The Marine unit was supposed to have backup as it entered battle in Iraq. But it was alone, and then chaos exploded.
The convoy rumbled north, through the heart of the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. It was the fourth day of
the war, and the men of Charlie Company had orders to capture the Saddam Canal Bridge on the
city's northern edge.
The Marines were taking heavy fire. Then there was an ear- splitting blast. A rocket-propelled
grenade ripped open one of the amphibious assault vehicles, lifting it off the ground.
A thick, dark cloud filled the vehicle's interior. Some of the Marines donned gas masks, fearing a
chemical attack. Screams pierced the smoke:
We got a man down! We got a man down!
The Marines' light armor had been pierced, and with it any illusion that this would be easy. They
would take the bridge, but at a cost. Eighteen men from a single company were killed that day
and 15 wounded, making it the deadliest battle of the war for U.S. forces.
The Times reconstructed the battle from interviews with 11 Marines who fought that day. Their
accounts paint a gory and chaotic picture of ground combat that contrasts with the many images
of U.S. forces using precision bombs and long-distance weaponry against an enemy that quickly
abandoned the fight.
In Nasiriyah, Iraqis stood their ground and threw all they could muster at the leading edge of the
American forces. By day's end, the price of controlling the road to Baghdad had become
gruesomely clear to both sides.
Nasiriyah: 23 March, 2003
Charlie Company had reached Nasiriyah after pushing up 85 miles from Kuwait. Another Marine
unit had seized a bridge leading into the city over the Euphrates River.
Charlie Company's mission on March 23 was to take a second bridge three miles north.
Controlling both spans was crucial to moving a massive Marine Expeditionary Force to Baghdad.
Had things gone as planned, the 200 Marines in their lightly armored vehicles would have
avoided the densely populated heart of Nasiriyah, a city of 500,000. They were supposed to take
a roundabout route to the north bridge, swinging east of the city behind a dozen M1-A1 Abrams
tanks and a second Marine unit, Bravo Company.
But Bravo Company's vehicles sank several feet deep in mud flats east of Nasiriyah. Its 200 men
could not help take the bridge. The tanks were also out of the fight, diverted on a rescue mission.
The Army's 507th Maintenance Company had taken a wrong turn that morning and been ambushed
near the city. Eleven soldiers were killed and seven captured. The Marines' tanks rushed to retrieve
survivors, burning their fuel in the process. When they returned, they were sent to the rear to refuel
just as Charlie Company was preparing to push north.
"Where the hell are the tanks going?" Cpl. Randy Glass recalled thinking. "Why the hell aren't the
tanks in front of us?"
Despite the lack of armor and the stranding of Bravo's men, Charlie Company was ordered to
take the north bridge and to get there by the most direct route -- a three-mile stretch of highway
lined by buildings and alleyways. Some intelligence reports called it "Ambush Alley."
Lt. Col. Rick Grabowski, the battalion commander, said that going ahead made sense at the time.
Though concerned about Ambush Alley, commanders did not anticipate a tough fight for the
bridge, he said: "None of us really knew what was on the northern side of the city."
And time was of the essence. If they waited for the tanks to return or for troop reinforcements, the
Marines risked fighting for the bridge in darkness, Grabowski said.
There was another factor driving the Marines forward that day. It reflected a state of mind as
much as the state of the battlefield. "Keep moving" was the motto of Charlie Company's battle
"Once we were in the city and we made contact," Grabowski said, "there wasn't going to be any
When he got the order to move into the city, Sgt. William Schaefer thought he'd heard wrong.
"Say again," he called into his radio.
Schaefer was a commander at the head of Charlie Company's 11 amphibious assault vehicles.
The men inside were from the beach towns of Southern California, the hamlets of upstate New
York and many places in between. One planned to enroll at Rutgers University in New Jersey
when he got home. Another wanted to be a Reno cop. Some were immigrants. Others were from
proud military families.
They were part of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment and had shipped out in January from
their base at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Their tub-shaped assault vehicles, called "tracks," are a 30-
year-old design made for taking and holding beachheads. They are 26 feet long, carry up to
20 Marines each, and are armed with .50- caliber machine guns and grenade launchers.
Their reinforced-aluminum skin is vulnerable to artillery and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs -
- unlike the heavy armor on tanks. Thick steel plating can be attached to the tracks, but none was
available to outfit Charlie Company's vehicles when they reached the war zone, the Marines said.
"Eight Ball, Oscar Mike," Schaefer barked into the radio, and with that signal the company was on
The tracks crossed the Euphrates on the bridge captured earlier and moved single file up
Ambush Alley. It was a little before noon. On both sides, a dense warren of mud-colored buildings
pressed up against the road.
At first, the Iraqis seemed to welcome the Marines. A few waved white flags. Then, in a breath,
the convoy was under attack from all directions. Iraqis were firing from rooftops, from around
corners, from machine-gun nests hidden in side streets.
"We saw women shoot at us with RPGs.... We saw children shoot at us," recalled the company
commander, Capt. Daniel J. Wittnam. "We never saw one person in uniform."
Returning the fire, Schaefer alternated between his machine gun and grenade launcher, working
a foot pedal that spun his turret right, then left.
Schaefer, 25, of Columbia, S.C., said the Marines tried to distinguish between Iraqi fighters and
noncombatants. "But at that point, it was hard." The enemy, the Marines learned later, was a
combination of Iraqi army soldiers, Fedayeen Saddam militiamen and Baath Party loyalists.
One man knelt and aimed an RPG at Schaefer's track. A burst of .50-caliber fire cut off the top
half of the Iraqi's body.
"Pieces of people were all over the street," said Lance Cpl. Edward Castleberry, 21, who was at
the wheel of Schaefer's vehicle.
Near the rear of the convoy, Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, 31, of Ventura was driving a track crowded with
more than 20 Marines. Bitz and his crew had picked up extra men when the company's 12th track
broke down outside town. Men were crammed on bench seats amid boxes of ammunition.
Several were riding atop the vehicle. In the middle of the column, Marines on another track
shouted for more firepower to answer the torrent of incoming rounds. Lance Cpl. Eric Killeen,
22, a weightlifter from Florida's Gulf Coast, popped out of the hatch with his 15-pound squad
automatic weapon, a machine gun that can spray 1,000 rounds per minute. Killeen poured fire
down side streets, into doorways, at second- story windows.
"My adrenaline was pumping so high," Killeen said. "Every emotion you can imagine was running
through your body."
Castleberry, a Seattle snowboarder who'd joined the Marines the day after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks, steered the lead vehicle with one hand and fired his M-16 rifle with the other.
"I figured one more gun couldn't hurt," he said.
The convoy pushed north, the tracks pausing and pivoting at times to allow gunners a better view.
They were almost through the gantlet of Ambush Alley. Their objective, the Saddam Canal
Bridge, was a few hundred yards away. Inside Bitz's overcrowded track, it was dark and noisy.
The air reeked of diesel fumes. Marines were on top of one another. Some stood on the shoulders
of their comrades, firing M-16s from a hatch near the rear.
Glass, a 20-year-old from Pennsylvania who had joined the Marines hoping to see combat, was
sharing a menthol cigarette with Sgt. Jose Torres when an explosion lifted the 28-ton vehicle into
"Immediately, I went deaf," Glass recalled. An RPG had punctured the track's aluminum body --
and with it the Marines' faith in their technological edge. Their tubs were not meant for this kind of
fight -- especially without the bolt-on armor plating.
"My eyes! My eyes!" shouted Torres, temporarily blinded.
"Glass is dead!" someone screamed in the chaos.
Glass wasn't dead, but his left leg was a bleeding mass. Up top, the explosion had torched rucksacks
tied to the track, turning them into balls of fire. Bitz drove the burning vehicle forward. This was no
place to stop.
"Keep it tight! Keep it tight!" Schaefer shouted into the radio, not wanting any stragglers left
The tracks finally crossed the Saddam Canal Bridge, a nondescript concrete span over an
irrigation channel. Though it seemed an eternity, the trip had taken only a few minutes. On each
side were swampy irrigation ditches and brush. Beyond was open flatland. The road was raised,
and Charlie Company was an easy target.
The tracks fanned out over a quarter-mile-wide area. Marines in charcoal-lined chemical suits and
Kevlar flak vests poured out of the vehicles and sought cover on both sides of the road. They had
taken the bridge. Holding it was another matter. Small- arms fire exploded from the fields to the east
and west and from the city to the rear. Marines scrambled out of Bitz's burning track. A release on
the rear loading ramp didn't work, so the men piled out through a small hatch, climbing over the
wounded. Schaefer helped carry out Glass, whose left leg had been tied with a tourniquet. Bitz was
carrying injured Marines to cover when a shell exploded, spraying him with shrapnel. Blood streamed
from his face and back as he continued hauling the wounded to safety.
"He was acting like nothing was wrong," Schaefer said.
A plume of black smoke rose from Bitz's track. Mortar shells landed on each side. The Iraqis
quickly adjusted their aim and slammed the vehicle. Burning ammunition began punching out the track's
sides. Cpl. William Bachmann, 22, a New Jersey skateboarder, was wedging his lanky frame into a
nearby depression when he saw a flash of light from the vehicle. A large-caliber round flew past
him. "If I was standing up," he said, "I would have been hit."
Cpl. Randal Rosacker of San Diego set up his machine gun, providing cover for other Marines.
His is a military family; his father is chief of boat on a Navy submarine. Rosacker, 21, was cut
down by an Iraqi artillery round or mortar shell, said Wittnam, the company commander. He was
one of the first Marines to die that day.
The company's 15-man mortar squad set up a row of launchers on the east side of the road.
The squad had no time to dig foxholes. The Marines worked three launchers furiously, knocking
out Iraqi mortar positions across the canal. They fired so many rounds so quickly that their mortar
tubes were glowing, almost translucent. "They were pretty much melting their tubes," said
Outnumbered by the Iraqis' mortar positions, the squad was a prime target. Incoming shells were
landing closer and closer. Finally, the Iraqi mortars found their mark. Nine members of the squad
would die before the battle was over.
Second Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr., a 6-foot-7-inch former basketball player, tried to call in artillery
strikes on the Iraqis. A 31-year-old father from Nevada, he was the company's forward artillery
observer. He had trouble getting through on his field radio and moved to higher ground for better
reception. An RPG hit him in the chest, fatally wounding him.
As the casualties mounted, Wittnam wanted helicopters to evacuate the wounded. But there was
"no way in hell" they could land, he said. "It was too hot." Navy Corpsman Luis Fonseca, 22,
was giving morphine to Glass and another wounded Marine in one of the tracks. With a black
marker, he scrawled "1327" on Glass' head, indicating the time the painkiller was administered.
The medic ran up and down the road looking for wounded when he saw Wittnam. "We're starting
to win this battle," Fonseca recalled the captain saying.
Fonseca wasn't convinced. "I know there's a bullet with my name on it," he recalled thinking. "I'm
gonna do my job until I get hit."
Machine gunners needed more ammunition. Sgt. Brendon C. Reiss, 23, a squad leader, and Cpl.
Kemaphoom Chanawongse, 22, a Thai immigrant from Connecticut, ran to get more ammo boxes
from one of the vehicles. An artillery round exploded, killing Chanawongse and fatally wounding
Reiss. Around 1:30 p.m., Schaefer decided to evacuate the wounded, even though it meant
going back through Ambush Alley. All 11 tracks had made it across the bridge. Schaefer lined up six of them
in a column to head south.
"I was willing to take a chance because we had guys bleeding to death," he said. "I was tired of
seeing people getting killed."
Bachmann and Lance Cpl. Donald Cline, 21, a former surfer raised in La Crescenta, were firing
from behind a mound of earth. Word came that volunteers were needed to load the wounded onto
the vehicles. "I'm going to go help," Cline said, running toward the tracks spread out north of the
bridge. It was the last time Bachmann saw his friend alive.
The Marines heard the plane before they saw it. The Air Force A- 10 Thunderbolt, known as the
Warthog, flies ground-support missions, using its heavy gun. Cpl. Jared Martin, 29, a former high
school wrestler from Phoenix, was outside Schaefer's track when he heard the growl of the jet
fighter's twin engines. Its 30-millimeter cannon, which can shoot 3,900 rounds per minute, whipped
up dense clouds of sand. "He was low," Martin said. "He was coming right toward us. The next
thing I know I'm feeling a lot of heat in my back." Blood streamed from his right knee and left hand.
A piece of shrapnel lodged below his eye. "My fingers, they were pretty much dangling," Martin said.
Lance Cpl. David Fribley, 26, of Florida, was just steps from the cover of Schaefer's vehicle when
rounds from the A-10 tore into his chest. "I wore what was inside of his body on my gear for a
couple of days," Martin said.
To ward off the friendly fire, the Marines shot flares, which streaked the sky with green smoke.
The Marines said the A-10 made several strafing runs before it broke away. Schaefer hoisted a U.S.
flag on his turret. He hoped the Warthog pilot would see it and hold his fire. He also wanted the tracks
behind to be able to keep him in sight. "Watch for the flag," he radioed to the convoy of six vehicles
heading south with the wounded.
As the column started back toward Ambush Alley, one of the tracks exploded. Inside another
track, Marines heard bullets bouncing off the aluminum skin. Glass, who had already been in one
track that broke down, turned to Cpl. Mike Meade, whose leg was also injured.
"If this track stalls and we're getting out," Glass said. "It's a death trap."
A minute later, the vehicle stopped. Glass and Meade struggled out. Fonseca, the medic, heard
the whistle of incoming shells and shoved a sergeant on top of Glass and another injured Marine.
Then he piled on top to give added protection. Three RPGs flew by and exploded about 100 feet
"I need to save these boys," he recalled thinking. "I need to take them back home."
Glass saw an A-10 fire on one of the tracks. It's unclear whether it was the same jet that had
flown over earlier. Two of the aircraft appeared to be operating in the area, Marines said.
"The A-10 came down hard and lit the track up," Glass said. "There's no mistake about it."
Torres was lying nearby when he saw the jet bearing down on him. "It was slow motion," he said.
"I turned at the last moment to avoid a direct hit." Still, the Warthog's rounds tore through his left
side. "When he pulls the trigger," Martin said of the pilot, "it's just a wall of blood."
Grabowski, the battalion commander, said that as many as six Marines may have been killed by
A-10 fire. Wittnam believes it was one. Schaefer's convoy, now down to five vehicles, was
crossing the bridge. In front, a track that normally carried the mortar squad had several Marines
inside. As the track came off the bridge, an Iraqi shell dropped down the left-side cargo hatch,
ripping the vehicle in half. "A hand and arm bounced across the front of my vehicle," said
Schaefer. The remaining vehicles raced around the burning track. The rear of one track was
crushed by an Iraqi shell, killing the wounded Bitz. The driver kept going.
The four surviving tracks made it to Ambush Alley. They were met by gunfire from all sides.
Bullets ripped through Schaefer's transmission fluid tank, and Castleberry felt the steering wheel
freeze. "Hold on!" he shouted over the intercom as the track careened toward a light pole.
Castleberry gunned the 525-horsepower diesel engine, hoping to knock down the pole. But the
track slammed to a halt, swinging to the left toward a two-story concrete house.
An RPG blew away the track's front hatch, six inches above Castleberry's head. Stunned, his
face and hair singed, he jumped into the street. Schaefer radioed to the three surviving tracks:
"Don't stop. Keep going."
Inside the disabled track, a dozen Marines grabbed ammunition containers and the wounded and
headed for the house. Schaefer and two other Marines, one injured, were pinned down outside the
track. "Then all hell broke loose," Schaeffer said. "They just started coming out of nowhere,
hundreds of them. "Iraqis were charging the Marines. Schaefer aimed his M-16 and quickly used
up two 29-round clips as he killed some of the attackers and forced others to take cover.
"When you're scared," he said, "you pull your finger pretty fast."
Two of the other Marines, meanwhile, scaled an 8-foot wall and went into the house. An Iraqi man
and woman ran out the back door. The Marines hoisted the wounded over the wall and put them
inside. The windows of the house were hidden by piles of sandbags and sacks of flour. In one
room were pictures of Saddam Hussein and a man who looked like Jesus. Out on the street,
Schaefer and the two other Marines were holding off the advancing Iraqis. Then the driver and a
crewman from the track that had been ripped in half at the bridge appeared in the street. One was
blind. The other was limping. "We're laying cover fire for them," Schaefer said, "and they hobbled
inside." Schaefer was on his last magazine clip. This is it, he recalled thinking: They're going to
overrun me. Then he heard the roar of a track driven by Cpl. Michael Brown. He had disregarded
Schaefer's instructions to continue and had turned around. Scooping up the three Marines, Brown
took off in a rain of enemy fire. "He saved my life," Schaefer said.
About seven Marines took up positions on the roof of the house. Martin, his wounds patched up,
spotted two men peeking around a corner with an RPG. He fired and they fell. Martin looked at
his watch. It was about 3 p.m. "We have about two hours before the sun goes down," he thought.
"Then we're gonna be real screwed." The man who lived in the house burst through the back
door yelling. He entered the room where the wounded were being guarded, Castleberry said, and
was shot dead. A lance corporal with the only operable radio called other units at the south end
of the city for help. But the battery was low, and he couldn't tell whether the message was getting
through. With Iraqis now 20 yards from the building, the Marines on the roof were going through
hundreds of rounds. Castleberry had fired so many grenades from his M-16 that the plastic hand
grip on his launcher was melting. Two Iraqis sped by on a motorcycle, the passenger firing an
AK- 47. On a second pass, one Marine hit the driver, spilling the bike. As the gunman tried to
escape on the motorcycle, Castleberry unleashed another grenade. He saw a flash and the man's
body blew apart. The ammunition was running low. Castleberry and another Marine dashed to the
disabled track, grabbing antitank missiles and crates of bullets as they dodged enemy rounds.
On the roof, Martin and other Marines were trying to use shards of broken glass to reflect sunlight
and get the attention of U.S. Cobra helicopter gunships overhead. Below, Iraqi fighters were trying
to reach the abandoned track, with its load of weapons and ammunition. "We're hitting them,"
Martin recalled, "watching them drop." He remembers a strange sensation. "Your body and brain
ain't working like a normal person's would. Some people will snap. Some people will go off the
edge. Everyone reacts differently," Martin said. "I was having fun." Marines at the south bridge
had picked up the radioed pleas for help and organized a rescue party.
The first vehicle to arrive was a Humvee carrying a grizzled gunnery sergeant from another
company. He was firing a pump-action shotgun out the passenger window as Marines on the roof
sprayed cover fire. "What do you need?" he shouted. Water and radio batteries, the Marines
answered. "I'll be back," the sergeant said. An M1-A1 tank arrived soon after and took away the
wounded. The gunnery sergeant returned with Humvees to rescue the remaining Marines. As the
vehicles unleashed heavy fire in several directions, forcing the Iraqi fighters to take cover, the
sergeant stepped onto the street and lit a cigarette."God, I hate this ... place," he said. "Let's
get the hell out of here."
Part of Charlie Company was still pinned down at the north bridge. Lance Cpl. Killeen, the Florida
weightlifter, and his platoon were in the swamp near the span. He could hear enemy soldiers nearby.
"I thought they were going to sandwich us," Killeen said. "I figured my life was all over." It was
nearing 4 p.m. and the sun was getting low. The ground rumbled and Killeen climbed toward the
bridge. If Iraqi tanks were coming, then the company was almost certainly lost, he recalled thinking.
As the tanks neared the canal, he saw they were American. These were the tanks that had spent
their fuel retrieving members of the Army maintenance company that had been ambushed. Refueling
had taken longer than expected because the pumps malfunctioned; it had to done by hand. When
they learned that Charlie Company was taking a pounding, the tank crews cut short the refueling and
rushed back to Nasiriyah. Now they were firing their 120-millimeter guns at Iraqi positions.
"It was the best feeling in the world," Killeen recalled.
On March 23, the fourth day of the Iraq war, 18 Marines died fighting to take a bridge in
Nasiriyah. Nine served in a mortar squad that came under intense Iraqi bombardment.
Memorial Service held at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Sgt. Michael E. Bitz, 31, of Ventura drove an amphibious assault vehicle, or track. He was
wounded helping injured Marines and was killed by an Iraqi shell.
Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Blair, 24, of Broken Arrow, Okla., was part of an air-defense team. He
disappeared in the fighting and was later confirmed as killed in action.
Lance Cpl. Brian R. Buesing, 20, of Cedar Key, Fla., was in the mortar squad. His grandfather
served in the same squad in the Korean War and won a Silver Star.
Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, of Buffalo, N.Y., was a poet, an artist and the oldest of seven
children. He was with the mortar squad.
Cpl. Kemaphoom A. Chanawongse, 22, of Waterford, Conn., a Thai immigrant, was a crew
commander. He was hit by artillery fire while trying to retrieve ammunition.
Lance Cpl. Donald J. Cline Jr., 21, of Sparks, Nev., was a rifleman. He said he was going to help
wounded Marines and was not seen again. He was later confirmed dead.
Lance Cpl. David K. Fribley, 26, of Fort Myers, Fla., joined the service after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks. He was killed by friendly fire from an Air Force A-10 fighter.
Cpl. Jose A. Garibay, 21, of Costa Mesa, a Mexican immigrant, was part of the mortar squad. A
shell destroyed a vehicle evacuating him and other wounded Marines.
Pvt. Jonathan L. Gifford, 30, of Decatur, Ill., an outdoorsman, was a member of the mortar squad.
Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, of El Monte wanted to become a police officer. He was with the
Pvt. Nolen R. Hutchings, 19, of Boiling Springs, S.C., enlisted in the Marines after high school. He
was with the mortar squad.
Staff Sgt. Phillip A. Jordan, 42, of Enfield, Conn., had served 15 years in the Marines. He was
with the mortar squad.
2nd Lt. Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., 31, of Tonopah, Nev., was a forward artillery observer. He died
trying to call in artillery strikes on Iraqi positions.
Lance Cpl. Patrick R. Nixon, 21, of Gallatin, Tenn., came from a family whose members had
served in every major conflict since World War I. He was with the mortar squad.
Sgt. Brendon C. Reiss, 23, of Casper, Wyo., was a squad leader who had recently reenlisted. He
was running to get more ammunition when he was hit.
Cpl. Randal K. Rosacker, 21, of San Diego was a machine gunner who was providing cover fire
after the Marines crossed the bridge. He was one of the first Americans killed.
Lance Cpl. Thomas J. Slocum, 22, of Thornton, Colo., was in the hatch of a vehicle taking
wounded Marines to the rear when he was hit.
Lance Cpl. Michael J. Williams, 31, of Phoenix gave up a flooring business to join the Marines.
He was with the mortar squad.
26 Aug. 2003
Edited from an account by:
Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez
Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles, Calif.
Aug 26, 2003
(Copyright © The Times Mirror Company)