Monday, May 17, 2010

From the Pages - Operation Phantom Fury

In November of 2004, a joint U.S.-Iraqi force of thousands was constructed to move against the insurgent stronghold in the embattled Iraqi city of Fallujah. The goal of the operation was to capture or eliminate some of the region’s most “hardcore” insurgents and to restore relative order in what was once a peaceful city. As with most things in present-day Iraq, however, the best laid plans rarely go off without a hitch. In this exclusive excerpt from Operation Phantom Fury: The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq, author Dick Camp highlights the gritty close quarters combat of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines as they attempt to clear a section of buildings suspected of housing insurgents on November 13, 2004 -- D+6.


Kilo Company received orders to hold in place at the mansion complex and conduct local security patrols. “First thing in the morning, 3rd Platoon went out to conduct local patrols to our north,” Jacobs remembered, “to kind of clear out some of the places insurgents had run to after our fight on Phase Line Henry.” Nothing on November 13 seemed to indicate that the day would be anything but the same old stuff: search and clear. “The plan of the day,” according to Lance Corporal Boswood, “was to start back clearing the neighborhood.” The 3rd Platoon, under 1st Lt. Jesse Grapes, assigned each squad one block to clear. “Hell,” Boswood exclaimed, “they didn’t make it a block before they came to a house just loaded with foreign fighters inside.” Jacobs described the building as a “Pretty small, nondescript light yellow cement house, with a dome-shaped roof and a small second story. In the center of the house there was a large rotunda with a catwalk that ran around the inside . . . an outstanding kill zone. All the windows were bolted shut . . . and there was only one way in or out. The enemy had chosen well.”

Sergeant Christopher Pruitt, the 3rd Platoon guide; Cpl. Ryan Weemer’s fire team, consisting of Lance Cpls. Cory Carlisle and James Prentice; and Sgt. James Eldridge, a machine gunner, approached the house through an unlocked gate in the courtyard. An outhouse stood about ten to fifteen feet from the main entrance. Pruitt picked up the smell of fresh human excrement, indicating someone was nearby. “I told Weemer there were insurgents in the house,” Pruitt said. The men formed a combat stack—Weemer, Carlisle, and Pruitt, in that order—and prepared to enter the building. Eldridge and Cpl. Matthew Spencer waited outside to provide rear security.

Weemer grasped his 9mm pistol—he preferred it in close quarters—and started the ball rolling. “The house had full length saloon-style doors. I pushed in the one on the left and went through.” He spotted an insurgent down on one knee in the far left corner of the room. “I started shooting,” he said, “and gave him three rounds in the chest.” The three men kept going and pushed into the next room. “I saw an insurgent directly to my front,” Pruitt remembered, “[and] an insurgent came out from the left side of the room and started shooting.” Pruitt, hit in the wrist, dropped his rifle, and pulled out of the house to bring in the men outside. Weemer unloaded his 9mm into one of the insurgents, but the man would not go down. “The pistol wasn’t doing the job,” he exclaimed. The two Marines hurriedly backed out of the room. Weemer switched to his rifle, while Carlisle reloaded. They reentered the room. “Another insurgent came toward us,” Weemer said. “I shot him in the legs and when he went down in the doorway, I shot him in the face.”

Outside, Eldridge was shot in the shoulder by an insurgent on the roof and, despite the wound, tried to enter the house, but was hit again and put out of the fight. Pruitt staggered into the street just as 1st Sgt. Brad Kasal, Cpl. Robert Mitchell, and his squad of reinforcements came pounding up. “I noticed Pruitt walking toward me,” Kasal remembered. “He appeared to be in a state of shock and I noticed he had wounds to his hand and lower leg.” Despite the serious wounds, Pruitt reported clearly, indicting there might be as many as three wounded Marines in the house. “The first thing that came across my mind,” Kasal recalled, “was getting to those three men as quickly as possible because I knew the enemy would give no quarter to a wounded Marine.”

As soon as the reinforcements reached Weemer, he formed another combat stack: Carlisle, Weemer, and Staff Sgt. Jon Chandler, the platoon sergeant. Lance Corporal Samuel Severtsgard stood off to one side preparing to toss in a hand grenade. Two other men formed a second stack: Lance Cpl. Tyler Farmer and Corporal Jose Sanchez. On signal, Severtsgrad threw the grenade, which went off with a deafening roar. “I couldn’t hear anything after the grenade went off,” Weemer complained. “It was pitch black; the air was full of dust, smoke and lead from the grenade. I literally ran into the set of stairs that go to the second story. I could hardly see it.”

An insurgent on the second floor opened fire. Weemer and Carlisle were both wounded. “I felt something hit me in the leg and then I felt something hit me in the forehead,” Weemer said. “I went back outside and sat down.” Carlisle couldn’t move, his leg was fractured from hip to knee, and he was lying in the line of fire. As Chandler, Severtsgard, Farmer, and Sanchez tried to reach Carlisle, an insurgent grenade exploded, spraying them all with shrapnel. They were also hit with rifle fire, which severely wounded Chandler in the leg. Farmer was blown back into the room they had just left, while the other three managed to take refuge in the kitchen at the back of the house.

The grenade explosion had hardly died way before another four-man stack rushed the house—Mitchell, Kasal, Pfc. Alexander Nicoll, and Lance Cpl. Morgan McGowan. “In the room on the right I saw one of the wounded Marines lying on the floor,” Kasal recalled. “In the door on the left there was a dead insurgent . . . and in the far right corner a room by itself . . . .” He looked in. “All of a sudden, not more than two feet from me there was an enemy insurgent with his AK-47.” The two brought their rifles up at the same time. The insurgent fired first, “a short burst that sent the rounds skimming in front of my chest,” Kasal said. “I placed my weapon over the top of his rifle and stuck my barrel straight into his chest and pulled the trigger.” Hit by eight to ten 5.56mm rounds, the insurgent fell to the floor.

Mitchell and McCowan continued straight ahead and ended up in the kitchen with the wounded, when suddenly there was a heavy burst of fire behind them. “That is when I think I heard Nicoll and the first sergeant get hit. Shooting was going on everywhere . . . and I heard a scream.” Kasal remembered: “I just heard automatic weapons fire and then what felt like someone hitting me in the lower leg with a sledgehammer as my legs crumpled from beneath me. I heard Nicoll yell in pain behind me and immediately knew he was also hit.” Kasal pushed the dead insurgent aside and crawled back inside the room, dragging Nicoll with him. In doing so he was hit again in the buttock, and Nicoll took a round in the stomach. As they lay there, the insurgents dropped a grenade that landed three feet from them. Kasal rolled on top of Nicoll and shielded him from the blast. Shrapnel tore into his legs, buttocks, and lower back.

Mitchell, hearing the sound of enemy weapons and the scream, ran to help them. “I had to cross that danger area . . . four or five feet…in the main room. An insurgent on the roof had it covered through the skylight.” Rounds impacted all around him, but he succeeded in reaching the two wounded men, despite being “peppered with some pretty good pieces [of shrapnel].” At one point, he spotted a wounded insurgent make a move toward a weapon. Mitchell, whose rifle had been destroyed, drew his combat knife and killed the man. A trained combat lifesaver, he then started first aid on the wounded Marines and used a small civilian-style radio to call for help. “I let Grapes know that Kasal, Nicoll and me were wounded and pinned down in the little room off to the left of the man entrance.”

Grapes was desperately trying to organize rescue efforts, but the construction of the house frustrated all his efforts. The walls were concrete, three-inch iron bars covered the windows, and the insurgents were protected from small-arms fire by a wall that ran around the edge of the roof. Sergeant Byron Norwood, a heavy machine gunner, entered the house to see if his gun could be of use. As he peered around a doorway, “an insurgent popped up, shot him right in the head and killed him,” according to Jacobs. His death had a chilling effect on the rescuers, who became even more determined to reach the wounded.

Sergeant Jose Nazzario somehow made it to the wounded in the kitchen. “I coordinated with our guys to get them out.” He told them to bring up a Humvee with a chain and pull the bars off the window. “We took a shower curtain rod and stuck it out the window to let them know where we were.” By this time, Jacobs and the 2nd Platoon quick-reaction force had arrived. “Once we got the wounded out,” Jacobs explained, “we got healthy Marines into those rooms, so now we controlled all sides of the rotunda. We started suppression fire.” Grapes and Boswood were in the firing line. “Lieutenant Grapes jumped down in the prone position in the biggest puddle of blood I’ve ever seen,” Boswood recalled. “I got on top of the lieutenant and angled my rifle the other way.” Others inched forward until the entire rotunda was covered by fire. Two Marines, Lance Cpls. Christopher Marquez and Jonathon Schaffer, sprinted across the kill zone. “The whole house was shaking with 5.56mm rounds . . . SAWs going off with a two-hundred-round burst and the M-16s firing just as fast as you could pull the trigger. It was just awesome,” Boswood exclaimed.

The two rescuers dragged Nicoll out first. Mitchell hobbled out with them, and then went back for Kasal—the last man to be evacuated. “The only ones left in the house were the insurgents,” Jacobs explained, “and there was no way to get them out without endangering more Marines.” Boswood was glad when “We decided we were just gonna blow the dam thing up. Our demo man, Corporal Richard Gonzales, known as the ‘Mad Bomber’ was good with explosives . . . he really knew his stuff.” Gonzales brought up a twenty-pound satchel charge. “He ran in, placed it in the center of the house,” Boswood recalled, “and pulled the fuse. The house blew. It was the coolest thing in the world . . . it was just awesome, stuff flying everywhere!”

Jacobs surveyed the rubble. “As we’re walking past the house, a hand comes up out of the rubble and throws a grenade at us. Everybody saw it coming, so we were able to scatter.” Boswood described the insurgent as “dark complexion, dark kinky hair and a huge beard . . . looked like a Chechnyan.” Jacobs recalled, “We just unleashed hell on him. I think the guy was high on something . . . or, he was just the toughest human being that I’ve ever seen.”

India Company was tasked to clear east to west along Phase Line Isabel from Phase Line Isaac to the Euphrates River. While clearing one building, the insurgents triggered a large amount of explosives that leveled it, killing one Marine and injuring six. The company continued to find evidence that the insurgents were using drugs.

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