stone house adjacent to the crash site, the men blew a hole in one of the walls and began moving the wounded and dead into the adjacent space. Through the new hole a Somalian woman in a flowing orange robe stepped in screaming words the men couldn't understand. When she stepped out, gunfire ripped through windows and openings. Then the woman came back, screamed more, and left. Again came the rain of gunfire.
"If that bitch comes back, I'm going to kill her,'' one of the D-boys grumbled.
She did, and he did.
Lepre said a silent prayer. He reached inside his helmet and pulled out a snapshot of his daughter, Brittany, who was about to turn 2. He kissed the picture and said: "Babe, I hope you have a wonderful life.''
"You know what we should do,'' suggested one of the wounded D-boys. "We should kind of crack one of these doors a little bit so that if an RPG comes in here, we'll all have someplace to explode out of.''
Spec. Shawn Nelson looked out over the blue ocean at a U.S. Navy ship in the distance. It was as if he were seeing things through someone else's eyes. Colors seemed brighter to him, smells more vivid. He felt the experience had changed him in some fundamental way. He wondered if other guys were feeling this, but it was so weird... he didn't know how to ask.
Steele felt strange looking down at the city where they had just fought. His whole world had been so tightly focused for so long on two blocks of Mogadishu. To suddenly lift up and see the whole city stretching under him, to see the beach and the ocean in morning sunlight, it was almost too much, a reminder of how small Mogadishu was in the larger scheme of things.
When Ramaglia was loaded onto a bird, a medic leaned over him and said: "Man, I feel sorry for you all.''
"You should feel sorry for them,'' Ramaglia said, "'cause we whipped ass.''
Capt. Steele finally got the accurate casualty list when he returned to the hangar. Sgt. First Class Glenn Harris was waiting for him at the door. He saluted.
"Rangers lead the way, sir.''
"All the way,'' Steele said, returning the salute.
Spec. Shawn Nelson, who had helped his friend Casey Joyce into his flak vest the previous afternoon, now examined the bloody thing. It had a clean hole in the upper back. He rooted through the pockets. Guys sometimes stuffed pictures or love letters inside. In the front of Sgt. Joyce's vest he found the bullet. It must have passed right through his friend's body and been stopped by the plate in front. He put it in a tin can.
Sgt. Watson walked over to the morgue to see Smith one last time. He unzipped the body bag and gazed for a long time at his friend's pinched, pale, lifeless face. Then he leaned over and kissed his forehead.
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