Taking on the Medina Division
As the 3rd Infantry took Saddam International Airport on April 3 and April 4, the 2nd Brigade, under Col. Perkins's command, was dispatched to fight what was left of the Medina Division, a key unit of the Republican Guard. It had been largely bypassed in the Army's charge towards Baghdad. But Army leadership felt the skilled army needed to be dealt with before American forces could take the city.
The original plan was a big left hook, and your men [were] to encircle the Medina. Talk me through what happened.
Yes. The original plan was the cavalry squadron would come up from the south and fix [on] Medina, and that I would come up from the north and come down on top of the Medina from north to south, into their rear.
So we went into Objective Saints. Objective Saints is the intersection of Routes 8 and 1, which are the main north-south routes through Iraq and into Baghdad. So if you control Objective Saints -- it's one of these three-tiered intersection bridges -- you control the ability to get in and out of Baghdad from the south. You also control routes heading to the south.
The Medina Division was south of that, because they were defending south, thinking we're going to attack up [Routes] 8 and 1. ... In the meantime, we'll go out here and come in behind the Medina, which is, in effect, what happened.
The only thing is, the cavalry squadron never went to the south to fix them. But in the end, it was unnecessary, because I think mentally [the Medina] were fixed that we were coming to the south anyways.
We're heading to Objective Saints. We're going along Route 8, which is not a very good road. When we crossed at the bridge there at Karbala and Objective Peach, we crossed that. Then we head to Saints -- not a very good road and very heavily armed, very heavily defended [with] a lot of little military garrisons along the way. We had armored vehicles along the way -- RPG[s], crusert weapons, et cetera.
...The lead tank in the lead company which is the lead brigade-- Sgt. 1st Class Pyle was in his tank. He was leading the attack down Route 8 to Objective Saints, [a]cross the river and [into resistance] right there -- a lot of dismounted threats up there, dug-ins. So he's engaging with his coaxial machine gun -- it's a machine gun mounted in a turret with the tank. [He] basically uses over 2,000 rounds of machine gun ammo, and runs out of ammunition for that machine gun. So then he's firing with a 50-caliber machine gun to engage the dismounted troops, and ends up running out of 50-caliber ammunition.
In the meantime, he is shot twice, once in the shoulder and once the arm. In fact, he tells me [later] he didn't even know he was shot in the arm until he saw the blood running out of his [suit] -- we still had our chemical suits on.
So he is shot twice. He's now out of machine gun ammo, but in the meantime his tank is engaged with RPGs. At the back of his tank, there's an APU -- it's like a small generator, our auxiliary power unit that's on the bustle rack. That is hit, and it basically explodes in fire. There's other machine gun ammo on the back of the turret; it catches on fire. So the back of his tank is on fire.
So he's still driving down the road, basically having expended all of his machine gun ammo; he has been shot twice; the back of his tank is on fire. They still have a lot of [enemy] dismounts. They have to start engaging them with the main gun of the tank. It's the only ammunition they have left over, the main gun tank rounds. So he's using those to engage these RPGs and machine gun positions.
The tank behind him calls up and says, "Hey, you're on fire. You need to stop. Pull over." He says, "Negative, I'm going to continue the attack," and he's the lead vehicle on the attack. So we're continuing to push down this road. His tank's on fire; he's shot; [he's] out of machine gun ammunition. Finally, what happens is the fuel leaking out of this auxiliary power unit is on fire. It gets sucked in to his engine intake and the tank aborts, because now he's got the fire in the engine compartment.
We evacuate the crew off the tank. He's wounded, obviously, but still doing well. Eventually we recover the tank, pull it to Objective Saints after we destroy all the enemy on the route in. Sergeant Pyle's biggest concern is that he needs a new tank so he can continue on the fight. He still has not been [evacuated] yet, so he still has a bullet in his arm.
I'm talking to him there at Objective Saints. He's relaying how this happened, and his main concern was not for his arm, but [that] he needs another tank, so he can continue the attack to Baghdad. Just one example of many heroic actions out there. ...
Then on April 4, we still have to go down and continue the destruction of the Medina Division, which is south of Saints. So what happens is 164 continues the attack down Route 8, 464 Armor continues the attack down Route 1, and 115 stays at Objective Saints and secures that. We attack down to about the 4-0 or 5-0 east-west gridline.
As we attacked on, the other 10th and the 2nd Brigade are the two brigades that are on those roads from the Medina Division. We come in contact literally with hundreds of armored vehicles, artillery, air defense, et cetera. Most of them are oriented south, so they still believe that we're going to attack from the south, rather than from the north.
The tanks and some of the BMPs you can see start to pull out of their fighting positions and turn around, as they see that we're coming to engage [them] from the north. But they obviously were caught by surprise, and so they were destroyed fairly quickly. ...
Word was the Medina Division had been degraded by 80 percent. You got through and found this wasn't true at all.
80 percent of their vehicles were still there at least. No, we did not see one destroyed vehicle before we got there. ... They were not out in any of the revetments or any of the battle positions. They were all in these palm groves or in the towns. We saw them next to mosques. They were in alleyways, they were in little garages. They had dispersed all their vehicles.
They'd learnt their lessons from Desert Storm. So I could see where it could be a very deliberate thing, that they would dig these fighting positions in what would be a normal dispersion of armored vehicles and a very typical defense to draw fire. In fact, all their vehicles were in the towns next to mosques and palm groves. They were dispersed and hidden, so as not to be seen from the air. ...
If in fact the enemy had [not] been destroyed from there, why didn't we then have the mother of all battles?
I think the fact that we were able to come in behind him really provided a huge advantage to us. Like I've said before, we have found that their weaknesses -- They are not very agile. They can't adjust their formations and react to developing situations on the battlefield.
So when we came in behind them with an armored brigade, it's a lot of combat power. We came down both [Routes] 8 and 1 simultaneously, so we engage both of his brigades simultaneously. I think we just overwhelmed them with the speed and firepower that we brought, as [the enemy commander] basically became paralyzed and was not able to command and control and move his forces.
So what you'd have is individual tanks responding, or individual vehicles, but it wasn't this coordinated effort, to bring the artillery in and all that. They were just hit so hard and so quickly that he just couldn't react to it.
To what degree had the Medina [Division] been debilitated as well by desertions? Do you think, "OK, the vehicles were still there; how many of the troops were still there?"
I really can't tell, because even in the middle of us getting in contact with them, the psychological impact was such that we would see a pile of clothing or boots right there on the road. In other words, [as] we're killing this tank, the guy half-mile down the road is saying, "OK, that's it, I'm out." I think the desertion was occurring as we're fighting, because we would see literally piles of clothing, like a platoon's worth of clothing, just piled, and guys [are] gone. ...
We'd see a lot of middle-aged males walking away from battlefield areas. Some of them would have army boots on, but then they would have civilian undergarment[s]. It was obvious that they probably had just taken their uniform off and just walked away. If they did that, in most cases, we just let them go. Our intent was not to kill or even capture an excess amount of Iraqis. It was just to cause their military and their command structure to implode and cause the regime to collapse. ...
Even when we went into Baghdad, [we engaged in] very tenacious fighting [with individuals]. But [the problem was] they just couldn't bring it together. Warfare is just very complicated stuff. When our brigade just came upon them in three different areas, we were spread out over 50 miles. We just came upon them [with] close air support and artillery. I'm sure it was just more than they could even imagine. It just develops so quickly, and our tanks, our Bradleys are just going through their formation so quickly, that it just becomes obvious that it's hopeless for them. So I'm sure their leadership just basically gave up at that point.
First "Thunder Run"
On April 5, Col. Perkins led a charge of 761 soldiers to sweep in and out of Baghdad to test out enemy capabilities, and send them a signal that the U.S. forces were prepared to come into the capital city. It is estimated that between 1,000 and 3,000 Iraqis were killed.
[What was the thinking behind the first Thunder Run?]
...To create as much confusion as I can inside the city, because I had found that my soldiers or my units can react to chaos much better than [the enemy] can. So it was an attempt to create as much chaos as quickly as I can throughout as wide an area as I can, because our guys are so well trained and disciplined as they can deal with it. ...
If you can break through their defenses and just fight on through and don't be overly methodical there-- … You get into some key places in the city, you grab key things. Then you turn around and start fighting back out, taking the city from the inside out. They just can't react to that. ...
When we attack on April 5 to the airport, the we attacked right up Route 8 with an armored tank battalion, one battalion. We didn't take any real support vehicles, because we had found that the gauntlet of fire you get is so great that the wheeled vehicle just can't survive. ...
What we start to find out is that, the key terrain as we go up there are these intersections with the overhead passes. ... As we come to the overpasses, what we found [was], one, just as [the Iraqi military commander] had put his vehicles under the palm groves to prevent observation and attack from the air, he had put vehicles underneath the overpasses. So he would have tanks and BMPs under the overpasses, so that you couldn't see [his troops] from the air and therefore engage them from the air.
He also would dig fighting positions, foxholes, and bunkers under the overpasses. Then when you would drive through, they would engage you from between the bridge abutments. The challenge with that is, as we're moving and as we try to re-engage him, we're having to shoot between these bridge abutments, and so it does create a problem. So he's kind of got these keyhole shots at a vehicle when it comes through the bridge abutments, and it's harder to return fire. ...
Once you get on that road, you're on that road. So he could mass all of his fires on that road, which is, in fact, what he did. So that road is going to be a gauntlet from beginning to end. You're just going to come on to continual fire, because he knows you're going to be on that road.
Then the other thing we've found is that along the road there were these multi-story buildings, rooftops and palm groves around some of these intersections, that they would -- In defending all the palm groves, on the roofs, they would put RPGs. They had air defense artillery now as we're getting into Baghdad, these rings of ADA around Baghdad. A lot of them were up on roofs, high ground, so that they [could] get good observation at the aircraft.
But then what they would do is turn these air defense assets down on top of us from the buildings. So you had to be wary that air defense assets, which were put on top of buildings to shoot down airplanes, could also be used in the direct fire mode on the ground. So that was another phenomena that we saw a lot.
Then obviously they would take their civilianized weaponized vehicles and then intersperse them amongst civilian traffic, so that they would be behind a school bus or something, and then pull up behind it, and come into you with a suicide car or something. So this is where you really get that mixing of military and civilian as you come into Baghdad. ...
As we attacked up on Route 8 that day, it's definitely the most intense fighting we had seen yet, because we had this gauntlet of overpasses and buildings and roads and fighting positions that we'd fight through. We learned that what you've got to do is maintain momentum. You've got to be able to pass targets off from one vehicle from one company to another, because you have to keep moving. ...
You had this continual three-dimensional threat in completely different distances of threats that guys were working on all the time. Again, we found the key to success was continuing to pass these targets off. So you had to have continual conversation from tank to tank to tank or, "Look, there's guys up to your right. I'm going to engage it. Just know I'm behind you, and I'm going to shoot a main tank round right to your left to take this off."
It is very challenging to coordinate direct fires like that, because basically this whole unit's [on] one road behind each other, and otherwise the only vehicle that could fire is the lead vehicle, and that's just not going to put on enough fire power.
Every vehicle is firing, but you're having to coordinate with the guy in front of you, so that you don't engage him, or if you use a weapon or a weapon system that's going to have a collateral effect-- ...
How complicated is the issue of civilian casualties in this situation? Because the Iraqis have been told you're still a hundred miles to the south. How difficult a problem is that for you?
A news crew happened to be in my vehicle during this attack. I was with 164, and they [the news crew] could hear the command net and everything. The one thing they were amazed at is how much of the command, that time was spent talking about which vehicles to engage, which not to engage. We're attacking up the northbound route, so the southbound route had vehicles coming down and [were talking] constantly, "OK, there's a blue van, it's civilian, don't engage it. OK, behind him are two white vans, they just shot at Alpha Company, you need to engage them." So constantly, "Don't shoot blue van, get the white van, there's an old man over here, don't shoot him, shoot him."
I mean, 80 percent of the conversation on the command net was trying to discriminate between a non-combatant and a combatant. I just knew that that was required, and that's what we did. ...
I will tell you, in more cases than not, military vehicles got by because guys would default on the case of, "Make sure we don't engage a civilian vehicle." So in many cases, I would see a vehicle drive by and then all of a sudden the guy would open up with an AK-47; you'd already said, "Don't shoot him, I think he's not." Then all of a sudden, he opens with an AK, so you'd made a bad call. I know two instances where I personally said, "Don't shoot at that vehicle," and then it turns out that they had weapons and opened up. Eventually we engaged them and killed them. But in more cases than not, we didn't engage; in more cases than not, we let vehicles get by that we probably should have engaged. ...
You get to the airport. Describe to me the sort of scene, the emotions, the reactions at the end of the mission.
Definitely one of the most welcome sights that I've seen was that 1st Brigade Commander Will Grimsley was there. We are coming in. We had built these racks on the sides of our vehicles to carry more supplies. The other benefit we found out is those racks would detonate the RPGs before they got to the vehicle. The good thing was the shake charge would be malformed; it wouldn't have as much penetrating power. The bad thing was we put all our sleeping bags and rucksacks and duffel bags in these racks. So when the RPGs would hit them, they would catch them on fire.
When our vehicles pulled into the airport, the great majority of them were on fire on the outside of them. It was all our duffel bags and that had all be[en] shot up. The vehicle itself was intact, but all our stuff on the outside was burning up. The tops of our vehicles were just covered with spent machine gun cartridges and links and all that.
So you see this force come rolling in the airport on fire. We had some casualties we're [evacuating them]. Helicopters were right there. ... [It was] a safe haven for us to go into to get re-armed and re-fit. Talking to those that were there, I think it was kind of traumatic, to kind of see us rolling in on fire and [with] machine gun spent cartridges, vehicles with holes in them [that] had [been] hit by RPGs and stuff like that. So I think it was a great reunion for us, but I think also somewhat of a traumatic sight as we drove onto that airfield there. ...
Second "Thunder Run, the taking of Baghdad
Perkins was again sent into Baghdad on April 7, this time to take the city if he could. With a key reinforcement of supplies at the crucial hour, Perkins decided to remain in Baghdad, staying the night at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
[What was the plan for the second Thunder Run?]
The news media was becoming this battleground for who's in the city, who's in charge, et cetera. We had to make sure that in no uncertain terms that people knew the city had fallen and we were in charge of it, because then I think that would end the resistance. Then we would save a lot of lives on both sides.
When the requirement came up for a raid, I started taking a look at it, and said we probably ought to come up with a plan that meets the initial requirement that I can do a raid. But then I can offer options to my higher commanders that if the condition's right, I can stay the night, because if I can stay the night, I can stay forever. If I'm in the city and I stay there, the war's over.
It's obvious Baghdad's the center of gravity, and if the city is fallen then all hope is lost. [That's] the direction I gave to the planners. We sat and came up together [with] a plan that would allow us to attack into Baghdad, into the center of Baghdad, and stay the night and occupy the key pieces of terrain that obviously had symbolic significance that we basically were in charge of the country now.
As we thought about that, [we decided] there had to be a series of things that had to occur. One, we had to tactically win the fight to get in the city. Two, we had to be able to occupy terrain that was defensible. ...
We started developing the plan. As we took a look [at] some timelines, [it] started coming out that I would have to make big decisions. The first timeline is, are we going to stay in the city or come back out of the city? The governing factor on that was fuel [because] we were not going to take any wheeled vehicles in initially, so I [could] only go with one tank of fuel on the tanks.
The issue with the tank is its rate of consumption is determined by [the number of hours it runs]. It consumes 56 gallons an hour, really whether you're moving or not. So a full tank of gas on a tank is only going to last you eight to 10 hours, and then you're going to be empty. So let's plan on eight hours for a planning factor; [that] gives you a couple of hours. That means that at hour four, I have to decide whether we're going to continue the attack or pull back out of the city. ...
There were three major overhead passes that went into Baghdad, which became Objectives Moe, Larry and Curly. Those are infantry-type objectives, because there's a lot of buildings around them. There's the wooded areas around them, so you need dismounts. I have one infantry battalion and two tank battalions, so we give the infantry battalion those three objectives -- to secure those overpasses so that I can own that road, so I can drive in and out of the city. ...
The direction I gave was that we will lead with the tank battalion first, and they will attack up Route 8, and they will not stop for anything. The infantry battalion will come back behind, secure those overpasses and police up anything else in behind it, because we learned before when a vehicle becomes disabled, if you stop behind it, you then become a target.
So the guide that's given [to] the tank battalions [is], "You get on that road and you attack as fast as you can, and push right through to the center of the city. If a vehicle becomes disabled due to enemy fire, you immediately take the crew off, put them on another vehicle, and you just leave it. ... If you see enemy, you engage as much as you can, but keep moving. Then you keep passing that off to the guy behind you. He'll pass off to the guy behind you. But don't stop and kill every last person and then move, because it's too deliberate, and then they'll just keep coming back at us."...
Now I would like to say this is well-planned, synchronized chaos. But we came barrelling into the city, split two tank battalions in half, attack[ed] with two tank battalions going through the center of the city, and quickly started grabbing bridges and intersections. We'd get to one and then start splitting off and going to other ones. So we fix as many Iraqis as we could, and kind of seal the city, so that [the Iraqi army] couldn't move any amongst [the civilians].
Simultaneously, [as] that's going on, the infantry battalion is coming up and starts seizing Moe, Larry and Curly behind us, so we can move our two packages, which is refuel and re-arm these thin-skinned vehicles which we have pre-positioned down at Saints, where the brigade operation center was. When we got the word when it was clear, we would run those up to the city. Or if we couldn't get [them] to the city, we'd pull out of the city, refuel, and come back up.
So this fight's going on. The two tank battalions are attacking in the city; 315 is working this part here. It's starting to approach hour four. So I go down to the center of the city, have the two battalion commanders meet me. We get on the ground and say, "OK, what's going on?" "OK, I'm here, I got this bridge," "I got this, there's fighting still going all over." They said, "You know, we can win this. We're going to be able to get the key intersections. We'll close our ranks and form a cordon, so there's no gaps between the battalions. We'll have this cordon in the center of the city with this one road going out for our supplies, so that we can come [in]. Then we can work the cordons, and we have good interior lines in and out of the city."...
It was now about the fourth hour, and so I was getting to the point where I'm going to have to make a decision, but really we had expended so much capital getting in there. It would have been not only a tactical loss, but I think a strategic loss if we pulled out the city, because then the Iraqis could spin it [as], "They came in the city, we defeated them, we pushed them out, we kicked them out," et cetera.
The last resort was to pull out of the city. So I talked to the battalion commanders, and again the main requirement is a fuel requirement, and the tanks are the big problem. The direction that I gave them was to put the tanks where we need heavy armor -- the key bridges, key intersections. We don't want to move them, and they shut their engines off. If you shut their engines off, every hour that the engine is shut off, it's another hour of decision time I have to make.
Now generally, [it's] not a good plan when you're in an enemy city surrounded by 6 million people to shut your engines off, but you can still operate the tank on battery power, and you just have to continually charge it up. ...
Things are getting a little tenuous at about hour four, because now we have the tanks shut off. [The northern company is] almost out of ammo, [so I] call back to the brigade [executive officer], Lt. Col. Westly, doing a great job back there with the operation center. They're working the close air support, artillery. I'm talking to him on the phone, and all of a sudden, this static comes over almost like the phone goes dead. He comes back and he says, "Hey, sir, we've been hit."
Our operation center had been hit a couple of times [in the past] with artillery and mortar, and a couple of guys get a little shrapnel and stuff like that, but nothing major. I figured that's what it was. I said, "OK, go do an assessment and come back with me." He comes back about 20 minutes later on a satellite phone. He says, "Hey, sir, it's pretty significant." He says we have about 5 KIA, 4 MIA, about 20 casualties and about 20 vehicles [and] pieces of equipment destroyed. It appeared a missile came and landed right in the center and basically destroyed the operation center. It's a miracle, actually, more people weren't killed or vehicles destroyed. ...
[Now] what we have for a situation is, we have the tanks in the city shut down to conserve fuel. The northern company is almost out of ammo. The first R-2 package that has been sent forward has been ambushed, lost five vehicles there and the brigade operations center has been destroyed. So one would think that probably you don't have the best of situations right now to deal with. If you laid out a decision-making chart, it probably would have said, "You need to get out now."...
Personally, I was just so adamant that we've got to be able to figure a way to stay in the city, that if we pull out now we will have done a lot of this for naught. It would just be turned on us as a giant loss, both tactically and strategically.
So we just continued to fight that fight, and at every level, from the lowest private up to everyone that was in the assault CP to the brigade CP. ... You have privates and special forces getting in these other ammunition and fuellers that were still viable, to get them up to that northern company. ...
What they did, in fact -- That evening I went and saw one of the hemits. His whole windshield was shot out by machine gun bullets. So I went to the driver and I said, "How did you survive?" When you look at it, you think no one can survive.
This kid is on 2,500 gallons of fuel in an aluminum truck. He said, "I knew the fuel had to get there. I just got behind the wheel, ducked down behind the dashboard, stuck my M-16 out the window and started shooting, and stepped on the gas. We're going about 50 miles an hour. We just drove straight through it."... They're coming under a hail of fire, tires being shot out, windshields being shot out. But guys were up there with the 50-caliber [guns], shooting back, shooting with the M-16s [and] 9 mm [guns] to get these supply vehicles into the center of Baghdad.
In the meantime, the battle of Baghdad still continued to rage on. But we're securing these areas which we can defend throughout the night. We've moved mortars now into the city, and we're shooting direct fire with our mortars into the city. A lot of rooftops they had weaponized with snipers, and they had put their artillery and mortars on the roof. So we were firing direct fire with our mortars on the rooftops to their mortars.
Just as dusk was falling, the lead elements of R-2 packages of the two tank battalions started making it into the city with our armed escorts, and by nightfall, both tank battalions had gotten their ammunition and fuellers in. We didn't lose any of those vehicles. A lot of them were shot up, tires shot out [along with the] windshields, but all of the vehicles made it into the city.
As darkness fell, I knew that we were able to secure an adequate base and support in the city, because I now had another whole day's load of ammunition and fuel. I could then continue to save myself, and the next day I knew we wouldn't be travelling as much as we had the first day, because we were in the city. We'll just be expanding out, so I had probably plenty of fuel. Then with the additional ammo that I had, I knew that the tide had turned on this war.
In other words, we were in Baghdad, and there was probably no way that they could kick us out of the city. [The enemy] would just not be able to generate enough combat power to push us out of the city.
We continued to have fights for the next couple of days, but not at the magnitude they could push us out. The fighting out on Route 8 continued for the next couple of days.
That sounds like the key moment.
As I said, I got on the radio to the British commander -- this is on April 7 -- I said, "If I can spend a night in Baghdad, then this war is over." I think it turned out to be so that that was the big turning point of the war, because if you look now in hindsight, they're saying, "You know, April 7, the day we came in, is the day that Saddam fled Baghdad out to the west, and east, I guess, towards Jordan."