March 22, 2008
Remember the LiberatorsBy John B. Dwyer
This week the nation marked the fifth anniversary of our presence in Iraq. It is past time to remember the liberators. Now at the end of their third tour they are preparing to leave: the 1st "Raider" Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division deployed to Al Anbar province 15 months ago as an element of the "surge" force. Its commander, Col. John W. Charlton, is responsible not only for his Army units, but also for Navy, Marine and Air Force personnel operating with them. His area of operations -- AO Topeka -- covers 8,900 sq. miles.
From the outset his focus was Ramadi, the Al Qaeda capital of western Iraq. He described the situation confronting him in a March 13 press briefing:
"Ramadi's infrastructure was completely destroyed due to the heavy fighting. Entire city blocks were nothing more than collapsed buildings, piles of rubble..."
In a Sept. 24, 2007 interview with journalist Michael J. Totten, Col. Charlton and one of his officers, 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor CO, Lt. Col. Michael Silverman both described the Ramadi battle as Stalingrad-like. Col. Charlton:
"It looked like Stalingrad a few months ago. There were about 750 (Al Qaeda) fighters in the city proper...they worked in 5 to 10-man cells...they used mosques, schools and safe houses."
"It would only be a mild exaggeration if I compared it to the battle of Stalingrad. We engaged in kinetic firefights that lasted for hours. Every single day they attacked us with AK-47s, sniper rifles, RPGs, IEDs and car bombs."
(Note: As a Lt. Col., Charlton commanded 1st Battalion, 15th Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 3rd ID in Operation Iraqi Freedom)
That was then. On March 13, Col. Charlton noted that over 1600 reconstruction and day labor projects "have transformed Ramadi from a war zone to a thriving community." Daily attacks have decreased from 30-35 to practically zero. Schools, markets, soccer fields, etc. are thriving. Ramadi has a mayor with a full staff and 13 governing councils. There are 12,000 Iraqi Security Forces on duty. There is a center devoted to funding small businesses such as a recently opened ceramics factory. And of course there was the Anbar Awakening, the tribes who united to help defeat Al Qaeda.
In his interview with Totten, LTC Silverman noted that he'd expected " a huge, kinetic fight, and that's what we got. I was told that you win that kind of fight not by focusing on the enemy, but by focusing on the civilians. I didn't believe it, but now I do. I know because I've seen it." 3/69th Armor had gone from engaging in fierce urban combat to conducting classic counter-insurgency missions. They helped free Anbaris from the terrorist grip of Al Qaeda.
Five years ago, Task Force 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor, 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division helped free the Iraqi people from the tyrannic rule of Saddam Hussein. Led by Lt. Col. Ernest J. "Rock" Marcone, the task force, centered on A and C Companies, 69th Armor, included B and C Companies, 3rd and 2d Battalions 7th Infantry, and A Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, all supported by artillery and attack aviation. Five years ago, Captain Chuck O'Brien's A Co., 69th Armor led the task force across the berm as the 3rd ID's advance unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom as (OIF). LTC Marcone described his mission as "movement to contact" -- find the enemy, fix them, and kill them." Three weeks later he would compare the accomplishments of TF 3/69th Armor to those of MG John Wood's famous 4th Armored Division in WW2. At its first objective, An Nasiriyah, not far from where Sumerians in 2500 B.C. employed the first phalanx, Iraqi 11th Division defenders were defeated by a 21st century combined arms phalanx of firepower and maneuver.
From the outset, LTC Marcone knew that his key objective was the Al Kaed (Leader) Bridge spanning the Euphrates River. The Iraqis had deployed the Medina Divions 10th Brigade, an armored brigade, and a Special Republican Guard commando brigade to defend it. There were orders to demolish it before American forces arrived.
On April 1, nine days and 350 miles after TF 3/69th Armor had roared across the berm, they were in position to assault the objective. To get there, they had battled past a 250 foot escarpment, taken the Al Kifle bridge, and fought through a 2-day apocalyptic sandstorm. Now they faced the dangerous Karbala Gap, terrain that channeled vehicles through an 1800-meter wide strip where chemical weapons were expected to be used. To divert and disperse Iraqi units, US V Corps commander Lt. Gen. Kiernan ordered 5 simultaneous attacks. His strategy worked. Deployed in a "power dive" formation, LTC Marcone's 1100-man force charged through the chemical-weapons free Gap, meeting and overcoming moderate resistance.
The decisive battle was now at hand. At 11:30 a.m. on April 2, Marcone sent his scouts towards the bridge to reconnoiter. Three miles down the road they encountered enemy forces and came under mortar fire.. Maneuvering away from it, they called in artillery and air support as Capt. O'Brien's A Company executed a flanking attack, three platoons abreast. An hour and 15 minutes later they had routed the enemy and the rest of the task force fell n behind them into another power dive formation. Nearing the bridge, A Company was firing at targets ranging from 10 to 1,000 meters away, some of them truck-borne RPG teams.
Knowing the bridge had been rigged for demolition, it became the dangerous mission of Captain Dan Hibner's A Company, 11th Engineers to locate and cut the connecting wires. To cover and help protect them, Marcone had ordered a smoke platoon forward. Their efforts were augmented by artillery smoke rounds. Meantime, map analysis revealed the most likely positions for Iraqi demoloition trigger teams. A barrage from 1st Battalion, 41st Field Artillery leveled that area. And yet, they were able to detonate several charges on the northern span, leaving three lanes open. The brave engineers persevered and soon rendered the bridge safe. (Note: On Apr. 4, 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith of B Co., 11th Engineers earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for actions above & beyond the call of duty.)
At 4:30 on April 2, Captain Jared Robbins' C Company tanks and Captain Todd Kelly's 2-7 infantrymen charged across the bridge. Muddy terrain forced C Co. tanks into a hasty, arc-shaped defensive position for an expected enemy counter-attack. The defensive arc was oriented northwest to east, with two tank platoons and a mechanized infantry platoon deployed to cover likely approaches. The counter-attack began at 11:30 and there ensued the biggest tank-mech. Infantry engagement of the war. What became known as the Battle of Charlie 6 lasted until 2:30 the following morning. With their 120m.m. main guns and thermal sights, combat-tested Abrams tank crews, supported by artillery and attack aviation, destroyed 20 Iraqi armored vehicles, including Russian-made T-72 tanks, and killed 600 troops. One 2nd Platoon tank, commanded by Sgt. Coultry, took out two tanks with one main gun round.
The rest of the task force had secured the near side of the bridge, then crossed over it, engaging and defeating 3 enemy brigades. The objective had been secured. V Corps could now proceed towards Baghdad and liberation of Iraq.
In an e-mail to this writer, Lt. Col. Rock Marcone later summed up the achievements of TF 3/69th Armor: ‘We fought three major battles, defeated 7 enemy brigades and sustained only three killed and 60 wounded. The task force's accomplishments were historic in proportion. It was given more responsibility, covered more ground, fought more battles, accounted for more enemy formations destroyed and took fewer casualties than any other task force in the theater. We were a ‘perfect storm' of men and machines combined into an unbeatable force."
And so, as the 1st "Raider" Brigade and 3/69th Armor return home, having helped free Anbaris from Al Qaeda terror, let us remember those who served with TF 3/69th Armor and all those who crossed the berm five years ago in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Let us remember the liberators.
John B. Dwyer is a military historian.