Following is part two of the true story of what happened when a convoy from the 507th Maintenance Ordnance Company found itself lost in Iraq. To read part one, click here.
A soldier from the 507th detailed the incident that morning in a letter to a relative written a few days later.
"At about 5:30 or six, we started driving through the city of Nasiriyah. It seemed like a peaceful town. Most of the town was still asleep. We crossed over the Euphrates River and drove all the way through town. We then pulled over to the side of the road and turned around. We later figured out the group we were looking for wasn't where they said they were. At about this time, we started seeing more traffic. The information we had been given was that the Iraqi soldiers would be giving up. We were also told that the Iraqi soldiers would be keeping their weapons. So we were nervous."
At 7:10 p.m., according to an account by New York Times reporter Michael Wilson, embedded with a nearby Marine unit, the radios of an artillery battery just a couple of miles south of the city crackled. The battery commander — a colonel — shouted to his officers, "Timberwolf is taking fire!" A Marine patrol was being shot at by Fedayeen irregulars hidden along the route. A fierce firefight began that waxed and waned throughout that day.
Twenty minutes after the first radio report, about 7:30 p.m., the misguided convoy of the 507th lumbered up the road, crossed a bridge over the Euphrates and was greeted by a sign in English that said "Welcome."
The convoy rolled through a dense neighborhood for about two miles into the heart of the eastern part of Nasiriyah. A Datsun 510 with a white top and orange fenders sped past the convoy, turned off the road and drove slowly back alongside, going in the opposite direction. One soldier recalls the uneasy feeling he got that the car was a "scout," carefully checking out their capabilities. A Nissan pickup with a "crew-served" machine gun also sped by and disappeared around a corner.
The trucks passed occasional armed Iraqi soldiers, even a couple of dug-in, old Soviet-made T-55 tanks with their turrets aimed away from the road. At a briefing before entering Iraq, the soldiers had been told that they were certain to come upon Iraqi soldiers who had surrendered but were allowed to keep their sidearms, mostly to keep their subordinate soldiers in line. Still, the sight of armed enemy soldiers — and potentially lethal tanks — was unnerving for the convoy soldiers.
Finally, as the trucks and Humvees crossed the Saddam Canal on the northern edge of Nasiriyah, another sign said simply, "Goodbye."
Sensing they were not where they were supposed to be, Capt. King led the convoy into a 180-degree turn and headed back into Nasiriyah, searching for an east-to-west route that would link him with Highway 1, west of the city. After a couple of false turns and dead ends, the convoy made another winding turn and backtracked along Highway 7 heading south. Sporadic gunfire erupted from buildings all around. The vehicles that could, increased their speed.
‘The Bullets Were Flying’
Atop one 5-ton truck, 24-year-old Cpl. Damien Luten was manning a .50-caliber machine gun. In the truck behind him was Sgt. Campbell. And in the Humvee behind him was the section leader, Staff Sgt. Tarik Jackson, a 28-year-old veteran of 11 years in the Army.
"As we started driving back through the town we started taking fire," said the letter one of the soldiers wrote to family members. "I could just hear shots behind me. Then we had to turn around again because we had missed our turn out of town. We found our turn and raced toward the bridge over the river and out of the city. Just then we started coming under heavy fire from both sides of the road."
From the side of the road, tires were being tossed onto the pavement. More than one soldier saw a bus maneuvering to block the narrow road.
Cpl. Luten, the .50-caliber gunner, described the scene as though he was in a movie: "I was up there, and I think of it now, kind of thinking of the movie The Matrix. And you see the bullets, flying. And it, it seems like it's slow motion. … The bullets were flying. I can actually see them, as they pass me, uh, over my head, back in front of the vehicle. It seemed like they were going that slow."
In the letter from the soldier, there is a description of the volley of gunfire as, "several rounds hit my truck. Something bigger hit the engine which started blowing smoke everywhere. One of my tires was blown out. I was just driving and praying."
Luten remembered, "And, we started returning fire, as we were pushing our way through the town. And as we were going along, uh, and receiving fire, at one point my equipment had locked up on me, basically malfunctioned. So, I went down, inside the cab, to grab my M-16, to continue fire. And a round came through the door, and got me in my knee." Several soldiers told ABCNEWS that the unlucky Luten never managed to fire either weapon before he was wounded.
As the convoy approached the bridgehead, "the vehicles ahead of me started getting farther and farther ahead real quick," recalled one soldier. "I didn't realize it, but they were trying to get out of there because they were taking fire."
An Army field manual covering convoy operations specifically orders that vehicles which are "part of the convoy that is in the kill zone and receiving fire must exit the kill zone as quickly as possible if the road to the front is open."
The Humvee carrying one of the soldiers who was now wounded, Staff Sgt. Jackson, had finally sputtered to a stop after re-crossing the Euphrates, just south of the bridge. It was riddled with bullets and overheated. Four more vehicles managed to limp up, including the truck driven by company supply sergeant Matthew Rose, which ground to a halt with its engines blown. As the trucks grouped in a safe area, soldiers could see Capt. King's Humvee and a couple of 5-ton trucks as silhouettes on the horizon. Left behind in the ambush area were half of the convoy's vehicles — eight in all.
‘Is Anyone Alive?’
The six soldiers aboard the three lead vehicles of the convoy were able to escape without injury.
According to eyewitnesses, Sgt. Matthew Rose and Cpl. Francis Carista (who himself had been hit by a piece of shrapnel that lacerated his heel) jumped out of one 5-ton truck south of the bridgehead of the Euphrates. From another truck came Pfc. Adam Elliott. Fortunately, during a prior enlistment, Rose had served as an Army medic, while Elliott had taken a "combat lifesaver" course.
They were joined by Spc. Jun Zhang and the three soldiers began administering first aid to their wounded comrades, survivors said. Half limping, half dragging, the four seriously wounded soldiers — Jackson, Luten, Spc. James Grubb and Sgt. Curtis Campbell — took cover in a roadside ditch, helped to safety by Rose, Elliott, Zhang, CW3 Nash and Pfc. Marc Dubois, the driver of Cpl. Luten's now-disabled truck.
Separated from other members of the convoy, these 10 soldiers who escaped the ambush — four of them seriously wounded — hunkered down and waited.
Hiding behind a sand berm, the soldiers heard the unmistakable "clanking" sound of tanks. At first they feared the sound was from the Iraqi T-55s they had seen earlier. But as the machines slowly drove into view, one soldier said, "it was a great, great relief to see they were Marines. M1 Abrams. The M1s came up and just blew up a couple of those first buildings nearby."
Two Marine Cobra attack helicopters flew by over-head and one pilot hovered for a moment and gave the wounded soldiers a thumbs-up sign. A few minutes later, more Marine vehicles drove up, loaded the injured soldiers and took them to a landing zone up the road.
There, a Navy corpsman dressed the soldiers' wounds and injected them with painkillers. Two Marine cargo helicopters arrived and by 8:15 p.m. — 45 minutes after the attack began — the soldiers were at a Navy field hospital in Jalaba, on the operating table, and attended by a team of emergency medicine specialists. Shortly thereafter they were airlifted aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters to another Navy field hospital in Kuwait.
None of those who escaped the ambush were able to say what happened at the rear of the convoy. Yet several soldiers said that even Sgt. Jackson's Humvee, a more nimble vehicle than the 18-wheelers and wreckers at the rear of the convoy, was taxed to its limit that day. All of the soldiers riding aboard the slow-moving wreckers ended up either dead or captured.
One of those captured, Sgt. James Riley, later confided to another soldier that he had watched in horror as the Humvee driven by Pfc. Lori Piestewa weaved frantically along the road, desperately trying to escape the hail of gunfire. That Humvee — carrying the company first sergeant, Master Sgt. Robert Dowdy, in the front passenger seat and Pfc. Jessica Lynch in a rear seat — plowed under the trailer of a 5-ton truck and came to a stop crushed into the "bobtail" hitch of the giant semi-tractor.
According to sources, Riley and Pfc. Patrick Miller jumped from their wrecker and ran to the crash scene, screaming into the vehicle: "Is anyone alive?" Gunfire was pinging into the metal all around them. According to at least one report, Miller single-handedly attacked several Iraqi soldiers he spotted setting up a mortar position and killed them, firing his M-16 until he exhausted all his ammunition. At one point, witnesses said, Miller's rifle jammed and he began "slamming rounds into the chamber one at a time" and firing them. He and Riley were eventually captured.
The battle for the bridgeheads at Nasiriyah wore on through the afternoon of March 23. By the time it was over, 16 Marines were dead, including the forward artillery observer from the unit south of town, killed in a Humvee with at least three other Marines. At least two of the Marines presumably lost their lives coming to the rescue of the 507th. Among the 10 bodies retrieved by U.S. special forces troops who rescued Pfc. Jessica Lynch from an Iraqi hospital on April 2nd were eight soldiers from the 507th and two U.S. Marines.
All told, the 507th lost nine soldiers on March 23. Two other soldiers from Fort Stewart were also killed. The Army death toll was 11. At least two Marines — possibly more — were killed during the rescue of the ill-fated Maintenance Company and 14 others were killed in action in Nasiriyah.
At 27 confirmed dead, that bloody Sunday was the deadliest day of the war for the United States.
How did it happen? Since the incident, the U.S. Central Command has been mum. But on the day of the ambush, March 23, the briefing officer at command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, said this:
"As far as the incident concerning the convoy, I believe that it is probable, like many other tragic incidents in war, that a young officer, leading his convoy, made a wrong turn and went somewhere where he wasn't supposed to. There weren't combat forces around where it happened. Combat forces arrived at the scene and helped extricate some of the survivors. It's an unfortunate incident."
According to those who have seen the Army's preliminary report, none of the soldiers of the 507th will be disciplined for the events of March 23rd and at least two survivors — Sgt. Matthew Rose and Pfc. Patrick Miller — will be decorated with the Silver Star, one of the Army's highest honors, for gallantry in war. The bloodiest day of this latest battle in Iraq will be blamed, in the end, on the inevitable fog of war and a wrong turn.
ABCNEWS' Claire Weinraub contributed to this report.