interviews: specialist mike kurth

Kurth was a US Army Ranger between 1991 and 1996. He was a Helicopter Radio Operator for Sgt. Watson, Chalk III - Super Six Six. Basic mission was to update the Commander on their position and situation and keep Sergeant Watson in contact. Physically stayed with Sergeant Watson on all the missions, except the October 3rd -- had to be pulled for security as well as do the radio communications. He was 24 at the time of the ambush.

When the Rangers were sent to Somalia, who or what was their main target?

The main target was Aidid, to go over there and capture him, and try and get his lieutenants also at the same time, to basically kind of make him ineffective over there.

But were you ever told why Aidid was such a target?

We were told that there's a lot of clan fighting and the ring leader was Aidid, he was doing most of it. He was the main clan leader causing all the disturbances. We were told if we apprehended him, then everything would subside and everything would be much better.

You're a kind of specialist, what was your particular job?

I was a radio operator, my job was to monitor radio traffic and relay that to my chalk leader, Sergeant Watson.

Cast your mind back to that Sunday morning; it was a kind of rest day, what were you all doing?

Sundays were our down day. We didn't have anything planned, we were still supposed to be ready to go in 5 minutes, get our gear on and everything, but it was a relaxation day. We usually [would have] a good meal, get haircuts, play volleyball, go down to the beach. That morning we had an alert because I guess a humvee had run over a land mine. And so they told us to get ready, we're gonna have to go secure that, but by the time we'd got out there, they'd already retrieved it and we just came back. And so, basically we're just kind of relaxing, taking it easy especially after that. After you get ready to get geared up afterwards it's just kind of, not a let down, but everything comes back down to a different level.

So what did you do after that?

Played volleyball, guys went running or went to the beach, or played Risk, just trying to get their mind off of things, trying to relax a little bit after that.

What's the next thing you heard?

We were out playing volleyball and we heard, "OK get it on!" and actually before [that] we had seen all the chalk leaders and officers go to the main building, so we kind of figured something might be cooking up, we're not sure, because sometimes they would go in there get a briefing, come back, [and] nothing would happen, but they went in, and then First Sergeant Harris came out and he was like, "OK, get it on! We're going!" So everybody races into the hangar, gets on their equipment, changes into BDUs. I check my radio and my batteries good and so forth, check weapons make sure everything's good to go. And Sergeant Watson called myself, Sergeant Bourne, Sergeant Holst, [and] Sergeant Ramaglia and we went in to get a quick briefing of where we were gonna go in, what kind of neighborhood we were going into and so forth.

What did they show you about the neighborhood?

He told us we were going into the bad part of the neighborhood, that's where all his supporters were, and he said it was a bad neck of the woods so we we're like, "OK, no problem," but we expected some conflict, we were knew it was gonna be hot going in. We knew there was a chance for something to happen. We took it seriously, like we did everything else, but we were just a little bit more aware this time it could be escalated.

This was Aidid's back yard.

Yeah, it was his home court, it was [where] all his supporters were. We were a couple of blocks away from the car market, and we knew that's where a lot of things were going on. Anytime you go into an area where somebody's supported you gotta be a little bit more careful, gotta be that much more paying attention what's going on around you.

You'd flown over the city before, hadn't you? And you'd seen people throwing rocks or shaking their fists at you?

Yeah, in the city they didn't care for us a whole lot. I guess [in] their culture the biggest way of insulting somebody is showing them the bottom of their shoe, and people would take off their shoe and show it to us. And we always wondered if they were doing that to us because they didn't like us, or [because] we were hanging our legs out, so of course we're showing them the bottoms of our shoes. And I always thought, "Well, maybe we're giving the wrong signal off by us hanging out," but we couldn't do it any other way. But on the outskirts of the city, they'd wave and they'd run underneath us and at that time it made you feel like you were doing something important because there's people [who] actually needed help. And their own people weren't helping them out. And that's what we were trying [to do] there, trying to make sure people got the aid that they needed.

So after you suited up, do you actually tell your Chalk that you're going to Aidid's back yard or did you keep that to yourself?

Everybody knew that we were going into Aidid's stronghold; everybody knew when we were taking off. But we all [thought] we'd be back in an hour, hour and a half tops.

You'd done several mission before, hadn't you? How had those gone?

They went well. It was like clockwork: we'd go in, they'd secure the building, get the people, bring them out, we'd load up and take off. It was very quick, in and out, everybody knew what they were doing, everything was already templated, we knew where we're gonna go, how we were gonna set up.

But you kept missing Aidid.

Yes, we were told it was human intelligence. Any time that's involved you're not really sure if the intelligence is correct or how up-to-date it is, like, "Yeah, he was there 20 minutes ago, but is he there now still?" and we would get updates like, "OK, they're still there, they're still there, all right, there's movement around the objective." Or, "Car is leaving" or, "There's a group showing up," we would get updates if we were going but how far along it was we actually never knew, we were just, "OK we're going in, it's still a go, it's still a go. All right, OK, ropes," and all of a sudden we're right there, because we actually didn't know where in the city we were, we're just flying around.

On this particular raid, were you getting updates about the status of Aidid?

We're getting updates like three minutes out, one minute out, "OK, it's still a go." We're getting ready to go in. And then we starting seeing the Olympic Hotel. We saw that and it's like, "OK, there's our intersection right up there, get ready to throw the ropes." But as far as information on the objective, no, I don't think we got any updates that day.

So just describe what happens as you come up to the Olympic Hotel. What's the sequence of events as you rope down?

That day there is a powerline in the intersection so we couldn't land right on the corner. We were told in the briefing we're gonna land in the middle of the block, they're gonna put us down right here, and then we'll just have to backtrack to the corner and we'll be right there in place. So [when] we saw the intersection, the bird slowed down, then this enormous brown-out occurred. You couldn't see a foot outside the bird, but the pilots were still navigating and put us right in the middle of the block, and told us to throw the ropes. The ropes went down and everybody started going down.

How fast do you go?

Pretty fast, I mean, it's quick. One, you're heavy, and two, you have all this equipment on you, you've got your vest, your gear, your ammo, and myself I had a radio on my back, so I went down even faster, and I'm off balance because the weight of the radio is pulling me down. You control it as much as you can, but sometimes you get on the rope and you're just down in a heartbeat.

When you actually hit the ground, what do you see, what do you feel?

You hit the ground and you roll away; you're trying to get away from the ropes so somebody doesn't land on top of you. And before we even got out of the bird we already heard firing going on. And at the time I thought it was the assault force taking down the objective building, but we found out later that it was the Somalis actually firing at us already. That's how quick their reaction was. As soon as they saw the birds come in, immediately there's people running around coming towards the building trying to see what's going on.

Did it occur to you that they might have been waiting for you?

No, I mean, they knew when we left the hangar I'm sure, because you see a 100 guys go out to their jeeps, to their birds, get on the plane and go. But as far as them waiting on us I don't think they were. I'm sure they had an idea what area we're heading to when we fly around, but exactly what building and where, I don't think they actually knew.

Tell me what you did next, you sort of secured the perimeter?

We had the corner and our basic objective was to keep everybody in and keep everybody out while the assault force is in there taking the building down. We're just pulling security, crowd control. Of course they're gonna be around there, we just didn't want them getting too close.

Do you actually see anything of what was going on in the building? Did you see the operatives at work or the prisoners coming out?

No. After they were done securing all the EPWs -- [enemy prisoners of war] -- we saw them [and thought], "We're all done, we're ready to go." That's when I got the call, I was like "OK, we're exiting, we're getting ready to leave in about 5 minutes."

You heard that on your radio?

Yeah. So, OK, we're getting ready to leave, we're all done. And up to that point, it was the same as every other mission, the assault force gets the EPWs, we get everything we need. And at this point we're just basically waiting to exit

So you think it's all over ,really.

Not all over, but what we came to do was over, we're just waiting to leave. All we had to do was wait for the guys to get there with the five-tons which they already had, and all we had to do was load up the prisoners, get them onto the trucks, and then we would go, and that was it.

What was the first thing that happened that made you think things weren't gonna go quite according to plan?

When I saw the bird go down. I saw the bird coming around, and then when I saw it go down behind the buildings, that's when I was like, "OK things are gonna change now, that totally changes the picture." We were almost out of the woods, now we're right back into the thick of things.

You're listening on the radio. Are you aware that the convoy's coming under a bit of fire by now?

Yeah, we actually heard them, I mean we heard them roll up and then we heard them firing. The fire is getting really heavy at this time, and we heard Chalk 4, they were duking it out really good over there. It was just heavy fire going on, but over the radio we hadn't heard about any casualties yet. We heard about Blackburn from the ropes but other than that we hadn't heard anything.

Can you describe when you see the bird, it flies over you and it's gonna get hit?

I saw the bird come over the top of the buildings, and it was spinning kind of awkwardly. It didn't look quite right. It was just turning around so one of the snipers could get a bead on the target on the ground, but it kept turning, and it kept spinning and losing altitude at the same time. And I kept my eye on it, and I was looking and looking and then it disappeared behind a building. I knew it crashed, and so since I had the radio I called to let everybody know. I go, "Be advised, you have a bird down, we got a bird down." I heard, I think it was Chalk 2, Lieutenant DiTomasso was like, "Yeah, we saw it going down, I'm sending some guys over there now," something to that effect. After the bird went down, we knew we had to go but we just couldn't pick up and go, we had to get everything organized, we still had the EPWs in the building.

What are EPWs?

Prisoners of war. We had those to deal with, we had Bourne as a casualty, we had Blackburn, we're still trying to figure out how we're gonna get Blackburn back to the hangar. Because he was in pretty bad shape, and so it was a while before we actually got the sign to go, to pick up and move towards the crash site.

Now you're a radio operator and I guess part of your job is sound very calm on the radio.


But how were you feeling inside when you see the bird go down?

I felt bad; when a the bird goes down and crashes you're not sure, I mean, people survive, people die, you're not really sure. And when the bird was going down I could see somebody up moving, walking up to the pilots. I can't imagine what they would be saying, but I saw him get up and walk towards the pilots. And when it went down I just had this sinking feeling. I go, "We gotta get over there and protect those guys before the Somalis get to them."

So you get organized and then you move out. The convoy hasn't shown up yet, or has it?

No, it has.

When the convoy shows up is it damaged?

No, we hadn't heard about any damage yet. We heard them firing, we heard the .50-cals going off, up and down the street, [but] we didn't know how close, who they were firing at, and so forth, because our targets were probably about a 100 meters, 200 meters out. And as far as what they were firing at them, I'm not really sure, but they showed up and it's kind of a relief when they do show up because it's bigger weapons, it's more ammo, it's more firepower. Any time [they] roll up, it makes us feel a lot better, just because it's more support, more guns, and it's your buddies showing up, too.

So the convoy arrives and you then move out, is that what happens?

The convoy arrives, we get the word that we're getting ready to leave, and then the bird goes down. And once we figured out what we were gonna do with the prisoners of war, we get the call to start making [our] way down to the crash site. And that's when the fire was probably at its height right there, when we started to pick up and move. You just heard the cracks going around; I couldn't even tell where they were coming from, I just remember the concrete up above my head, just pops. I could not tell where it was coming from, I had no idea.

What does it sound like, what does it feel like to be under that volume of fire?

It's just loud cracking, and by your ears you hear the pings and the cracks. I'd never heard that before; you always hear gunfire but you don't actually hear the crack of a round zipping by you. It's not a good feeling, especially with those being rounds going by. I was getting worried, there's a lot of fire; sooner or later one of them's actually gonna hit me, you can't be that lucky for that long. Once we got moving, it was a little bit better because you're not thinking about it, but when you're sitting still and you're waiting to go and rounds are cracking by you, you start getting nervous, you start getting scared, it's like, "OK, we need to move, we need to go, we need to do something." Or, "I need to do something." To try and get your mind off of it. Yeah, it's not a good feeling. I didn't like that at all. You feel vulnerable, especially when you don't know where it's coming from. How many times I looked around to try and see who was firing at me and I couldn't. I tried, I wanted to, but I didn't see any targets. It was kind of eerie because all you saw and felt were the bullets, but you didn't see anybody pulling the trigger.

What happened as you were moving your way towards the crash site?

We were in two single files on either side of the road. The way we moved is one side would pull security for the other side, watching over their heads and behind them, and they would do the same thing for us, and then once we got to the street, or to the intersection, we just basically bolted across as fast as we could, while other guys were covering us. That was the worst part because you just basically ran as fast as you could, and hoped you didn't trip and fall because the fire at that time was pretty bad. You started [running] before the intersection because they can still kind of fan around a corner and see you coming, so you start running about an 1/8th of the way to the corner, until you got out of the field of fire on the other side.

How did you feel when you had to do that?

Scared. [I] just basically ran as fast as I could, try to get across as fast as I could, limit the time that I was in that funnel where they had a shot at you.

So you finally get to the perimeter of the first crash site, and there's a quite a long fire fight that goes on there for quite a while, doesn't it? What kind of memories stick in your mind from that time?

Once we moved, we moved probably about four or five blocks and then we took a left turn. I always remember the left turn, because once we turned that's when things started deteriorating. We started receiving casualties, that's when Fillmore got shot. We didn't get separated, but we just couldn't move any further. The volume of fire was so heavy and so intense that we just had to stay there and just basically protect ourselves and wait for the convoy to come and get us.

You saw Fillmore get shot?

He was at the corner, getting ready to cross a street, and I remember I was looking up because I remember seeing the wall around him just peppered with rounds going into it. Then I saw him get shot in the head. I knew it was a head shot, and I saw the back of his head come out, I knew it wasn't good, so immediately I got on the radio and said, "Hey, we need a medevac now, this guy needs to get out of here now or he's not gonna make it!" And the CO comes through and says, "OK, well it's gonna be a little while, it's gonna take some time." I was like, "No, he needs to get out of here now or he's not gonna make it." He said, "Well, the birds can't land, and the convoy's having trouble getting here to take in casualties." And at that time I knew if they weren't gonna be there right then and there he wasn't gonna make it. And he was like, "It's gonna be a while, the convoy had to head back, they were taking too many casualties." And that's when I started getting a little bit nervous inside, like, "How long are we gonna be out here?" because we were waiting on them to come get us, and then they were taking casualties and so they had to go back. We had got the word that they were back at the hangar, they're refitting, they're getting ready to come back out. I was just like, "OK, so we're gonna be here for a little bit while longer, 20, 30 minutes, then we'll be able to get out," but at that intersection, there was probably about a good six or seven alleyways they were firing from on that one corner of the building, and that's why we couldn't cross. The fire was just so high and so intense, there was just no way. And after Fillmore got shot, the medic grabbed him to pull him back in, and that's when he got shot also, a round grazed him in the neck, and that's where we stayed. We just protected ourselves, tried to reinforce our position and wait until the ground convoy came and got us.

As you're sort of effectively more or less pinned down waiting for some kind of relief column to come and get you out, but you're guarding the crash site perimeter, are there any particular moments that stick in your mind? Did you see any Somalis shooting at you?

One thing I can't remember is actually seeing actual Somalis. I have never been able to remember, I don't know why, I just I can't remember seeing anybody, but I remember firing and I remember people firing at other people, and people getting shot, but actually seeing Somalis, I can't remember. I don't know if it's one of those psychological things, but I just don't remember it.

Why do you think that is?

I have no idea, I really don't. Before the plane went down, I remember seeing them but then once we started moving I don't remember them. I just remember looking at the guys helping Sergeant Watson out, pulling rear security, but that as far as seeing Somalis, I don't remember them.

Amazing. You do remember, though, I think, getting shot at from behind some rocks, don't you?

Yeah, Sergeant Watson had told me to go across the street and pull security because a couple of guys are getting hit and our forces are starting to deplete a little bit so I was started to make my way across the street, and as soon as I got up and started running, fire picked up quite a bit, and I just basically ran and dove and I'm hiding behind a pile of rocks, waiting for the fire to subside. I was right by Collett, and I stayed there for a little while until our guys could pick up the fire and subside enemy fire. It seemed like forever but it was only maybe 10 seconds or so. But that's when I was just like, "We're gonna be here a while, it's gonna be forever," and naturally I started wondering, "Are we gonna make it out? Sooner or later I'm gonna get shot." I won't ever forget that, being in the middle of the road, waiting to cross again because I was just like, "OK, I get up, I could get shot, no telling what's gonna happen." I was just like, "Just do it. You're either gonna get shot or not, you can't sit there and wonder about it, just do what you have to do and don't think about it. And if it happens it happens, if it doesn't so be it."

Did you see Nethery get shot?

He was on the M60 machine gun, and actually he had it on the tripod and he was sitting there firing. When you have a machine gun on a tripod, your body is a little bit elevated off the ground, and he took a round right in the arm. And so we pulled him back, and we're all working on them and I think actually that's when I went across the street. When he was hit, Sergeant Watson sent me over there to help them out with the casualties, make sure the gun got manned again. And Doc Strauss was working on him with the AVAC and that's when Keni Thomas got on the gun. He was firing on it, and there was a guy behind a latticework, it was like a porch, he could shoot through it but he was protected because it was just small holes. And so he couldn't take him out, and he was like, "I need some more grenades to throw at the guy." And Sergeant Watson's like, "Use the LAW!"

What's a LAW?

It's a Light Anti-tank Weapon. It's like a small bazooka, you extend it out, and you put it on your shoulder and you fire. And you could use it to take out buildings or bunkers and so forth. But Keni was like, "What LAW?" and Sergeant Watson was yelling at him, "The LAW on your back!" and Keni was like, "Oh, yeah!" because you forget you had it with you, you're used to carrying it so often, it was like a watch, you don't feel your watch on your wrist. So [he used] that and took the guy out.

Then we pulled Errico up from behind and put him on the M60, but he got shot. And so I was sitting there I was like, "OK, that's two guys in perhaps five minutes, same arm, same type of wound." We had Collett two feet away pulling security down the same alleyway. I [thought] it's pretty senseless for us to put somebody on this gun, so I pulled the gun back because I was just like, "No sense in putting somebody else there to get shot at and make our forces weaker." So then I was helping Doc Strauss work on Errico, I was holding his arm and Strauss was putting a pressure dressing on, and that's when a grenade landed right in front of Collett's head, probably about six or eight inches in front of his head. And I looked up, I saw it and I told everybody, "Grenade!" and everybody just hit the deck, got as low as we could, and it went off. And before it went off I was just like, "OK, this is it, it's we're all dead. It's over." And it went off and fortunately, the way grenades work is they're on the ground they blow up and out, and since we were so close, it blew right over us. Nobody was hit. After it went off, we heard the ground shake and dust come up, and I started calling people's names out, like "Strauss, you OK?" and he said, "Yeah," "Nethery, are you all right" "I'm good." "Errico, you OK?" I yelled for Collett, I was like, "Collett, Collett!" and he was like "Yeah," he was like, "OK, he's good."

Then we continued to work on Errico and Nethery; they're in kind of shock. I got on top of Errico and I looked at his arm, and all you saw was just a small hole in his BDU and it was just a little bit of blood, and I was like, "Hey, man, you're fine," because you could tell he was a little bit nervous, anybody is once they get shot, but I was just like, "Hey, man, you're gonna be OK, no problem, no sweat, you'll be all right." Then Doc Strauss got the rest started working on him, and we're working on patching him up, and Collett was still pulling security down that one alleyway.

You talked about the Light Anti-tank Weapon that was fired. Just describe when it was fired, what kind of damage it did, and what it looked like.

It's like a real small mini-bazooka, there's a cone of fire about 60 degrees coming out the back of it. And it's very loud, it's got a big bang to it, and I think there's two pounds of C4 inside of them, I'm not really sure, I can't remember, but it'll explode, it's like a pretty big grenade, basically. But it did some damage to the building, blew up the porch, blew up a part of the building, and of course the guy wasn't firing at us any more.

Now all the time you're listening in on the radio net. Other people have talked about their hearing kind of slightly panicky calls, were you hearing anything like that yourself?

No, once Chalk 2 got to the crash site, it's like, "OK, we've got we've got a casualty," pretty calm, then it was over the radio again, "OK, we got another casualty," another minute later, "We've got another casualty," now I'm saying to myself, "Oh, my God, they're just getting picked off down there one by one." Over the radio they never said what the extent of the injuries were, we just heard "casualty," we didn't know how bad a casualty; [it] could be a nick in the arm or it could be a second chest wound, you didn't know. But [with] each casualty, you heard them get a little bit more nervous. That's when we knew we needed to get there and help them out. But everybody was pretty calm over the radio. I mean, we heard each others voices and you could hear things in people's voices, [that] other people might not pick up on it but you're like, "OK, you sound a little bit nervous now, things must be getting pretty bad over there." But you just go with it, you just do your job and keep going.

How'd it make you feel?

It was weird because everybody performed and they still did their job. You're totally surrounded, you're totally outnumbered, and people are still doing their job like they're supposed to, like it was nothing. I attribute that to our training, we did it so often that it was just routine. Pulling security, well disciplined fire, controlled shots, everything. People crawling out in the middle of the street to get an aid bag under heavy fire, people running across a street to grab casualties and pull them back under heavy fire. I felt good about it because we were all doing our job, we're all out there covering each others' back, helping each other out, and it was really amazing the acts of bravery that were going on that were just commonplace. You didn't think anything about it, you just did it. And, it wasn't till afterwards I was like, "Holy smokes, this has just happened!" I just saw the couple of guys get shot, I see guys getting killed, and people were still doing their jobs, nobody's freaking out, no one wigging out, they're just doing what they're supposed to, doing what they had to. It was special, because those guys that we're there with, it's a bond and it'll never be broken.

What was the bravest thing you saw?

I don't know, I really don't. I saw a lot of things go on that day and I wouldn't really single one out more than the other, because what everybody did was brave, I mean just being on the ground and returning fire is brave. Probably the thing I admired the most out of that whole ordeal was Gordon and Shughart. That takes a lotta guts, to do what they did.

What did they do?

[When] the second bird crashed, Chief Durant's bird, he was still alive at the time and he'd seen his pilot killed and people started surrounding the bird, just like they do when something happens, they start swarming towards the site. Gordon and Shughart saw that and were like, "Hey, we need to go down there." And so they got on the radio and said, "Hey, can we go down there?" and I was like, "OK, go ahead, no problem, secure the crash site. Bring them back." And so the Little Bird lands, they jump off and they just make their way to the crash site -- just those two, nobody else -- to secure Durant and the rest of the crew. There's already people swarming the site, and [when] they got there, immediately they were totally surrounded. They only had the ammo they had on them, and they're just completely outnumbered. There was too many of them, they couldn't hold them off. They knew going in that it was gonna be bad, and they still went and they did it anyway, because they knew there was people down there that needed their help. Those two went down there and just basically put their lives on the line to save Durant, and they did. They basically saved his life, there's no doubt about it. When they were running low on ammo, they gave what little ammo they had to him, and said, "Hey, we're going around the corner to face the music." That takes a lot of sack to do that, to go around the corner with no ammo to protect somebody that can't protect themselves. You know you're gonna die by protecting this guy, because you have no ammo left, [all you have is] your bayonet, basically, to fend people off, and they went out there and they did it, until they were killed. I'm glad those guys got the medal of honor because they deserve it. That was probably the most admirable act in the whole [mission.]

What actually happened to Durant?

Once Shughart and Gordon were killed, [the Somalis] got him. There were guys trying to beat him, trying to take swings at him, [and] he was injured. They basically carted him off to some building somewhere. At the time we heard there was another bird down but we didn't know what was going on at that crash site. We heard another bird went down and we're just like, "OK, great, now what?" But, they carted him off to some location that we didn't know about. We still didn't know a couple of days afterwards, we're still trying to figure out where he is. Red Cross, they were allowed to go give him aid but he wasn't allowed to be followed and there wasn't any military there, it was just a nurse, by herself with the Somalis.

We were still back at the house, trying to get to the crash site, or just waiting for the convoy to come get us, and it's starting to get dark now. And so we're just hanging out. Lechner got shot in the leg inside the house, still heavy firing, Errico and Nethery are just stable, they're fine, but they're not able to do anything other than just lay there because their arms are messed up, so once it got dark, we moved into the house and basically set up positions in there under cover. And we had positions right outside the house just pulling security all evening and waiting for 10th Mountain to come in and secure us.

Describe the scene inside the house.

There was quite a few casualties. Goodell was in there, he had gotten shot through the hip, Lieutenant Lechner had been shot through the leg, one of the medics was shot in the neck. Nethery and Errico were shot. Doc Strauss had taken some fragment in his leg but he was OK, he was able to walk still. And there was some others, I can't remember who.

What was it like in there? Was there blood on the floor?

You couldn't see; it was totally dark. There wasn't a light on in the house, but you could feel it on your boots, [we would] slip in it whenever we were moving around. Nobody talked about it, like, "I'm laying there in some guy's blood," but you knew what it was. It was pretty quiet in there, [we were] just reassuring each other, "Hey, you're gonna be OK, we're gonna get outta here, don't worry about it," just trying to keep guys calm, and trying to get everybody in order for when the [convoy] comes.

It must have been a long wait that night.

It was a long wait, but you felt better inside the house because you had walls around you and you had your buddies next to you, but you still heard the firing going on. You were just wondering when you're gonna leave, hopefully soon. But there was one time I could have sworn the guy saw me; I know they didn't because they couldn't see inside the building -- I couldn't even see outside [so] I know they couldn't see inside -- but they needed me up front so I get up on a knee to go move, and rounds hit right above my head, and so I dropped immediately, and [the guy] next to me was like, "Are you shot?" and I was just like, "No, but it was pretty damn close." And after that I didn't even get up off the ground hardly, I just kind of crawled around. But, yeah, it was a long wait. We were in there all night pulling security, waiting for them, you could hear them coming, you could hear them leaving, you could hear them coming in again. It was like, "Well, when are they actually gonna make it here?" I was just like, "20 more minutes," and we heard that all night, every hour, "20 more minutes." But finally they showed up right before daybreak.

The Little Birds were still pulling missions; they had been pulling missions all night. You could hear them firing, you'd hear over the radio, 'OK, you got 30 people moving from your south," and we're like, "OK, where's the south at?" and it was a wall where there was no windows, no nothing, we couldn't even see them coming. And I was like, "OK, great, how are we gonna protect ourselves? They're coming from an angle we can't even see them coming from." But then the Little Birds came in and eliminated that threat. But once the 10th Mountain got there it was a little bit better, knowing that someone was able to come in and link up with us, and now all we had to do was wait for them to get the pilot out of the bird and then we could leave. That took another hour, hour and a half to get him out. By that time it was daylight, I remember being in the back room, it was pretty dark in there, and I remember walking out to get ready to go and it was daylight and I got a sinking feeling. I was just like, "This is gonna be worse than yesterday. Because they know exactly where we're at, they know exactly where we want to go. We're not gonna make it, there's no way we're gonna make it. They know exactly where we are, they've been here all night fortifying their positions, they know exactly what buildings we're in, it's just gonna be a turkey shoot on the way out."

Fortunately, we were able to fire our way out and that time it was just no holds barred, you're just basically covering each other on the way out. Little Birds were running missions, we were just guns ablazing on the way out, just a foot race out. Everybody else was loaded up on the armored vehicles and humvees and all that, and then there was a group of us that were on foot. We basically had to run out next to the vehicles, and by a block into it the vehicles were already gone and we're basically by ourselves running out, and on our way back [to] the objective building, that's when Randy got hit. The scariest part about that was two blocks into it I'm firing and my weapon jams. A round expanded in the chamber and I couldn't get it out, so now I'm running through the city without a weapon that works, so I'm basically telling guys, "Hey, cover me while I'm crossing the street!" I got this big radio on my back, and now I don't have a weapon. But then I was able to get one off somebody else that had two, so I got a weapon to fire and I just started covering everybody when they were moving across the street. So then I was actually functioning, doing something. When you don't have a weapon in that situation you feel pretty naked.

Some people have said that it seemed kind of crazy, that everybody would stay there to defend the helicopter crew when they were dead.

To most people it probably does sound crazy, but to us it doesn't, because, yes, the guy's already dead, he can't feel anything, he's dead, but to the guys that are still living, that are staying there fighting it out to get his body back into our hands, I mean I feel better knowing that if I get shot and I'm dead I know my buddies aren't gonna leave until they get me with them. Who wants to be part of a unit that when you get shot they're just gonna leave you out in the street to get mauled? Nobody wants to be a part of that. I'm sure his family was glad that we did stay there, if I had a son or a daughter over there fighting I would feel a lot better knowing that my son was able to come back even though he's dead, that he's buried here in the States instead of left to die in some street in Mogadishu, in the gutter somewhere. There was no other way to do it. We were gonna stay until we got that body and then we would go.

There was a rumor, I don't know whether anyone knows it for a fact, that there had been a helicopter shot down a week or two before and that the bodies of the crew had been mutilated. Did you ever hear that?

Yeah, it happened. I think it was a week before. One of the 10th Mountain helicopters went down, and it was a while before they were able to get US troops out there. They were mutilated and they were defaced, there was no doubt about it. So when we saw our bird go down, I go, "We got to get to those guys now," because it was guys that we had served with, guys I knew, [that] were on that bird, and I didn't want that same thing to happen to our guys. I didn't want that to happen to 10th Mountain guys, but there was nothing we could do about it at the time, but we definitely could do something about this. And I in no way wanted those guys to see the same fate as the 10th Mountain guys. That's why I knew we had to get there now, because I knew if the Somalis got there first it was just gonna be ugly. You didn't want fellow soldiers to go through that. It's one thing to die in battle, it's not the same to be defaced and mutilated by savages. [You] don't want that to happen to your fellow comrades at all.

The obvious question is to ask you about how you feel afterwards. Do you feel that the US intervention in Somalia was for a good cause? Do you think it was all worth it?

When we initially went over there I was just like, "There's so many things we can do here in the States," but once the troops were committed, I was behind it, because I'm not gonna be in any army and not support my fellow troops. Before I went over there I didn't know anybody that was over there, but they still needed support, for everybody that were over there doing a job, and when we went over there I was in support of us doing it. We had a mission to do, we're gonna go over there and do it and then we were gonna come home. Once [you're given] an order to go it doesn't matter whether you support it or not, you just go over there, you do your job, and that's it.

The US originally got involved to try and help starving Somalis. What's your own personal feeling about that? Is something the US should do? Or at the end of the day, is that somebody else's problem?

We should help people out if we have the chance to. We went over there to help them, and they needed a lot of help, not just food but their economy was bad. By the time we got over into the country, the city was just [decimated], there was so much damage done to the city. They had no lights, they had no power, they had no sewage. The city was basically a wreck, and it was gonna take more than just food to help them out. They needed a lot of things other than just food. But I mean I'm not in the position to make the decision of whether we go and help or what we do, we went over there to do our mission. It would have been nice if we could have done more for those people, but at the same time, some of their own are shooting at us so there's only so much you can do.

Did you feel Somali people were victims of their own warlords?

Yeah, they were. I felt bad for the people that lived outside the city that wanted our help, that needed our help, but weren't getting it because of the warlords inside the city, controlling it. For those people I feel bad because they had kids, and you saw the kids running around the street and you wish that they received the aid that we're supposed to be giving to them, but they weren't because the warlords inside the city were trying to control it all. And all they were doing was basically hoarding all the aid for themselves, so when they were warring with each other they could help their own clan out.

I guess you wound up at the stadium, and then you realized the extent of your casualties?

We had had casualties but nobody was talking about it over the radio. You know you've got casualties but you don't want to give the extent out, and we get back to the stadium and everybody's pretty much drained and they're just glad they're back and they're just walking around. And I'd seen Sergeant Elliot, one of the squad leaders of our platoon, and he didn't look [good]. I asked him what was wrong and he was like, "Oh, nothing." I was just like, "OK, no problem," and I walked off, and I was just like "Nah, something's wrong," and I went back and I said, "What's the matter, Sergeant?" And then that's when Sergeant Moore came up to me and let me know what was going on. He was like, "Smithy, Joyce, Pilla, Reece, Kellogg, Kowalewski, Cavaco they're all dead," and I basically collapsed right there. I had no idea that all those guys were killed. I'd heard one casualty, the pilot and that was it, I'm thinking you have people who are wounded but I'm thinking everybody made it out OK, but then that just sunk in. I couldn't believe it that they were gone. I mean both Pilla and Joyce, we did everything together. And they weren't there any more. I just couldn't, I mean he told me and I just couldn't believe it. I just wanted to go back home, I just wanted to go home. I didn't want to be there. I didn't want to do anything anymore.

And you'd been really good friends with Pilla and Joyce.

Yeah, we went to basic training together, RIP [Ranger Indoctrination Program], airborne, went out on passes together, [I] went home with Pilla and I stayed with his family.

After that you went back to the hangar and one of your jobs was packing up his belongings?

Yeah. I mean just making sure that his family gets everything, which they didn't, the army fouled up that. Packing up all their gear, making sure that the family gets everything that they're supposed to, the memorabilia and the uniforms and so forth. But we got back and it was amazing how many people weren't there. I mean, our platoon strength went down by 50% and the company itself was about half the size, too. I think out of 120, 73 were injured or wounded somehow, and of course six killed in our element and then in the assault force there was other guys killed also. But we got back to the hangar and they told us, "OK, clean your weapons up, reload, get ready to go back out," because the ground force wasn't back yet and it was gonna be a while before they drove all the way back. They were still at half strength, all the vehicles weren't working correct so we had to wait until they got back into the hangar. But once they finally got back it was a little bit better because then we were all back in the confines of the hangar, which is still not the safest place to be but you're not out in the middle of the street any more.

What was the emotion like? How are men handling it?

I think I was in shock. I couldn't believe what had just happened. I was just thankful that I made it back safe and I wasn't injured, and I wanted to go see the guys that were injured and say hi to 'em, see how they're doing and so forth. You're glad that you weren't hurt but at the same time you're upset that you know that people were injured and people were killed. It was kinda quiet, there wasn't any joking, there wasn't any laughing, it was real solemn, real quiet. And then a day later, after everything had happened, we were watching the news and all of a sudden we saw these reports of the downed helicopters, those guys getting drug around the streets. And, one, I couldn't believe they were showing it; two, I couldn't believe those people were doing that, and I'm kinda glad I saw that because at the time I didn't want to go back out there, I just wanted to leave and go back to the States and have nothing to do with it, but then after [I saw that] I was just like, "OK, if we have to go back out there I'm ready to go because what they did wasn't right." I'm not gonna deface other soldiers like that. If there was a Somali right here I'm not gonna jump up and down on his body, just because I would have respect for another soldier. I was just furious; I couldn't believe it, and right then and there I was ready, if we had to go back out there again. I had no qualms about it at all, but we didn't pull any missions after that; we went out on over-flights but, we were basically stood down, and then we left the country.

How do you look back on it now? Was it just a waste of life? What's your final verdict on it all?

Well, if you look at it today they're in the same situation as they were before. It wasn't a waste, we actually did try and go over there and help them, but if they don't want to be helped you can't help them. In that sense it's disappointing that they wouldn't allow us to help them as much as we could have. And I wish it would have turned out differently, but it didn't. There's nothing I could do about it. I mean, we tried, you know?

You normally trained with AC130s and they weren't sent out there, and I think Montgomery requested armor which was refused, you may not have known about this at the time but what's your feeling about those points now?

The Spectre not being in the country, that probably would have helped a little bit, and the armor, I'm sure that would have helped also, but any time you have troops somewhere, you should support them. And then the people that are in DC making those decisions, they should listen to the generals and the military people on the ground that are requesting it because obviously they know what they're doing. For somebody sitting behind a desk to deny a general certain gear that they need for a mission doesn't make any sense to me at all. There's a reason he's a general, he's got the experience to put him in that position. For someone who may not have been in the service or has been out of the service for so long to say "Oh no you don't need that," who are they to say that they don't need the equipment for the job? He's not there, he's not in the country, he doesn't know what's going on.

home . firefight . us rangers . weapons . interviews . discussion
readings . chronology . press reaction . tapes & transcripts . frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation