Colonel Eddie Ray (Barbarian 6) spearheaded
Marine Regiment's charge to Baghdad as
commander of the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance
(LAR) Battalion last year in Operation
Iraqi Freedom. This was not his first
taste of battle. Ray is a decorated veteran
Desert Storm. Read about Captain Eddie
Ray's heroic actions during Operation Desert
Storm in Richard S. Lowry's complete account
of the first war with Iraq, "The Gulf War
The following is a story detailing events that happened during
battles around and in An Nasiriyah during Operation
Iraqi Freedom in 2003. The well-known ambush that saw Jessica
Lynch and Shoshana Johnson taken prisoner, and events that followed,
are revealed in detail here.
March 23rd was the first anniversary of
Task Force Tarawa's bloody battle at An Nasiriyah. One year later,
it remains the costliest day of our struggle in Iraq.
As the sun began to rise on that clear Sunday morning, thirty-three
members of the Army's 507th
Maintenance Company unknowingly drove directly through Iraqi prepared
defenses in, and around, the ancient desert city of An Nasiriyah.
A series of misfortunes, poor decisions, and just plain - bad luck,
had led this convoy into the jaws of death.
There are not many of us that do not know the story of Jessica Lynch's
ambush, capture, and subsequent rescue. Most Americans were horrified
at the news of the ambush and the sight of young American soldiers
being questioned by their Iraqi captors. Jessica and her fellow prisoners
were the lucky ones. Eleven soldiers died in the ambush that morning,
and eighteen Marines
lost their lives that afternoon.
What is not generally known is that the Marines of Task Force Tarawa were traveling on the heels of Captain King's beleaguered supply convoy. Brigadier General Richard Natonski's Camp Lejeune Marines were moving to secure the eastern bridges on the highway through An Nasiriyah. These bridges were vital to the Marines' plans for the attack toward Baghdad. Colonel Ron Bailey's Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT-2) was methodically advancing north toward An Nasiriyah on the same road that the 507th had traveled a few hours earlier when they encountered some of the surviving members of the 507th who were fleeing south from the ambush.
Captain King pleaded with the Marines to save his soldiers. General
Natonski ordered his lead battalion commander, LtCol Rick Grabowski,
to press forward and find the remaining soldiers of the 507th. He
said to Grabowski, "We have to save those soldiers; they would do
it for us."
C211 Approaches Burning 507th Vehicles
Now LtCol Grabowski's Marines had two missions; secure the bridges
and rescue as many of the stranded soldiers as they could. He immediately
ordered Major Bill Peeples to move forward with his M1
tanks. TEAM TANK pressed forward and soon they were receiving
fire from both sides of the road.
Meanwhile, ten soldiers had abandoned their shot-up vehicles and raced
for cover in a trench along the side of the road. Running low on ammunition
and with five wounded, they resigned themselves to the fact that they
would not survive the day. They all resolved that they would go down
fighting. They lay in the trench for nearly an hour, waiting for the
Iraqis to close in on their position and their final stand against
the enemy. Suddenly, Staff Sergeant Tarik Jackson, the most seriously
wounded, cocked his head, "Listen!" he exclaimed.
"Do you hear that?"
"It sounds like our tanks!"
Someone peeked up out of the trench and saw Major Peeples Marine tanks approaching.
TEAM TANK moved in and straddled the trench. They began picking targets
and methodically destroying the enemy. COBRA
helicopters swooped in and continued the fight. Soon the wounded
were being treated and these ten lucky soldiers were being moved to
The day was just beginning for LtCol Grabowski's 1st
Battalion, 2nd Marines. They continued north into the city. Unfortunately,
they only found burning hulks of the remaining 507th vehicles. The
occupants had all been removed. It would be weeks before the fate
of the remaining soldiers was known.
Burning 507th Vehicle
So, now Grabowski's Marines focused back on securing the bridges through
An Nasiriyah. After a short pause to refuel, Bravo Company led the
battalion across the Euphrates River Bridge and into the city. Captain
Michael Brooks' Alpha Company raced across the river next and set
up defensive positions while Bravo Company turned northeast to skirt
the eastern edge of the city. Objective 1, the first bridge was secure.
They had accomplished half of their mission.
Captain Dan Wittnam raced across the Euphrates River Bridge with his Charlie Company, riding in eleven Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAVs or "tracks"). Charlie Company drove straight through the center of town, toward the second, northern bridge. Enemy fire erupted all around them. Charlie Company plowed forward through the ever-increasing enemy fire. Lance Corporal Edward Castleberry was driving the lead vehicle -C201.
Castleberry kept his track moving forward. Several Iraqis ran to the
middle of the road stopped and began shooting RPGs at the vehicle.
Two rockets whizzed by, scraping the side of C201 as they passed.
Other RPGs were duds and just bounced off the armored vehicle. Castleberry
watched in terror as another Iraqi jumped into the road and leveled
a RPG at his lead track. He rummaged around in the driver compartment
trying to keep the 28-ton vehicle driving down the road while he struggled
to bring his M-16
rifle up through the hatch. Unable to free his rifle, he steered
straight for the enemy soldier and accelerated, crushing the threatening
Iraqi under his treads before he could let loose his deadly projectile.
Finally, Castleberry managed to free his weapon. Now he was driving
forward and shooting his rifle at the same time. The track commander,
Sergeant William Schaefer, looked over and said to Castleberry, "What
in the hell are you doing?"
"It makes me feel better." Castleberry replied.
Charlie Company pushed forward through the city. The entire Company had nearly traversed the four kilometer gauntlet when the second to last track, C211, was hit in the right rear with an RPG. The warhead hit in the vehicle's "Achilles Heel" just below the track. The explosion spewed shrapnel into the crowded troop compartment, wounding five Marines. Sergeant Randy Glass was the closest to the impact. A large chunk of metal almost completely severed his leg. Smoke poured out of the troop compartment as the entire right rear of C211 continued to burn. The crippled track continued forward and managed to get across the northern bridge before it ground to a stop and more than twenty Marines scrambled out, taking the wounded with them.
All of Charlie Company was now under heavy direct and indirect fire
from all sides. The Weapons Platoon leader set up his three mortars
and began returning fire. Lieutenant Ben Reid ordered one of his mortar
teams to move south with him and set up a position to fire back into
the town. Just as they were setting up, the team took a direct hit
from an enemy artillery round. Lieutenant Reid was thrown to the ground.
"I thought my arm had been blown off" Reid said later. Fortunately,
it had only been broken. He turned and found his mortar team decimated.
Five Marines lay dead and another four were severely wounded.
Reid ran up the road for help but another artillery round knocked him to the ground. As he lay face down in the Iraqi sand, all he could see was a mass of blood pooling up in the dirt. The shell had peppered his face with shrapnel. He got back on his feet and continued his run to the mortar track, C208. Reid went directly to his Gunny Sergeant and asked him if his eye was still intact. The Gunny looked at Reid's wound and replied, "You're good to go, sir."
Two Air Force A-10s appeared overhead looking for work. Because of the confusion of the battle and many problems on the ground with communications, the battalion forward air controller did not know that Charlie Company had moved north of the Saddam Canal so he cleared the two Warthog pilots hot north of the bridge.
The A-10s swooped in, not knowing that there were Marines in their target area. They dropped eight 500lb bombs and made several strafing runs with their high-powered 30mm gatling guns. They also fired three Maverick missiles. The aircraft that the Iraqis had dubbed "whispering death" made pass after pass, destroying many Iraqi emplacements, vehicles, and buildings.
Cas-evac north of Saddam Canal
Unfortunately, several Marine AMTRACS were hit by stray fire. One of the stray 30mm rounds hit and killed a Marine and other canon rounds wounded several more. By the end of the day eighteen Marines had died fighting for the northern bridge and another fifteen had been wounded, including Lieutenant Reid, who had been knocked to the ground a third time with a gunshot wound to his shoulder.
At An Nasiriyah, the Marines of Task Force Tarawa had kicked open the door for the First Marine Division to charge through to Baghdad. It would take the Marines more than a week to subdue the Iraqi resistance inside Nasiriyah but the Marines of RCT1 would start moving through "Ambush Alley" by the next morning.