Tuesday, May 10, 2011

From the Pages - Battle for the City of the Dead

The following excerpt is pulled from Chapter 10 ("Tomb Job") of Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome, Najaf, August 2004 by Col. Dick Camp.

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“It was like New Orleans meets Baghdad.”
—U.S. Army officer describing the Wadi al-Salaam cemetery

Alpha Company jumped off early in the morning of August 8. “We cleared the little carnival area with negative contact,” Alpha Company’s commander, Capt. Kevin Badger, said. “We didn’t find anything.” The company held up until about 2 p.m., when, Badger said, “Colonel Miyamasu called and told me to initiate operations in AO Mad Dog [Alpha Company’s area of operations].”

First Lieutenant Steven D. Stauch added, “We were basically on station as a kind of reserve for about two hours at that point. We waited for Bravo and Charlie to clear down to Phase Line Bronx, and once they got to that point, then we were brought in to start clearing our sector.” Each company was given about a one-thousand-meter frontage.

“We knew front was due south,” said Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, the 1-5 Cav’s commanding officer. “But because of the construct of the cemetery—the lack of roads, lack of trails—it became very difficult to establish a line that you would say . . . is the front. So the front really became an area.”

At 0500, on August 9, Bravo and Charlie Companies attacked, using narrow dirt pathways to wend their way through the cemetery’s maze. “There were eight to ten lanes about a tank or Bradley wide,” Badger said. “They were straight, about fifty to one hundred meters apart.” While the pathways provided some ease of movement, they severely restricted maneuvering and provided the militia with well-defined lines of fire. Militia mortar teams did not have to worry about deflection, just range. In addition, the pathways pointed out the battalion’s axis of advance, making it easier for militia RPG teams to set up ambushes. Badger anticipated this tactic. “I just gave one lane per team [an Abrams and a Bradley] for mutual support,” he recalled. “I also had dismounted infantry in close support. The tank-Bradley combination and the infantry formed my killer-hunter team.”

The narrow lanes created another problem for the tanks. “The gun tube kept hitting the tombs when we tried to traverse it,” Beam said, “and we had to worry about maneuvering.”

Up to this point, the battalion had not seen the labyrinth of crypts and mausoleums. “When we pulled into the cemetery, I called Bushmaster [Bravo Company] and told him to stop where he was,” Miyamasu said. “It was the first time we had seen it, and it was just amazing. The complexity of the place didn’t really strike us until then. I remember thinking, ‘Well, this isn’t your momma’s cemetery!’”

Captain Keahtigh, Bravo Company, remembered, “The attack was something very moving. We’ve all seen large cemeteries, but this one was enormous. It stretched for miles. There were times when we couldn’t even see each other 100 meters apart. It was a very unique environment—an urban environment.”

Private First Class Thomas F. Cosby, a tank gunner, was more succinct: “Shoot, it had a million tombs, easily!”

Bravo Company led the attack. “It wasn’t easy,” Keahtigh recalled. “We were briefed that we would be starting at a shanty village, but when we got there, it was the beginning of the cemetery.”

Miyamasu let him off easy. “Darren, bless his heart, got us into the cemetery at the wrong point,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Let’s clear back of us and then we’ll move further south.’”

Bravo reoriented itself and started clearing the mausoleums, which in some cases were actually three- and four-story buildings. Initially, the soldiers had reservations about clearing the tombs. “It’s a sacred place,” Keahtigh said. “You know all the boys are religious in some way . . . and they didn’t want to do it. . . . [B]ut they [militia] forced us to do it.” Bravo developed a clearing SOP. “If they looked like they had been tampered with, had new locks, we cleared them,” Keahtigh said.

Sergeant Hector Guzman felt badly. “It doesn’t feel right that we’re desecrating graves,” he said. “But that’s what we had to do.”

Charlie Company took position on Bravo’s right flank, and the two pushed south toward Phase Line Bronx, a terrain feature in the cemetery that the 1-5 Cav used as a tactical-control measure. “This whole process took about five hours,” Miyamasu recalled. “By this time, the men started to get a feel for the underground crypts, the height of the mausoleums, the narrowness of the walkways, and the fact that a lot of the older tombs were brittle.” Charlie Company came upon several excavations. “We were like, ‘What are those holes?’ We threw some grenades in them to be safe.”

The men in the battalion were not used to the heat—Badger estimated that the temperatures ranged from 115 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit—so the physical effort quickly tired them. “We were thinking, where’s the enemy?” Capt. Benjamin McFall, commander of Charlie Company, recounted. “This is hard; this is hot work.”

“The weather was ridiculously hot,” Sgt. Joshua W. Beams complained. “You’re pretty much sitting in the desert with no air conditioning. We had a lot of heat casualties. We were drinking a lot of hot water, because the tank’s exhaust blows right back on the turret where we had our water sitting.”

The heat also affected their equipment. “Sometimes your fire-control system wouldn’t work,” Cosby related. “If the computer is overheating, it will malfunction and wouldn’t calculate distances correctly. The tank might shoot high, wide, or low.” Then there was the heat from the electronics in the tank itself. “Those systems make the tank even hotter,” Cosby said, “and our A/C was broken.” He stuffed the blower for the tank’s nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) protection system down his shirt, which helped him cool off.

Keahtigh remembered one man who became a heat casualty: “He went down instantly. He just sat down, drinking water, and the next thing you know, he bowled over.”

Miyamasu recalled that as the 1-5 Cav crossed Phase Line Bronx, “We started making our first contact, which I believe were mortar rounds—not effective, but definitely the right range.” It was the first time many of the soldiers had been under fire.

“It was an eye opener,” Badger commented. “The men were getting an idea of what they were up against—mortars hitting within a few meters of you, helicopters shooting, aimed sniper fire. It was full-up combat.” The battalion took fire all along its front, and as it advanced, the volume of RPG and mortar fire started to pick up.

“We had mortars falling like raindrops for the first few days,” Beams recalled.

They quickly discovered there was a positive side to the cemetery. “The graves and mausoleums were made with a very sandy, soft material,” Badger explained, “so when a mortar round exploded, the predominance of the shrapnel was sucked up by the sandy soil, and there was just a plume of smoke.”

Keahtigh agreed: “If the round didn’t land within twenty meters of you, it didn’t have much effect.”

Badger looked at the first day of the cemetery battle as a baptism of fire. “As long as I’m in uniform, I’ll never forget this,” he said. “There’s a difference between shooting targets and shooting people.” He also learned what it sounds like to be shot at by small-arms fire. “You just hear a snap or a crack when a bullet passes by.”

In one instance, his inexperience almost cost him his life. “I found myself on the main thoroughfare through the cemetery,” he said. “I had lost communications with the tank commander, so my driver and I got out and walked over toward it. The soldier turned around and saw us. He opened his hatch and started waving his arms, shouting ‘Get out of here!’” Badger didn’t realize he was the target for militia small-arms fire. “Once we realized the danger, we jumped over a wall and took cover,” he said. He was lucky. “A round went through my legs and clipped my pant leg as I was running. I remember thinking, ‘This shit’s real!’” As he and his driver reached the safety of his vehicle, Badger turned to the soldier and said excitedly, “OK. We’re not going to do that anymore.”

Badger’s combat experience in Baghdad had been relatively mild. It had been a “hold-fire type situation, unless actually engaged,” he said. The rules of engagement (ROE) in Najaf were completely different. “The colonel [Miyamasu] told everyone to fire a hundred-round burst of coax [a machine gun] down our lane in the cemetery,” Badger recalled. This firing order served two purposes: it allowed the soldiers to test-fire their weapons and told them they shouldn’t be afraid to shoot. “It was a great psychological tactic to get us ready for the fight,” Badger said. The coax machine gun, zeroed at about two hundred meters, would often flush the militiamen out of cover, setting them up for disaster. Heavy machine-gun fire also helped to prevent coordinated attacks from multistory buildings.

In many ways, Najaf represented a conventional battle. “We had tanks, Brads [Bradleys], Humvees, and a designated enemy in a designated battleground,” Badger explained. “My mission was simple: clear the sector and destroy enemy forces.” He remembered briefing his men, saying, “If you see a person with an RPG, that’s a target. He doesn’t have to wear a uniform or point a weapon at you. They’re bad guys.”

Early in the attack, he received a call from one of his tank commanders saying, “I’ve got an RPG.”

“Shoot it!” Badger replied without hesitation. “I thought at that point everybody understood that we’re in an environment where we’re going to shoot a lot.”

First Lieutenant Christopher S. Dunn remembered, “The main military [militia] wore all black or had black armbands. They were to be engaged whenever we saw them.”

At one point early in the fighting, Badger said, “I’ll never forget kind of looking around and thinking, ‘I can’t believe Kevin Badger from Dallas, Texas, a boy who grew up playing soccer, is standing in a cemetery in Iraq in a major combat fight.’ It was surreal.”

The advance slowed down. Heat, enemy fire, and the need to search the crypts limited the speed of the attack. “We were probably moving a hundred meters every hour to an hour and a half—two hours,” Badger estimated. “We didn’t have enough dismounts. You’re talking about maybe twenty guys at the most clearing nine hundred meters of cemetery. Clearance is not what we did . . . [I]t was more limited than that.”

Reports of enemy contact filled the radio nets. “My first platoon called over the radio—‘I’ve got contact,’” McFall recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, where is the contact? I don’t hear it.’ All of a sudden, another platoon called over the net, ‘Contact,’ and then the third. My whole company was reporting contact.” There were so many rockets that he compared it to the “the rockets’ red glare” described in the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

His radio came alive with excited chatter: “RPGs!” “Small arms!” “Holy cow, a mortar landed five meters from me!” “I had an RPG go between me and my gunner!” “I just got hit by an IED!” “Holy shit, I just got ambushed!”

Charlie Company was unable to maneuver laterally because of the narrow lanes; it had to keep going forward. “There were RPGs and mortars everywhere,” McFall recalled. “Everything was going; all the weapons were kicking in.”

Sergeant Lyle Pete spotted three men armed with RPGs entering a building on the edge of the cemetery. “They’d jump out and fire them [the RPGs] and jump back inside,” he said. “That was the second time [that day we’d] taken fire from that location.” Small-arms fire crackled all around him as he scrambled to find a firing position. A nearby Bradley started pumping 25mm-cannon rounds into the building.

Sergeant First Class Mike Dewilde led a three-man team up the steps of a mausoleum, whose square, walled-in concrete roof provided protection. They set up an M-240 machine gun along the wall and started shooting at the elusive militiamen dodging through the tombs.

“The problem with these guys,” Spc. Joel Klootwyk explained, “is they can hide behind anything out there. You gotta wait for them to shoot before you know where they’re at.”

Bravo Company was also taking heavy fire. “My second platoon was the first in heavy combat,” Keahtigh explained. “The lieutenant had a heavy Puerto Rican accent, so when he got excited on the radio, it was tough to understand him. I told him to calm down. ‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘I’m only two hundred meters behind, and I know where you’re at.’” The cemetery was so restricted that Keahtigh couldn’t get a Bradley in to help out, so he walked the lieutenant through an attack plan: “I told him to get his AT-4s out and initiate the attack with them. Then launch your M-203s and suppress with one squad and assault with the other one.” At one point, the militia pushed forward, attacking in three- to five-man groups. “I’ve never been counterattacked,” Keahtigh exclaimed. “We started firing 25mm from the Bradleys, 120mm tank-man gun, and we brought in AH-1 Cobras on them.”

The Cobras were cleared hot for multiple attacks by an air force joint tactical air controller (JTAC), call sign Toxin 21. “We got off three thousand rounds from the GAU [a gun] and fourteen rockets,” Maj. Glen Butler said. On one of his runs, he fired a Hellfire missile about seventy-five meters in front of Keahtigh’s vehicle.

The young officer radioed Miyamasu, “Sir, that’s a little close!”

Miyamasu replied, “Hey, Darren, did it scare you?”

“Yeah, that scared the shit out of me. That thing’s big and loud!”

“Think about the enemy,” Miyamasu replied solemnly.

Butler recalled, “We took small-arms fire and saw puffs of smoke from RPGs in the air as we made our passes.” His run in took him parallel to Keahtigh’s Abrams. “It was pretty cool to see them shooting their main guns.”

The tanks were firing because the militia was closing in. “They were really bold,” Beams recalled. “They had no problem running up fifty meters in front of a tank with an RPG and trying to shoot us. But they were finding out real quick that the RPG-7s were just blowing up; they didn’t hurt us.”

Second Lieutenant Douglas J. Schaffer was very concerned with the cemetery’s jumbled maze because “there were a lot of places to hide . . . It was a nasty place to fight.”

The battalion’s dismounts (infantry) started to find supply caches hidden in the tombs. “We found lots of weapons,” Beams recalled, “RPGs, mortars, and beds where people had been sleeping. We figured they would sleep there, wait for somebody to come by, and shoot at them.”

Stauch thought that the enemy was using small caches—“a couple of RPGs here, a couple there, a couple of hand grenades here and there, never more than five, eight, ten at the most in any one spot. They seemed to be arrayed in fallback positions, working their way back towards the mosque.” The captured weapons and ammunition were photographed and taken to the rear to prove that the militia was using the cemetery as a battlefield.

As the battalion continued advancing south through the cemetery, political restrictions not only hindered operations, but also posed a direct threat to the soldiers. “The exclusionary zones were effectively preventing us from engaging the enemy,” Miyamasu emphasized. “The artillery and mortars could not fire for us without the release authority by higher headquarters.” In some instances, approval took an inordinate time.

Dunn described watching a militia mortar team. “We couldn’t engage because they were sitting next to the shrine,” he recalled. “But because your bullet might ricochet off a car, or the ground, or a building, you just sat there and pretty much took it.” When they requested permission to fire, “The battalion had to call the MEU, who would have to call the next higher level,” Dunn said. “So then twenty-five minutes later you’d get a reply. Unfortunately, by this time, the guy who just shot six mortar rounds at you had packed his stuff in the back of his truck and waved goodbye. That was a little frustrating for some of the guys,” he said, tongue in cheek.

By late afternoon, the battalion had advanced 500 meters into the cemetery. As dusk approached, Miyamasu radioed Haslam and requested permission to pull back and rearm. The request was granted, and the battalion pulled back to Phase Line Bronx, where “[w]e set out our security element by establishing observation posts and set in our sniper for the night,” Keahtigh recalled. “We rotated everybody back to FOB Hotel to rearm and refuel. We got some water, ammo, and more grenades.”

Miyamasu called a unit leaders’ meeting to plan the next day’s attack. It was the first time the company commanders had an opportunity to meet face-to-face with him since the start of the attack. “We’re all wide-eyed,” Keahtigh recalled. “Man, what did we walk into? These Mahdi Army guys aren’t playing. They were shooting final protective fire at us and had the entire cemetery zeroed in with indirect fires to support their extensive defensive plans. We’re like, ‘Wow!’”

Miyamasu let the three officers blow off steam and then calmly took charge. “I don’t mean to give them [the militiamen] too much, but they’re good,” he told them. “These guys really make us work to kill them, but in the end, they’re dead!”

The planning session broke up in the early hours of the morning. “Everybody was tired,” McFall remembered. “I mean we were just exhausted. We had been in contact for nine hours straight.” The entire battalion was in the same shape. Three days of little sleep, coupled with the heat, humidity, and the adrenalin-induced alertness had pushed their bodies almost to the limit.

Badger was told that his company would have four hours off before going back to the cemetery. “The only place we [Badger and his first sergeant] could find to lay down was in the helicopter that got shot down. It was my bed the first night in Najaf. I picked the right side, because my first sergeant picked the other side of the aircraft. His side was covered with oil. When we got up, he was hot under the collar. ‘Ah, shit, that sucked,’ he exclaimed, as he tried to clean himself up.”

The battalion spent a fairly calm night. “All of a sudden the insurgents stopped shooting,” Keahtigh said. “They don’t fight at night; they just pull back.”

Not all the insurgents had stopped, however. Several were waiting for an Alpha Company convoy that was headed back to FOB Hotel for resupply. “When it was our turn to go back,” Stauch explained, “we were ambushed. It was a very significant volume of fire from small arms and RPGs . . . machine guns from multiple locations and at least five RPGs that were volley fired.” It appeared that the militia used the illumination of those streetlights that were still working to pinpoint Stauch’s vehicles. “As soon as we got out of the dark and into the light, the enemy started shooting at us,” he noted. “I think the thing that saved our lives that night was that we had no lights on our vehicles, so they didn’t know we were there until we burst into the light. They were reacting to us, as opposed to being able to track us.”

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