They thought they could handle it at first -- no immediate need to call for backup or air support.
Operational Detachment Alpha Team 3212, also known as "Team Ouallam" for their base in Niger, had just left the village of Tongo Tongo near the Mali border on the morning of Oct. 4 in a convoy of seven unarmored pickups.
Twelve members of the Army's Third Special Forces Group were in three of the vehicles and about 30 Nigerien troops were in the other four. They were on a dirt track headed south about 120 miles to Camp Ouallam at the end of a joint patrol that began on Oct. 3.
At 11:40 a.m., as the patrol was about the length of a football field outside Tongo Tongo, they began taking small-arms fire from a treeline to their east.
They tried a textbook maneuver to end the threat. They worked around to the south, intending to outflank the enemy and sweep the treeline, but were forced to retreat.
The attack built in intensity as enemy fighters on motorcycles threatened to overrun them. The Americans and their Nigerien partners fought back fiercely, but they were outnumbered and outgunned.
The first call for air support came 53 minutes after they started taking fire.
They made several attempts to break out of the kill zone but had to retreat to a final defensive position.
About two hours after the initial attack, they were preparing to make a "last stand" when French Mirage fighters arrived overhead and made several "tree-top level" passes. The French jets did not drop any bombs for fear of hitting friendly forces, but the low passes were effective in scattering the enemy.
The battle of Tongo Tongo was over, and the search for four fallen members of Team Ouallam would begin.
They were: Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
An account of what happened in Niger last Oct. 4 was released Thursday by the Pentagon and U.S. Africa Command.
The account was in the form of an unclassified eight-page summary of a classified 3,600-page Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation ordered by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AFRICOM commander, and led by his chief of staff, Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier.
In addition to the summary, the Pentagon released an abbreviated version of an animated video prepared by AFRICOM depicting the firefight. The version shown to defense reporters was 10 minutes long, compared to the 22-minute version shown to members of Congress.
According to the summary, the video, and statements by Waldhauser and Cloutier at the Pentagon briefing Thursday, the members of Team Ouallam were not wearing body armor when they left Tongo Tongo. They quickly put it on as the firefight began.
The patrol's leader, an Army captain who was not identified in the summary; the Nigerien commander; and several Nigerien soldiers worked their way around from the south in an effort to outflank the attackers. They killed at least four of the attackers before they were forced back by the larger enemy unit.
"Realizing that the team was significantly outnumbered by a well-trained force, the Team Ouallam commander returned to the vehicles and ordered everyone to break contact and withdraw to the south," the summary said.
They threw smoke grenades to cover the move, but two Nigerien vehicles and one U.S. vehicle from which Staff Sgts. Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson were fighting could not disengage.
"They were last seen by team members actively engaging the enemy from defensive positions near their vehicle and preparing to withdraw with the rest of the team," the summary said.
The investigators learned that Wright jumped back into the vehicle and slowly began driving south while Staff Sgts. Black and Jeremiah Johnson moved alongside, providing covering fire.
"During the movement, enemy small-arms fire hit Staff Sgt. Black, killing him instantly," the summary said. Wright and Jeremiah Johnson went to Black's side, firing back at the enemy, but began to pull back as the enemy closed in.
"Approximately 85 meters from the vehicle, enemy small-arms fire hit [Jeremiah Johnson], severely wounding him," the summary said. "Wright stopped, returned to Staff. Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, and continued to engage the enemy until each was shot and killed by small-arms fire."
Staff Sgts. Black, Wright and Jeremiah Johnson "were never captured alive by the enemy," the summary said. "As enemy fighters advanced through the ambush site, they fired several additional bursts into the bodies of the three soldiers."
Sgt. La David Johnson's Last Stand at a Thorn Tree
From the truck bed of his vehicle, Sgt. La David Johnson sprayed the treeline with fire from an M240 machine gun. When he ran out of ammunition for the M240, he fought on with an M2010 sniper rifle, the summary and video said.
He was in a prone position in the rear of the vehicle with two Nigerien soldiers when the order to withdraw came. Johnson acknowledged the order and attempted to get behind the wheel, but heavy fire drove him back. As the enemy pressed in, La David Johnson and the two Nigerien soldiers began pulling back on foot to the west.
About 460 meters from the truck, one of the Nigerien soldiers was shot and killed. The second Nigerien soldier was shot and killed about another 110 meters further on.
Sgt. Johnson "continued to evade, running west for an additional 450 meters before eventually seeking cover under a thorny tree," the summary said. From there, he "continued to return fire against the pursuing enemy."
The attackers brought up a truck-mounted heavy machine gun and raked the tree, the summary said. "Dismounted enemy then maneuvered on [Sgt. Johnson], killing him with small-arms fire."
"The enemy did not capture Sgt. Johnson alive," the summary said in disputing several reports that circulated immediately after the ambush.
His hands "were not bound and he was not executed but was killed in action while actively engaging the enemy," the summary said.
Three Officers Could Be Cited for Disciplinary Action
Waldhauser said "there will be awards for valor" for actions during the ambush.
The four fallen troops "gave their last full measure of devotion to our country and died with honor while actively engaging the enemy," the summary said.
Waldhauser also said there will be "accountability" for command failures that were factors in the ambush.
"There are three cases there that will be dealt with by [Special Operations Command]" to determine whether disciplinary action or a court-martial is merited, he said.
Waldhauser did not specify the three cases, but the report and statements by Waldhauser and Cloutier singled out two captains, and a superior officer.
One of the captains led the patrol and worked with the second captain to develop a concept of operations (CONOP) for a mission to go after a militant in northwestern Niger suspected in the kidnapping of an American aid worker. However, they submitted a CONOP that was copied from a previous routine reconnaissance patrol.
At the Pentagon briefing, Cloutier was asked if the captains had lied. "That's not what the evidence indicates," he said, but Cloutier and Waldhauser said there were "processes" throughout the chain of command that need addressing.
In summing up the findings of the investigation, Cloutier said, "I think the first point is that all of our soldiers fought valiantly that day."
"There were a series of contributing factors to what occurred in Tongo Tongo," he said in reference to the command failures, "but not one of those contributing factors are the direct cause of the enemy attack in Tongo Tongo.The direct cause of the enemy attack in Tongo Tongo is that the enemy achieved tactical surprise there and our forces were outnumbered approximately three to one."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.