Ambush costly for Marine battalion

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By Jim Landers
Reprinted with permission of the Dallas Morning News
April 9, 2003

AT TUWAYHAH, Iraq - There were several dead dogs lying on the side of the road. Second Lieutenant Adam Markley looked ahead from his tank and thought that was odd. "It was like someone had used the dogs for target practice," he said.

Capt Jeff Houston received the Purple Heart from President Bush for his actions in the battle at At Tuwayhah. He is expected to make a full recovery.

At Tuwayhah got stranger still as Charlie Company's tanks led the flying column of the Marine Corps 2nd Tank Battalion into town. Mounds of earth were piled neatly along the highway. A bus, a truck, and other vehicles were stacked on the rooftops of roadside shops. They were part of a honeycomb of sniper nests stretching the length of At Tuwayhah. As the column hit the center of town, a trench filled with oil boiled into flame and black smoke.

"Devil's Advocate," Lt. Markley's tank, passed through the smoke at about 12:20 p.m.

"The fire pits were scary as s--t," said Lt. Markley. "I was the lead tank, and I didn't know what was on the other side." Hell was waiting. Half a dozen men dressed in black ninja outfits and black stocking masks stood up on either side of the highway with rocket-propelled grenade launchers on their shoulders.

One of the grenades hit Lt. Markley's open turret hatch. The blast was deflected into the hatch of the tank's cannon loader. Cpl. Bernard Gooden, a 22-year-old from Mt. Vernon, New York, was killed instantly. The April 4 ambush near At Tuwayhah was the stiffest fight the 2nd Tank Battalion has faced in the war with Iraq. In less than 35 minutes, three Marines were killed. Charlie Company's commander, Sam Houston descendant Capt. Jeffrey Houston, was shot in the face. Four others were also seriously wounded.

The Marines' mission that Friday was to kill the al Needa division of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guards. A unit of the al Needa had fought 2nd Tank Battalion all morning. By the end of the day, the al Needa division was considered a combat-ineffective force. But most of the men the Marines fought at At Tuwayhah were not Iraqis. Infantry who came into the town behind the 2nd Tank Battalion found more than 100 bodies of Syrians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Lebanese. They were volunteers with the terrorist organization Islamic Jihad.

"There were enough rifles, RPGs, and other small arms in that town to outfit an entire Marine division - 15 buildings' worth," said Lt. Col. Mike Oehl, 2nd Tank Battalion's commanding officer. "These were Islamic Jihad guys from all over the Arab world. We have intelligence reports that they've been staying at the Sheraton in downtown Baghdad."

At Tuwayhah is less than three miles from Baghdad.

The 2nd Tank Battalion never intended to come through. The plan called for turning before reaching the town to attack the Al Needa divisions based in the north. But the column missed the turn when that first RPG hit Lt. Markley's turret hatch, blowing away his handheld GPS compass. "Devil's Advocate" lost communication with the other tanks in Charlie Company. The turret was stuck in place by a hydraulic fluid leak. Lt. Markley, from Columbia, South Carolina, was knocked senseless.

The men of the 2nd Tank Battalion call themselves the Masters of the Iron Horse. Back home at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, they are part of the Second Marine Division. In Iraq, they are fighting with the 5th Regiment of the First Marine Division out of Camp Pendleton, California. The battalion's preferred fighting strategy is to speed through enemy lines with guns blazing.

When the Iron Horse hit at Tuwayhah, it was moving better than 30 miles an hour. Marine Scouts and TOWs - Humvees equipped with machine guns and wire-guided missiles - roared into town, weaving among the tanks and firing at the Jihadists. Lance Corporal Billy Peixotto of McKinney, driving Capt. Houston's tank "Let's Roll," saw Scouts Commander Lt. Brian McPhillips get hit as he was firing his machine gun.

"Scouts 6 is down," someone shouted over the battalion radio. Corporal Derric Keller was manning the machine gun of another Scout Humvee. He saw Lt. McPhillips fall. Cpl. Keller got his driver to speed along Lt. McPhillips' Humvee and jumped from his vehicle to the other one while they were flying through the ambush.

"Keller did a little Jackie Chan stuff to get into the vehicle," said Scouts Sgt. Daniel Langlois. "He said the Lieutenant had been shot in the back of the head."

Lt. McPhillips was 25 years old. A Massachusetts native and a graduate of Providence College in Rhode Island, he had taken command of the Scouts platoon a day earlier when the first platoon leader was wounded. Corporal Keller climbed up to man the 50-caliber machine gun on Lt. McPhillips' Humvee as the Scouts accelerated to get out of town.

By now there was trouble on "Let's Roll", Capt. Houston's tank.

"The fire extinguisher light came on," Lance Corporal Peixotto said. Tank Gunner Corporal Alfredo Ramirez hollered, "Keep on rolling." Seconds later, however, Corporal Peixotto saw the fire light come on, and the tank shut down. Gunfire had pierced the fuel bladder hanging on the left side of the turret. The Marines use a JP8 fuel that doesn't explode like gasoline. But when the tank turret swiveled to fire, fuel poured from the fuel bladder into the tank engine's air intake valve.

"It's like pouring gas on top of your engine," said Staff Sgt. Bryan Hillard, Charlie Company's master gunner. "It just floods it out."

Capt. Houston, 28, comes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His favorite story about his famed ancestor involves the time that Sam Houston ordered a subordinate to pull an arrow from his leg so he could stay in command. Now, Capt. Houston acted to stay in charge of his company.

"I've gotta go," he said. Capt. Houston jumped to another tank to keep the company going. The driver of an M1A1 Abrams tank lays in a hatch beneath the 120mm cannon barrel, forward of the rest of the tank crew. When a fire starts on a disabled tank, his duty is to leave. Lance Cpl. Peixotto grabbed a 9mm semi-automatic and jumped out. Cpl. Ramirez and Cpl. Michael Ackerman, the tank loader, were firing machine guns at the Iraqis and Islamic Jihad fighters swarming behind the mounds of dirt beside the wounded tank. Cpl. Ramirez, of Oceanside, California, was firing the "co-ax" machine gun mounted beside the tank's cannon.

Cpl. Ackerman, from Riverside, California, was firing the 7.62mm machine gun mounted on the loader's turret hatch. When that gun jammed, he picked up an M16 rifle and a 9mm semi-automatic. Capt. Houston jumped back down from his new tank and ran to "Let's Roll". He picked up the telephone housed in the "grunt's box" on the rear of the tank that lets infantry talk with a tank crew. While on the phone, he was shot.

Lance Cpl. Peixotto ran to Capt. Houston. "I pulled him against the tank, shootin' and stuff," Peixotto said. "Cpl. Ramirez and Cpl. Ackerman tried to extinguish the engine fire. They cut loose the fuel bladders. They gave Lance Cpl. Peixotto a compress bandage and some extra 9mm clips. When an ambulance arrived, Cpl. Peixotto was holding the bandage against Capt. Houston's face, firing his 9mm and talking into a phone held by another Marine.

Peixotto said he fired "about eight or nine clips" - as many as 135 bullets - during the fight. "Capt. Houston went down trying to put out the tank fire," Lance Cpl. Peixotto said. "There was a lot of screaming and shooting and yelling. It was one big firefight."

The Islamic Jihad fighters put even more firepower onto the tank of First Lieutenant Charles D. Nicol, Jr., Charlie Company's executive officer. "He's got five or six antenna on his tank - it's like having a giant 'shoot me here' sign," Lt. Markley said.

When Lt. Nicol's tank slowed, the Islamic Jihad fighters detonated a car bomb next to it. The blast shook the tank, but the crew was unharmed. Several RPG shells also exploded harmlessly against the tank. Back in "Devil's Advocate," driver Lance Cpl. Grant Hines of Marietta, Georgia, could not believe how many hooded fighters were firing RPGs.

"It was like that game, you know, where the critter sticks his head up from one hole and you try to whack it before it sticks up from another one," he said. "There were guys with RPGs on their shoulders everywhere."

Lt. Markley came around and clamored out of his turret to retrieve his maps. Cpl. Julio Cesare Martinez of San Diego, the gunner on "Devil's Advocate," helped restore the tank's communications. Lt. Markley had another tank in his platoon plot their location on the highway. When he realized where they were, he made an urgent radio call to Lt. Nicol.

"We have to turn around! We missed our turn," Lt. Markley yelled. "We are only four clicks [kilometers] from Baghdad!" Lt. Nicol consulted with battalion command and ordered a halt. Then the battalion ran through one of the most complicated battle maneuvers a tank column can face - doubling back on itself while under fire.

Without hydraulic pressure, "Devil's Advocate" gunner Cpl. Martinez was cranking the turret by hand and firing the "co-ax" machine gun with a manual trigger. Capt. Dave Bardorf of Middletown, Rhode Island, was in a Humvee leading an ambulance and the battalion surgeon, Navy Lt. Bruce Webb, up to Capt. Houston's tank. Capt. Bardorf looked over to Cpl. Peixotto.

"It was incredible," Bardorf said. "He was slowing the blood flow with one hand, laying fire on the enemy with the other, and directing fire from a radio another Marine held for him." Lt. Webb and the others managed to get Capt. Houston inside the ambulance. But now there was trouble in the front of the vehicle.

Cpl. Luke Holden, of Albany, New York, the driver of the ambulance, took a bullet through the hand he was holding on the steering wheel. Navy Hospital Corpsman Thomas Smith of Brooklyn, New York, took over the driving. With Cpl. Holden in the passenger seat, Corpsman Smith held a bandage on the wounded man's hand, drove the ambulance, and fired an M-16 out the window. A platoon of Combat Engineers was following Charlie Company's tanks in the column.

Sgt. Dwayne Rios, a 25-year-old from the suburbs of Gary, Indiana, was commanding a tracked infantry vehicle in the Engineers platoon. Sgt. Rios was firing from his turret when a bullet struck the butt of his M-16 rifle.

"He was trying to clear the jam in his rifle when he was hit behind the ear by a sniper," said Combat Engineers First Lieutenant Jonathan Derosier. Sgt. Rios' vehicle followed the ambulance with a Medical Corpsman trying to save him. But Sgt. Rios died before the med-evac helicopters arrived. A Marine CH-46 helicopter landed at the missed intersection to evacuate the wounded. While waiting there, Cpl. Holden was shot in the other hand, and Corpsman Smith then helped treat that wound.

"Corpsman Smith did an outstanding job, truly above and beyond," said Lt. Webb. The medical evacuation was under fire most of the time. A Marine Cobra helicopter flew down to assist. "It came down and just smoked the whole building," said Capt. Bardorf. Lance Cpl. Peixotto, Cpl. Ramirez and Cpl. Ackerman stayed with their burning tank, firing every gun they had.

Col. Joe Dumford, commander of the Fifth Regiment, was in the column near Capt. Houston's tank. He ordered the crew to abandon "Let's Roll," and they ran to one of the Humvees in the Colonel's regimental command train. Fire and explosions consumed the tank.

By the next day, the tank was sitting on its belly in the street. All the wheels and tracks had melted away. "I've been shot at before, but nothing like that," Cpl. Ackerman said. "It was probably one of the scariest moments in my life when that tank stopped." Said Cpl. Peixotto: "It was a near-death experience, I guess."