It became known as the "Wrong Way Convoy," a hapless group of American mechanics, clerks and computer technicians who were waylaid in an unexpected firefight early in the war with Iraq. Eleven soldiers would die while others — including Pfc. Jessica Lynch — would be taken captive. One question persists: who was responsible for the mix up?
• Read the Army's executive summary of what happened to the 507th Maintenance Company.
A still-classified Army report has concluded that at a checkpoint, vehicles from the 507th Maintenance Ordnance Company were accidentally sent in the wrong direction — and straight into a harrowing ambush.
It was March 23, the fifth day of fighting, and before the sun set, it would go down as the deadliest day for U.S. forces during the war. Lynch, the 19-year-old supply clerk from Palestine, W.Va., would end up being taken captive — not after a gun battle as early reports suggested, but after a devastating Humvee accident as the driver tried to get away from Iraqi fire.
"When I look back on that day, I can see the trouble we were headed for from miles away. Minute by minute, hour by hour, it was obvious it would end that way," one soldier who was part of the convoy told ABCNEWS.
Heading Into Iraq
Sometime after midnight on Friday, March 21, a convoy of vehicles of the 507th set off into Iraq in support of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. It was a dark night, on the cusp of the last quarter of the moon's monthly phase. The 507th was part of an almost inconceivably long convoy that included thousands of military vehicles that snaked across the border and followed Iraq's Route 1 northwest from Kuwait. The route passed south of the city of Nasiriyah and then turned almost 90 degrees north, skirting the western suburbs of town.
There was a late-night briefing at Camp Virginia in Kuwait, the 507th's temporary headquarters, just before departure. The soldiers were told that they would be heading into Iraq and instructed to maintain a tactical interval between vehicles — usually 1½ lengths — in case of trouble.
The lead vehicle was a Humvee carrying the company commander, Capt. Troy Kent King. It was equipped with a "Plugger," the Army's precision lightweight global positioning receiver, and a "SINGARS" radio, a standard single-channel, jam-resistant, VHF radio. Other vehicles, those with ranking enlisted men, also carried VHF radios and GPS devices.
Every soldier was armed with at least an M-16 assault rifle. At least four soldiers were equipped with "SAWs," or squad automatic weapons — the M249 5.56mm light machine gun. One 5-ton truck in the string was topped with a belt-fed .50-caliber machine gun on a ring mount that enabled the gunner, Cpl. Damien Luten, to swivel from side to side around a 180-degree arc.
When they departed, the 507th convoy numbered at least two tow trucks, three Humvees and 11 5-ton trucks — including "bobtailed" tractors that hauled 40-foot-long "M870" trailers hitched to a swivel. There were 31 soldiers, together capable of living up to the unit's motto, "Just fix it."
The soldiers included a compendium of "Military Occupational Specialty" designation codes. There were diesel mechanics (63-Bravo), heavy equipment mechanics (63-Whiskey), a computer technician (35-Juliet), supply clerks, (92-Alpha) cooks (92-Golf) and supply sergeants who ran a the company warehouse and supply room (92-Yankee).
Most of the mechanics and technicians were assigned duties of repairing and maintaining the vehicles and equipment of a battalion of Patriot missile batteries, all part of the 32nd Air Defense Artillery Battalion. (Like the 507th, the 32nd also came from Fort Bliss, Texas.) Two of the mechanics in the convoy had another job — keeping the 507th's vehicles operating.
Maintenance company personnel are considered combat "support" soldiers. Though they have all undergone the minimum basic battle training, they're not really expected to fight in frontline combat. One soldier explained, "We are supposed to enter a town after it has been secured by other combat forces. Even when an area is completely secure, the maintenance team is still supposed to be protected. They never go anywhere alone."
Throughout the next 48 hours, the vehicles of the 507th weaved in and out of the long string of supply vehicles, occasionally stopping to refuel or reconnoiter. While still in Kuwait, at least one vehicle broke down and the soldiers abandoned it by the side of the road after first removing everything they could transfer to another truck.
When another 5-ton truck towing a trailer broke down, this truck, which was being driven by 19-year-old Pfc. Jessica Lynch and carrying a 37-year-old supply sergeant named Matthew Rose, was hitched to a 10-ton "HEMTT" wrecker. (HEMTT is an acronym for heavy expanded mobility tactical truck. Its unique wedge-front design makes it distinctive among military vehicles.)
The HEMTT driver, Spc. Joseph Hudson, fell into line, maneuvering more than 100 feet of truck along the road. Rose climbed into another truck and Lynch became a passenger in the company first sergeant's Humvee, driven by Pfc. Lori Piestewa.
Inevitably, the line of 507th vehicles sometimes was interspersed with trucks and Humvees from other units. A water tanker that was part of the 507th convoy broke off. The Fort Bliss unit was joined by a third "wrecker" — a 2.5-ton M1079 "light mobility tactical vehicle" manned by two soldiers from the 3rd Combat Support Battalion of Fort Stewart, Ga. Sgt. George Buggs and Spc. Edward J. Anguiano, the Fort Stewart soldiers, hoped eventually to catch up with their own comrades when the convoy reached its final assembly point somewhere deep in Iraq.
The push north continued, according to a couple of soldiers, for more than 48 hours with just occasional stops. By the early predawn hours of Sunday, March 23, the 507th convoy consisted of 16 vehicles and 33 weary soldiers.
Just before dawn, the vehicles that formed the nucleus of the 507th reached a checkpoint and were directed to veer off the main road and turn north onto Highway 7.
According to the still-secret Army report, no one yet knows exactly who pointed the 507th vehicles in the wrong direction, but the road they traveled led north through the eastern suburbs of Nasiriyah before continuing north to the city of Al Kut and eventually onto Baghdad. A detailed road map of southern Iraq shows the two roads, Highway 1 and Highway 7, nearly parallel each other in an identical, sweeping arc northward. But Highway 1 skirts to the west of Nasiriyah while Highway 7 cuts right through the city's eastern suburbs.
The 507th convoy was directed, tragically, to turn onto Highway 7, when it should have continued on Highway 1.
The Wrong Turn
One sergeant who was with the 507th insisted there was no "wrong turn," that he checked his GPS "waypoints" as his vehicle pulled into a position that was behind the lead Humvee and two 5-ton trucks. Another soldier reported that Capt. King later told him and others that his GPS "plugger" had "frozen," as it lost contact with one of the three NAVSTAR satellites that provide the devices with information.
Even more ominously, one soldier reported that though King had requested a map against which he could check his GPS waypoints, the captain lamented he never got one. Another sergeant says he doesn't remember his GPS "plugger" ever losing the satellite signal, yet he too had no map. Basic Army field manual instructions all note that the GPS devices should always be used in conjunction with a map.
Typically, the slowest, lumbering vehicles — the heavily-laden wreckers — tend to lag behind and bring up the rear, and that's what happened with the 507th vehicles. The wreckers, towing enormous payloads of laden trailers and broken-down vehicles, swept along as the dusty tail of the serpentine convoy. The sleep-deprived soldiers watched as the sun rose off to their right that morning. They knew they were heading north. What they didn't know was that the road north led into an ambush.
Route 7 is a straight north-south road that cuts through the eastern third of Nasiriyah. In the southern part of town, it straddles the Euphrates River, slices through an industrial area on the east side of the road and a rabbit warren of low-slung residential buildings to the west. Eventually the route crosses over the Saddam Canal in the northern part of the city and continues to the town of Al Kut.
Early Sunday morning, U.S. Marines from the Task Force Tarawa, a unit formed from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, were focused on securing Nasiriyah, which had been all but bypassed by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division. Marines from a unit code-named "Timberwolf" were assigned to secure the bridges spanning the canal and the river along Route 7.
The convoy of the 507th kept heading north, past a row of Marine M1A1 Abrams tanks lining the side of the road. One sergeant from the 507th noticed the tanks and wondered why they were bypassing combat forces. Another soldier recalled with wonder, "You are supposed to have an escort" when traveling as part of a maintenance convoy. "You are supposed to have infantry attached to protect you."
Another 507th soldier told ABCNEWS: "They left us there. They were supposed to protect us and they didn't. We were all alone with no protection. That is not supposed to happen. We are always supposed to be protected."
But as the convoy rolled past the tanks south of Nasiriyah, they were all alone.
To discover the peril soldiers from the 507th found themselves in, click here.