interviews: pfc anton berendsen

Private First Class Anton Berendsen was a US Army Ranger,1992-1995. He was positioned on Chalk IV as a M203 gunner with his team leader, Sgt. Casey Joyce, who was killed. Anton had recently completed Ranger school when he got called to Somalia. He was nineteen at the time of the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu.

You were quite new, you'd only been in 8 months, you're a private -- very low on the totem pole -- and you were given this task to act as the messenger...

I'd been in the army for about eight months and Lieutenant DiTomasso for some reason gave me, I guess you can say the honor, of being a messenger. And this is something that I loved. A private gets told what to do, he doesn't [make] any plans, he's more like a doer. He's the one that goes out there and does the mission, so when I got elected to be that messenger -- I remember Lieutenant DiTomasso, he's like, "Come with me" -- and I felt "This is good," so I got up and I felt like I had a good status.... So I had this little designated seat that I had and I just sat down....

What you're going to is a kind of planning session, wasn't it?

It was a talk where all the officers are gathered around and all the key elements, all the key leaders, all the chalk leaders, they gather around and they get all the information that is needed for the mission.... I just wanted to be a fly on the wall at that point, I just wanted to look up there and see what's going on. I heard bits and pieces from different elements [about] what was exactly going on, but I just had my ears just pinpointed on certain things. It was a good feeling to have a little bit of insight. I heard the helicopter pilots -- realize that they were talking more or less like Japanese to me, they were just getting their flight patterns organized or what have you, it was just definitely over my head -- it was good to be there and watch them do it. I remember in front of me there was a big map, and they had these circles where some of these targets are gonna be, and you see these people going up and marking the points where they're gonna be, and everybody's [fine] tuning exactly what's going on, what we're gonna be doing.

And at that point Lieutenant DiTomasso just out of the blue he just goes, "Tell the troops to get it on." And so I get up and the adrenaline starts pumping. And I just dart out to the hangar, and that hangar echoes. So it made me even feel more powerful; I'd scream out loud, "Get it on!" and it just echoed. And it was a Sunday, so everybody had their PT shorts on and just no shirt, getting some sun, and everybody had their boots in a line, they had their clothes right there matched in perfect order, their flack vest, Ranger body armor, they had their k-pot, everything ready and you just see people come from out of the woodwork and just get their stuff on. It took probably like a minute.

What's the sequence when you're getting kitted up, what do you put on, how does it go?

At that point obviously, just like anybody else, they put on their pants first, and then we put on a T-shirt, and it's just grab our boots real quick and after that you put on that body armor. And then you just have a little velcro here, tighten it up, cinch it over and OK, that it's on nice and tight, and you feel good. And then the actual weight that's on there, you can just imagine we had so much ammunition on us, the weight was probably 40 or 50 pounds of just [ammunition]. Especially with the vest that I had, I had a 203 vest and they're pretty, I mean we get a good jacket full and it's gonna weigh you down. So I remember you put your LCE ... and you just felt the power that you have, you felt all that ammunition going on you and you put on your k-pot and you knew that you were ready to go out there and tackle the world.

So you sit there on the tarmac, the rotors are going, and you're waiting for a signal, aren't you?

Yeah, we're waiting for it, it's chronological, the Little Birds go off first. I remember always looking at the Delta Force commanders getting it on, and I remember when they got it on for some brief moment I stopped and I just looked in awe, I looked at them and I'm like, "God these guys are incredible." I just saw their equipment they had on, these big guys, and they had this little microphone and I was like "God, they're almost like robots." Just to see them [and know] like, "Yeah, they're with us." You know it gave me even more of a, I guess you can call it a power trip. Watching them, knowing that we got them covered, and it made us feel, I'm honestly honored to have us be covering for them, and it was just so great to watch them get suited up, it was just incredible.

So they went out, obviously they're so trained they know exactly what to do. They just put on their stuff, they got in the Little Birds and they did their thing.

What could you see from the helicopter?

It's kind of love/hate, on the outer borders, people waving, Somalians waving and they're grateful for us, and then you get these people that hate you, pretend to shoot rocks and shooing you away. In the profile flights, these pilots are just incredible pilots, and you felt safe, it doesn't matter what he was doing, I mean he'd go straight up in the air and then he'd come down and I'd be near the sea. I'd be right there by the platform, and he'd just sink down and you'd feel that gravity, you're the gravity. We're hanging on almost for dear life and these guys just started coming down right to the city and just bank off, and then that's when you'd see all the people down there, either cussing, giving you the finger or what have you. And, you felt safe with [the pilots], I never for a second thought, "This guy doesn't know what he's doing." I guess you can say it was probably around like a four or five minute flight, and I remember it got to the point where we more or less knew where we were at. When you're ready to go, when that bird comes in and it just pops up like this and flares, and usually what that's for it's to basically get everybody out, anybody in that vicinity basically gets out because those rotors are powerful. I remember it flared and it flared and it got up and stayed there and at that point I remember looking out and it wasn't a routine thing.

Before then I felt real strong, as I was roping down I'm like "This is nothing," but this day for some reason I felt a little bit weary. And I don't know if it was because we were staying in that position so long, and I remember looking out and I remember seeing this rooftop just lift off like you'd see in a hurricane and the dust was billowing and billowing and we're airborne, and I thought "We're here too long, let's do something, let's do something," and we're just hovering. And at that point he just started raising his elevation, and I'm like, "Oh, my God." I'm looking down and that's when I started getting nervous. We were getting pop shots at that point. I didn't hear it, obviously my mind was just set on getting down there, and we finally got [into] the position where we were supposed to be at, and at that point we dropped the ropes. Sergeant Joyce was telling me to drop the ropes. And I remember that rope, it got hung up on a telephone pole and just to give you an idea, think of a telephone pole and you're looking down at maybe 20 feet, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, this is high." I remember I saw the rope hung up on a telephone pole I'm like, "This is disaster."

So there was a crew chief, he was always there, a mini gun, and he was just looking around, making sure the rooftops were cleared; it was good to have him there. I hit him on the shoulder and I'm like, "Look down, look down." And he saw that the rope was caught up on a telephone pole so he slowly backed it up, and to make matters worse they backed up [so that] the rope was right on top of a car. It was probably 70 feet up, if you really saw what 70 feet looks like, just sliding down that, and everybody just going down it, it's hard to imagine how high that is. And I remember going down and then the next thing I know I hit that car, boom, and don't even ask me how I did not break a leg, and I remember Sergeant McLaughlin just hit on top of me, and I was tumbling off a car. And at that point I got down, you have to get down to get in a prone position and just scan your sector basically. Make sure there's nothing and nobody in the vicinity, and I remember I looked back and that's when I saw Todd Blackburn's lifeless body and his k-pot was off and his eyes were half open, and I'm thinking, "This is my best friend."

What had happened to Todd?

Todd doesn't even know. A lot of people think he might have got hit right when he was about to grab that rope [and it] bounced him off, maybe the bird leveled off and he missed the rope, maybe halfway something happened. But he hit hard, and at that point I thought he was dead. And at that point I knew destruction was basically gonna happen. I was really, really scared. Because it was the first time I actually saw a friend of mine hurt, and to what extent I didn't know at the time.

At that point we got in the prone position and within 30 seconds I saw my first enemy. I started hearing pop shots, and it's hard to imagine the adrenaline that was going through my body at that point, and I remember looking at him, and there would be a small little alleyway, and this man just went out there, peeked and went back, and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God." I put my selector switch to semi, and I had a bead on him and I knew if he popped his head out again I would take him. And it so happened he didn't do that again, what he did was, instead of peeking out, he darted out through the alleyway and as he was turning I just remember him slowly going like this, it was almost like a slow motion, just baaaaam, he just started firing rapidly, automatic AK47, and at that point I remember it was like dust, like somebody had just taken some dust and hit it at your face.

I remember looking at him, and I saw blood on my nose, and I remember looking at my shoulder and there was a piece of metal sticking out like this, and there was something in my hands, some kind of shrap metal and what made it worse was Goode was taking care of Todd Blackburn. Mark Goode. And he's a good friend of mine, very good friend, and he was sitting there bandaging him up, and he looked at me and his eyes just got wide open, which made it worse for me. I'm thinking "Oh, my God, what?" Your adrenaline's pumping so much you don't even realize if maybe half of my body was just shot, you really don't know the extent of the damage that you're going through. And I guess from fear of it he looked at me, and I thought it was worse. He set up a casualty collection point, I believe it was behind that car.

It's a little bit hazy, but I remember the feeling that I had at that point was more of anger, my life meant nothing at that point. I figured, "This is it." Dave Deimer -- he was a guy from New York -- he was sitting there and he had this M249 SAW, and it seemed like he was almost in a movie. He was like, "Come on," and he just sprang into that alleyway, and just that sense of, "Hey, there's nobody in their path gonna make it through his wrath of gunfire," made me feel a little bit better, and at that point I'm thinking to myself, "Hey, I got seven rounds of M203" and I remember First Sergeant Harris was there and he was kind of like my Ranger buddy at the time and he and I were kind of in position, and I remember I was trying to feed those rounds out of my M203.

I remember Dave saying "We need some firepower down here," and I'm like, "I'm shooting this damn thing." And I remember that feeling because I was sitting there in the casualty collection point and I did what we did in basic training, learning how to fire it, and it had the little leaf sight at the front. I'm peeking out there, and you know, "boom," peek out, and then come back. There was a nice big Toyota van, it was nice and no dents in it and it looked good. And that's the one I wanted to fire because I believe there was an enemy to the front. There was a big tree at the top of it and I'm like, "This is my target, I'm hitting this thing," so I peek out and look again and finally I take it off safe and boom, whooo, that thing just flew like a 150 meters past it, I'm like, "Oh, my God," and at that point I'm training it.... I knew it was like 125 meters in front of me and I just aimed that barrel to that vehicle. And I guess at that point it just ceased firing. I don't know if I would like to say that it was my doings that took him out, it might have been Dave's or it might have been somebody else.

I believe I was still at that point in that collection point. It was right at an intersection, and we had all the positions lined up and I remember Scott Galantine, I remember he was shooting and one minute, for some reason I looked and saw him, and at that moment I just saw red, just like "explosion," just like a tomato, just "pop," and I'm thinking, "Oh, my God, he just got hit." And it just started getting worse. And he came back to the casualty collection point, and he was white as a ghost. And I remember I was sitting there right next to him and he's like, "My God, I was here for two days and I'm shot," he's like, "My thumb's blown off." I grabbed his arm and I put it in between my legs and I grabbed his wrist and I held it tight, and he was just white as a ghost. And I'm like, "You're fine," he's like, "I think my thumb's blown off," and I'm like, "No, it's still there, you're good, don't worry about it, you know we're gonna get out of here," and I was probably trying to really encourage myself, that we are getting out of this place. So I was trying to relate it to him to try to calm him down.

And it just got worse from there, within minutes after that, Kevin Snodgrass got hit in the leg, and we knew from a training mission beforehand that a leg damage can hit a femoral artery and so we panicked, at least I did. In about 15 minutes four guys went down...

Now tell us about how the radio gets hit and what that means.

I remember Matt trying and trying to get communications with our extraction team, and Jason Moore, he was RTO at the time and, and he's like, "I can't get any comms" and we don't have any communications and at that point you really felt that sense like this might be the ending point...

You just see these people, you see your friends that you've just been playing volleyball with and they're all getting wounded and then when they said, "We don't have any communication" I'm like, "My God, where are we going with this?" Communication's your lifeline, it's your bloodline, if you don't have communications with someone you're running the streets aimlessly. Matt Eversmann knew, if we did lose communications he'd know where to go. We lost communications, and what ended up happening was it actually probably saved his life. The [radio] saved his life I suppose because there was a bullet that went right through it. And that's how we lost all communications.

One way or another we finally got the convoy, and it was so wonderful to have it there. The battalion commander, it seemed like he didn't even realize exactly how much fire we were having. And I remember he came up to us -- the casualties were sitting at that point -- and he's just standing up and he's like, "Are you guys all right?" He's just standing up, and I was thinking, "My God, this guy can just get hit any time." At that point Scott Galantine -- I guess he was really encouraging himself, he was making a joke out of this thing, "My God, first day here and I'm hit."

We realized we were going to get extracted and I remember Sergeant Pringle -- this is the first time I really saw the wrath of what a .50-cal can really do -- he was covering that intersection, and I remember looking up and he was just without any hesitation, he was sitting there and " bom, bom, bom, bom, bom, bom," and you just saw smoke and everything just collapsing. I felt safe with that thing going off. And that's when -- Todd already left with Goode, they left in a separate convoy -- they finally picked us up and our whole chalk ended up on this one cargo humvee. It was a tan humvee and these things are ungodly powerful. [There were] two benches on the side and they had kevlar coating and we just jumped in and dove in. The casualties went in first. We just loaded God knows how many people on there. I remember just piling in there and then everybody piling basically on top of me.

I remember we started getting down on ammo and our forward support was Dave Deimer. He got on there and it was like a day at the park for him, he just got on the hood and he was like, "I need ammo," so I took out my LCE and I was just pouring all my ammo to him. And because usually they're belt driven, there's like a drum of 200 rounds. And he just used 'em up. And believe me that's a lot of rounds, because he carried his basic load of 600 rounds, and within 15, 20 minutes it's expended. Then you can understand why I felt so safe having him there with that 249.

As we're driving the first incident I remember was an RPG just flew overhead, just whistled above you. And the feeling of how close it was it was just unbelievable. I don't know how we didn't get a direct hit.

What's it sound like?

I just remember the rounds, because they were just like "phew, phew, phew, phew..." and it's kinda like a little whistling in the air, and you just are like, "There's one with my name on it."

And as we were going I remember we're driving in, I'm pretty sure we were the front forward line, and I remember Jason Moore, at the top of his lungs he's like "Grenade!" and I'm like, "Oh, my God!" And they shot a grenade and it landed right next to us, and we all ducked down in the humvee and it didn't go off, and we just kept going.

And it happened again, and Jason's like "Grenade!" and this time it went off, but we had enough time to take off. And as we were driving, I believe what happened was there was a forward observer up on the top who was telling us to go right and go left, and we started getting lost. And you can just imagine how you feel when you're driving in the city and you're lost, that feeling of desparation, and just magnify [that] times 100. Can you just imagine? Going and just driving and all of a sudden you hit an ambush site. And the volume of fire was just so intense that I don't how any of us made it out alive, [I] really don't, and to have that feeling of turning around, and going back in that same spot, it's hard to just imagine that feeling of "What in the hell are we doing?"

And at that point, I knew for one reason or another, I'm not sure if it was the tires -- the Somalis set up these tires and they set them aflame. And there was a perfect site for an ambush; they figured we're gonna stop and they're just gonna have their day with us. And I'm not sure if that was what it was, that we had to stop or we had to stop to regroup and finally find out where we're going, but at one point I knew we had to stop. And Matt Eversmann, Sergeant Eversmann, he told us [to] dismount. So the casualties stayed in including myself, Galantine, Sergeant Snodgrass, and at that point, everybody just dispersed. And that feeling that we had, I didn't really know what was going on. You know, I can peek out and try to get [the] little support as I can for our people but.... At that point I remember finally everybody got back on and I just remember the stretcher getting above and it just came crashing down on me and I almost broke my leg, but I didn't care.

And what did you see?

I didn't. I didn't see what was going on, I just heard Sergeant Eversmann say, "He's going into shock, we gotta get him outta here." And at that point I did not know who it was because he was on top of me. And as you were driving you just hear, it sounded so trivial, and it's so comical, not comical, but you just hear people saying "I'm hit, I'm hit!" and it just kept going, people were saying "I'm hit," I'm thinking "Oh, my God!"

I remember another time when it started getting worse and worse and they finally said "We gotta put a tourniquet on him," and I do not really know who it was, if it was Sergeant Burns or not, but I remember Sergeant Eversmann saying, "We've gotta get a tourniquet on him." I'm thinking, "My God, there's a guy that's gonna lose a leg, there's a guy that's gonna lose an arm." And the driver is getting hit, he got hit like twice. We were just getting hit from every direction, and it sounds like it can't be true, but you just hear all these people saying "I'm hit!" and I'm thinking, "What's going on? How can this be happening?"

Beforehand, the seven missions before, we had a false sense of security, "We're the Rangers, we're part of Delta, we have the best package in the world that life can offer, and the military power that we had, how can this be happening to us?" That's what was going through my mind and I thought either, A, this humvee's not gonna make it and we're gonna be on foot, [or] B, everybody's gonna die or I'd be left there hanging by myself, just these things were starting to go through your mind and you're thinking that there's no way, we're not getting outta here. This is it, this is the end. And at that point there were these set of tire tracks and I knew we had to get through it, we had to get out of there.

[Tell me about the] burning tires.

They were burning tires, and I didn't realize how big it was, but I remember I believe Sergeant Eversmann is like, "Go through it." And next thing you know, everybody just hit the ground, we all got down. And at that point you just feel, the flames just engulfed you, feel that heat and I was praying to God there wasn't a leak in the gas tank or something, you'd be just blown up. We went through it, and this humvee was just getting battered, I don't even know if we were going on rims, but this humvee just took so much abuse. The firefight started subsiding a little bit, and I remember as we were driving the humvee started losing power, and the driver just couldn't go any further, he was badly hurt.

I remember looking at this guy, and the terror he had on his face, his eyes were just like huge and open, and he was a good distance away and I just saw his terror in his eyes and I remember we started losing power in the humvee and there was a big five-ton pickup truck behind us. And I don't really know who the driver was but I remember just telling him to hit us, keep hitting us, keep us going. Get outta here. And it just came to the point they kept trying to ram us to get forward and it just stopped, our engine just died. And at that point we had to get on the five-ton pickup truck, and I remember everybody started getting down and we started getting everything that we can grab on the cargo humvee, and I believe Sergeant Struecker took an incinerator grenade and incinerated any kind of evidence, or not evidence, [but he] kind of made it inoperable.

And at that point I remember getting up, and taking hold of that stretcher, and that was my team leader, Sergeant Joyce, he was the one that probably saved my life. I just remember seeing him and his jacket was off and BDUs were off and obviously they were trying to save his life. [It's] almost like somebody else looking at it, it's kinda hard [to remember] that I was actually there. It's almost like I'm a director and I'm looking at myself looking at him. And I remember looking at him and he had a small hole right here, and there was no blood it was just, he was pale. At that point we got up on the five-ton pickup, and I remember looking at him and I got so mad. And that point I broke down. I was like, "This can't be happening." And I remember looking at Sergeant Snodgrass, and he started crying and I started crying, and just the rage that went through my body is unimaginable.

And we continued on and at that point when we finally got on the five-ton pickup truck we started getting close and I remember that feeling, somebody, I don't know who it was, they said, "I see the water." And that meant we were almost there and I remember looking over the five-ton and I saw these Somalians just looking, and I just looked at them and I was so angry, I was like, "You did this to my team leader." Then I just wanted to, I had too much rage. I remember looking at them and just thinking, "How can you do this to us?"

And we proceeded to go on, we finally made it to the hangar. And at that point I believe it was Sergeant Burns that was the one, he was the one that directed us. He was part of the ground convoy, that was his mission. He was in 3rd platoon. He knew his roads, he knew where to go. And he was in pain. And I'm not sure if he was the one that needed the tourniquet or not but he got hit in his leg, and I remember him just screaming. He was like, "Go right! Go left!" and we finally made it out, and at that point we downloaded the casualties. I wanted to help Sergeant Burns, he got held out in a stretcher and, I remember I was like, "Don't worry about me, I mean just look at Sergeant Burns, look at Sergeant Joyce! Help, do something! I'm fine." Compared to what other people went through, it [was] nothing.

I was able to help Sergeant Burns, they pumped some IVs in both his arms and I was just squeezing them trying to get it in there. The last I remember a nurse saying, "If you wanna cry, go ahead," and she gave [me] a hug, and that was it. Then I went to the hangar where people started trickling in and at that point, reality even hit harder when, when some of the people were saying, "Kowalewski got hit, he was killed." And Corporal Smith and all these people just started trickling in and I just couldn't believe this was happening. I remember Sergeant Wilson, I guess he had RPG wounds in his legs and they were trying to pump this morphine into him. They did it to Othic, too, because he was in bad pain; they put the morphine in him and he was flying like a kite. You know he was all happy, it was funny that having worked for him, to relieve some of the pain.

And at that point, they got basically whoever they could get out and they said, "You might need to get suited up. We need everybody out there." The feeling that I have when I was in the hangar I'm thinking, "There's still people out there. They're going through what I'm going through," and by this time I believe it was 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon. And nightfall started hitting, and we finally realized there's still people out there. And at that point everybody, anybody that they [could] grab, the cooks went out there, everybody went out there and they performed what they did. And they did a wonderful job....

What happened at the medal giving ceremony back in the States?

We were back in the States, we were back in Fort Benning when we received our awards. General Scott and General Dunning were there and Sergeant Joyce's family, Sergeant Ruiz's family, and I believe a lot of the families [of men] that were killed in action were there. And I remember I was designated to go on stage and receive an award and I remember vividly the feeling, I can speak for everybody at this point, that feeling of last roll call. And from what I remember vividly is they said, "Sergeant Joyce." And silence. It was not a whisper, not a sound coming out of anybody, and it was silent. And they said "Sergeant James Joyce" for the second time. Nothing, no answer. And they said "Sergeant James C. Joyce." And they said, "He's no longer with us, he was killed in action October 3rd, 1993." It was just so emotional, it's the most emotional thing that I've felt. [And then] the taps were played.

I remember going to Fort Campbell to be a designated personnel to do the ceremony for the people that died in the helicopter unit. And I remember just their form of last roll call, you just looked up and you just see these four helicopters and just two of them banked off, and you just saw two continuing, moving on. And that represented the two helicopters that went down October 3rd.

Do you think about that day much now?

I never really kept it too bottled up inside. I believe doing something that intense, it's not good to keep it bottled up inside. I'm sure I can speak for a lot of veterans that dealt with the same thing, there's some other people that do this for years, they did it in two, three tours. And I did it one day. I couldn't fathom the thought of going back out there. I knew we probably had to get out there because of Chief Durant, and I remember the politicians came up there and they said, "If you do not release Chief Durant, we're gonna release the dogs of darkness." And that's what the Somalians called us, and they also called us "the evil ones in the hangar." And we were kind of like the politicians' bodyguard. And I was thinking, "I hope to God we don't go back out there."

But as for thinking about it now, I've thought about it, you think about it every day, I mean, every day you think about "What can I have done better? Could I have saved anybody's life? Could I have altered anything?" And I look back now and I replay the actions [that] would have happened. Other people had perished, and the feeling of that is overwhelming. You sometimes realize, "Why wasn't it me? How could it not have been me and it was somebody else? And how could it not have been all of us?" People like Sergeant Eversmann, .... Sergeant Telscher, people like that, they probably saved my life. They did. And it's that feeling that maybe I could have done more to save somebody else's life, save Sergeant Joyce's life, what could I have done? I'm sure a lot of Vietnam or Korea [veterans], everybody could have said, "What could I have done better?" And it's that feeling that you have, sometimes it eats you up alive.

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