Soldiers Recount Anatomy of Operation Anaconda

ByABC News

B A G R A M  A I R  B A S E, Afghanistan, March 22, 2002 -- Operation Anaconda began in the dead of the night on March 2 and for the next 16 days, U.S. infantrymen from the 101st Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division and the helicopter crews who ferried them into action engaged al Qaeda forces in the deadliest ground offensive of the war in Afghanistan. This is their story:

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jeff Simon, Chinook pilot: "In the days leading up to it, they really didn't give us a lot of information other than the fact that there was a big mission coming up. And it got delayed because of weather — two days. And then obviously, as we got closer, we went into our planning cycle, and that's when we started getting a lot more information on exactly where the target area was, what routes we were gonna fly."

Ground and air troops sat through seemingly endless rounds of briefings to prepare themselves for the battle.

Chief Warrant Officer 2 John W. Quinlan, Chinook pilot: "We were told it was going to be one of the largest missions to date, since Operation Enduring Freedom started."

Simon: "For us, the objective was to get the infantry on the ground where they wanted to be at, at a particular time. And then we usually get a little bit of, of background of exactly what they're going to do on the ground, so we can help them do their mission. But, for us, the objective is always get them on, on target, plus or minus 50 meters, plus or minus 30 seconds."

Quinlan: "I was most worried about the terrain in the landing area. We had imagery of the landing areas … Those pictures didn't do us a lot of good. The terrain analysis on the maps, we knew we were going to be in jagged areas. So basically, getting that helicopter in there safely and landing and getting those guys up, that's what everyone was focused on."

Lt. Russell Berman, platoon commander: "Everyone's intense and they're pretty much looking forward to it because … pretty much an infantryman's career is to go to do this. So this is what everyone pretty much looks forward to."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 John Ketchum, Chinook pilot: "Most of the times before I go out and fly, I do say a prayer that I will be watched over."

Anaconda’s Mission

The operation's goal was to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban forces fortified in mountainous positions in eastern Afghanistan. On the morning of March 2, Apache attack helicopters were deployed to clear the area where the heavier, MH-47 Chinook helicopters were to land and deploy the ground troops they carried. Some of the Chinooks, normally based in Bagram, came under heavy fire during their 90-minute trip to the battle zone.

Capt. William Ryan, Apache pilot: "My aircraft took some fire on the right canopy. It came through the door there and ricocheted up where it went off my face here and out the top glass of the canopy where it exited the aircraft."

Chinooks Faced Unexpected Fire

Four American Chinook helicopters, two from Bravo Company 159th Aviation Division carrying troops from the 10th Mountain Division, and two from 101st Airborne Division carrying troops of the 101st were among the first involved in Operation Anaconda.

Chief Warrant Officer 3 Scott Breslin, Chinook pilot: "[We were] actually enjoying some of the scenery. It sounds crazy, but it's really pretty country that we're flying over here. Until you get to that last couple of minutes, it's kind of an enjoyable flight."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ken Gunter, Chinook pilot: "Probably 10 minutes out the entire helicopter was just silent, and everybody was just doing their jobs and getting ready for those last few minutes inbound."

As the Chinooks dropped off the troops, they came under heavy fire almost immediately.

Quinlan: "Immediately on the ground, those guys were pinned down. The al Qaeda was firing down off the mountains into the valley and the situation was developing. But we had another turn to make. We had to bring more infantry guys in. We had to get our helicopters back here to Bagram to do the next infiltration."

Breslin: "I think everybody was doing that, watching the rearview mirror to see how fast they were getting off the back and scanning the hills around us just in case."

Berman: "It's the rush, that's what you want, you want to be the first guy in."

Chief Warrant Officer 2 Derrick Goodrich, Chinook pilot: "Troops getting off of airplanes were getting shot at a lot sooner than they thought they would [be]."

Breslin: "I don't think they anticipated the type of resistance they encountered when they got on the ground there. I think that a lot of us anticipated it going a lot smoother than it did."

Signaled for Support

There was heavy radio chatter as the ground troops called for air support.

Breslin: "I realized it's not a training mission any more. There's really people that are shooting at us, or at least at the helicopter."Simon: "They were actually attacking our guys as opposed to trying to flee. So it wasn't what we expected."

Choppers continued to fly missions to drop troops off, until they were prevented from doing so, as the battle heated up. At the same time, commanders on the ground were trying to determine the source of the al Qaeda fire.

Lt. Joe Harosky, second platoon commander: "We had initially thought it wasn't directed at us or a company. So I just kept walking in a normal speed, thinking hey, the firing is on the other side of a mountaintop or ridge."

Breslin: "The direct fire, you get used to with the rounds crackling around you and over your head. And you can actually hear the bullets that fly past you when they break the sound barrier."

Harosky: "After a few minutes — maybe not — maybe after a minute, five different bursts and I realized, hey, that was coming at us. And then, I heard the company RTOs (Radio Telephone Operators) screaming that our company was taking fire."

William Reed, Apache pilot: "Nothing, nothing prepares you for that. I mean out of our platoon, maybe three people, four people have been in combat. The rest of us had never seen combat until now."

Harosky: "The enemy was not only firing at us with small arms, they were firing mortar rounds and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) up at our location."

Lt. Col. Jim Mayre, aerial assault commander: "I had feelings of concern. I mean, but probably the thing that concerned me most was the welfare of my soldiers. I just wanted to ensure that they all returned safely."

Harosky: "I called the company commander on the radio, requested permission to pick up my platoon and move them back because, I told them they had our positions pegged. And he authorized it, he told me to pick up and get the heck out of there."

Rescue Team Prepared Plan

Back at Bagram Air Base, Chinook rescue teams monitored the firefight on radios.

Ketchum: "There were three Apaches that were almost shot down. Two of them had taken RPG fire and heavy machine gun fire, .50 cal (caliber) rounds to the fuselage."

Goodrich: "[We] immediately started thinking about them, started thinking about the infantrymen they put down. You know, what is going on? What is going wrong?"

Simon: "One plan was to send two of us in to try to get some of the casualties out, bring in more supplies and some more guys … We couldn't get in there, unfortunately. The ground commander wouldn't give us clearance to go in because the area was so hot."

Quinlan: "You're frustrated because you want to help the infantry out. You want to try to get those helicopters in there to get their casualties out and to get their mortar teams — reinforced mortar teams — in there."

Ordered to Extract

By nightfall, 18 hours after the first troops had been inserted, they received orders to extract them. Pilots began flying out wounded and exhausted soldiers as Air Force bombers bombarded the caves. Eight U.S. soldiers were killed during Anaconda.

Ketchum: "Having never been in contact with the enemy or been shot at before except some sporadic stuff over in Pakistan, I was very nervous going in … And we weren't sure how the infantry guys, the guys on the ground were going to signal us … We came around and I saw them waving a kind of stick in the air and that was really a sigh of relief. My aircraft had five wounded that had taken shrapnel to the leg and different parts of their body. So they had fellow soldiers helping them, carrying [them] onto the aircraft and they were bleeding."

Goodrich: "We were going to be the final aircraft out of there … When we left, no one was coming back. We were pretty much the last air crew."

Berman: "When we finally pulled those guys out they'd been there for about 24 hours."

On the morning of March 4, two U.S. special forces Chinook helicopters took off from the same area. They came under unexpectedly heavy fire and a Navy SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, 32, of Woodland, Calif., fell out of the first craft and was captured and killed by al Qaeda soldiers. First-person accounts were not available, but Quinlan was quick to hear about the problems they faced.

Quinlan: "When we'd found out that … the MH-47 crew, two of them have gone down in the exact area where we were putting in 10th Mountain, [it] kind of hit close to home, that they [the enemy] could be that effective with their rocket-propelled grenades, to take down an aircraft. I [think] that hit the special operations community pretty hard."

Goodrich: "It really hit me and it really made me think. And the first thing I think about is those guys' families, their friends, their co-workers, just people's feelings in general. I mean, we heard there was a loss of life, so … you can't even begin to comprehend what people are going to go through."

Quinlan: "Obviously, they're fellow Chinook guys. We know a lot of those guys. And the special operations guys we've worked with in the past as well, so it was — you don't like to hear about a brother getting hurt or someone getting killed like that. No one wants to hear that … It goes into that fallen, fallen comrade. You don't want to, you don't leave a soldier behind."

ABCNEWS' Andrew Morse conducted the interviews from Afghanistan, James Blue III wrote and produced the Nightline broadcast and Marni Harriman produced this for

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events