Lessons Learned: A Company Commander's Thoughts on Iraq: "The ambush was initiated by seven 152mm artillery rounds hidden in the weeds on the shoulder of the roadway that paralleled the canal. They were daisy-chained together. The lead tank absorbed the bulk of the blast, shrapnel cutting through the main gun tube in several locations. The blast created a debris field of dust and asphalt, denser than any smoke screen I have ever seen. The truck in front of me stalled in the debris field. To my rear, one of my mortar tracks engulfed the narrow roadway. Then the small-arms fire started. We could not go forward or backward. We were in the kill zone, unable to move. Tracers flew over, under, in front of, and behind my truck. Every soldier in my truck returned fire. My supply clerk and .50-cal gunner laid down blistering fire, as the rest of us fired our M16s out the windows; aiming at the muzzle flashes from both sides of the road.
There is a time when training takes over your actions, and this was one of those times, which is why it is so important to train to standard all the time. I counted six separate muzzle flashes from the left side of the road, and four separate muzzle flashes from the right side of the road. With my magazine empty, I grabbed a fresh one and seated it firmly. An RPG flew over top. I shot at muzzle flashes until they stopped blinking. Then, as abruptly as it started, it stopped. The firefight lasted about 45 seconds: it was the longest 45 seconds of my life.
Grabbing the hand mike while yelling for a crew report, I learned that our S3 was wounded. I fed reports to the tactical operations center (TOC) while our team split into two separate columns. The wheels and the personnel carriers raced to the brigade aid station, and the tanks turned around at our rally point and moved in to secure the ambush site. Easy 14 and 16 responded to the ambush site with 14 rockets, once we were clear. I believe it was their rocket run that settled the hash of the NCFs for the remainder of the night.
The tank commander on B22 knew something was wrong. His tank lost turret power, so he lost the thermal imagery and the commander's independent thermal viewer. Still, he did not hesitate to move back in and secure the ambush site. He requested artillery illumination to aid observation. I will never forget his words over the net when he was told his request was denied: 'Illumination denied. I've lost turret power; I have my nods and my .50. Hooah. I will stay until relieved. White 2 out.'
Our battalion quick reaction force relieved the crew on B22 a couple of hours later. The rest of the patrol drove back to our forward operating base. The B Company commander and I reported to the battalion TOC and debriefed the battle captain and the battlefield information center. I volunteered to take the battalion XO out to the ambush site at first light. We were fortunate to only suffer one casualty, as the following day we learned several things about the techniques used by our enemies.
We discovered only four of the seven daisy-chained artillery rounds detonated. God was with me - my truck was beside one of the rounds that did not explode. My scout platoon found detonation wire and traced it back along a wall between two fields, out of sight from the road. We found a stake and a screwdriver. The device was most likely fired by a car battery, and the screwdriver was used to complete the circuit. From the position of the individual who initiated the blast, he must have been in communication with a cohort who had direct observation of the roadway, because he was unable to observe the roadway from his position.
On the left side of the road, the NCFs used a cinderblock wall for cover, and the canal as an obstacle. From the right side of the road, they used climbing rigs (used for harvesting dates) to shimmy up palm trees and engage us with direct fire, using a wire fence and depression as an obstacle. Once return fire became too hot, they dropped from the trees and fled through the groves, which have a floor 8 to 10 feet lower than the roadbed. Our rounds passed harmlessly over their heads.
We discovered a small cache of hand grenades, RPG projectiles, and explosive materials. We pieced together the daisy-chained artillery rounds that initiated the ambush and the RPG launch that signaled break contact. We questioned the local populace and found them all to be very upset by the massive amounts of fire power displayed a few hours earlier, but claimed ignorance as to who planted the improvised explosive device (IED) and who was responsible for the ambush.
We learned a few days later that, shortly after we departed the area, a funeral was held. We were unable to determine how many had 'died' the day or evening prior, or from what cause. A funeral may be for one or many. The local populace tends to keep to themselves; as during the Baath party rule, it was better to be ignorant of what your neighbor was doing for reasons of self-preservation."