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Posted: 4/2/2002 8:22:29 PM EDT
Los Angeles Times: Fierce Fight in Afghan Valley Tests U.S. Soldiers and Strategy [url]http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-032402anaconda.story[/url] Fierce Fight in Afghan Valley Tests U.S. Soldiers and Strategy How Operation Anaconda became the biggest infantry battle in the war on terrorism, costing the lives of eight Americans March 24 2002 BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- "You will never forget this," the colonel said, standing atop a Humvee in front of a rusting Soviet-era hangar. "You will never forget that man or woman on your right or left. You will never forget the fact that you stood here in Afghanistan." It was Friday, March 1, D-day minus 1. Operation Anaconda was about to begin. As darkness fell, pools of rain reflected odd shapes from the Black Hawks and Chinooks waiting on the apron. Col. Frank Wiercinski was a linebacker-sized silhouette against the hangar lights. It was hard to hear over the roar of transport planes lumbering into the air, and soldiers crowded close to catch his words. "We have two missions tonight," he said. "To defeat an enemy. And to never leave a fallen comrade." Wiercinski commanded Anaconda's ground force: more than 1,500 U.S. soldiers, 100 Australians, 100 other allied soldiers and 450 Afghan fighters who had spent weeks preparing for this moment. The Americans came from the 101st Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division and several Special Forces units. They included Delta Force operatives--many distinguished by their civilian garb, beards and goatees, the huge .45-caliber automatics some wore in mid-thigh holsters. Those things, plus the occasional cowboy hat and a certain swagger. Anaconda, designed to crush the last known substantial force of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, was conceived at a time when many Americans thought the war was already over. Neither the folks back home nor Wiercinski himself knew that some of these men would find themselves in the biggest infantry battle American forces have faced against a hardened and determined enemy since Vietnam. Afterward, some people would question whether the intelligence had been adequate, whether the troops had been properly briefed, whether enough of the enemy were killed to make the battle worth the candle. To the professional soldiers who fought it, however, Anaconda became a powerful demonstration of what the new light infantry can do in conflicts like this. Fast, mobile ground forces using flexible tactics, sophisticated battlefield electronics and close-in air power can seek out an enemy, absorb stinging blows and still prevail. -- contiinued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:23:28 PM EDT
The coming battle would also test this generation of volunteer soldiers. At times, men who expected to dig in and wait for fleeing Al Qaeda fighters would be forced to drop their rucksacks and run for cover, dragging their wounded with them. Others would scoop out shallow foxholes and wait only half-hidden for rescuers who could not reach them for hours. Medics would throw their bodies over the wounded as shields against enemy shells, hearing desperate prayers muttered beneath them. Searching red mud huts just vacated by the enemy, Ranger teams would be astonished to find artfully positioned mortar pads, state-of-the-art night-vision goggles and recoilless rifles that were equal or superior to their own equipment. The hundreds of soldiers grouped around Wiercinski's Humvee belonged to the best-equipped, most powerful fighting force on Earth. But there was something else about them--a fact often lost in the rhetoric about elite units and the superiority of U.S. military power. Most were just a few years out of high school, the mall and the warm bath of American adolescence. With rare exceptions, they had not seen a single day of combat against an enemy prepared to stand toe-to-toe with them. Wiercinski understood that. "A lot of us have two questions always going through our minds," he said. " 'Why?' and 'How will I do?' "As for 'Why?,' each and every one of you has to answer that for yourself. . . . For me, it's 9/11: For those families that watched as their loved ones never came home. For those firefighters, emergency workers and policemen who charged up rather than came down. It's for them. We do this for them. "How will you do in combat? You are thinking you've never been in combat--'I don't know how I will do.' "You will be good in combat . . . because of who you are. You volunteered. It started in here," he said, tapping his massive chest. "You will do it for each other." Operation Anaconda, code-named for a Union Army plan to encircle and strangle the Confederacy as the South American snake crushes its prey, would thunder on for more than a week. Meticulously choreographed, it would run like clockwork in some places. In others, it would prove the military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Anaconda would test the proud doctrine of never abandoning the dead or wounded. And it would write large the lesson of "Black Hawk Down": Even the soldiers of a high-tech superpower could be cast back to earlier times, to the trapped, overpowered reality of the Battle of the Bulge in World War II or the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:24:46 PM EDT
Wiercinski, a 45-year-old, 6-foot-plus native of Pennsylvania, addressed one last point as a video camera captured his blurry image in the bad light. "There are two kinds of people out there," he said. "There's innocents who don't want any part of this fight. And there are those out there who want nothing better than to kill an American or kill a coalition fighter. Do not be afraid to squeeze that trigger. You will know when, and you will know why." The Setting For more than 2,000 years, the steep ridgelines, caves and ravines of the Shahi Kot valley in eastern Afghanistan had been the final redoubt, the ultimate sanctuary for Afghan resistance fighters. Driven from their cities, villages and fields, conquered in other mountain strongholds, generations of fighters had retreated to the shelter of this valley, whose name means "The Place of the King." Tradition said no foreign army had ever successfully assailed it. Not Alexander the Great in 327 BC. Not Britain in the 1840s. Not the Soviet Union, which lost 250 soldiers on a single day in 1987--about 200 of them reportedly stoned to death after capture. Milt Bearden, former CIA station chief in Pakistan, knows the valley well. Beginning in 1985, he led the stepping-up of U.S. support for the anti-Soviet moujahedeen--a Reagan administration decision that brought defeat to Moscow but sowed dragon's teeth for the United States. "This whole area where Anaconda played out was always the last redoubt," Bearden said from his home in Virginia. "When all else failed, guys would fall back to there." The Soviets took more casualties in this valley than in any setting since World War II, he said. "It really is the home-field advantage drawn out to some exponential degree. There's not a square kilometer that hasn't been used for an ambush of somebody." The air is so thin a man can sicken from lack of oxygen. Ridges rising above 9,000 feet wall the valley on both sides. Down the middle, waiting to split an invading force like a boulder splits a stream, lies a massive outcropping. American planners nicknamed it "the Whale," after a similar formation at Ft. Irwin, Calif., where many had trained. Mountain sunlight burns the skin by day; at night, freezing cold can bring on hypothermia. With U.S. aid in years past and their own more recent initiative, the Afghans had turned the heights into a modern-day fortress. Cave systems were so complex that resistance fighters put mirrors at bends so that sunlight could reach the far corners. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:25:42 PM EDT
Concrete reinforcement had been added, munitions stockpiled by the ton, potential targets mapped in the valley below. Now, as the pale green of another spring crept up the slopes toward peaks still gripped by snow, the United States Army had decided to try its hand. Intelligence In early February, intelligence reports suggested that Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis, members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and other Al Qaeda fighters and hard-core Taliban were trickling into the Shahi Kot valley. They seemed to be concentrated around Sher Khan Khel, the northernmost of three villages in the valley, and at Marzak, the southernmost village. Estimates of their number ranged from 200 to 1,000. One senior official said efforts to be more precise were "hampered by the confusing circumstances" on the ground. This was Taliban country, and the intrigues of local warlords made the truth hard to find. Nor could spy planes and satellites get a clean look at enemy soldiers burrowed in caves. And while electronic surveillance helped a little, Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders had all but stopped communicating electronically. Whatever the exact numbers, one knowledgeable official said, "The analysis I saw said this was going to be a very determined foe. They were going to fight like hell, and they did." Maybe so, but the whole blueprint for Anaconda was designed around the notion that the enemy would try to escape, as it had done elsewhere. Small wonder individual soldiers were surprised when they ran into a foe that stood its ground. In any case, U.S. commanders saw at least two compelling reasons to act. First, Maj. Gen. F .L. "Buster" Hagenbeck, overall commander for Anaconda, said later, "Indications were, they were planning an attack on the interim government." Second, no one wanted to see Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters establish a permanent base for guerrilla warfare. Besides, there were whispers that senior Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders might be there--the prize fish who had so far gotten away. The Plan By mid-February, preparation for Operation Anaconda was well advanced, with the center of operations established at Bagram, 30 miles north of the Afghan capital, Kabul. The base, built by the Soviets in the 1980s, offered billets for more than 2,000 troops and long runways for a fleet of aircraft that included Apache, Cobra, Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters and C-130 transport planes. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:26:57 PM EDT
American soldiers lived in 20-man tents heated with diesel stoves. Before the tents could be pitched, land mines had to be cleared, sometimes with the use of German shepherd sniffer dogs on long leashes. Anaconda would use three battalions of about 600 men each: two from the 101st Airborne Division and one from Hagenbeck's 10th Mountain Division. Special Forces units and a smattering of coalition partners, notably the 100 special operations soldiers from Australia, were also present. The Aussies were chosen because they had proved themselves tough, resilient operators who could handle covert reconnaissance missions, the altitude and the weather. Some soldiers and Special Forces troops occupied old Soviet barracks, one bearing a sign that said "Motel 6." American soldiers rehearsed their assignments at an air base in Khowst, a city to the southeast, near the Pakistani border. A secret refueling station, nicknamed "Texaco," was established near the Shahi Kot valley. Meanwhile, Special Forces operators reequipped and trained Afghan fighters under a local commander named Zia Lodin. "We want the Afghans to go after those guys. It's their country," Hagenbeck said. Anaconda was heavily influenced by earlier experiences in the Tora Bora region and by the liberation of major Afghan cities. Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters had resisted briefly on those occasions, then slipped away--often through the porous lines of Afghan units that did not share American priorities. Anaconda called for reversing the roles: American units would make a highly visible show of force by being airlifted into positions covering the major escape routes in the central and southern sectors of the Shahi Kot valley. That was expected to send enemy fighters scurrying north, into the guns of Zia Lodin's fighters, their Special Forces mentors and coalition troops. If the enemy turned back south, the U.S. forces would be ready. The Anaconda name was somewhat misleading. Surrounding mountain ranges that stretched all the way to Pakistan was impossible. Instead, U.S. units would resemble a half-dozen or so individual anacondas, encircling and destroying any Al Qaeda strongholds in their path before digging in. One military intelligence officer said the model was more a hammer and anvil than a boa constrictor. Two of the most important targets were code-named Objective Remington and Objective Ginger. Remington, a cen ter of Al Qaeda strength, was near Sher Khan Khel in the narrow valley between the Whale and the high East Ridge. Objective Ginger lay farther south, overlooking a subsidiary valley that opened onto a well-known escape route. Capt. Eric Haupt, a brigade intelligence officer, acknowledged that enemy forces might defend their strongholds or even counterattack rather than run. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:28:23 PM EDT
"No plan survives the first round," Haupt said. "The command should remember the military aphorism, 'Don't fight the plan. Fight the enemy.' " Early Success Anaconda was the kind of operation that advocates of light infantry had envisioned for years. During the Cold War, the emphasis had been on heavy mechanized divisions built around tanks, armored troop carriers and heavy artillery. These were forces designed to face the likes of the Soviet Union or Iraq on the plains or the desert. But Army leaders believed future enemies would choose to fight on terrain where fleets of massive vehicles could not easily go--in jungles, for instance, or mountainous valleys like Shahi Kot. Light infantry could reach such battlefields quickly--usually by air. These forces could reposition to meet changing circumstances. And they could fight on foot, with the weapons they carried--rifles, machine guns, mortars, powerful modern-day explosives and, in the absence of heavy artillery, close air support. There are drawbacks, including lack of protective armored vehicles and the limited range of most light infantry weapons. A heavy division kills at more than a mile. The "kill circle" for light infantry is barely one-third of that. Beginning at dawn on Saturday, March 2, Operation Anaconda unfolded as a model of light infantry warfare. A 20-minute aerial bombardment preceded the troops, and most encountered moderate resistance when their big Chinooks dropped down. At Landing Zone 1 near Sher Khan Khel, troops from the 1st Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division took heavy mortar fire as they landed, but they quickly secured a nearby compound. Staff Sgt. Shawn, who did not want to use his last name, said 85 men from his company landed five minutes after the mortar barrage began. They split into platoons of 25 to 30 men and took over hills east, west and south of the village. "We were expecting them to come from the south," he said of the enemy. "They tried to come, but we bombed the hell out of them." Moving into the village carefully, Shawn's platoon found that enemy fighters had fled. Blankets on their beds were still warm and tea was boiling atop a propane heater. "It was still tense, because I was worried about booby traps," Shawn said. He found surprisingly sophisticated equipment: an 82-millimeter mortar, a 57-millimeter recoilless rifle, rocket-propelled grenades, blasting caps and explosives, and the same kind of night-vision equipment American soldiers used. "They're a helluva lot more fancy than we give them credit for," Shawn said. Six of the seven landing sites were secured within hours, and American and coalition forces had established their designated positions. But what happened at the seventh landing zone and at the north end of the valley threatened to stand the whole operation on its head. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:29:23 PM EDT
Early Failure Zia Lodin's fighters, along with the Australian contingent and U.S. Special Forces operators, were to push in quickly to the village of Sher Khan Khel near the north end of the Whale and destroy enemy fighters fleeing the Americans positioned to the south. That part of Operation Anaconda was simply blown to pieces--with cascading consequences. The pickup trucks bearing Zia Lodin's force moved slowly on roads that rain had turned to mud. No sooner had the caravan entered the narrow mouth of the valley than a hail of mortar and machine-gun fire came crashing down. Two Afghan fighters were killed almost immediately. So was Special Forces Chief Warrant Officer Stanley L. Harriman, 34, who was driving one of the trucks. Two dozen others were wounded. The Afghans tried to hang on, but they had fallen into what seemed to be an ambush. "It looked like they knew we were coming," one U.S. official said. Their trucks destroyed, the Afghans withdrew. Before they pulled back, according to the commander of Australia's special forces, Brig. Duncan Lewis, Australian observers pinpointed several Al Qaeda positions, which were later destroyed. But the damage to the coalition operation had been done. Willy-nilly, the role of the American units was transformed. As a senior Defense Department official put it, "This one rotated almost 180 degrees." Hagenbeck later defended the retreat as unavoidable. Nonetheless, the rout of Zia Lodin's force created what Wiercinski called a "worst-case scenario." With the threat from the north eliminated, enemy fighters could concentrate on the Americans. 'Hell's Halfpipe' Objective Ginger is an unprepossessing piece of high ground overlooking a cleft in mountains of the Eastern Ridge that offers an escape route out of the Shahi Kot valley--a trail running all the way to the Pakistani border. Securing Ginger fell to Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 87th Regiment, 10th Mountain Division, based at Ft. Drum, N. Y. Charlie Company packed heavy. Its members stuffed their big rucksacks with extra ammunition, explosives and other equipment. Medic Eddie "Doc" Rivera, a 21-year-old street-talking New Yorker, griped at the weight of his aid bag, but Staff Sgt. Joseph Window ordered him to pack it to the limit. "You never know," Window said. The sergeant was right. Like the Afghan force, Charlie Company got into trouble almost at once, and its 18-hour fight to survive would become one of the most dramatic stories of the war -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:31:01 PM EDT
Special Forces operatives and other reconnaissance teams had done their best to scout safe landing sites for the Chinooks. But as one light infantry expert said ruefully, there are only so many places a big transport helicopter can set down in mountainous country, and a smart enemy can figure them out. So every Anaconda landing was a roll of the dice. All along the central and southern reaches of the valley, helicopters were taking that gamble; troops landing in the shadow of the ridges were expected to move quickly toward objectives on higher ground. Mostly it worked, but there were exceptions--places where undetected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters had dug in on the ridges and declined to run. First Lt. Aaron O'Keefe, 23, of Brandon, Vt., landed in one such spot. His assignment was to help secure a position blocking the access to Ginger. He expected a quiet landing, with time to reach his position, dig in and wait for enemy fighters coming back down the valley after clashing with the Afghan force. "The way the mission was briefed," O'Keefe said, "it wasn't going to be the way it was. We packed pretty heavy, because we were going to sit awhile." The way it was, when he led Charlie Company's 2nd Platoon off its CH-47 Chinook just after dawn, O'Keefe encountered mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire. The landing site was just across the narrow valley from the towering East Ridge. "We came in, got off the bird and headed toward the left," O'Keefe said. "As soon as the birds took off, that's when rounds started going off." "In the beginning," Rivera recalled, "it was, 'Whoa . . . I know they ain't trying to fire at us.' Everybody was all, 'Bring it on!' They had the game face on." But when "mortar rounds start hitting, you hear, 'Doc, Doc,' and I said . . . 'This is real.' " They were caught on a hill below the ridgeline, unable to maneuver toward their objective. O'Keefe's men quickly dropped their rucksacks, 70-plus pounds of extra ammunition and other equipment, to move faster. They followed the lieutenant into a dry creek bed for what proved to be illusory shelter. Enemy gunners were zeroing in on their positions with mortars. There was no time for the Americans to unpack their own mortars, and rifle fire was ineffective at such a distance. Already, some mortar rounds were landing in the 2nd Platoon's midst, flinging shrapnel in all directions. Once accurately aimed, the enemy mortars could wipe out the platoon in minutes. "When the first really serious one hit, it hit right in the middle of the 1st Platoon," O'Keefe said. "They got hit very bad. It took out a handful of them. We got up [and] picked up as many men as we could to try to get out of the kill zone."
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:36:21 PM EDT
First to go down was medic Rivera's friend Ricardo Miranda, 20, of Salinas, Calif. He was crying out about his back, but when Rivera checked, he found that the wound was in Miranda's buttocks. "I said: 'You dumb-ass. It's your ass that's hit.' " Rivera packed bandages into the wound, wrapped Miranda's right hand, which had also been cut by shrapnel, and moved on. Miranda was smiling now at Rivera's chiding. He helped grab other casualties and move them up the ditch. "I felt a little bit of a shock first," Miranda recalled. "I looked at my hand and my body and said, 'Wow, I've got hit.' It hurt a little bit more to see my guys being hit. Living with these guys for so long is like building a brothership. We are a family. If one of us gets hit, it really hurts." For Sgt. Robert McCleave of El Toro, Calif., another 10th Mountain soldier hit by shrapnel, "it was like somebody just pressed the pause button on the VCR. . . . I was turning around and saw other soldiers who had been hit, and I said, 'OK, this is my time to yell now.' " Already, word of the stiff resistance had reached Bagram, and air support was on its way. Six Apache gunships began strafing the ridges, dodging back to "Texaco" to refuel, then returning despite being riddled with groundfire. Air Force F-16s thundered in low with more powerful weapons. High-altitude B-52s dropped radio-controlled "smart bombs." "We had just about any kind of aircraft available and just about any kind of ammunition available to us," O'Keefe said. "They put everything, everything, on them. "God love them, they're on my Christmas list now." The problem was that the enemy was able to retreat into the caves when the air power approached. "As soon as you heard the jet engine or a helicopter propeller, all fire would cease," he said. Down below, dragging and carrying their increasing number of wounded, members of the 2nd Platoon inched their way 500 yards toward a natural depression the men soon began to call Hell's Halfpipe for its resemblance to skateboard structures back home. To reach the halfpipe, where other members of Charlie Company had taken shelter, O'Keefe's men had to cross about 30 yards of open ground. Rivera described how he psyched himself up for the dash: "I said: 'I gotta go. Here we go. Here we go. I'm ready. I'm ready now.' I went. All I saw was dirt kicking up around my feet. I just dove into it. It was hard rocks and stuff. I just dove and then I half-crawled." Down in the halfpipe, Charlie Company was already missing the rucksacks. They had left behind a lot of ammunition. And Rivera was the only medic who still had his medical bag. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:37:26 PM EDT
"You never know," Sgt. Window had said. The casualties were stunned, silent. "I had to yell: 'Tell me what's wrong with you! You have to hurry up!' " Rivera said. "To see someone who sleeps next to you, who's so shocked he can't even talk . . . " The sides of the halfpipe offered only partial protection from fire that was coming from several directions. Soldiers began scooping "hasties" out of the rocky soil, small, body-size depressions they called "Ranger graves." Soon half the platoon was up on the lip of Hell's Halfpipe, using suppressing fire to keep the enemy from getting a good look at where they were hiding. "We could see them, but they were too far," O'Keefe said. "We were trying to lay rounds in there to maybe keep their heads down, maybe get lucky and hit one." Several times, O'Keefe thought he spotted antiaircraft missiles--maybe Stingers, he thought, the weapons CIA agents had supplied in abundance to the anti-Soviet moujahedeen. He could see misty white trails arching up toward U.S. planes. As the long day wore on under a harsh sun, casualties mounted. Rivera and the other medics and a couple of volunteers divvied up the contents of his bag and did what they could. Some of the wounded were falling asleep. Rivera would prod them awake to stave off shock. Sometimes mortar rounds can be seen and heard as they plummet through the air, and when they came, Rivera and the others would lie on top of the wounded. "You can hear them saying their prayers," he said. " 'Please don't let it hit me. Please don't let it hit me.' The mortar would hit, close enough that you'd feel the dirt or your ears were ringing." Many of the wounded kept fighting. Rivera was shouting the names of his company members, checking on his friend Miranda and on another wounded soldier, 21-year-old Kyle McGovern of Merrimack, N. H. "McGovern! Miranda! Are you OK?" "Yeah, I'm all right," he heard someone yell back. "I'm still here. I just need some water." These were men he had trained with, lived with and sometimes had to put up with. In training, you did not love them unconditionally, Rivera recalled. Now you did. "I could've hated the man next to me that got shot. But you don't want nobody to die. You see fear on everyone's face. You see fear on a casualty's face because they can't run, they can't maneuver. You can't show them any fear." -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:38:49 PM EDT
Reminiscing afterward, Rivera looked at O'Keefe's sunburned skin--the personal souvenir of each man who fought in the thin air of the Shahi Kot valley--and said he had brought back something besides a sunburn. "We already got something," he said. "Lives saved." When night finally closed in on Charlie Company's 18-hour ordeal, the tide turned. With their night-vision goggles, they could move. And the evacuation helicopters could begin to slip in beside Hell's Halfpipe. It was well after midnight on Sunday, March 3, when the last men scrambled aboard the last bird. On the flight line at Bagram, waiting for them, were all the senior commanders. Twenty-eight of the 86 soldiers in Charlie Company were wounded, but none was killed and no one was left behind. "I'm prouder than a father about my guys," O'Keefe said. "I got a platoon full of sons, and that's what I've got to do, bring sons home." A large piece of the plan--Zia Lodin's mission to drive down from the north and secure the village of Sher Khan Khel--had ended in a rout. The American units sent to secure Objective Ginger got pinned down, took heavy casualties and had to be evacuated under the over of darkness. Yet Anaconda's commanders were not discouraged. Lt. Col. David Gray, operations officer for the 10th Mountain Division, looked back on the situation later and said: "From the soldiers' perspective . . . it was a scary situation, but from our position, what that air assault did for us was identify where the decisive point on the battlefield was. "We found the enemy the first day," he said. Thus Sunday was a day of regrouping and repositioning--and giving the enemy a full dose of air power. Among other things, huge, earth-shuddering thermobaric explosives were used for the first time in Anaconda to send their slow-release pulse of destructive energy deep into caves and tunnels. It was like shuffling all the pieces on a chessboard in the middle of a game. But that was what light infantry was supposed to be good at. Units caught on low ground were pulled out. Forces were repositioned and concentrated on higher ground. The new mission had two parts: Clean out pockets of well-armed and determined fighters who remained on the valley floor, and destroy the caves, bunkers, observation posts and firing positions that honeycombed the Eastern Ridge and parts of the Whale. It was the mountain equivalent of urban warfare, like clearing a city room by room, building by building, block by block: slow, dangerous, uncertain work. And it began to snow. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:39:44 PM EDT
For light infantry in a place like the Shahi Kot valley, where quick reflexes and flexibility are critical, there is nothing like a helicopter. And Chinooks were everywhere as the Army adjusted to the new battlefield reality. But the big birds' vulnerability to ground fire--especially to rocket-propelled grenades--is no secret. The greatest danger generally came when a helicopter pilot cut his air speed and prepared to land, or when he had to hover close to the ground. The Army has a system to deal with those moments. Gunners positioned in the side doors, along with any friendly ground troops, lay down torrents of gunfire meant to deny an enemy the minute or two needed to stand up, aim a grenade launcher and fire. The system is far from perfect. And before sunrise, when two Chinooks rumbled into a mountain site east of Ginger to insert special operations teams and supplies, they encountered heavy fire. One helicopter pulled out successfully, but the other, carrying a team of Navy SEALS, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade that apparently ruptured hydraulic lines inside the cargo bay. As the chopper veered to escape, Petty Officer Neil C. Roberts, 32, of Woodland, Calif., slipped off the rear ramp and fell to the ground. A Predator observation aircraft flying overhead provided distant commanders with real-time video of Roberts being captured. "We saw him on the Predator, being dragged off by three Al Qaeda men," Hagenbeck said later. But the men and crews aboard the two Chinooks did not. They set down not far away to assess damage. Only then did they realize that Roberts was gone. What happened during the next 12 hours or so remains cloaked in confusion, but official reports and other sources suggest the following sequence of events: The helicopter that had been hit appeared too damaged to fly, so its crew and 10 SEALS crowded into the other chopper. It climbed to safety just as Al Qaeda fighters closed in. At a nearby village, the surviving helicopter shed all its passengers except a small assault force and returned to the original area to search for Roberts, who, unknown to the rescuers, was already dead. Meanwhile, Anaconda's commanders were organizing a larger rescue effort. Before long, the area where Roberts fell turned into a battle within the battle. In addition to the assault force returned to the scene by the original surviving helicopter, other units arrived--bringing with them a storm of air power but also the seeds of greater heartbreak. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:40:47 PM EDT
As dawn approached, two Chinooks moved to within a mile or so of where Roberts had been lost, but they fell into an apparent ambush. Both offloaded their Special Forces teams under heavy fire. One bird pulled away; the other was disabled. A large number of enemy fighters began to converge as the Special Forces scrambled to set up defensive positions. The Special Forces teams inflicted heavy casualties on their attackers, driving them back again and again with the help of air power. But six more Americans died, apparently hit in the opening minutes of the firefight. As daylight came and the fighting raged too hot for rescue helicopters to venture in, 11 more were wounded. A small team of Australians in a mountain observation post could see enemy forces massing for an assault. The Australians helped call in airstrikes but were in no position to join the fight. For more than 12 hours, U.S. jet fighters, AC-130 gunships and attack helicopters flew in almost nonstop combat. They attacked exposed enemy fighters again and again, attempting to create a cordon of fire around the Americans trapped with the downed helicopter. But they were constrained by their repeated need to refuel and by the fact that enemy fighters were often so close to the U.S. perimeter that airstrikes would have risked hitting friendly forces. Gradually, the aerial pounding and the fire from U.S. ground troops began to tell. In the early evening, almost 18 hours after the first helicopter was hit, three helicopters dashed in to evacuate the beleaguered men. It would be the bloodiest episode in Operation Anaconda, and it showed the price of relying on helicopters and the policy of retrieving dead and wounded soldiers no matter the risk. To the Army, what happened was part of war: a tragic but acceptable loss. "The guys in these units understand they will take casualties. You wouldn't find anyone in the Army who believes six or seven casualties makes an operation unsuccessful," one officer said. "I hope we're getting over that idea in America," the officer added. "I don't think anyone in the Army expects bloodless victories." As for the rescue and retrieval policy, Hagenbeck said bluntly: "Each life taken from us is absolutely terrible. We mourn each one, and for their bravery in a noble cause, we honor them. And I will tell you the soldiers that went in, they went in to get a buddy out. And we will always do that." The Tide Turns It was Tuesday, March 5, D-day plus 3. Some planners had thought Operation Anaconda would be over. -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:41:45 PM EDT
Instead, the enemy had just crippled two helicopters and killed seven more of the U.S. armed forces' toughest fighters on a scrap of mountain ground. But there would be no more such losses by U.S. or coalition forces in this battle, nor, in all likelihood, would they again face an enemy capable of mounting such an attack. Even with the enemy reinforcements that intelligence analysts believed had slipped into the Shahi Kot valley from neighboring areas, U.S. firepower was inflicting casualties the enemy could not withstand. Back in February, Col. Gray said, U.S. commanders had pondered what might happen if Anaconda did not follow the expected script and the enemy decided to stand its ground and "fight American soldiers toe-to-toe." It was a possibility the planners felt they could adjust to. And when the battle turned out just that way, Gray said, it "played exactly to the strengths of the American military." "We have all the resources in terms of air power and intelligence to bring to bear against him," he said, "and the enemy simply made a very, very bad mistake." Anaconda would stretch into the following week, as U.S. and then Canadian forces worked their way through lingering pockets of resistance and checked myriad caves. But Anaconda was essentially over. The arguments would go on over body counts, the vulnerability of helicopters, the need to avoid "hot" landing sites and more. So far as advocates of a lighter military were concerned, however, the new Army and its air power allies had carried the field. The proof, as they saw it, was the scene that greeted 1st Lt. Joe Claburn, 25, of Montgomery Ala., on Thursday, March 7--D-day plus 5--when he flew over the Whale on a resupply mission. Below him, he said, were "American after American in position along the ridge line. We overflew all these American units. "It was a great sight." -- continued --
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 8:42:26 PM EDT
** * ABOUT THIS SERIES This is one in an occasional series chronicling untold stories from the war in Afghanistan. This story was written by Richard T. Cooper, with reporting by Geoffrey Mohan and Rone Tempest from Bagram Air Base and John Daniszewski from the Shahi Kot valley. Cooper reported from Washington. Also contributing were staff writers Esther Schrader, John Hendren and Greg Miller and researcher Robin Cochran in Washington and special correspondent Christian Retzlaff in Landstuhl, Germany. If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives. For information about reprinting this article, go to www.lats.com/rights
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 9:02:32 PM EDT
thanks
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 9:08:07 PM EDT
Excellent read. Thanks.
Link Posted: 4/2/2002 9:41:43 PM EDT
Thanks for sharing that article, warlord. Without air support, perhaps due to weather or other circumstances, I wonder if the outcome would have been worse?
Link Posted: 4/3/2002 7:20:40 AM EDT
[Last Edit: 4/3/2002 7:21:38 AM EDT by warlord]
They included Delta Force operatives--many distinguished by their civilian garb, beards and goatees,[i] the huge .45-caliber automatics,[/i] some wore in mid-thigh holsters. Those things, plus the occasional cowboy hat and a certain swagger.
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I think the author is describing the HK SOCOM pistol, that is just a tad smaller than a Desert Eagle.
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