One doesn’t have to be crazy to be a U.S. Marine — but it helps.
Third Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (also 3/5), was initially activated in 1917 to participate in World War I. Its initial complement included veterans of the Spanish-American War (1898), the Boxer Rebellion (1900 — 1901), and raw recruits who needed and deserved the firm hand of America’s finest noncommissioned officers.
Following the war to end all wars, 3/5 participated in the so-called Banana Wars and guarded the U.S. Mail. During World War II, 3/5 fought at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Peleliu, and Okinawa. As one of the regiment’s three battalions, 3/5 participated as part of the 1st Marine Brigade — the fire brigade in the Pusan Perimeter, the landing at Inchon, and the battles of Seoul and Chosin Reservoir. The Battalion’s nickname came from its field radio call sign, chosen by its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Taplett, U.S.M.C. (deceased): Darkhorse Six.
Between 1966 – 1971, Darkhorse fought with distinction in the Vietnam War, with battles at Chu Lai, Da Nang, Quang Nam, Que Son, An Hoa, and the Ross Combat Base. Nineteen years later, 3/5 deployed to the Middle East with the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade supporting Operation Desert Shield, and thirteen years after that, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom and battles in Fallujah.
The battle-tested Third Battalion, Fifth Marines is entitled to display 77 decorations. It is a high standard shared by nearly every U.S. Marine Corps infantry organization. Winning battles is what Marines do.
Early on 25 March 2003, Darkhorse moved north on Highway One toward Ad Diwaniyah. The Battalion was mounted on a motorized convoy. Intelligence reports indicated the presence of an Iraqi enemy, but no one was quite sure where or how many. The Marines were on edge — as they should be. Weapons were locked and loaded. Marines scanned the area from front to rear and flank to flank.
The Marines were looking for a fight because that is the mission assigned to infantry battalions. The Marines of 3/5 found their fight within a single instant as an overwhelming number of enemy mortars, rockets, and small arms fire descended upon them, transforming morning calm into morning chaos. Explosions and bullets were flying everywhere. Marine leaders began shouting commands because shouting was the only way anyone could hear them.
First Lieutenant Brian R. Chontosh commanded the Combined Anti-Armor Team (C.A.A.T.), Weapons Company, 3/5. The team’s mission was to provide protective fire to support the Battalion’s reinforcing tanks. When the enemy fire opened up, the tanks blocked the road ahead, potentially locking the C.A.A.T. into a dangerous kill zone. Chontosh occupied the first vehicle behind the tanks. He was accompanied by Lance Corporal Armand McCormick (driver), Lance Corporal Robert Kerman (rifleman), and Private First Class Thomas Franklin as the machine gunner. Franklin was a big man — which is how he became known to his friends as “Tank.” Private First Class Ken Korte served as Chontosh’s radioman.
From Franklin’s position in the vehicle’s turret, he could see hundreds of enemy troops. There were so many enemies that it was impossible for Franklin not to hit them with his fifty-caliber weapon, which chewed up the bodies of Franklin’s targets. The chatter of the machine gun was constant. Except for the loudness of the explosion, a rocket-propelled grenade landed harmlessly thirty feet in front of Chontosh’s vehicle.
Corporal Scott Smith drove Chontosh’s second vehicle. The platoon corpsman was Hospital Man Third Class Michael Johnson, known simply as “Doc.” Doc occupied the back seat, while Frank Quintero occupied the turret, manning a Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wireless-guided (TOW) missile launcher. An RPG ripped through the side of the second Humvee, but even though it failed to explode, the munition hit Quintero in the abdomen and smashed Doc in the head, throwing him outside the vehicle, killed instantly.
Chontosh’s vehicle was in the middle of the pandemonium. Smith’s radio call dominated the airwaves, “Johnson’s dead! Johnson’s dead!” With tanks ahead of him, vehicles to the rear, and sand berms left and right, Chontosh concluded that he had but one move — the stuff one sees in typical Hollywood films. He ordered McCormick to turn right and drive straight into the center of the enemy’s attack formation. By the time the vehicle reached the sand berm, the Humvee was going as fast as it could. Witnesses claimed that the move was utterly insane, and all the while, Tank kept firing his .50 as enemy dead fell left and right. McCormick later testified that had it not been for Franklin’s exceptional delivery of lethal fire, they’d all be dead.
Closing in on the enemy, McCormick noticed a dip in the berm — a passageway into the jaws of death where they could attack the Iraqis from their rear. “Take it,” Chontosh ordered, killing two Iraqis thinking they would impede the attack. McCormick shot through the opening and crashed the Humvee into a dry irrigation ditch — one that was full of Iraqi fighters. Lieutenant Chontosh leaped from the vehicle shouting, “Let’s go!” Chontosh was armed with his M-9 service pistol, so he grabbed McCormick’s M-16, jumped into the trench, and began killing Iraqis.
McCormick tossed up a resupply of ammo to Franklin, who was still firing; Korte assisted Tank in reloading the weapon, the muzzle of which was probably near to melting. With that task done, McCormick and Kerman joined their lieutenant in the trench. The sight of these Marines stunned the Iraqi fighters, and the sound of Franklin’s gun terrified them. Those who didn’t die took off running in the opposite direction. Chontosh, having emptied his service rifle and pistol of ammunition, grabbed a discarded enemy weapon and continued his assault. Rounds from an enemy weapon kicked up sand all around Franklin, but he kept firing from his exposed position.
At one point in the battle, Chontosh picked up two discarded AK-47s and accurately fired them at the enemy — one in each hand. When the ammunition had been expended, the lieutenant picked up a discarded RPG and fired it into the middle of a group of retreating enemies. When Chontosh’s audacious assault ended, he had cleared 200 yards of the enemy trench, killing more than twenty Iraqis and wounding another score of unlucky enemy soldiers.
When Lieutenant Chontosh and his Marines returned to the roadway, he noted two or more dozen enemy dead where the Battalion had fought them. More than one-hundred enemies died, with fifty more taken prisoner — all within fifteen minutes. Many of these men had run over the berm to escape Chontosh and his Marines, running into 3/5’s automatic weapons.
Later promoted to captain, Chontosh received the Navy Cross for his courageous actions on 25 March 2003. Lance corporals McCormick and Kerman received the Silver Star, and Franklin and Kore received Navy-Marine Corps Commendation medals. The ambush took the life of Doc Johnson, and Quintero survived his severe wounds. Had it not been for Chontosh’s incredibly audacious act, far more Marines would likely have been killed or injured. Captain Brian Chontosh subsequently earned two Bronze Star Medals (with a Combat V device). After his promotion to major, Chontosh retired from active duty in October 2013.