5 Years ago today I stood in the Hanger of what was Iraq Airlines, now the location of 1st Brigade “Raiders” 3rd Infantry Divisions Command Center. It had not been used in years as evident from the inch thick crust of bird droppings. An obvious casualty from years of UN Sanctions and just plain neglect. This was our first full day in control of Saddam International Airport. However Baghdad Bob was reporting we had been repulsed and were now retreating in disarray across the river.
Every move we made in the “Raider” Brigade was considered “History in the Making”. Ted Kople was due in later to conduct his program live from the Airport. My battle buddy Jim Axelrod from CBS was asking me when I could take him beyond the Airport Walls and Defense’s. Having been my shadow for the last 3 weeks, Jim was anxious to get that “Big One” for CBS. Little did he know he would get what he prayed for and more within the next few days.
Artillery was becoming more of a threat as every gun barrel in Baghdad seemed to be aimed in our direction. Sooner or later they would hit something. I certainly did not believe it would be me later this evening, when I took shrapnel in my foot. The bottom of my foot no less. I had laid out on a cot my driver set up for me. He had been pushing me to grab a few hours sleep as I was going on about 96 hours with nothing more than a nod now and then. One would think what a great soldier to be thinking of his boss that way. Well yes, but he was also on the receiving end of my magnetic personality 24 hours a day. He was no fool, a few hours was peace for him as well.
I wrapped it and decided it could wait till later to have a medic look at it. My mind was on how comfortable that cot was and a few hours of sleep. Through out the rest of the evening of 29 March minor firefights popped up along the walls of the Airport. In truth, the majority of the free world knew we were camped out on the Airport, yet the civilians of Baghdad and most of Saddam’s Military was oblivious to our presence. The Special Republican Guard, Fetayeen and Regular Army forces were not accustomed to communicating with each other. It was part of Saddam’s compartmentalized need to know system. It also prevented any serious attempts from a coup in succeeding. It was coming back to haunt them now. Even if they wanted to, military units could not confirm or deny our presence amongst themselves. Much less coordinate some type of military action.
Even this early in the taking of Baghdad, Leaders and Cabinet members were fleeing Baghdad. Leaving behind leaderless units, who’s last order was to stand and fight. It was clear the Special Republican Guard was preparing to do just that. Located just outside of the Airport on Highway 8, now known as the Highway of Death by the Media.
Members of Saddam’s Medina Division were moving around their compound with BMP’s and T-72’s. All within clear sight of our Colt Teams along the East Wall. In a straight line it was a mere 2 miles from our location to the compound. F-15’s lumbered through each hour dropping all types of ordinance on the compound. It made for a great night lite on the Airport. The glow of burning tanks lasted all evening.
Additionally we were taking sporadic rocket fire from the North. A heavily urbanized area, we would later find some of the largest cache’s of the war within the schools, numerous private homes and the Hospital in that area. It is the area now famous for neighborhoods that border Abu Grab prison and the source of numerous car bomb attempts.
As a mere Battalion Sergeant Major of a Combat Engineer Battalion “Jungle Cats” comprised of 600 Sappers, and whose soldiers were divided up and part of Infantry and Armor task Forces I had little to do in the way of responsibilities. It was a double edged blade. In most cases it allowed me to become a problem solver for the Brigade Commander. Colonel Bob Grimsley was among the best I had ever worked with. My own Battalion Commander LTC Tom Smith, was a text book Combat Engineer. The smartest, yet hardest to warm up to commander yet for me. He trusted me to Complete any task, with little to no guidance. Today for example, the main runway had been left with piles of dirt and debris every 10 yards, staggered from one side to the other. This prevented any fixed wing aircraft from landing. Our own illustrious Air Force had decided to pepper it with cluster bombs. The type that waited for a vehicle to approach. My job, clear the runway so a Historic landing could be made tonight by a C-130. The solution, take the dozen or so soldiers within my Headquarters, hot wire several pieces of dilapidated equipment found on the Airport and clear it. The cluster bombs were the easiest. Once the soldiers realized they would not go off when picked up and stacked along the runway, we were able to start knocking down the dirt mounds.
When the Brigades tiny EOD unit learned what was going on, they charged out to help. Wanting to do it by the book and blow each cluster bomb in place would take days. They finally succumbed to the Sergeant Majors smiles and “Screw it” this is war attitude. I wanted that runway clear, and now. As the day went on, several units had sent me additional soldiers to help with the finicky 30 year old scraper and Dozer we were using. At one point a well intentioned soldier made a deep gouge in the runway. This meant constant supervision was required as not to damage the runway further. Add to it being in a wide open area, we were on the receiving end of evry type of Artillary and Rocket the Iraqi’s could muster up. How the Hell they saw us from roof tops miles away and coordinated fire is still a mystery to me.
At roughly 2130 that night, I and all those involved puffed with a pinch of pride as the first American Aircraft did a low pass over the runway in an attempt to see something. I can only imagine the radio traffic coming from the Command Center behind me telling the Air Force it was clear to land. You see the Air Force has rules about everything. And landing on a runway that was not inspected by Air Force Personnel was a big No No. Much less in a war zone at night. Somewhere within the multitude of radio waves bouncing across Iraq that night, a Pilot of a dark gray C-130 with no lights on was ordered to land, and to this day contents unknown to me. I never asked….odd
At some point around 2 Am I finally opened my sleeping bag. The first time in a week. To say it was comfortable does not cover it. The days activities, glow of Burning tanks, humm of C-130 engines were thoughts that were racing in my head. I guessed at what our next step would be, knowing the eventual taking of Baghdad was soon to come. Unknown to me then, we were waiting for the Marines who were still miles from Baghdad and would encounter numerous events that would slow them down. This allowed the 3rd ID to prepare for the next few days. History making for sure. Tomorrow is till burned in my head. Can’t wait to write about it.