This whole week, Seraphic Secret has been devoted to grand military theory.
And so, to continue the theme, I’ve just finished reading the best book about the war in Iraq that has yet been published: No True Glory, by Bing West. This is an eye witness account of the ferocious and bloody Battle for Fallujah by a former Assistant Secratary of Defense for International & Security Affairs under President Reagan, and more importantly a former Marine.
I’m excerpting an entire chapter because, quite frankly, I’ve never read anything that comes close to West’s description of face-to-face urban combat, between well trained US forces and fanatical Islamic gunmen.
I read the book in two sittings. I would have read it in one, but I did have to get a night’s sleep.
Buy this book. That’s my review.
It is riveting.
Seraphic Alert: The following chapter contains language that is usually not found in Seraphic Secret. I could easily edit the languge of the Marines, but I will not. So, if you are offended by foul language. Stop right here.
Chapter 27: The House From Hell
On the morning of 13 November, Kilo Company set out to clear the dense blocks of houses stretching from Phase Line Henry west to the Euphrates. Captain Jent told 1/Lt Grapes that his platoon would take the lead and Grapes assigned a block to each squad. After the previous day’s fight, the platoon was tired but excited, expecting immediate action, but the insurgents had retreated to the south and no contact was made in the first block.
The 3rd Squad began searching the second block by shooting and hammering at an unyielding lock on a courtyard gate. Admitting defeat, Corporal Ryan Weemer sat down to smoke a cigarette.
Screw this one, he thought, 2nd Squad has some C-4. They can clear it later.
Sergeant Christopher Pruitt, the Platoon Guide, ran across the street to pry open a side gate of the next house. Tough and muscular, Pruitt had a challenging nature and never relaxed.
”Hey, this gate’s open,” he yelled. “Let’s go!”
Weemer threw down his smoke and hustled over with Sergeant James Eldrige and Lance Corporals Cory Carlisle and James Prentice.
The five Marines slipped into the courtyard and Pruitt looked inside the outhouse. Fresh shit.
“They’re inside!” Pruitt whispered.
The cement house, with a dome-shaped roof and a small upper story, looked too small to hold more than a few enemy. So rather wait for a tank, the Marines decided to assault. Weemer, who had gone through the Close Quarters Battle (CQB) special training, posted Prentice as rear security and gestured to Carlisle and Pruitt to stack behind him. He slung his M16 and took out his pistol. Drawing a deep breath, he kicked down the door and charged across the room. He was “running the rabbit”, a technique where the point man rushes across the room to distract the enemy while the second man in the stack does the shooting.
As Weemer sprinted across the entryway room, he glimpsed an insurgent with an AK hiding next to the door. As he ran by, Weemer fired three rounds into the man. Carlisle burst in after Weemer, almost bumped into the gunman and jumped back, spilling into Pruitt.
“Go!” Pruitt yelled, shoving him back into the room.
Carlisle stepped forward and fired a long burst into the insurgent, who sagged to the floor. Carlisle then fired another burst into the dead man.
“Stop shooting and get over here,” Weemer yelled.
Carlisle ran across the room and flattened himself against the wall next to Weemer.
“Ready to clear?” Weemer said, gesturing at the open doorway to his left that led to the main room.
With Carlisle on his hip, Weemer charged in and was blinded by the pulsing white flashes of an AK muzzle exploding in his face. Weemer thrust out his right arm and fired eight bullets into the insurgent. The two were standing five feet apart, looking into each other’s eyes, firing furiously. Weemer could feel bullets whizzing by his face. Chips of brick and concrete were pelting him on the cheeks, his ears ringing.
Weemer was a qualified expert shot with a pistol. There was no way he had missed with a dozen bullets. He was close enough to slap the man. The man would not go down.
Weemer was running out of bullets. He shuffled towards the door, still firing, and pushed Carlisle back into the first room.
The AK rounds that missed Weemer as he made entry had passed through the door and struck Pruitt and Eldridge. Bones were shattered in the wrist of Pruitt’s firing hand and Eldridge was hit in the shoulder and chest. They staggered out of the house and Pruitt tripped and fell near the front gate. As he struggled to get up, an insurgent on the roof opened fire, the bullets kicking dirt into his face. He dove around the wall and joined Eldridge on the street.
Inside the house, Prentice, who had slid inside the doorway, saw a man wearing a green camouflage jacket and black pants rush out from a back room. Prentice fired a long burst from his SAW, hitting the man in the chest and head, killing him instantly.
Weemer turned back to Carlisle.
“Reload and we’ll finish that other fucker.”
Keeping his eyes on the doorway, Weemer patted his pistol leg-holster.
Where’s my extra mag? he thought. Fuck.
He dropped his pistol and unhooked the M-16 from his back. He heard someone stumbling towards them and backed up as the insurgent hobbled out from the main room. Weemer shot him in the legs and, when he fell, shot him twice in the face. The man, wearing black body armor over a blue denim shirt, was light-skinned, with a red bandana tied around his curly hair.
Hearing the firing and seeing the wounded, other Marines were rushing to the house. Lance Corporal Samuel Severtsgard burst into the entry room. As he had done in yesterday’s fight, Severtsgard was holding a grenade.
He nodded at Severtsgard, who pitched the grenade into the main room. Immediately after the explosion, Weemer and Carlisle rushed in. The air was filled with black smoke and the acrid smell of gunpowder. Weemer broke right and waited a moment for the dust to settle. He saw a stairwell against the left wall and quickly raised his M-16. Above him was a dome-shaped skylight and a circular catwalk with a solid, three-foot high cement guard railing. The stairs led to the catwalk.
As Weemer brought his rifle up, he saw an insurgent leaning over the cement railing, sighting in. The M-16 and the AK began firing at the same time, the sound deafening. Weemer felt his leg buckle. A hard blow rocked back his face.
To his left, Carlisle was struck down in a fusillade of bullets, the shooters taking dead aim from the catwalk overhead. Deafened by the din, Weemer hobbled back to the entryway. In the dust-filled room, he didn’t see Carlisle lying with a shattered leg and he couldn’t hear his screams.
His face numb and dripping blood, Weemer limped out to the courtyard. He had flashbacks of a jihadist his team had shot in the face a few days ago. He saw Prentice squatting next to the doorway covering the roof.
“What’s wrong with my face? How bad is it?”
Prentice barely glanced at him.
“You’re cut above the eyebrow. Its nothing.”
Weemer took off his Kevlar and found the spent bullet lodged in the webbing.
Carlisle was screaming in the main room, lying directly below the catwalk. The insurgents were using him as bait instead of killing him.
The platoon sergeant, Staff Sergeant Jon Chandler, heard the screams and ran to the house, followed by Corporals Farmer and Sanchez. They huddled with Severtsgar
” We’re gonna flood the room, OK? It’s the only way,” Chandler said. “Everyone point their muzzles up high and blast away until we can pull Carlisle out. All right, lets go! Sanchez, you’re number one man, I’ll follow.”
Farmer thought it was a good plan.” Let’s do it,” he said.
Sanchez thought, “Oh shit, here we go,” and his mind went blank—just doing, not thinking.
Severtsgard thought, Throw one grenade, then enter. He pulled a grenade from his deuce gear and thumbed the clip. Carlisle screamed again.
What am I thinking? thought Severtsgard, as he pictured Carlisle lying in the middle of the room. Hope nobody saw that.
He slipped the grenade back into its pouch.
Chandler kneed Sanchez in the buttocks to signal “GO!” and they flooded the room. Sanchez ran straight across the room. Chandler and Severtsgard broke right, aiming up at the catwalk. Farmer was the last one to the door, where he froze for a moment, trying to convince himself it wasn’t fear. A second later, a grenade landed in the middle of the room and exploded right where he would have been standing.
Farmer was blown off his feet back into the foyer. Severtsgard and Chandler disappeared in a huge swirl of dust and debris, as the deafening roar of AKs filled the main room. Chandler fell instantly, three bullets in his leg and both his shoulder and leg shredded by the grenade shrapnel. Severtsgard was also torn up, with shrapnel in his leg and foot. With one hand, he dragged Chandler from the kill zone into the kitchen.
Sanchez, who had raced across the main room, turned around and saw no one.
What the fuck? Where did they go? Sanchez thought.
In front of him was the door to a small room. Sure he was going to be shot, he kicked open the door and stepped in alone. The bedroom was empty. He propped his rifle against the wall and ran back into the main room. He grabbed Carlisle under his shoulders and pulled him into the shelter of the small back room.
Bullets were ricocheting off the walls and skipping across the floor. From behind the cement guard rail on the circular catwalk, the insurgents were darting back and forth. Their fires covered all angles of the main room below them.
In the kitchen, Chandler was howling in pain. Severtsgard had his rifle trained on the door so no one could enter and finish them off. After a minute or so, Chandler calmed down.
“Hey, man, the Corps will send us home now,” Chandler said. “We’re all messed up.”
Severtsgard smiled and kept watch on the door.
Farmer was lying on his back in the foyer, his trigger finger and thumb badly shredded with shrapnel. He couldn’t hold his rifle. He leaned against the wall and let loose a barrage of profanity.
“Fuck! Those motherfuckers! I’ll kill’em. Those fucks!”
More Marines rushed to the house. Private Rene Rodriguez stood in the courtyard for a minute to sort things out. He had seen Sergeant Pruitt stagger down the street with a shattered hand. He had seen Weemer limp out yelling for reinforcements. The platoon’s corpsman, Doc Edora, was kneeling by the wall treating Eldridge for gunshot wounds in his chest. The word was the platoon sergeant and two or three more were down inside. And his fire team leader, Cpl. Sanchez, was in there somewhere, unaccounted for.
Rodriguez grabbed Lance Corporal Michael Vanhove and ran inside.
“Corporal Sanchez! Sanchez?” Rodriguez yelled.
“I got Carlisle,” Sanchez yelled. “We’re in the front room. Watch your ass. The center room’s a kill zone!”
Rodriguez and Vanhove sprinted past Farmer, past the sprawled Iraqi bodies, the weapons, shell casings and blood. The insurgents above them opened up with a long burst of AK-47 fire. The rounds hit between the two Marines, forcing Vanhove to dive back into the foyer. Rodriguez plunged through the fire and into the bedroom with Sanchez and Carlisle.
“Take security on the door!” Sanchez said.
Sanchez had taken his pressure bandage from his shoulder pocket and was straightening Carlisle’s leg that had twisted backwards from the force of the bullets. As Carlisle screamed, Rodriguez’s stomach turned over. Sanchez spoke jokingly to Carlisle as he tried to staunch the flow of blood.
“Clean the wound, direct pressure, bandage, more pressure…just like in Doc’s classes.”
There was no back door, only a small window covered with sturdy metal bars. The insurgents were steadily shooting at the doorway.
A block away, Pruitt and Eldridge were wobbling up the street toward the medevac humvees. First Sergeant Brad Kasal from Weapons Company was walking forward next to a humvee. Kasal ran to Pruitt’s side and pulled him to cover. Pruitt was close to passing out.
“Bad guys in that house,” he mumbled. “We got people down inside.”
Kasal grabbed the three nearest Marines and ran forward to the courtyard wall, where the squad leader, Cpl. John Mitchell, was crouching with five more Marines. Mitchell led them forward and they stacked along the wall outside the door. Mitchell was in charge. Kasal considered himself just another Marine pitching in. Taking no fire, they tumbled through the doorway.
It was a new house, with clean beige dry walls and a light, brown-speckled concrete floor covered with cement dust and swaths of bright red blood. Inside the doorway, Kasal saw two dead Iraqis. Sanchez and Rodriguez were yelling for a corpsman.
“Get Doc in here!” they yelled. “Carlisle’s bleeding out!”
The insurgents knew the Marines had to move across the main room to get their casualties out, and from the catwalk they had an ideal field of fire. Joining Mitchell inside the house were First Sergeant Kasal, Private First Class Nicoll and Lance Corporal Morgan McCowan. For Kasal and Nicoll, this was their second day fighting side-by-side. After four years of service, Niccol was still a Private First Class, repeatedly busted by Kasal. In a battle of wills, Kasal had called PFC Niccol into his office nine times for fighting, drinking and tardiness.
Niccol’s irreverence was legendary. On the eve of the battle for Fallujah, the battalion commander, LtCol Willie Buhl, gave him the microphone to motivate 900 Marines with his “I AM PFC NICOLL!” speech, a parody of Mel Gibson’s “I am William Wallace!” exhortation in the movie Braveheart.
“Niccol, you’re with me,” Kasal said. “Cover my back.”
The firing had died down. Mitchell, a school-trained medic, decided not to hesitate.
“I’ll go across,” he said. “You all cover me.”
Mitchell ran across the main room in a dead sprint to reach Sanchez, attracting only a few scattered shots. Kasal and Niccol stepped into the main room, staying close to the wall. Kasal looked at the stairs to his right leading to the second floor. Midway up, it looked like someone had chopped a peephole a foot wide out of the cement wall. He next noticed a small room the left of the room Mitchell had entered.
“Anyone been in that room to the left?” he shouted.
When no one answered, Kasal grabbed two Marines behind him.
“Cover that mouse hole and the ladder well,” he said. “Niccol, we’ll clear that room to the left.”
Kasal kicked open the door and thrust the barrel of his rifle forward, sweeping or “pieing” the room from right to left, ending his two-second scan with his eyes locked on the muzzle of an AK pointed at his nose. The insurgent had been hiding inside the door next to the light switch.
Instead of shooting right away, he yelled in Arabic, then fired. In that instant, the shocked first sergeant had jumped a foot back and the AK rounds streaked by, hitting the wall. Kasal stuck his rifle barrel over the top the AK barrel and pulled the trigger, sending ten bullets into the man’s chest. T
he thickset man, dressed in a khaki shirt with a black chest rig holding a row of AK magazines, slowly slumped to the floor. Kasal pushed back the insurgent’s sand-colored helmet and, not wanting to be killed by a dying man, shot him twice more in the head.
Without looking behind him, Kasal shouted over his shoulder “Cover that ladder well!” and stepped forward to look around the small bathroom a second time. As he did so, bullets hit the wall around him and he felt like someone had hit his legs with a sledgehammer. He fell into the doorway and was hammered again. He started to crawl around the corner, then remembered Niccol was in the open behind him.
Lying on his side, Kasal looked back and saw Niccol propped against a wall. Niccol jerked and winced as the bullet s hit him, shoving his hand under his armored vest. When he pulled it out, it was covered with blood. Lying on his stomach, Kasal reached up and grabbed Niccol by the sleeve, pulling him down. As he did so, he felt a baseball bat hit him across the ass and he knew he had been shot again.
The insurgents had held their fire, then sprung their ambush. The firing went on and on, Kasal estimating it continued for thirty seconds. Why did those Marines take their eyes off that damn mouse hole, he wondered.
Kasal pulled Niccol to his left into the room. He propped Niccol’s shattered left leg on his stomach, trying to tie a pressure bandage as a tourniquet. His hands were sticky with blood and he kept fumbling, worrying that Niccol was going to bleed to death due to his clumsiness. He heard a thump to his right and turned his head to see a pineapple grenade laying just out reach. He rolled left on top of Niccol and bear-hugged him as the explosion went off. He felt sharp pressure in his legs and buttocks and knew he had been hit again. When his head stopped ringing, he shoved his rifle out the door so the Marines would know which room they were in. He didn’t want to be hit by friendly fire and he knew they would be coming for them.
Down the hall, Mitchell heard Nicoll yell, “I’m hit!” and First Sergeant Kasal yell, “Get that goddamn cocksucker!”
“Is Nicoll OK?” Mitchell shouted. “Is he going to die?”
Sanchez felt his stomach turn over again. Nicoll was one of his best friends. He couldn’t die. This was all wrong. They had to get them out of there.
Mitchell told Sanchez to take care of Carlisle. Without a word, he ran out of the room, hugging the wall as he sprinted for the bathroom. A grenade bounced and exploded behind him and several AKs started firing. One round hit Mitchell’s rifle in the chamber. Another ricocheted off of his weapon and tore into his thigh—his third Purple Heart.
He skidded into the bathroom. Kasal lay on his side to let Mitchell attend to Niccol in the cramped space. As the blood dripped from him, Kasal’s blood pressure fell and he drifted in and out of consciousness. Each time he jerked back, he yelled at Niccol to stay awake. Niccol was nodding off for minutes at a time, then muttering that he was OK.
“Get him out,” Kasal said, “or he’ll bleed to death.”
Outside, Lieutenant Grapes ran up to the house as Pruitt, Eldridge, Weemer and Farmer were being helped into medevac humvees. Over a handheld radio, Grapes reached Mitchell.
“Find us another way out,” Mtichell said, “or to kill those fucks so we can walk out!”
Corporal Wolf, who had bandaged Mitchell’s arm in the fight the day before, pushed into the entryway next to Grapes and started shouting to Mitchell.
“I got to get over there man! You’re my boy! I’ve gotta come over there!”
Grapes and Wolf circled the house and found no other doors. The five windows had one-inch steel bars covering them.
“Where are they firing from?” Grapes asked Mitchell over the radio.
“There’s a ladderwell, and a skylight over the living room. At least one of them is on the roof!”
“All right,” Grapes told Wolf, “you get your team ready to pull them out. I’ll put shooters on the roof across the street to suppress those guys. Once I give you the signal, get in there and pull them out.”
Wolf agreed. While Wolf put together his rescue team, Grapes led a heavily-armed squad onto the roof.
Sgt. Byron W. Norwood, who commanded a humvee with a .50 caliber, entered the foyer with Wolf to see how he could bring the heavy gun to bear. Formerly a crewmember on Colonel Toolan’s humvee, Norwood came from a small town in Texas. His sharp wit had reminded Toolan of New York City-type humor. Norwood poked his head around the doorway just as an insurgent let loose a burst. Rodriguez, guarding the door to the bedroom, saw Norwood peek into the main room and watched as his eyes suddenly grew wide. The bullet hit Norwood in the forehead, killing him instantly. Wolf was hit in the chest by the same burst and fell back unharmed, a bullet lodged in his armor vest.
Seeing the expression on Norwood’s face terrified Rodriguez. I’m gonna be the next one shot, he thought. Rodriguez asked Sanchez to relieve him in the doorway.
The Quick Reaction Force, a squad from Lieutenant John Jacobs’ 2nd Platoon, arrived on the scene. Within seconds, Jacobs had his Marines maneuvering to bring fire on the insurgents.
On the nearby roof, the Marines with Grapes poured fire toward the skylight. They were at the same height, though, and the bullets were passing over the heads of the insurgents. With the wounded inside, throwing grenades or bringing heavy weapons into play was out of the question. Wolf couldn’t push across the main room without better suppression.
Chandler and Severtsgard, trapped in the kitchen, thought they could batter their way through a padlocked metal panel leading to the entryway. After shooting and hammering at the panel for several minutes, they pried it open and squeezed through. Wolf laid down suppressing fire and they staggered through the entryway and out into the courtyard.
Both were bleeding badly. Chandler was howling in pain, his leg twisted in a spiral fracture from hip to foot. Severtsgard slumped down against the courtyard wall, blood pouring from his fractured foot. Lance Corporal Stephen Tatum came to his aid. Tatum, who had the thickest pair of glasses in Kilo Company, offered to remove Severtsgard’s torn boot.
“Go to hell you blind fuck! No way you are working on my foot!” Severtsgard yelled, getting to his feet and limping toward the nearest humvee.
Grapes and Jacobs knelt by the wall to plan what to do next. Five Marines were trapped inside. Rifle fire wasn’t budging the insurgents hiding behind the cement wall on the catwalk above the main room and Mark 19 fire or hand grenades would injure the trapped Marines.
“Flashbangs! The insurgents will think they’re grenades and duck,” Grapes said.
Jacobs led his men to the entryway, flipped in two flashbangs and rushed in firing. The insurgents immediately returned fire. Stalemate.
Back outside, Grapes, Crossan and Pvt Justin Boswood crept up to a bedroom window in the back of the house. Grapes and Boswood took turns on a sledge hammer, hammering at the steel bars. Grapes could hear his wounded Marines wailing in pain inside. He could hear Mitchell yelling, “Get us the fuck out of here!” After smashing and smashing, they pried two bars slightly apart. They stripped off their armor and gear and squeezed through. Marines handed their weapons to them.
Boswood pulled a dead insurgent’s body out of the doorway, the blood from his skull covering the floor. Grapes slid on his back into the main room, his sights fixed on the skylight above. Boswood knelt over Grapes chest, covering the stairs.
Grapes, Jacobs and Sanchez at last had the catwalk in a three-cornered crossfire.
“Ready?” Grapes yelled. “Fire!”
From three angles, the Marines
fired up at the crosswalk, forcing the insurgents to duck behind the wall.
Lance Corporals Christopher Marquez and Jonathon Schaffer sprinted across the kill zone, grabbed Kasal and dragged him back to the entryway. Then they ran back and brought out Niccol. Then Mitchell.
That left Sanchez, Rodriguez and Carlisle in the back bedroom down the hall.
The Marines could either continue running the gauntlet across the main room or get through the bars over the bedroom window. Corporal Richard Gonzalez, a demolitions expert known as “the mad bomber,” suggested blowing the bars off the window.
“Are you fucking crazy?” Sergeant Jose Nazario yelled. “You’ll fucking kill them! Don’t blow it!”
Corporal Eric Jensen came running up with a long chain that was looped around the bars. Jensen hooked the chain to a Humvee and pulled out the bars. Sanchez and Rodriguez put Carlisle on a makeshift stretcher and passed out his limp body.
With all the wounded out of the house, Grapes linked up with Mitchell.
“Now we let Gonzalez do his work,” Grapes said.
The Marines peppered the house with fire and hooted and hollered as if they were still inside while Gonzalez prepared a 20 pound satchel charge – sufficient to blow down two houses. Gonzalez crept inside the house and placed the satchel on top of a dead insurgent’s body. A few seconds later, he ran outside.
They ducked for cover. The house exploded in a huge flash of red, followed by chunks of concrete thudding down as a vast cloud of dust rose. A pink mist mixed with the dust and gunpowder in the air. Grapes was happy to see it.
The Marines waited several minutes, then moved forward into the dusty rubble. They saw two bodies lying among the slabs. As they drew closer, they noticed one of them move.
“They’re still alive!”
An arm flicked limply forward and a grenade tumbled toward the Marines. They turned and ran for cover. Sanchez saw Grapes and Crossan racing by him. I’m too slow! I’m fucked! he thought. The grenade went off, injuring no one.
Seven Marines climbed back up the rubble and fired two hundred rounds into the two insurgents. Among the detritus, Lt. Grapes found a woolen winter skullcap with bright colors, the kind worn by fighters in Chechnya. He kicked it into the dirt.
Bing West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. A graduate of Georgetown and Princeton Universities, he served in Marine infantry in Vietnam. His books have won the Marine Corps Heritage Prize, the Colby Award for Military History and appeared on the Commandant’s Reading List. West appears regularly on The News Hour and Fox News. He is a member of St. Crispin’s Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in Newport, RI.
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