The Bloodiest Day

An-Nasiriyah, 2003

Task Force Tarawa

Task Force Tarawa was the alternate designation of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2ndMEB).  Normally, a Marine Brigade exists as a cadre command element for contingency planning and operational coordination.  When a brigade is needed for a mission-specific task, it is activated by the appropriate commander, Marine Expeditionary Force (M.E.F.), who will then direct the supporting division, air wing, and logistics commanders to provide battalions, squadrons, and other units to the Brigade for combat training and field operations.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2ndMEB was one of four major combat organizations subordinate to the Commanding General, I MEF.  In 2003, I MEF was operationally assigned to the Army’s V Corps.  2ndMEB included the following subordinate commands:

2nd Regimental Combat Team (RCT-2), formed from the 2nd Marine Regiment (2nd Marines).  Subordinate units of RCT-2 included 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines (1/2), with Company A, 2nd Amphibious Assault Battalion (Alpha 2ndAABn) attached, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8), 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines (3/2), 1st Battalion, 10th Marines (1/10) (Artillery), Company A, 8th Tank Battalion (USMC Reserve Forces), and a reconnaissance company (also from Marine Reserve Forces).

Combat Service Support Battalion 22 (CSSB-22).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned CSSB-22 to a general (logistical) support role under I MEF.

Marine Aircraft Group 29 (MAG-29).  Upon arrival in Kuwait, I MEF reassigned MAG-29 to provide tactical air support to the combined land force.

By the time 2ndMEB crossed the line of departure, it was operating solely as a ground maneuver component (rather than as a MAGTF) within I MEF.  The brigade’s mission was to secure bridges to facilitate the movement of I MEF northward toward Baghdad, thereby conserving the 1st Marine Division for ground combat with Iraqi forces.  Initially, at least to the Marines of RCT-2, the mission didn’t seem as if the combat team would play a major role in the march to Baghdad, but RCT-2 would fight one of the defining battles of the entire campaign.

Highway 1

Brigadier General Richard F. Natonski, commanding Task Force Tarawa, moved to his assembly point on 19 March.  The brigade’s position was on the far left flank of I MEF.  The 1st Marine Division (1stMarDiv) was to the brigade’s right and V Corps on its left. The battle space was limited, so for the first few days, 2ndMEB operated within the area assigned to V Corps.

Tarawa’s first mission was to seize and hold Jalibah Airfield to facilitate logistic operations.  Subsequently, Tarawa would coordinate with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division to seize the Euphrates bridge on Highway 1, 7 miles west of the city of An-Nasiriyah.[1]  To avoid the possibility of having to engage the Iraqi army in urban fighting, and because a single crossing site was deemed insufficient for the smooth flow of combat forces and their equipment, I MEF and V Corps commanders determined to open up both the southeastern bridge (over the Euphrates River) and the Saddam Canal (northeastern bridge).  Doing so would widen the corridor for the movement of forces northward.

Coalition intelligence was aware that An-Nasiriyah was the location of the HQ of the Third Iraqi Corps (III Corps), which included the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division (guarding the city), the 51st Mechanized Infantry Division (protecting southern oilfields), and the 6th Armored Division (located at Al Amarah).  The coalition was also aware that irregular forces (Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia) were operating independently of the Iraqi III Corps.  These irregular forces were untrained for conventional warfare but also known as fanatical armed thugs who suppressed the civilian population and targeted regular soldiers who, in confronting Coalition troops, decided to take early retirement.

In addition to his mission of seizing the bridges, I MEF warned 2ndMEB, “ … be prepared to” confront irregular forces, which some officers anticipated would put up the fiercest resistance to Coalition forces — they had the most to lose should the Coalition succeed in removing Saddam Hussein from power.

Task Force Tarawa crossed the line of departure on 21 March.  By mid-day on 22 March, the brigade had moved forward 93 miles, seized Jalibah, and occupied the area east of the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 8.  Its only problem was its constricted battle space.  Because V Corps needed the north-south roadway, Tarawa’s forward movement was “cross country.”  Proceeding “off track” actually facilitated the rapid movement of the brigade because the Army’s vehicle load produced bumper-to-bumper congestion on the main road.  Brigade artillery silenced the sporadic enemy fire, and 2/8 accepted the surrender of 50 Iraqi soldiers.[2]

On the morning of 23 March, Tarawa relieved elements of the US 3rd Infantry Division and prepared to seize the southeastern bridge.  Meanwhile, I MEF informed BGen Natonski that the US 3rd Infantry Division had successfully defeated both the Iraqi 11th Infantry Division and 51st Mechanized Infantry Division.  This information led Natonski to believe that seizing the bridges would not entail a difficult fight.  That night, Colonel Ronald Bailey, commanding RCT-2, received his orders to seize the Highway 1 bridge no later than 0430 on 24 March and by 10:00, seize the eastern bridges.

By this time, Bailey’s Marines were sleep-deprived, and his motorized vehicles were thirsty.  Colonel Bailey asked for more time, more intelligence, and more fuel.  Unfortunately, Brigade headquarters could give Bailey none of these things.  Bailey’s problem was that he had to move his RCT an additional 50 miles on fumes — but this is what Marines do.  Bailey mounted up with Charlie Company, 2nd LAR, and led 3/2 toward the Highway 1 bridge, arriving at around 02.30.  Two hours later, Charlie Company held the bridge on Highway 1.

RCT-2 received much-needed fuel resupply early on 23 March.  At this time, Bailey anticipated only light resistance from An-Nasiriyah; 1/2 and 2/8 moved forward at 0300.  Shortly after that, the Marines began receiving enemy machine gun, artillery, and mortar fire.  Lieutenant Colonel Rick Grabowski’s 1/2 took the lead because his Marines had mechanized vehicles (AAVs and tanks).  2/8, under Lieutenant Colonel Royal Mortensen, followed in trace.

Commanding the tank company, Major William P. Peeples’ lead element began taking enemy fire at around 0700. A short time later, Peeples noted a smoking and badly damaged Humvee heading in his direction.

Intelligence Gained by Rescue

At about 0600 on 23 March 2003, an 18-vehicle Army resupply convoy of the 507th Maintenance Company (consisting of 31 soldiers) mistakenly veered from Highway 8, turning toward the city of An-Nasiriyah on Route 7.  The convoy commander was Captain Troy King, U.S. Army — by MOS and training, a supply officer with little combat training.  Iraqi technical vehicles[3] shadowed the convoy as it drove through Iraqi checkpoints adjacent to the Euphrates River.

Once passing the Al-Quds headquarters, Captain King realized he was lost and, having turned around, retraced the route taken through the city.  As the convoy turned left onto Highway 16, at around 0700, King’s vehicles began receiving enemy small arms fire.  Confused vehicle operators panicked; in the chaos, they divided up into three separate groups, each attempting to find their way southward out of An-Nasiriyah.

Group 1 made it through the Iraqi gauntlet unscathed and continued south until it encountered Marines who were moving northward toward An-Nasiriyah.  Group 2 made it through the kill zone, but their vehicles were so badly damaged that the soldiers abandoned them and set up a hasty defensive position about three miles south of the city.  Iraqi forces defeated Group 3 by snagging them in roadblocks.  Once the Iraqis stopped Group 3 vehicles, they opened fire with RPGs, mortars, and tank fire.  Eleven soldiers died, and six were taken prisoner.[4]

At around 0730, King’s Group 1 survivors contacted Alpha Company, 8th Tanks on Highway 7, about ten miles south of An-Nasiriyah.  When Major William P. Peeples, commanding the tank company, realized that a number of soldiers had fallen into Iraqi hands, he ordered his tanks forward to rescue as many soldiers as possible, which included ten soldiers from Group 2.

Captain King informed Peeples that his convoy had been ambushed, that his soldiers had taken several casualties, and that most of his element was pinned down and in need of assistance.  Peeples moved his entire company north to assist the soldiers, informing 1/2 by radio of his intentions.  En route, Peeples’ tanks destroyed some enemy artillery, one tank, and some anti-aircraft weapons.  With the assistance of Marine AH-1s and F/A-18s, Peeples rescued ten soldiers.  At the conclusion of the mission, Peeples had to return to the rear for refueling — which meant that Grabowski’s battalion would be without tank support for nearly two hours.

Meanwhile, BGen Natonski met with Captain King, later recalling that he was astounded by his account, but it alerted him to the fact that An-Nasiriya would not be a cakewalk.  Colonel Bailey agreed with Natonski that it was necessary to seize the brigade’s objectives as soon as possible, and both officers were aware that some elements of the 507th were still inside the city.  Natonski pulled Grabowski aside and said, “Do what you can to find those missing soldiers; they’d do it for us.”

Grabowski’s 1/2 moved quickly forward to assault Nasiriyah because bridge seizure would allow elements of the 1stMarDiv to pass north through the city along Route 7.  RCT-2’s lightning strike with AAVs and Cobra gunships allowed the Marines to seize the two bridges and, in the process, defeat two or more platoons of Fedayeen and Ba’ath Party militia.  In this heavy fighting, Marines also destroyed two anti-aircraft weapons and several mortars and artillery firing positions.

A Bloody Beginning

Grabowski’s 1/2, without tank support, proceeded with two companies abreast.  Bravo Company (mounted) occupied the right flank, Charlie Company on the left.  Two miles south of the city, 1/2 encountered a bridge that spanned a railway underpass.  Grabowski redeployed his Marines into column formation with Bravo Company in the lead.  Staff Sergeant Schielein reported seven to nine Soviet-style enemy tanks and an estimated 50 dismounted infantry waiting in the underpass.  Schielein directed his TOW and Javelin weapons systems, destroying eight of the enemy tanks.[5]

Grabowski’s attack plan was sound, but the situation began to unravel rather quickly.  The rescue of the 507th had caused delays in the game plan, and the shortage of fuel/absence of tanks had slowed 1/2’s progress even more.  As Bravo Company crossed the bridge at about 12:30, the Marines began receiving enemy small arms and rocket fire.  Lead tanks, buttoned up (poor visibility) missed the first turn to the right and took the second turn with infantry right behind.  Marines fanned out in a relatively open field that looked passable, but the Marines were deceived.  Just below the surface of the field lay a thick, gooey layer of silt and sewage several feet deep.  The lead tank suddenly sank to its axles; follow-on vehicles became mired as well.  This is when the enemy opened up — and this is when Grabowski, who was with the lead unit, lost communications due to excessive radio chatter and the presence of high-tension power lines.  There was no radio link with supporting artillery, and the battalion air controller, Captain A. J. Greene, could not vector air support.

Eventually, Bravo Company’s forward air controller, Captain D. A. Santare, was able to establish communications with on-station AH-1s to suppress enemy fire from surrounding rooftops.[6]  The Iraqis were using “shoot and scoot” tactics, but once the gunships were overhead, they realized that they couldn’t scoot fast enough.  The AH-1’s also became spotters for the Marines on the ground, who were unable to observe enemy positions or movements.

Once Captain Tim Newland’s Bravo Company had crossed the bridge, Alpha followed in trace.  The Alpha Company commander, Captain M. A. Brooks, established a perimeter around the northern side of the bridge.  Captain Wittnam, commanding Charlie Company, crossed over the bridge.  He could easily identify Brooks’ position but did not know the location of Bravo Company.  Without communications, Wittnam could not establish contact with Grabowski.  Captain Wittnam assumed that Grabowski and Bravo Company had proceeded straight down the road to the battalion’s final objective, the Saddam Canal Bridge, so that is where Wittnam led his company.  It was a good decision, reflecting his battalion commander’s intent, and, as it turned out, it was what Grabowski hoped he would do.

Grabowski established contact with this XO, Major Tuggle.  He sent Tuggle back to the refueling point with instructions to get the tanks forward as soon as possible.  Peeples ceased refueling operations and moved his tanks forward.  One tank experienced a mechanical breakdown almost immediately.  Just after crossing the railroad underpass, Peeple’s four remaining tanks engaged six enemy tanks, destroying three.  Continuing forward to Brooks’ position, the two officers established tank-infantry coordination to the detriment of the Iraqis.

Charlie Company passed through Alpha Company and raced through Ambush Alley while receiving heavy enemy fire.  Iraqi militia appeared from almost every doorway, every window, and every rooftop, firing rifles and RPGs.  Some of these militias even ran into the middle of the street to engage the Marines are point-blank range.

Bad Comm’s

Charlie 1/2 Marines responded in keeping with their training.  Exiting on both sides of the elevated roadway, Marines sought cover and returned accurate and overwhelming fire.  These same militias that had so easily decimated the 507th only hours before soon discovered that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.  Charlie Company Marines on both sides of the road advanced on the enemy’s positions.

Captain Wittnam also experienced disruptions to communications.  For a brief moment, Wittnam had Grabowski on the net and informed him that he’d secured the Saddam Canal bridge.  Grabowski was elated, but then communications were cut once more.  But few besides Grabowski had heard Wittnam’s sitrep and Wittnam once again lost the ability to access air cover or his own weapons platoon.

Charlie Company continued to engage the Iraqi enemy with their organic weapons.  Occasionally, Wittnam, his artillery forward observer (2ndLt Fred Pokorney, Jr.), and his mortar platoon commander (1stLt Ben Reid) went atop the elevated roadway in the center of Charlie Company’s position to gain situational awareness and identify targets.  In this way, Reid’s mortarmen were able to deliver sporadic effective fire.  Lieutenant Pokorney was finally able to establish contact with 1/10 and called in a fire mission.  Soon after, Iraqi mortars crashed into Charlie Company’s position, killing Pokorney and wounding several mortarmen.  Marine casualties were quickly loaded into an AAV and sent back through Ambush Alley to the Battalion Aid Station.  It was the only way the Marines had to evacuate their dead and wounded because the volume of fire prohibited a helicopter medevac.

This lack of communication then took a deadlier turn.  While Charlie Company held on to their position north of the Canal, Bravo Company Marines continued working their way through the streets and alleys to the eastern side of the Saddam Canal bridge.  They were in an urban fight they’d hoped to avoid.  Behind them, AAV’s and tanks were doing all they could to extract the mired vehicles.

Both the Bravo Company commander, Captain Newland, and his forward air controller, Captain Santare, not having heard Wittnam’s report, continued to believe that Bravo was still the forward element of the battalion.  They did not know that Charlie Company had actually moved northward, beyond the Saddam Canal, and was in a desperate struggle with Iraqi militia.  Similarly, Captain Greene, the battalion air officer, had no operable radios.  It was because of this that Captain Greene passed air control to Captain Jones and Santare, allowing them to direct their own air attacks.  What Green, Santare, and Newland did know was that Bravo Company was receiving a tremendous volume of fire from north of the canal.  Newland told Santare that as soon as he could air support from A-10s, he wanted them to start running missions north of the Saddam Canal.[7]  Santare understood that the situation was dire.  He went to the guard channel, which was normally only used for emergencies, and requested immediate air support.

Friendly Fire

Within seconds, fixed-wing aircraft began checking in with Santare.  Santare waited a few moments for a Marine or Navy aircraft with a forward air controller to answer, but none were in the area.  Instead, he began working with two USAF A-10s, call signs “Gyrate 73” and “Gyrate 74.”  The A-10s were part of a squadron from the Pennsylvania Air National Guard.  Circling high overhead, the A-10s attempted to get a fix on Santare’s position east of Ambush alley.

The A-10s identified vehicular targets north of the Saddam Canal and passed the locations to Santare.  Santare verified with Newland that Bravo Company was still the forward-most unit.  Captain Santare could see neither the A-10s nor the targets they identified.  Both Santare and the A-10 pilots could see smoke pouring from a burning vehicle on the highway and used that as a reference point.  Neither Santare nor the A-10 pilots realized that the burning vehicle was a Marine AAV.

LtCol Grabow’s operation order, then in effect, prohibited the use of Type III Close Air Support without his personal clearance.  Nevertheless, Newland determined that the situation was critical at a time when the battalion commander was out of communications and, since air support is a “use it or lose it” asset, Santare authorized Gyrate 73 and 74 to engage anything north of the Saddam Canal.

Charlie Company, meanwhile, was still under intense mortar fire.  Unit leaders, on their own authority, continued loading wounded Marines into AAVs for medical evacuation.  Marines who had been advancing toward the enemy eventually returned to the roadway in the vicinity of the AAV positions.  First Lieutenant Seeley, commanding third platoon, did not understand why the Marines were returning to the highway.  He was told that the word from the AAV drivers was that they were “loading up.”  Before he could make any sense of the situation, the A-10s began strafing Charlie Company.

Lieutenant Seely had experienced friendly fire before during Operation Desert Storm.  He knew immediately what was happening.  A Marine standing next to him was hit in the chest and killed.  Seely shouted an order to 2ndLt Swantner, commanding the first platoon, to fire pyrotechnics.  Swantner immediately popped two red star clusters, the cease-fire signal, but the A-10s made several more strafing runs.  The A-10 pilots mistook the AAVs, loaded with Marine casualties, as enemy armor, as previously reported to them by Captain Santare.  In all, Charlie Company had lost 18 Marines killed and 19 more wounded due to friendly fire.  Five AAVs were completely destroyed, and two more had to be abandoned.  Captain Wittnam lost half of his company and half of his officers.

The fight for control of the An-Nasiriyah corridor on 23 March 2003 turned out to be far tougher than anyone in Task Force Tarawa (or the MEF) expected.  Inadequate intelligence was part of the problem; hardly anyone anticipated stiff resistance from the Iraqi militia.  General Natonski had been told that the US 3rd Infantry Division had defeated the 11th Iraqi Infantry Division and that any remaining Iraqi forces would melt away or surrender.  In fact, the 11th Iraqi had not been defeated, nor the 51st Mechanized, nor even the Fedayeen or Ba’ath militia.  If part of the battle plan was knowing the enemy, none of the planners for the march into Nasiriyah knew that particular enemy.

The engagements of 23 March 2003 were successful because Marine officers, NCOs, and rank and file were well-trained, competent, courageous, well-coordinated, and highly motivated.  Mistakes were made, but that is part of the business of warfare.  What matters under such circumstances is how our warriors respond to those mistakes and mishaps.  The Marines of RCT-2 responded professionally, as we expect our Marines to respond.  There were also a few important lessons learned, particularly with regard to close air support (See also: special note (below)).

Special note:

Understandably, Marine survivors of the friendly fire incident were angry/bitter about what happened.  They may still harbor that anger.  The larger picture appears relevant, however.  The A-10s were receiving heavy anti-aircraft fire, which necessitated attacks from high altitudes.  This made target recognition difficult.  It also meant that they had to rely on the ground forward air controller to give them a correct picture of the ground battle.  In this incident, they were cleared to release their weapons by the Bravo Company forward air controller.  The pilot’s failure to recognize the “cease fire” flare could have just as easily been confused with tracer rounds being fired.  No one could help the loss of communications which disconnected the key leaders from one another.  Captain Santare did his best to confirm that Bravo Company was still the lead element of 1/2.  Moreover, because the city was designated as a “restricted fire” area, there was no preplanned air support for Task Force Tarawa’s assault.  When FACs are forced to improvise, the chances of something bad happening increases tenfold.

A subsequent investigation of the incident concluded that the primary cause of the incident was Captain Santare’s violation of the battalion commander’s standing order not to use Type III CAS without his express permission.  But Marines were being killed by a stubborn enemy who was determined to resist the Marine assault.  Captain Greene authorized Santare to establish direct contact with overhead fixed-wing aircraft, which given the circumstances of poor communications, Santare was forced to do.  Captain Santare acted in what he perceived as the best interests of his fellow Marines, an effort to save their lives — and yet, in doing so, caused the incident.  It wasn’t a matter of neglect or incompetence; it was simply gut-wrenching war.

Sources:

  1. Andrew, R.  U. S. Marines in Battle: The Battle of An-Nasiriyah.  HQ USMC, Washington, 2009.
  2. Lowrey, R. S.  Marines in the Garden of Eden: The Battle for An Nasiriyah.  Berkley Press, 2006.
  3. Livingston, G.  An Nasiriyah: The Fight for the Bridges. Caisson Press, 2004.
  4. Pritchard, T.  Ambush Alley: The Most Extraordinary Battle of the Iraq War.  Presidio Press, 2007.

End Notes:

[1] An-Nasiriyah was the point at which all Army and Marine Corps ground combat units would enter Iraq from Kuwait.  A railroad, several highways, and two major waterways converged in or around the city.  There were two sets of bridges spanning the Euphrates River in the southern section of the city, including the Saddam Canal, which ran along the city’s northern border.  Since the route of march would take coalition forces through the most densely populated section of the city, I MEF planned on opening up a second corridor.

[2] A congested MSR is asking for serious trouble.  The Army has not figured this out since the Korean War.

[3] Also, Non-standard tactical vehicles (NSTVs) (usually pickup trucks with weapons mounted in the rear bed or on the roof of the operating cab.

[4] Prisoners included PFC Jessica Lynch, Specialist Shoshana Johnson, and PFC Lori Piestewa.  Piestewa died of her wounds.  Lynch was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for being a blonde chick, and Johnson sued the Army because she didn’t get a medal, too. 

[5] Tube Launched Optically Tracked Wire-guided missile (TOW) (M-220); Javelin (FMG-148) is a man-portable antitank system.

[6] Each rifle battalion in Task Force Tarawa had one air officer and two forward air controllers; two of the three rifle companies had their own forward air controllers.  Captain Jim Jones was attached to Alpha Company; Captain Santare was assigned to Bravo Company.  The battalion air officer was Captain Greene. 

[7] There are three types of close air support, usually expressed as Type I, Type II, and Type III CAS.  Type I is when the air controller can see both the attacking aircraft and its target.  Type II is when the FAC cannot see the attacking aircraft or the target or when the attacking aircraft cannot acquire the target prior to the release of its weapons.  Type III is when the FAC can see neither the aircraft nor the target.