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“No matter how skilled the writer of nonfiction, you are always getting the story secondhand. Here’s a chance to go right to the source. . . . These men were there.” –MARK BOWDEN (from the Foreword)
It started as a mission to capture a Somali warlord. It turned into a disastrous urban firefight and death-defying rescue operation that shocked the world and rattled a great nation. Now the 1993 battle for Mogadishu, Somalia–the incident that was the basis of the book and film Black Hawk Down–is remembered by the men who fought and survived it. Six of the best in our military recall their brutal experiences and brave contributions in these never-before-published, firstperson accounts.
“Operation Gothic Serpent,” by Matt Eversmann: As a “chalk” leader, Eversmann was part of the first group of Rangers to “fast rope” from the Black Hawk helicopters. It was his chalk that suffered the first casualty of the battle.
“Sua Sponte: Of Their Own Accord,” by Raleigh Cash: Responsible for controlling and directing fire support for the platoon, Cash entered the raging battle in the ground convoy sent to rescue his besieged brothers in arms.
“Through My Eyes,” by Mike Kurth: One of only two African Americans in the battle, Kurth confronted his buddies’ deaths, realizing that “the only people whom I had let get anywhere near me since I was a child were gone.”
“What Was Left Behind,” by John Belman: He roped into the biggest firefight of the battle and considers some of the mistakes that were made, such as using Black Hawk helicopters to provide sniper cover.
“Be Careful What You Wish For,” by Tim Wilkinson: He was one of the Air Force pararescuemen or PJs–the highly trained specialists for whom “That Others May Live” is no catchphrase but a credo–and sums up his incomprehensible courage as “just holding up my end of the deal on a bad day.”
“On Friendship and Firefights,” by Dan Schilling: As a combat controller, he was one of the original planners for the deployment of SOF forces to Mogadishu in the spring of 1993. During the battle, he survived the initial assault and carnage of the vehicle convoys only to return to the city to rescue his two closest friends, becoming, literally, “Last Out.”
With America’s withdrawal from Somalia an oft-cited incitement to Osama bin Laden, it is imperative to revisit this seminal military mission and learn its lessons from the men who were there and, amazingly, are still here.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The Battle of Mogadishu
OPERATION GOTHIC SERPENT
There were four blocking positions used by Task Force Ranger to surround the target building. Matt Eversmann was in charge of one of them, Blocking Position 4. The twenty-six-year-old staff sergeant had twelve Rangers assigned to his squad that day. There were several three-story buildings around the target, and Eversmann and his men would have to insert by fast rope. They were charged with setting the blocking position on the northwest corner of the target. Their job was very straightforward: isolate the target building so that no enemy could get in or out.
Most of all I remember the smell, that godawful, nasty smell. As soon as the ramp of the plane cracked open, that sick smell swept through the entire aircraft. It was disgusting-kind of like sulfur and something pretty rotten mixed on top. The smell, that lingering scent of burning garbage and who knows what, combined with the African heat was my welcome to Mogadishu, Somalia.
On August 26, 1993, I arrived at a small airfield on the Horn of Africa as part of a task force of soldiers who were given the mission to capture a local Somali warlord named Mohammad Farrah Aidid. At the time, I was a young staff sergeant with about five years' worth of experience in the Army. My first four years of service were spent in Watertown, New York, with the Tenth Mountain Division, and I had been with the Ranger Regiment only since March 1992. In my seventeen months of training with the regiment, I had deployed all over the world. We trained with the British Parachute Regiment in the United Kingdom. We traveled to South Korea to experience the harsh Korean winters and mountainous terrain. We even trained with the Thai Rangers in Lop Buri, Thailand. We traveled all over the globe to develop our combat skills. Now, after five years of good, hard training, I was on my way to battle.
Between August and October 2, 1993, Task Force Ranger conducted six combat missions. On our thirty-eighth day in country, we conducted our seventh and what would be our final mission. We launched a raid from our base at the Mogadishu airfield on Sunday, October 3, at around 1530 hours. That mission would go down in history as the fiercest ground combat seen by American forces since the Tet offensive in 1968. During what would become known to the men there as the Battle of the Black Sea, eighteen soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice, and some seventy others were wounded in action, many seriously. The killing resumed when one member of Task Force Ranger died during a mortar attack a few days later, on October 6. Much has been written and plenty said about that mission. I have read and heard about as much as I can about it and am convinced about one thing and only one thing: that mission-that horrifying event, that brutal experience, that episode of complete savagery-will be, without exception, one of the finest examples of American tenacity, selfless service, courage, and commitment ever witnessed in modern times.
Most soldiers, and infantrymen in particular, live with one question all the days that they wear a uniform. It doesn't matter if they are newly commissioned second lieutenants from the school on the banks of the Hudson or eighteen-year-old high school graduates right out of basic training. Somewhere deep inside their psyche, every single man who joins the infantry wants to know how he will react when the bullets start flying. When you get right down to it, I do not think I have ever met a man who didn't want to go to war in some way, shape, or form. Many wax philosophical about the thought of combat and all that it entails, but I've never met a guy who, deep down, didn't want to go for the test. Why else would men subject themselves to the endless hours of training? Why would they put up with the long periods of separations from loved ones? Why would they suffer for the low pay and the stress? Why would they push themselves to the extreme day after day? I can think of only one reason: to go to war, to get a shot at the title, to pass the final exam-whatever cliché one uses to describe battle. That's what soldiers do, I thought; that's why we exist, to go to war and win. At least, that is how I looked at it in 1993.
In December 1989 I was waking up at Fort Benning, Georgia, two-thirds of the way through Ranger School. My class had come back to Benning from the swamps of Florida to begin our two-week exodus for the Christmas holiday. Bright and early on the morning of December 21, 1989, the commander of the Ranger Training Brigade held a formation. With no introduction he said, "Last night we invaded Panama. The regiment jumped in to seize an airfield. Several casualties were reported." I was in shock. At that time, so early in my career, I didn't know too much about the 75th Ranger Regiment. I knew enough to know that if there was a fight anywhere in the world, the Rangers would be the first ones to go.
I fully expected that my unit, the 10th Mountain Division based at Fort Drum, had already been called to action, and I was upset that I was not with them. But I soon found out that all my mates were still in Watertown, away from the fight. We would have to wait for the next one. Interestingly enough, a couple of my Ranger buddies actually signed out of the Ranger Training Brigade for leave and wound up deploying to Panama for some follow-on operations with the regiment, resuming the last phase of Ranger School later on. I was amazed at their mettle: go off to war, do the mission, and then return to school. The word impressive hardly does justice to them.
When the Gulf War started, I was still at Fort Drum. I remember scheming with my roommate, Mike Evans, to get assigned to a unit that would surely get called to the fight. We desperately wanted to go to war, and felt stifled in the light infantry. I say this not as an indictment against the 10th Mountain Division. Not by a long shot. They were a very good unit. They just weren't suited for the mechanized, desert battle that we expected would take place an ocean away. Even though our forces would go on to decimate Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, I was still zero for two.
In November 1991 I took the plunge and reenlisted for an assignment with the Ranger regiment. I flew to Fort Benning, successfully passed the assessment course, and was assigned to the Third Battalion. There are three battalions that make up the 75th Ranger Regiment. The First Battalion (1/75) is in Savannah, Georgia, at Hunter Army Airfield, the Second Ranger Battalion (2/75) is near Seattle at Fort Lewis, and the Third (3/75), stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, would be my new home.
I remember arriving at 3/75 as a brand-new staff sergeant with absolutely no special operations experience whatsoever. Though I had been to several good Army schools-sniper, airborne, Ranger, and SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) school-I felt that I was still way behind the curve compared to my peers. It was pretty intimidating to assume a leadership position only to find that many of the subordinates were combat veterans of Panama. They proudly wore their combat infantryman's badge over the left breast pocket of their uniforms, and I heard the stories of the Rio Hato and Torrijos Tocumen airfield assaults that the men had been part of. Every day I would see the tiny gold stars centered on the suspension lines of their airborne wings. The "mustard stain," as we call it, signals a combat jump. They had been to the show. These men were larger than life, and I did not want to make any JV mistakes in front of them.
The best course of action for me, it seemed, was to listen and learn everything I could from these men. As I got to know the men of 3/75, I realized that they were certainly a different breed of men, a different caliber of soldier. Not necessarily better, just different. It was impressive to see young privates and specialists performing tasks that I previously would never have seen executed by anyone below the rank of sergeant first class. They were expected to perform difficult and dangerous things because that is what they would have to do in combat. Everything we did in that unit was focused on our combat mission. Young men were given a lot of responsibility and taught to be problem solvers. I heard the regimental commander, Colonel David Grange, say, "We teach these men how to think, not what to think." It was all starting to make sense.
More than anything, I was fortunate to fall ass backward into the arms of some very talented young men who took the time to help me learn the skills necessary to survive the rigors of life in the regiment. For that, I am eternally grateful.
I learned how to parachute out of airplanes in pitch darkness. We took marksmanship to a new level, and for the first time I started to really learn how to shoot my M-16. I learned how to use explosives, though I am definitely not the guy you want making the charge to blow the doors. I learned how to fast-rope out of helicopters in order to fight in an area otherwise unreachable by air. I learned how to navigate with a compass and by using the terrain. Most of all I simply . . . learned. Everything was new and everything was exciting, and I felt like sooner or later the chance would come to see if I could answer that eternal question.
Mathematically, I figured that since the First and Second Ranger Battalions had jumped into Grenada in 1983, in Panama in 1989, and Iraq in 1991, the longest I would have to wait would be five or six years. When describing the necessity of repetitive training, the command was fond of saying, "It is not a question of if we go to war, it's a question of when." Prophetic.
In August 1993, after a hellacious tour of the world, we landed in El Paso, Texas, for another training mission. On the night of a particular airborne mission, I remember that the battalion commander was not present for the parachute issue. As we rigged and began the jumpmaster inspection, someone said he'd overheard that there was a real-world mission going down and the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Danny McKnight, was receiving the warning order. I thought that was all bullshit-just wishful thinking. A little while later, as we stood around the aircraft, the night's mission was canceled and everyone was sent back to their tents.
Sometime that evening the platoon leader, First Lieutenant Tom Di-Tomasso, and the platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Chris Hardy, told us to pack our bags because Bravo Company was deploying to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. That was it. No information-just pack our gear and be ready to load the aircraft when they call. It was hard to tell what was going on. It could be just an exercise from our higher command to pick a company at random and test their skills. I did not recall anything particularly disturbing in the news-at least nothing out of the daily CNN newscasts. I could not think of anything, at least nothing from the nonstop news spectrum, that might have "real-world" stamped on it. The more we thought about it, the more we thought it was probably just an exercise.
Later we loaded into a C-5 Galaxy and flew to North Carolina. In the dark of the night we arrived at an isolated site out in the middle of nowhere. It was still hard to decipher what was next for us. I figured that there was a fifty-fifty chance of a real-world deployment. After getting ourselves sorted and our gear checked, we were given the training plan. We would be doing some fast-roping from MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and quite a bit of shooting at the range. It was awesome: fly, rope, and shoot, day and night. A couple of days into the training, I was finishing up at the range with a few other Rangers when I heard a collective roar from the tents where we lived. When we arrived at the tent, Lieutenant DiTomasso told us that we were going to Somalia to catch Aidid. Here we go boys-this is it. I felt fear, excitement, disbelief, and probably every other emotion wrapped up in one as we began to plan our turn in history.
Before we left the safety and comfort of America, I remember seeing a verse of scripture chiseled into a memorial wall. It was from the book of Isaiah, chapter 6, verse 8: "And then I heard the voice of the Lord saying 'Whom shall I send and who will go for us?' And I said 'Here am I, Lord, send me.' " What could possibly be more meaningful to a young soldier in preparation for a real-world mission? Selfless service, a calling to a cause greater than oneself. It was inspiring to think about joining the noble ranks of the warriors that had made the journey before me. Though I obviously had no idea what would lie ahead, that verse set the tone for me and, I believe, the entire task force. Send me, send us, we are here.
There were two plans of attack to catch Aidid. The first was to capture him while he was traveling in his convoy of cars. The second was to catch him when he was inside a building. That was it, either A or B. It made good sense to me and seemed like a very simple plan: the man would be either inside or outside. We would take him out whenever and wherever he showed himself.
The task force was broken down into three separate groups: the assault force, the blocking force, and the ground convoy. We would have an assault force of Special Forces soldiers to do the work inside the target building. Almost simultaneously the Rangers in the blocking force would set up a perimeter around the target. Finally, the Rangers in Humvees and five-ton trucks would drive through the city and link up for extraction once we had Aidid in our hands. The assault force and the blocking force would fly to the target site in MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and MH-6 Little Birds. Once at the objective we would either land or-if no landing zone was available-slide down thick nylon ropes to the street and assume our battle posture accordingly. It was pretty simple at my level, though I know that this choreography took quite some planning for the pilots, crew chiefs and command.
The Battle of Mogadishu
Firsthand Accounts from the Men of Task Force Ranger