Remember the Liberators

As Iraq celebrates its regained sovereignty and independence, it is appropriate, with the meaning and importance of 4th of July weekend fresh in our minds, that we take a moment to remember some of those who made this historic event possible.

It was July. 1918, and it was imperative that the Germans be stopped. They had already defeated an American and a French division.  Now it was up to the US 3rd Infantry Division, deployed along the Marne in northern France. Their commanding officer, Major General Joseph T. Dickman, told the French press: 'Nous resterons la' or, 'We will stay here.'  And they did, standing firm against repeated enemy attacks all along their line, thus earning their honored division motto 'Rock of the Marne.'
Three wars later the Marne Men constituted one of the lead divisions in Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Leading that charge were 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 69th Armor.  In the dust clouds boiling in the wakes of their Abrams tanks, the faces of  Patton, Grow, Forrest and others formed and dissolved.

Back to the Second World War. 'I don't care if we do get so far out front that we're surrounded,' growled 6th Armored Division commander, Major General Robert Grow.  'We've enough firepower and mobility to punch out anything the Krauts have to offer.'  Following the Normandy landings, his division, which included Lt. Col. Bedford Forrest's 69th Tank Battalion, had already completed a lightning thrust westward, capturing Brittany, though LTC Forrest was killed in action. It now wheeled around 180 degrees and drove into Germany as part of Patton's famed US 3rd Army.

The 69th's A Company had captured Armancourt, defended by a thousand Germans, with Corporal Robert R. Newman taking out four enemy bazooka teams with his tank's machine gun. He then evacuated wounded crewmen and extinguished a turret fire before continuing to engage the Germans.

The 69th helped relieve Bastogne, earning a Presidential Unit Citation, then kept rolling onward.  VE Day found them in Leipzig.

When the 25th Infantry Division deployed to Vietnam in late 1965, the 'Black Panthers' of 1st Battalion, 69th Armor went with it as the first US Army tank unit in country.  TheBattle of LZ Victor and actions in the Filhol Plantation and Ho Bo Woods proved armor could operate in a jungle environment, just as they had done in the Pacific during WW2.
Individual valor 'above and beyond the call of duty' came to the fore on 15 January 1968.  Specialist 5th Class Dwight Johnson's B Company tank had become disabled and was under attack.  Armed with only a .45 pistol and at times a sub—machine gun, Johnson repeatedly charged the NVA position.  After evacuating a wounded comrade and helping his platoon sergeant operate his tank's main gun, Johnson, amidst heavy NVA fire, returned to his own tank, firing its .50 caliber machine gun until the battle ended.  For his actions, SP/5 Dwight Johnson was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The tankers and Bradley Fighting Vehicle crews of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Sanderson's 2nd Battalion, and Lt. Col. Ernest 'Rock' Marcone's 3rd Battalion were well aware of the heroic lineage of the 69th Armor, and were waiting to write their own chapter of valor and courage.  They had trained together for two years, honing their skills, cementing unit cohesion and the fiercely loyal bonds of tank crews. They had rehearsed for several months in Kuwait.  Some were veterans of Desert  Storm when 2/69th Armor led the 24th Division's opening lunge towards Al Busayyah. 
The tip of the spear, aimed at Baghdad, couldn't have been any sharper on the night of March 20th, 2003.  Huge diesels roared to life and Captain Chuck O'Brien's A Company, 3rd/69th Armor thundered across the berm towards liberation.

Historically, there are three invasion routes into Iraq:  from the south, the west, and from the north.  The axis of attack for the 3rd Infantry Division began along the southern route, then moved west—northwest through trackless desert and across  the Euphrates, from which point it pivoted north to seize Baghdad International Airport.  The mission of spearheading armor units was what the manual calls 'movement to contact: to find the enemy, fix it and destroy it.' 

An Nasiriyah, defended by the Iraqi 11th Division, was 69th Armor's first objective.  There, not far from where Sumerians first employed the phalanx in 2500 BC, the Iraqis were defeated by a 21st century phalanx of combined arms firepower and maneuver.  Put another way, 69th Armor embodied powerfully its regimental motto 'Speed and Power.'

Then came Al Samawah, Najaf, the Karbala Gap, Baghdad.  There were 30 hour firefights, attacking in zero visibility; the two—column 'thunder run' through Al Kufah.  Of the latter, 2/69th Armor's LTC Sanderson remarked: ' I was in two stark raging firefights in Desert Storm when you couldn't slam a 10—penny nail up your butt with a 20 lb. sledgehammer, that's how scared you were.'

But armor thundered on, across the Euphrates in battles summed up by cigar—chomping LTC Rock Marcone:  'We took no prisoners.  They fought until they died.'  Once across, 3/69th Armor's C Company found itself up against the Iraqi Medina Division's 10th Armored Brigade, whose objective was regaining control of the bridge across the Euphrates.  What ensued came to be known as 'The Battle of Charlie Six.'  Twelve hours later, Captain Jared Robbins's C Company had destroyed 5 enemy tanks, 7 armored personnel carriers and killed 300 enemy soldiers.

On April 2, combat teams from 3/69th Armor and 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 7th Infantry Regiments defeated Republican Guard units on the east and west sides of Baghdad International Airport.  In due course, that final objective was secured.

Of his 3rd Infantry Division, Major General Buford C. Blount said: 'When we've gotten into fights, there's been no doubt who's winning those fights.  The soldiers have performed magnificently and will continue to do so.'

Of the men in his Task Force 3/69th Armor LTC Marcone said:  'I have great leaders, and soldiers who are brave and compassionate when they need to be, regardless of conditions.  Americans should be proud of their fighting men and women.  I am.'

In a letter to the families of his 2/69th Armor describing what their Soldiers accomplished, LTC Sanderson wrote:  'They conducted a 600 mile road march, stopping only for fuel; they attacked over an escarpment at An Najaf; days later they attacked again in a blinding sandstorm at night under the eerie red glow of a setting sun to defeat major enemy forces at Al Kifl.  Then they attacked at night under zero moon illumination, isolating the eastern side of Karbala, allowing the secure passage of coalition forces through the Gap.  Your Panther Soldiers attacked yet again over 110 kilometers, with over 60 being in direct combat with the enemy, to isolate the northwest side of Baghdad. After fighting all day and defeating numerous ambushes, your Soldier captured three critical bridges then fought a determined enemy for over 60 hours to retain them. Your Panther Soldier then attacked into the heart of the city, securing key intersections to ensure the regime's downfall. Your Panther Soldier is my hero.  He is tough, disciplined and proud of his many and varied accomplishments.  But he will never be as proud of himself as I am.  He will go into the history books as the finest caliber of man, soldier and liberator.'

John B. Dwyer is a military historian