When the team from Alpha Company finally entered the last redoubt of the insurgents -- a burning house that had already been hammered by rockets, explosive charges and tank rounds -- they had every reason to believe any remaining gunmen were dead. But two were alive.
Point man Lance Cpl. Richard Caseras entered with his team and ran into the spray of an insurgent's AK-47 assault rifle. A second fighter then emerged, a pineapple grenade in each hand, with pins already pulled.
Eyeball to eyeball with their opponents, the Marines shot them both dead; the grenades fell to the ground and exploded, blasting the Americans with shrapnel.
In the eerie light of the roaring flames, the wounded men were dragged back out to the street while Marines targeted the house with steady gunfire.
As the shooting lit the battle space with muzzle flashes and noise, a lone U.S. Navy medical corpsman jumped out to gather the wounded. This correspondent moved to help, joining in to pull the three injured men into the vehicle by their flak jackets.
"I'm so sorry! I should have used the frag(mentation) grenade and not my M-16 (rifle)," Caseras yelled to his fallen comrades as the vehicle raced toward a combat hospital at Camp Fallujah. Lance Cpl. Nathan Douglass was peppered with shrapnel. Also prone in the back of the armored vehicle, on crates full of ammunition and explosives, lay Cpl. Catcher Cuts the Rope (his American Indian name), with a tourniquet above his knee; grenade shards hit his shoulder and hands.
"Don't worry," Douglass, from Hillsboro, Ore., said consolingly. "We shot so much into that house. There shouldn't have been anybody left."
The final blow came with heavy fire from an AC-130 Spectre gunship, which destroyed four houses used by the insurgents with 40 Howitzer shells.
The toll from a brutal night: one dead Marine and nine wounded, including this correspondent, who was struck in the arm by a small piece of shrapnel.
The firefight brings the casualty rate in the Light Armored Reconnaissance Company to one man in five -- far less than the 60 percent reached during the battle for Vietnam's Hue City in 1968, the last urban assault waged by U.S. Marines before Fallujah, but far higher than most modern combat operations.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin Hawaii News