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A Deadly Day For Charlie Company

The Marine unit was supposed to have backup as it entered battle in Iraq. But it was alone, and chaos exploded.

August 26, 2003|Rich Connell and Robert J. Lopez | Times Staff Writers

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.

Public attention, briefly riveted on the fighting in Nasiriyah, has since moved elsewhere. The struggle to rebuild Iraq and contain mounting guerrilla violence now occupies center stage. But the Marines of Charlie Company, now back home, are not ready to put that Sunday in March behind them.

They want to know why commanders sent them into an urban firefight without tanks, without protective plating for their vehicles and with only half the troops planned for the mission.

They want to know why an Air Force fighter strafed their positions as they struggled to hold the bridge, killing at least one Marine and possibly as many as six.

Five months later, the U.S. Central Command is still investigating the "friendly fire" episode. The Marine Corps has conducted its own review of the battle but said it will not release its findings until the other investigation is finished.

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.

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, including Pfc. Jessica Lynch.

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 regiment.

"Once we were in the city and we made contact," Grabowski said, "there wasn't going to be any backing down."


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.

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