Battle for Fallujah, our warfighters towered in maturity and guts
April 28, 2005
Operation Dawn - Al Fajr
The thoughts of a few who fought and saw this fight
We ask you to ponder those words carefully, and take a long look at one of these young men. These were not only fighting, they were leading their squads "house by house, block by block, room by room." Leading. They surely did tower in maturity and guts.
"There are only two kinds of people that understand Marines: Marines and the enemy. Everyone else has a second opinion."
First Sergeant Michael Farrell, Charlie Company, 1-3 Marines, echoed all those thoughts, saying:
"The only thing that can drive a man to accomplish the task at hand and keep going day in and day out is espirit de corps. Today it's as strong as it was on Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; the list goes on and on. As long as we have our espirit de corps we'll always win the tough battles."
While this was a Marine show, the 2-7 Cav and 2-2 Infantry led the way into town with their heavy armor. In an article entitled, "The Cavalry rides in," by Michael Erwin, Erwin provides extracts of a letter received from a West Point-educated Army officer who was at the center of intelligence operations for the Fallujah fight. Erwin's article is worth reading. This officer described the "kick-off" this way:
"After 12 hours of air strikes, our U.S. Army cavalry task force was the first unit to enter the city. Our M1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles engaged every enemy strong point we came across. Moving deliberately and violently, it took until 10 a.m. the next day to get two miles into the city. Our three companies of armor killed many insurgents that first day, and weakened numerous defensive points in preparation for the Marines' attack."
Dexter Filkins was an embedded reporter for the New York Times traveling through this battle with Bravo Company, 1-8 Marines. Filkins has received many accolades for his reporting while embedded with Bravo Company. What he says about this group of Marines applies to all those who fought this fight.
Marines with Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment (1-5), patrol the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, Nov. 9, 2004. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Luis R. Agostini. Presented by USMC
He said that this company had to move through most of the city entirely on foot, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers. They worked their way through the narrow streets, many carrying 75 lb back-packs. Here is a graphic presentation of the route the 1-8 Marines followed, reflecting the speed at which they moved:
From "The Fallujah model," by Rebecca Grant. Photo credit: Anja Niedringhaus, AP. Presented by Air Force Association.
Filkins wrote this:
“Despite their youth, the marines seemed to tower over their peers outside the military in maturity and guts. Many of Bravo Company's best marines, its most proficient killers, were 19 and 20 years old; some directed their comrades in maneuvers and assaults. Bravo Company's three lieutenants, each responsible for the lives of about 50 men, were 23 and 24 years old.
“They are a strangely anonymous bunch. The men who fight America's wars seem invariably to come from little towns and medium-size cities far away from the nation's arteries along the coast. Line up a group of marines and ask them where they are from, and they will give you a list of places like Pearland, Tex.; Lodi, Ohio; Osawatomie, Kan.”
Some 60 mosques and three hospitals had been converted into fighting positions. American forces found 203 weapons caches and at least three hostage slaughterhouses and torture chambers. These have all been documented. Any person with a thinking mind would have to ask how all this stuff got into this “sleepy Euphrates River backwater” town.
He starts by saying the military as a general rule does not like to use the word “control.” “Secure” and “clear” are preferred. Secure is used when friendly ground forces can go anywhere they please in a city like Fallujah.
Fallujah city streets. A soldier got out of his Bradley and "saw more combat power and a clear message that the US owned this place." This area might be labeled, "Secured." Photo credit: "mikeygunz," presented at Webshots.com
In such a case, the military would say they have secured 100 percent of the city. But, just because the military says 100 percent of the city is secured, that does not necessarily mean that 100 percent of the city is clear.
A Marine with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, looks for insurgents running through the streets of Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. J.A. Chaverri. Presented by USCENTCOM.
That is because while friendly forces can go anywhere they please in the city, they might find spots where they encounter hostile fire. That area is not clear. The troops have to take care of the hostile fire to clear it. That is, neutralize it.
So the word with real meaning came to be how much of the city was “cleared.” Clearing Fallujah was most definitely the hard part.
Soldiers from the 1st Infantry Division's 2nd Battalion, 2nd Regiment, sweep through an abandoned home November 9 during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: Scott Nelson, Getty Images. Presented by the Air Force Times
Regner said this:
“I will tell you that until the Marines get a chance and the soldiers get a chance to go through, house to house, and clear these houses, that the city is not 100 percent clear. It's a percentage of being clear, but at this time, the only way to do that, in my estimation, for this city, which is the largest cache of weapons and IEDs and explosives that I think we have in any city in Iraq, which we clear up every day -- it is not 100 percent clear, but it is 100 percent having been secured at this time.”
A Marine Corps fact sheet reflects these as commonly seized weapons in Fallujah: (1) 82 mm mortar shipping containers. (2) AT-4 antiarmor weapon (3) PG-7M Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) (4) PG-7G RPG (5) M-36 UK hand grenade (6) 82 mm High Explosive Mortars (7) 57 mm Russian aircraft rockets used for IEDs.
Regner went on to describe how the battle flowed. As the battle moved southward, the Americans took each and every bridge that crossed the Euphrates. Anyone attempting to escape over these bridges would only be captured by American forces waiting on the other side anyway, but physically taking the bridges made sealing the city easier. The plan established various phase lines.
The first was “Fran,” which was essentially the west-east line marked by Highway 10, through the middle of the city. Most American forces stopped at Phase Line Fran, regrouped, resupplied, refueled and prepared for the next movement south. At this point in time, all forces remained in battalion-size formations.
Soldiers with the Iraqi Armed Forces and Marines with 3rd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, patrol the streets while clearing buildings in 3-5's new Area of Operations in Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps. photo by Lance Cpl. James J. Vooris. Presented by USCENTCOM
Iraqis were blended in, fighting along the Americans. Specific targets, such as mosques or other such sensitive areas, were pre-identified for them to take. The Iraqi force did this job well.
A Marine from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, makes his way down a street in Fallujah, Iraq, on November 11, 2004. Photo credit: Lloyd G. Francis , Military Times staff. Presented by the Air Force Times.
Regner also confirmed the report we highlighted earlier by those four Marines who addressed the environment of the city. He described it this way:
“There would be certain pockets of resistance as the roads and the alleyways would not allow armored or mechanized vehicles. And in those city blocks it might have had alleys of three- feet wide, it was an individual fight, man to man; spider holes where guys would pop out of; after a Marine would go by it or a soldier would go by it, they'd pop out and attempt to shoot the Marine in the legs or in the back. So it became a very tenuous fight, that if you weren't streetwise -- and you got streetwise about an hour into this operation -- you'd find yourself as a casualty.”
Phase Line Jenna marked the city's southern edge. When forces reached Phase Line Jenna, they turned around and started heading back to the north, re-clearing buildings they might have by-passed for a variety of tactical reasons.
Spc. Jose A. Velez of Lubbock, Texas and the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, tactically enters and clears the objective on November 9. Spc. Valez died in Fallujah four days later, on November 13, while clearing an enemy strongpoint. Velez was killed by a sniper as he stood over his wounded comrades, refusing to give the enemy ground. Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Johan Charles Van Boers.
As the force started moving northward, it broke out of its battalion size formations and into platoon, squad and company formations, which is standard procedure once the force aims to do a thorough clearing job. Most forces reached Phase Line Jenna by November 15 and started heading back then.
Lt. Colonel Buhl, commander, 3-1 Marines, has also provided some descriptive information about all this to the public by means of a letter he wrote to the families of his battalion, in what he called his “Kilo Sitrep” (situation report). Recall that the 3-1 Marines were responsible for the north-south movement on the western edge of the city, through the tough Jolan and Resala districts along the Euphrates River.
Soldiers with Apache Troop, 1st Platoon, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, move tactically during combat operations in Fallujah, Iraq, on November 9. Photo credit: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Johan Charles Van Boers. Presented by the Air Force Times.
Colonel Buhl said this:
“The fighting experienced in Fallujah was some of the most violent I have observed over my career in the US Marine Corps. We were up against determined adversaries who were well armed, and had prepared defensive fighting positions in complex urban terrain. The 1st Marine Regiment (RCT-1) advanced into the western half of Fallujah with the Thundering Third, 3d Bn., 5th Marines, and the 2d Bn, 7th Cavalry, armed with M1A2 tanks and Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. Fully supported with all the combined arms resonant in the Marine Air Ground Task Force to include USAF AC-130 Gunships, your Marines, Sailors and Soldiers aggressively attacked the enemy and maintained relentless pressure on him until he was reduced to operating in small isolated groups, hiding in homes.
Spc. Josh Harrill, of Green Bay, Wis., with the 2nd Regiment, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Division, leaps through an opening in a broken wall on November 10 while clearing abandoned buildings in Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: Scott Nelson, Getty Images. Presented by the Air Force Times.
“As I mentioned above, the fighting was extremely fierce. During our advance we uncovered enemy from many different neighboring Arab countries, large quantities of weapons and ordnance of every type, sensitive items such as passports of murdered hostages, torture rooms, propaganda studios, military skills training centers, etc. As we had long suspected, Fallujah proved to be a massive sanctuary and cache site for the enemies of peace. Indeed, the extent of the ordnance located in this city is such that the city continues to experience daily explosions, as our Explosive Ordnance Disposal teams destroy newly discovered explosives and munitions.”
This is a controlled detonation eliminating unexploded ordnance found in the area of Balad Air Base, Iraq. Airmen of the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal unit destroy items weekly. You get the idea. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo
The 3-1 moved out with Iraqi National Guard forces and together they seized the train station. That event began the regiment's assault into the city. The 3-5 Marines and 2-7 Cav all participated in what is called a “forward passage of lines.”
A forward passage of lines occurs when a unit passes through another unit's positions while moving toward the enemy. This usually involves close combat and the unit commanders involved arrange when they pass authority over an area of operations from one to another. This is done to sustain the tempo of the operation, maintain the viability of the defense, transition from a delay or security operation by one force to a defense, and/or free a unit for another mission or task.
This graphic depicts an example of a "forward passage of lines," and is drawn from a Marine Corps training presentation.
We talked earlier about how a battlefield can look and feel chaotic, but is actually organized and running smoothly. This diagram is part of the reason why. To most of us, it looks something like a football play or how our basketball coach might outline the next play. This is like that. It is a planned "play" on the battlefield, and gets practiced over and over and over, because it requires a high degree of communication, control, and, yes, choreography. It also demands Plans B, C and D if the "play" does not go as originally diagrammed.
In the case of the diagram we present, the units to the front that are going to be passed are noted as "ATK A" and "ATK B." Assume they are engaged with the enemy. For this play, they are to remain in position. The units that will move through them and ahead of them are marked "SP", which we assume means "Starting Point." The term "BSA" simply means brigade support area, which can support the operation as required from the rear.
You can see the units moving forward through routes Gold and Blue to locations near but separate from the stationary forces called "RP," which means rally point. This permits the forces moving forward to catch their breath, get organized, and get ready for their next objectives. The units moving forward to this point tend to move as large units. They then break down into smaller sized units to move ahead through the lanes you see marked "PP" or passage points. Once they arrive at their PP, they are in charge and the force they have just passed relinquishes responsibility for this area. You can then see a line labeled "PL Red," which stands for Phase Line Red, similar to our Phase lines Fran and Jenna.
As this worked out, the 3-1 Marines followed the 2-7 Cav into Fallujah on the first day of combat, November 8. But then on the morning of November 9, the 3-1 Marines were out front and remained in that position all the way to Phase Line Jenna in the south. The 2-7 armor was strategically positioned to respond to calls for help.
Marines from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, fire at the enemy during the ground offensive in Fallujah, Iraq. Photo credit: Marco Di Lauro, Getty Images. Presented by the Air Force Times.
The next week was spent hunting down isolated pockets of resistance, enemy that moved from other parts of the city into a new zone, and eliminating them.
Marine Sergeant Clinton Firstbrook also reported on some of the action seen by Charlie Company, 1-3 Marines. You will recall the 1-3 Marines were with RCT-7 in the east half of the city. He reported that Charlie Company had three objectives:
- Establish a foothold in the city.
- Clear the Al Tawfiq mosque suspected of being an enemy stronghold.
- Clear the Muhajareen mosque, another suspected stronghold.
Intelligence estimates were it would take the company 96 hours to achieve all three objectives. The company did it in 12.
Third platoon was the first to hit the ground. Its troops entered the city at night with night vision goggles and ran toward their entry point.
Marines of the Watchdog Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron (VMU-1, Marine Aircraft Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing) monitor the city of Fallujah with their unmanned Pioneer, hunting for threats. From by "Nowhere To Hide, High above Iraq’s urban battlefields, tiny, remote-control spy planes streaming video 24/7 provide a crucial edge to coalition forces. A report from the battle for Fallujah," by Bing West, photographs by Lucian Read. Presented by popularmechanics.com
Interestingly, the platoon was provided very recent aerial photography of the entry point, which demonstrates how far we've come in getting such intelligence information to the fighting man. The entry point was a breach. The first squad of the platoon went to the right while the other two squads went to the left, making them separated by at least one street.
A soldier observes an enemy position after it was taken out with a grenade launcher during fighting in Fallujah, Iraq, on November 9, 2005. Photo credit: Scott Nelson, Getty Images. Presented by the Air Force Times
Enemy forces were well positioned in the nearby houses, and opened fire on the squads. The 3rd Platoon was then fully engaged for three hours, and fought house to house, street by street toward their second objective. The battle was described as “fierce.”
Marines with 1st Battalion, 8th Marines (1-8) attempt to scout ahead and locate enemy positions with a "home-made" mirror in Fallujah, Iraq, November 10, 2004. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. J.A. Chaverri. Presented by USCENTCOM
LCpl. Kaleb Welch, a 22 year old 3rd Platoon automatic weapon gunner from Houston commented"
“Everywhere I looked I saw barrel flashes from AK-47s. It all seemed unreal. I was scared, but I had a job to do.”
The platoon kept moving and arrived at the first intersection in the city, with the second objective, the Al Tawfiq mosque a few hundred meters ahead of them.
A corporal, Cpl. Dave Willis, a 21 year old 3rd Squad leader from Springfield, Oregon, radioed his squad was taking fire and requested permission to engage. Permission was granted and his squad opened up with machinegun and small arms fire. Enemy forces started coming off the rooftops and fired from a courtyard. He was later quoted describing the situation like this:
"We came to a clearing between my squad and the Al Tawfiq mosque then started taking small arms fire from the roof. I radioed in that we were taking fire and requested permission to engage. After I was asked to confirm, a rocket propelled grenade flew over my head and I said 'yes I'm sure.' We opened up with machinegun and small arms fire. The insurgents started coming off the rooftop and firing from the courtyard so I took one of our AT-4s and fired a shot in the middle. After that we didn't receive any fire from the mosque."
A Marine fires an AT-4 rocket weapon into a building after taking fire from enemy. The Marine is assigned to Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Clinton Firstbrook. Presented by Defend America.
Davis took his AT-4 shoulder-launched anti-armor weapon and fired into the middle of the enemy force, silencing it for good. This action effectively neutralized the mosque, and the squad called in the tanks to support its advance. The Iraqi Army's 3rd Company, 5th Battalion, 3rd Brigade ran up and entered the mosque as planned and cleared it of remaining enemy forces inside. That done, the 3rd platoon moved from its defensive position to the next objective, the Muhajareen mosque, located about 800 meters away and occupied by enemy forces.
Under fire, the platoon's men ran across streets, had to cross large openings, and several troops reported hearing bullets blow by them as they ran seeking cover. Running across these open areas was one of the most dangerous activities the men on the ground experienced. Lance Cpl. Michael Starr, a breachman with 3rd platoon, described it like this:
"The first left we made I saw four insurgents fire at us with their AK-47s before running into one of the buildings on the street. The next road we had to cross had a large opening that spanned a few hundred feet. I was the first one to run across and I could hear and feel rounds whizzing by. All I was thinking about was to take cover once I got across. That was the biggest adrenaline rush I ever had in my life."
One squad reached a house still under construction, a block away from the mosque, and cleared the area. This house gave the squad a view of the area surrounding the mosque. Enemy fire increased, with automatic weapons, mortars and RPGs landing throughout the area.
Having followed the 3rd platoon in, the rest of Charlie company cleared a building around the mosque, forming a linear “L” shape around the mosque with all units. They fought from these positions for the next five days.
Photo extracted from, "Gator Battery Pulls Out the Big Guns in Fallujah," by Spc. Erik LeDrew, 122nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. Presented by the First Team.
Providing some insight into artillery action, Captain Michael Burgoyne, Battery A commander, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cav. Div. (3-82 FA), "Gator Battery," said this about the artillery support his troops provided the Marines fighting in Fallujah:
"The troops on the ground give us exact coordinates and requested support, and we will fire at those coordinates and hopefully destroy the enemy they are engaging. We destroyed an enemy command and control headquarters; we’ve killed enemy snipers, bunkers, mortar teams, enemy squads: just about anything were called upon. There was a Marine platoon that was ambushed by about 70 insurgents. The enemy was dug in at a trench line, and the Marines were engaged pretty heavily. They called in support and we disengaged the enemy … later on Marines came up to our firing line and thanked my guys for saving the lives of the platoon.”
Lindsey Hilsum was embedded with a Marine unit and reported on one encounter on November 15, toward the end of the battle. His unit was moving through the ruins of a Fallujah neighborhood near a mosque, looking for any remaining or new enemy. The Marines had been in this same place the previous day. They were told to comb the mosque, suspected of serving as a hideout and medical clinic for enemy wounded. As the Marines approached, they came under heavy fire. An armored vehicle arrived and returned the fire, and also brought the Marines more ammunition. One Marine was injured badly, and a medevac truck came, picked him up and took him out.
The Marines then decided to use an anti-tank missile to strike the enemy in the mosque. The order was given to the group to pop up in unison and lay down five seconds of M-16 suppressive fire, to be followed by two Marines firing two M-16 tracer bursts at the target, to mark the target. The heavy fire kept the enemy's heads down, while the tracers would show the missile shooter where the target was. The missile shooter found his target, he fired, and the "back blast from the missile engulfed (the Marines) in dust." They called in an air strike on the target they had just struck and then they quickly exited the area while the air attack took place. Once done, the Marines returned and found 21 dead enemy.
We came across a US Marine Corps Fact Sheet that listed the 20 "must haves" for every Marine fighting in Iraq, especially those fighting urban warfare. They provide interesting insights from those who fought the fight:
Advanced Combat Optical Gun Sight or Binoculars: “When you’re on post, you can tell what individuals walking down the street (blocks away) are carrying,” said Cpl. Michael Fredtkou, an M-203 gunner. “The enemy doesn’t expect you to see them that far away
Energy Bars: “They’re lightweight, easy to get to,” said Staff Sgt. Luis Lopez, platoon sergeant. “Plus they’re not as bulky as MREs (Meals Ready to Eat).”
Kevlar Cushions: “The old (helmet) padding gives you a headache after wearing it for a few hours,” said 1st Lt. Travis Fuller, platoon commander. “After a few minutes with the cushions on, you can’t even tell it’s there.”
Elbow and Knee Pads: “If not for these things, my knees would be completely cut up by now,” said Lance Cpl. Tim Riffe, a machine gunner. “You can only take so much jumping into a defensive position without them.”
Personal Role Radio: “Communication has been a huge key in our operations,” said Cpl. Tyrone Wilson, 2nd squad leader. “When my squad was across the street in a defensive position, the platoon was able to let me know insurgents were in the building next to us. Who knows what would’ve happened if they couldn’t contact me.”
Global Positioning System: “I’m able to pinpoint our location within 10 meters when calling in position reports and medevacs,” said Lance Cpl. William Woolley, a radio operator. “We’ll never get lost as long as we have it.”
Extra Socks: “My feet are nice and dry right now,” said Lance Cpl. Kaleb Welch, a squad automatic weapon gunner. “I’ve gone without changing my socks before on three to four day training exercises and I always regretted it later.”
Gloves: “They’re clutch because when you’re climbing over a wall you don’t have to worry about broken glass cutting your hands,” said Cpl. Gabriel Trull, 1st squad leader. “You also don’t burn your hands when changing (M-240) Golf barrels.”
Baby Wipes: “A multiuse piece of gear,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Irving Ochoa, a Navy corpsman. “You don’t have much time out here for personal hygiene, so it’s the best alternative.”
Three-Point Sling: “When you’re jumping over rooftops you don’t want to worry about dropping your weapon,” said Cpl. Dave Willis, 3rd squad leader. “At any time you can just reach down and grab it.”
Alice or Day pack: “Without these I don’t know how I’d carry all of my gear,” said Lance Cpl. Geoffery Bivins, a SAW gunner. “It displaces all of the weight around my body, so I’m not uncomfortable. When you’re running with 100 pounds on your back, that’s important.”
Night Vision Goggles: “Wearing these at night gives you the advantage over the enemy,” said Lance Cpl. Marquirez Chavery, a combat engineer. “When you’re on a rooftop at night you can see everything.”
Personal Hydration System: “Water is one of the things you always need to make sure you have,” said Seaman Hugo Lara, a Navy corpsman. “Instead of struggling to get your canteens out, the cord is there within your reach. Plus it holds more water as well.”
Watch with Compass: “You get calls where you have to lay down suppressing fire in a certain direction and instead of wasting time to ask which way is north or south, you can just look at your wrist,” said Lance Cpl. Lonny Kelly, a machine gunner. “Knowing the time is important because everyone pulls shifts for guard duty or standing post.”
AA Batteries: “You use them for your NVGs and handheld radios – both of which contribute to more effective fighting,” said Cpl. Bryan Morales, 1st squad 1st fire team leader. “You wouldn’t want either of those items dying on you, so having a spare set of batteries around is very important.”
Poncho & Poncho Liner: “The temperature at night is extremely different from the day,” said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Etterling, machine gun team leader. “If you don’t have some sort of protection at night, you end up freezing because you’re cammies are still damp from sweating during the day.”
Ballistic Goggles: “I was the (assistant) driver of one of our convoys and we got hit by an (improvised explosive device),” said Lance Cpl. Anthony Johnson, an assault man. “Shrapnel bounced off of my glasses, saving my vision.”
Multipurpose Portable Tool Kit: “It’s like carrying a combat knife, hammer and screwdriver in one hand,” said Lance Cpl. Evan Fernandez, an assault man. “Cutting open MREs, cleaning your weapon, tightening screws on your gear; it has a thousand uses.”
Carabineers: “Anything that you might have to grab at a moments notice, you don’t want to be digging through your pockets to try and find it,” said Pfc. Jason Kurtz, a SAW gunner. “With these you can attach anything to your flak and have right at your fingertips.”
High Powered Flashlight: “It does wonders,” said Cpl. Chris Williams, 2nd squad, 1st fire team leader. “After you throw a fragmentation grenade into a room it’s difficult to see because of all the dust floating around. No one can hide from them.”
A significant amount of air power, fixed and rotary wing, was employed in this battle. We have only been able to tackle a portion of the fixed wing effort.
Brief comments on air power in urban warfare