Good Thursday Ambushes of April 8, 2004

Posted: May 26, 2013 in Uncategorized
Photo by US Army Reservist and 518th member Specialist Joe Lane

Photo by US Army Reservist and 518th member Specialist Joe Lane

This article entitled “Complex Ambush” by Richard E. Killblane is the subject of James A. Bretney’s Graphic Novel Blaze 0f Glory Iraq Issues 7 thru 12.

On April 5, 2004, the radical young cleric Muqtada al Sadr flexed his muscles and called for a jihad against coalition forces in Iraq. The intelligence community had completely underrated the size of his Madhi Militia and its capability. The intelligence community just expected more of the same, which translated for truck drivers into a lot of small-scale convoy ambushes. No one outside the Vietnam veterans had anticipated the size and sophistication of the ambushes. Up until that time, the prevalent response was to put peddle to the metal and race out of the kill zone while returning fire.

e-Cover #8Having learned that anyone dressed in the black uniform of the militia or wearing their green and yellow colors was enemy and coalition forces had authorization to shoot without being fired upon, SSG Rick Gruver of the 1st Platoon, 1486th Medium Truck went over to ask 2LT James McCormick II, of the 1487th Medium Truck Company to join his convoy, “I would really like you to go. I’ve got a bad feeling. I hear you kick ass.” McCormick went to his company commander to ask permission to augment Gruver’s convoy, since he had been grounded after his last convoy. During a convoy ambush, McCormick had turned his Humvee gun truck back into the kill zone to kill as many of the enemy as he could. He felt any enemy he killed in that kill zone was enemy who would not ambush any other convoy. The NCOs felt differently and protested to their commander that he had recklessly endangered the rest of the convoy by not continuing the mission. McCormick was a prior service officer who had earned the Bronze Star Medal as a scout squad leader with the 24th Infantry Division during Desert Storm the hard way; it came with the Purple Heart. When the call up came for the second rotation, he felt he would see more action in a truck company than most other units, so he joined the 1487th in Eaton, Ohio. James felt that his infantry experience would be of use in a truck company. He had no idea how much it was needed.

Cover Art for the digital version for Issue # 9

Cover Art for the digital version for Issue # 9

CPT Pat Hinton had used James’ leg wound from that previous ambush as an excuse to keep him in to see how well the NCOs would do on their own. James pleaded with his commander to let him go and Hinton finally relented but the Lieutenant could only take volunteers. This was no problem since he attracted likeminded warriors.

McCormick managed to get the six-foot four-inch SPC Brian Noble back as his driver. Noble was a part-time bounty hunter and absolutely fearless in combat. CPT Hinton asked SPC Brandon Lawson to go as the radio operator. McCormick ran into SPC Ralph Blue, from the 812th Battalion staff, and he volunteered to go. He had spent six years in the US Marines but when the terrorists attacked on 9/11, he enlisted in the Army Reserves. McCormick was glad to have him. That gave him the Zebra a crew of four. As he had done before every mission, he offered his crew the opportunity to back out. He joking told them that he would understand if they did not want to go because he knew they wanted to go with him. Lawson had a friendly outgoing nature to him. He walked over to Noble, stretched out his hand and introduced himself. Noble looked at him and said that just because they rode together on this mission they did not have to be friends.

McCormick’s gun truck was a soft-skin Humvee with squad automatic weapon (SAW) but he felt had he had a .50 caliber machinegun in his last ambush the outcome would have been significantly different. He went over to a nearby Artillery unit and begged for a .50. Mechanics welded a pedestal to back so the lieutenant could fire out through a hole in cut in the top. He had painted his gun truck with alternating black and tan stripes like tiger stripes so it the enemy would recognize and fear it. His crew jokingly named it the Zebra.

Three gun trucks escorted Gruver’s convoy across the Iraqi border from Kuwait up the main supply route called Tampa. SPC Kray Holloway drove the lead Humvee gun truck with SPC Brian Coe, SPC Justin Miller and SGT Tracy Dyer as SAW gunners in the open box, fourth in line of march. Dyer was the company clerk but wanted to go out so this was his first run. This Humvee had ballistic armor and ballistic glass. The Zebra drove in the middle of the convoy as the “floater,” which moved up and down the convoy keeping trucks in line and raced ahead to block traffic at intersections. An M915 tractor in the rear had a gun box constructed on the back with an MK19 automatic grenade launcher.

Gruver’s convoy started off without any mishaps until it reached “Dirt Tampa” then the Zebra crew received a call that an M915 driven by Coe and Delany had rear-ended another truck, the Humvee gun truck driven by Holloway with Justin Miller and Dyer. The 915A3 was damaged and could not be towed, the Zebra and the M915 manned by Williams, Prather and “Meat” Mealer remained with the damaged truck. The rest of the convoy continued on to the Convoy Support Center Scania and reCover #10mained until after dark. While waiting on Tampa, the gunners discovered that Mealer had placed the firing pin in backwards in his M60 machinegun and also “jacked up” the MK19. The locals came out and watched them like buzzards, so they test fired their weapons which kept the locals at a distance, but all through the night trucks would drive around us in the desert. When finally someone came up from Camp Cedar and recovered the wrecked M915, the rest of the` convoy hurried to Scania. It was like a bad omen.

On Thursday April 8, SSG Gruver’s convoy departed Scania for Baghdad International Airport, better known as BIAP. From there, they would push supplies to the 1st Cav in the Green Zone. Everything was smooth sailing up the main highway until the convoy approached the final turn into BIAP around seven that evening. They saw some Iraqi kids playing soccer and Blue saw one of the kids pick up a cell phone and make a call. They knew that kids playing soccer would call ahead and warn the insurgents that a convoy was coming. Right after that, the lead elements of the convoy drove up ramp of the interchange and headed for the south gate a few miles away. The passengers of Holloway’s Humvee gun truck could see the gate off in the distance. Dyer sat on the left side, Coe stood in the middle with the SAW and Miller sat on the right side of the gun truck. Coe pointed to the right and said that he could even see one of Saddam’s’ palaces off in the distance to the left, which overlooked BIAP. Dyer and Miller looked over Coe’s shoulder to see the palace when they heard SSG Gruver yell over the radio, “Contact of the right side.”

Right as SSG Tom Stewart’s tractor, third in the line of march, made the turn onto the onramp; two mortars rounds exploded about ten meters just in front of his vehicle to his right. It was as if the rounds were intended to block the route heading north. His driver, PV2 Hillary Suter, instinctively hit the brakes and when Stewart felt the truck slow down, he yelled at her, “Go, Go, Go, don’t stop, keep going!” Stewart turned to the right and pointed his M16 out the window to fire, but could not see any enemy in the tall reeds. The Humvee gun truck behind his truck opened fire on the enemy in the reeds. As his truck completed the turn, Stewart looked back and recognized the Zebra further back on Tampa.

Cover #11SPC Holloway steered her Humvee gun truck onto the right hand side of the road just short of the on ramp to provide cover for the convoy. SSG Gruver led the lead elements of his convoy to safety while the lead two gun trucks drew and returned fire. Dyer saw three Iraqis, with weapons and dressed in black, running off to his left towards cover. Dyer fired his SAW at them and they received return fire from the left and front. A round severed Coe’s thumb and he fell down into the vehicle. SPC Robert A. Delaney immediately went to work treating Coe’s wound. He yelled to Holloway to get to the gate because Coe needed medical help. As the Humvee began to roll forward, a round hit Dyer in the right triceps and twice in the right forearm. As they turned down the road to BIAP, a round hit Miller in his left arm. He fell down but stood back up to fire, all the while cursing at the enemy. Dyer also continued to fire his SAW. A mortar round landed on the left side next to the Humvee and shrapnel peppered Dyer from his right wrist to his shoulder and hit Coe in the arm and face while he was lying down in the vehicle. Just as Dyer nearly expended all the ammunition in the drum of his SAW, a round penetrated his right forearm and exited his elbow causing his arm to go limp. Unable hold his SAW, he moved his left hand back to fire his weapon when another round hit the hand guard. Unable to hold the weapon, he fell back into the Humvee. In three minutes all her gunners were wounded and she screamed this on the radio.

McCormick ordered Noble, “Pull up there next to their Humvee and see what’s going on.” The Zebra stopped just 20 feet from Holloway’s gun truck. Noble noticed the trucks were pulling over to stop as if they were going to “box up.” The box formation was used for security like circling the wagons in the Old West and formed by the first trucks stopping in a row right behind the lead gun truck and the next row of trucks pulling up next to it. The lead and rear gun trucks would close off the ends like a box. The doctrine called for the box formation to be formed outside the kill zone, not in the middle of it. McCormick told Lawson to tell those drivers to “knock that shit off and get in the gate.” Forming a box in the kill zone was suicide!

By then all of Holloway’s three gunners were down. McCormick saw Miller get back up and fired at an insurgent on the bridge but recognized the terror on Holloway’s face. There was one RPK machinegun behind a berm just beyond the overpass that had the onramp completely covered and could also shoot down Tampa. A second RPK had a perfect shot up the onramp and road to BIAP. The two machineguns had interlocking fire on that onramp. There was one lone militiaman with a SPD sniper rifle on the overpass that probably took out most of Holloway’s crew and a mortar somewhere beyond the overpass. The bulk of the enemy with AKs were concealed in ditches the left side of the Tampa leading to the overpass. In all there were about 30 insurgents in either black militia garb or civilian attire forming a perfect L-shaped kill zone. The truck drivers had never experienced an ambush this size or as well planned as this before.

Cover #12Knowing they could not fight McCormick yelled over to Holloway, “Get in the damn gate, get in the damn gate!” Holloway then raced to the gate where her crew could receive medical attention. As rounds pummeled the gun truck, a ricochet hit Dyer behind the right ear knocking his head forward. Miller continued to fire his weapon until they reached the safety of the compound. There was no serpentine so the lead elements of the convoy did not have to slow down. Once in BIAP, Gruver set about trying to get a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) out to kill zone. Once inside the gate, Stewart instructed his driver to pull off to the right in a staging area. He dismounted, walked to the guard shack where he informed the guards about the ambush and counted trucks as they came in. He heard some of the trucks had stopped and were waiting for the Zebra to suppress the enemy before they would move. Evidently a contract driver had halted his vehicle short of the kill zone blocking the remainder of the convoy and the M915 gun truck remained with that part of the convoy.

SSG Stewart watched Holloway’s gun truck come flying through the gate and heard her jump out screaming, “Help, help, they’ve been shot!” Stewart ran over and opened the left back door of the Humvee and found the three gunners lying on top of each other with blood all over the place. He grabbed the guy on top, Dyer, by his flack jacket and put him out onto the ground. Stewart went into his medic mode and started to take the IBA off him, but he screamed in pain, so Stewart cut the body armor off at shoulders and sides straps. He could then just peal the body armor off. Someone had brought him a CLS bag, while he searched the body and found two or three bullet wounds to the right arm. Stewart had another man start bandaging the wounds while Stewart and SSG James D. Martin continued to calm Dyer down. Stewart luckily found the vein first time and gave him an IV. SPC Keith Miller and Hillary Suter cut Coe’s Kevlar vest off and searched for more wounds. An ambulance showed up and the medics took the wounded away. Stewart remembered that it was still daylight. About the time that Stewart finished working on the wounded that the QRF a patrol of ADA Humvees, arrived and stopped at the gate before heading out.

Back in the kill zone, McCormick noticed three cars with Iraqis driving up and down the convoy firing at it, so he ordered Noble to drive a little past the onramp entrance and pull over to the left facing into the enemy so the convoy would have room to pass behind the Zebra. The Lieutenant had to jump up and sit on the top of the Humvee since there was not enough room in the hole to turn the .50 and fire at the cars. The Zebra stopped just 70 yards from the overpass in the apex of the kill zone. McCormick then popped yellow smoke and tossed it to the enemy to the left. He then told Lawson to let everyone know the yellow smoke marked the enemy position and Lawson yelled over the radio, “Enemy position is marked by yellow smoke!” Trucks passed behind them firing at the enemy and unintentionally at the Zebra. Noble and Lawson dismounted and automatically began firing in their sectors from behind their soft-skinned doors as if they might provide some cover. Blue fired out the window until Noble yelled at him to get out and fire. Noble fired 40mm grenades out of his M203 as fast as an Mk19 automatic grenade launcher. He pounded the RPK to the left rear of the Zebra until it went silent but neither he nor McCormick’s .50 could silence the other up ahead. Noble fired a total of 30 40mm grenades.

McCormick knew the most effective enemy fire came from the overpass and sprayed it with his .50. Suddenly one enemy round punched through the mount and hit the ammunition belt sending pieces of the shattered round into McCormick’s left hand. He was trying to reload when suddenly another hit his SAPI plate knocking him down into the floor of the Zebra like he had been hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. He sat there momentarily stunned when a voice inside his head told him to get up. That same moment, Noble opened the door and said, “Get the hell out of there, LT; you have been shot.” James yelled back, “Fuck No, I am getting back up and killing these bastards.” He picked himself up from the floor of the vehicle and saw two Iraqi insurgents coming in his direction. The .50 was out of ammo so he grabbed another belt but the blood from his cut hand made the brass slippery and he could not hold it. Remembering the advice of an old Vietnam vet, he picked up a flare and fired it like a rocket at the insurgents. It started a fire in the brush and caused the enemy to flee. He then grabbed his M16 and dropped both of them. He saw rounds hit one in the stomach and head, blowing a chuck of his skull away then the man bounced on the ground twitching in convulsions. James had never seen a man die that way from gunfire. At that moment a sudden revelation came over him. A round had hit him square in the chest and he had lived. He realized he had no control over whether he lived or died. All he could do was just take the fight to the enemy. From then on, he no longer feared death and could think clearly under fire. Lieutenant then reloaded his .50 and saw the sniper on the overpass leaning over trying to take aim on one of his crew. Evidently the sniper had thought he kill the lieutenant so McCormick fired a ten-round burst at the bridge blowing out chunks of the concrete and splattering the sniper.

McCormick then wondered what why the last half of the convoy was not driving through. Unknown to him, they had boxed up and were waiting for the enemy fire to die down before they proceeded. As it was getting darker, the Lieutenant saw tree branches, a couple hundred yards way, light up and move every time the mortar fired. He started working that tree line with his .50 until the mortar stopped firing. Noble then drove the Zebra off of the road and the crew dismounted to return fire while Lawson called for the Quick Reaction Force. After 20 minutes of fighting, the QRF still had not arrived. At last, the remainder of the convoy started driving through the kill zone. Soldiers fired out the windows as they drove by and one driver not looking where he aimed shot up the Zebra with rounds zipping in between the crew.

McCormick then told Noble, “Let’s get ready to go into the gate.” Noble informed him, “We’ve got flat tires.” The Zebra had three tires shot out so McCormick asked, “Will it still roll?” Noble answered, “Yeah.” “Then get ready to roll in the gate,” McCormick told him. Just then they received a radio call, “We have a TCN [Third Country National] and his truck is missing.” McCormick told Noble, “Pull over behind this building. We have got to find this guy.” The bulk of the fighting had died down but there was still some sporadic small arms fire. Blue climbed in but the barrel of his M16 was so hot that it cooked off a couple rounds. Noble drove the Zebra behind the building where they might could one spare tire but did not have the time. They then saw the blue car race by shooting at them and they fired it up so bad it slid off the road and caught fire.

McCormick then saw the glimpses of light reflecting off of the windshields of vehicles speeding his way down the dirt access road from Abu Ghraib – the same direction as the enemy. It took him a second look to recognize that the vehicles were Humvees of the QRF and about that time the truck with the TCN blew past them heading for BIAP. The QRF drove between the Zebra and its target, the blue car. An aggravated McCormick ceased firing and yelled, “What the fuck are they doing?” The Humvees then pulled around and lined up behind the Zebra and they drew fire from where the blue car had stopped behind a building. The Zebra crew and the QRF returned fire and after about three minutes of intense fire, McCormick could tell that the car was no longer a threat so waved his hand in front of his face giving the signal to cease fire. It became quiet. That last fight had not lasted more than three minutes.

About that time, the M915 gun truck and a M915 bobtail pulled up with SPC Dan Baird, PFC Mealer and two other soldiers. Adrenaline had McCormick still pumped up. He walked around cursing, yelling commands and asking how every was, “God, I hate these mother fuckers.” That was when he learned that Lawson had been shot through the leg. One of the soldiers of the QRF bandaged his leg. Another saw the lieutenant’s bloody hand and said, “Well sir, you’ve been wounded. We’ll take you back to the compound.” The combat lifesaver climbed out of the Humvee with his medical aid bag. McCormick yelled at him, “Get your ass back in that truck.” With accountability of the missing TCN, McCormick wanted to get everyone back in the gate to asses the damage to his convoy. The Soldier said, “Yes sir,” and did as he was told. The lieutenant wrapped his olive green “drive-on rag” around his hand.

The M915 bobtail hooked up to the Zebra and the QRF then escorted them to the Iraqi National Guard compound adjacent the palace. By then McCormick had calmed down. There SSG Stewart placed a pressure bandage on McCormick’s wound and checked Lawson’s wound. In the compound a female driver stepped out of the bobtail pale as a ghost. McCormick walked up to her and asked her some questions but she just looked around as if she was in shock. She started to cry, “I’ve got babies. This is crazy. I cannot do this.” The Lieutenant looked at her with the compassion that a father would his daughter and gave her a hug and told her it would be okay. She looked at him and exclaimed, “My God, look at you guys. All of you have been shot and there is blood everywhere.” She then sat down and cried more. McCormick consoled her wondering if his daughter would ever have to face this.

McCormick, Lawson and Noble climbed in a Humvee ambulance, which carried them back to the Special Forces aid station. Before he left, McCormick told Blue to fix the Zebra, since he wanted to get back out on the road as soon as he could. The Special Forces medics dressed the two soldiers’ wounds as best as they could then put hem in the back of the Humvee again and drove them down to the Air Force field hospital on the other side of BIAP. Noble went back to pick up the Zebra.

While at the field hospital, McCormick was talked to a female nurse, the captain looked down and said, “Take off your pants.” McCormick said, “What?” “You’ve have a bullet hole in your pants. Have you been shot in the leg?” The Lieutenant had not even noticed it. Sure enough he looked down and saw the hole. He dropped his trousers worrying whether he had soiled his underwear in the heat of battle. Fortunately they were clean and the bullet had left a thin black line across his leg as if someone had drawn it with a pen. It was so thin that they determined it was made by a 5.56mm round. He then remembered seeing a truck making a turn. He saw only the weapon sticking out the window and heard the crack of the M16. He had not seen the driver’s face since the driver had ducked his head down and fired his weapon without looking.

About that time, more wounded soldiers started arriving. McCormick overheard the doctors and nurses talking about some that had died. The words stung his heart. A nurse smiled at him while he lay there more exhausted than in pain while a doctor pulled fragments out of his hand and sewed up his finger. The adrenaline rush had left him tired and he wanted to sleep. He felt safe but sad, angry but glad all at the same time. The nurse had tears in her eyes when she told Lawson that he had to Germany to heal. Lawson begged his lieutenant, “Please, LT don’t let them send me home.” McCormick wanted to send him home, along with all his other soldiers for their own good, but he knew it would have killed Lawson’s spirit. He told the nurse and doctor that they would irrigate his wound and bring him back if it became infected. They agreed and gave them medications to take along.

While the medics treated Lawson, McCormick looked up and saw Noble standing at parade rest in the door watching them. Noble, Blue and SSG Ward had fixed the Zebra and tracked down their comrades. McCormick was chocked emotionally by the loyalty of his driver standing guard over him. “My God, what soldiers I have.” Noble stood in the door as a faithful companion watching over his wounded comrades. Noble finally walked over to Lawson, looked at his wound then at Lawson, smiled and held out his hand, “I guess we can be friends.” Lawson exclaimed, “What does a person have to do to become your friend; get shot?” After Lawson’s leg wound was finally dressed they loaded into the Zebra and Noble drove them back to BIAP where the truck convoys rested over night.

The entire fight had lasted 45 minutes resulting in five wounded soldiers, but the insurgents lost 18 confirmed killed in action. The ambush took place a mile from the gate at BIAP and a local national convoy escorted by Humvees was also ambushed on Route Sword a few miles to the north in downtown Baghdad. That was the beginning of the Easter Weekend Ambushes. That night the militia dropped eight bridges and overpasses around Scania thus cutting Baghdad off from all northbound traffic. The next day, Good Friday, the enemy would ambush any convoy that tried to get in or out of BIAP. They knew the Achilles Heal of the 1st Cavalry was its dependence upon trucks for everything they needed to fight. That Easter Weekend would result in the worst convoy ambushes of the war and the Zebra crew’s ordeal had only started. They would lead the defense of BIAP against a determined enemy attack and escort convoys through three more ambushes on their way to the Green Zone.

Easter weekend was a turning point in the war in Iraq for truck drivers. They enemy had shown great sophistication in the planning and scale of their attacks. By the end of April, the coalition had suppressed the uprising; but for the rest of the year, truck drivers would slug it out with the insurgents for control of the road. After that Easter Weekend, a new term entered the Army vernacular – “complex ambush” to distinguished any large-scale ambush from a simple one.

This was not only one of the first complex convoy ambushes of the war, but also one of the overlooked ambushes in terms of acts of valor. Not since the Vietnam War had truck drivers become front line combat soldiers and their senior officers had no idea that truck drivers could be heroes. For that ambush, the crew of the Zebra except Blue received the Bronze Star Medal; his was downgraded to an ARCOM with valor device. Yet their actions exceeded those of SSG Timothy Nein and his crew for their acts of bravery during the Palm Sunday Ambush on 20 March 2005. Nein deservedly earned the Distinguished Service Cross and two other soldiers earned Silver Stars in a largest convoy ambush of the next year. Both crews spent the same amount of time in the kill zone. Both Nein and McCormick had made the key decisions that saved the convoys. Nein’s Raven 42 faced 50 insurgents while McCormick’ Zebra faced about 30, but Nein entered the kill zone with three fully up-armored M1114 Humvees with six more up-armored Humvees on the main road. McCormick entered the kill zone with two Humvees and only one had plate steel on the doors. It left the kill zone after three minutes when all three gunners were wounded. Unlike Nein, McCormick was hit twice and kept fighting. In fact, McCormick would pick up another volunteer for his crew at BIAP and all but one of his five-man crew was wounded before the mission was completed. The MPs immediately recognized valor when they saw it in Raven 42 awarding two Silver Star Medals and one Distinguished Service Cross, but the valor of many truck drivers would go unrecognized that weekend. The Zebra crew would fight through three more convoy ambush, defend the wall at BIAP against a determined enemy attack and receive nothing for those acts. One captain did recognize McCormick’s valor and recruited him to develop the tactics of his provisional gun truck company. When the 1487th returned to Ohio many of the soldiers would bring their families up to McCormick to introduce them to the man who kept them alive.

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