Stranded Marines fight to last bullets - 4/16/04
by James Hider
THE 15 Marines were trapped in a house, surrounded by hundreds of Iraqis armed with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles, their armoured vehicle in flames on the street outside. Each man was down to his last two magazines.
“It was in my head, we just got to go. Whoever makes it back, makes it back, those who fall, fall,” said Staff Sergeant Ismail Sagredo, sitting in the relative safety of Bravo Company’s forward base yesterday, as mortars and machinegun fire sounded a few streets away.
“That was the decision I’d have had to make, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do it.”
It was one of the most dramatic actions of the war.
Sergeant Sagredo, 35, had been in one of two Amphibious Assault Vehicles running out from the Marines’ frontline close to the centre of Fallujah, trying to trap insurgents who had ambushed a supply vehicle.
But as they headed down the narrow, parallel streets of Fallujah, where Sunni tribesmen have battled the Marines for more than a week, their vehicle came under fire from rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), the guerrillas’ weapon of choice.
Unable to turn the large vehicle around, the squad charged their attackers, but lost contact when they hit a bend in the road. They were driving into unknown territory. Then they turned another corner and saw hundreds of guerrillas.
“I’ve never seen so many RPGs. A lot of them were propped up against the walls with extra rounds,” said the sergeant.
The Iraqis, not expecting a lone American vehicle so far behind their lines, ran frantically for their weapons as the Marines opened up with M16 rifles and machineguns.
Rockets started smashing into their vehicle. One pierced the armour at the front, taking a large chunk out of the leg of Lieutenant Christopher Ayres, the officer in command. The rocket did not explode, but hit the engine, setting it ablaze.
Still under intense fire, the driver swerved south along a route known to the Marines as “Sh**head Alley”, desperate to find a turning to the east, towards their own lines. The gunner was dead from enemy fire, and several men had been knocked down by the continuing rounds of missiles.
The blaze was spreading toward the stockpiles of grenades when the engine gave out completely.
With the engine dead, the rear gate would not open. The men had to climb out of the hatch one by one, still taking small-arms fire. Luckily for them, their dash down the gauntlet of Sh**head Alley had left their attackers — up to 600 of them — behind. But only for a while.
“When we stepped out I was relieved. At least I wasn’t going to burn,” said Lance Corporal Abraham McCarver, a machinegunner.
The men had to help Lieutenant Ayres, who was crawling blindly toward the fire. Sergeant Sagredo and Corporal McCarver pulled him, but his webbing caught on a rack.
They were still taking fire, conscious that the vehicle could explode at any moment. Then the webbing ripped, and they carried the wounded officer to a nearby house, kicking down the door.
The Marines took up firing positions on the roof as more than 150 Iraqi gunmen converged on the small house.
“All the Iraqis surged south to join the festivities,” Sergeant Sagredo said. He now found himself in charge of an impossible situation reminiscent of scenes in Black Hawk Down, the film of a doomed US raid in Somalia that the sergeant had seen back home in America.
“It did remind me of that soldier being dragged through the streets back then,” he said, aware that a similarly gruesome scene had involved four US contractors just streets away, the trigger for the Marines’ invasion of Fallujah.
Ironically, Bravo Company’s call-sign is Blackhawk.
The Marines could hear the Iraqi fighters shouting outside, could see their feet shadowed under the front gate. “I opened a window because I heard voices and I thought it was Americans,” said Corporal Koreyan Calloway. “There was a guy in a headscarf with an AK47 standing there looking at me, so I shot him.”
The attackers were darting down narrow alleyways beside the house, and lobbing grenades from neighbouring rooftops.
“They were running across our line of fire like we weren’t even shooting at them,” the corporal said.
“It was just like a range, we were just shooting them down,” said Corporal Jacob Palofax.
In the midst of the firefight, with the armoured vehicle’s munitions blowing up, an ambulance pulled up. The Marines thought they were being rescued. Instead, 15 men with RPGs jumped out and started firing.
The Americans were almost out of bullets. An Iraqi round hit a kitchen pipe and gas started whistling out as RPGs slammed into the building.
A guerrilla burst through the gate with an RPG and was shot dead. Another tried to follow and was wounded.
“Then the men started shouting that they could hear tanks. The first one went past, then the second,” Sergeant Sagredo said. Horrified that the rescuers would miss him, Sergeant Sagredo radioed to tell them to back up. They did. A rifle muzzle appeared through the gate, and Captain Jason Smith of the 5th Marine Regiment came through shouting: “Marines, Marines, friendlies!”
It took an hour for the tanks to hook up with the burnt-out vehicle, but they were determined not to leave a dead Marine behind inside it.
Sergeant Sagredo does not want a medal for saving his men. “A decoration would only remind me of what happened. This is something I want to forget. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t affect me now, I know it will haunt me later.”
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" -Edmund Burke
Sunday, April 18, 2004