Part II, Conclusion
Part I of “Eyewitness to Combat” described 2d Battalion, First Marine Regiment’s November 2005 offensive to eliminate the insurgency in the cities of Husaybah, Karabilah and Ubaydi during Operation Steel Curtain. The 17-day offensive commenced on 5 Nov., and by 14 Nov., 2/1 found itself on the outskirts of New Ubaydi, which the locals reported was “lousy with foreign fighters.”
In the first hours of the operation, the battalion lost a company commander and two enlisted Marines killed in action, and the hardest fight lay ahead. Gunnery Sergeant Michael D. Fay, a combat artist and Gulf War veteran, was embedded with Company F, 2/1. His eyewitness reports, battlefield sketches and tape recordings under fire comprise a remarkable account of gut-level combat. His work has received national and international recognition. Subsequent to Operation Steel Curtain, Fay was promoted to the warrant-officer ranks and served additional deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
GySgt Michael Fay was embedded with “Fox” Company’s 3d Platoon that had taken up firing positions in and around a farmhouse on the outskirts of New Ubaydi. “Weeks of nonstop fighting had funneled the remnants of the local insurgency into an isolated elbow on the southern side of the Euphrates,” Fay recalled. “The locals said it was lousy with foreign fighters. Every Marine in Fox Company knew that this day—16 November—was the last day.”
An open field, some 200 yards wide, led to a five-building compound directly in front of the farmhouse. “We could look across and see the windows were sandbagged with large sacks of rice, fertilizer and animal feed. The main buildings had a second story with good command of the terrain, which we might have to cross under fire. Off to our immediate right, on the fringe of town, lay stack upon stack of dried sheaves of wheat and a palm grove, perfect for enfilading crossfire.”
Lieutenant Colonel Robert G. Oltman, 2/1’s battalion commander, thought that “in retrospect, as you looked at the ground, it would be the perfect place for an ambush. Every building was positioned to cover every other building.”
Fay just had caught sight of several Marines from the adjacent 2d Plt entering building six when he heard the distinctive “pop, pop, pop of rifle fire, and then all hell broke loose! There was a violent explosion, and then the deep-throated crack of AK47s firing on full automatic. Rounds flew everywhere, kicking up clouds of talc-like dust. Orange flashpoints of the AKs punctuated the compound to my direct front.” The farmhouse he was in exploded in a frenzy of activity.
Fay said, “The Marines of the Third Platoon, along with our Iraqi Jundi [soldiers], poured onto the porch and unleashed a furious wall of lead to our direct front.” The 2d Plt’s 1st Fire Team, 3d Squad had just entered building six when an estimated half-dozen insurgents hit them with a torrent of small-arms fire and multiple grenades.
All four Marines were cut down, two men outside the door and two men inside the front room. Lance Corporals Joshua Mooi (2d Fire Team grenadier) and Lamonte McGee, and Staff Sergeant Robert W. Homer (platoon sergeant), hearing the gunfire, sprinted across 50 meters of open ground to reach the wounded men.
Halfway across the field, an estimated 12 concealed insurgents opened fire from the palm grove and three well-fortified, mutually supporting positions (buildings 8, 11 and 19). In the crossfire, McGee was hit in the thigh, but made it to building six with the help of Homer and Mooi. They found LCpl Antonio Mendez lying outside the door, wounded, but still firing his rifle, and a dazed LCpl Jeffrey Portillo: A bullet had hit him square in the helmet. “He looked like he had a baseball growing out of his forehead,” Homer exclaimed.
Homer quickly realized that the area was far from safe. Shrapnel from exploding hand grenades—insurgents were lobbing them over the roof—and small-arms fire threatened to decimate their small band. With little thought for his safety, Homer braved the heavy enemy fire and assisted the three men to the casualty collection point.
While Homer assisted one of the Marines, Mooi tried to find out where the rest of the fire team was located. “Where is everybody? Mooi shouted. “I don’t know,” Mendez responded, groggy from the effects of the wound. Mooi felt he had little choice and charged into the heavily fortified building, closely followed by Corporal Jeffry A. Rogers and LCpl John Lucente. The enemy had carved out recessed firing apertures in the walls, “fixed at such a level that it either hit you above your body armor or immediately below where your SAPI [small arms protective inserts] were,” Oltman said. “They were trained on the avenues of approach and the entrances into the buildings.”
The three men braved the enemy fire, found the badly wounded LCpl Ben Sanbeck, dragged him out of the house and carried him to the casualty collection point. “I wasn’t really thinking at all at this point,” Mooi recalled. “I was just doing what had to be done. It was nothing another Marine wouldn’t have done if he was in my position.”
The casualty collection point was [located] behind a wall right in front of the building, because of how the buildings were arrayed,” Oltman explained. The three rescuers laid Sanbeck behind the protective wall and pumped him for information. “We were trying to find out how many people [fighters] were in the building,” Mooi said. “We got as much as we could from him and then went back across.”
The three men charged in a second time, desperately searching for Cpl Joshua Ware, the first member of the fire team who entered building six. Automatic-weapons fire erupted from the hidden insurgents, ricochets caromed off the cinder-block walls filling the air with steel-jacketed bullets and cement fragments. The noise level was mind-numbing, amplified by the interior walls.
Suddenly, Lucente collapsed against the side of the corridor, hit in the stomach by two rounds. “He’s in a sitting position, and I’m leaning over, dragging him out, while Corporal Rogers provides covering fire down the hallway so I can make it out,” Mooi recalled.
As they fought their way clear, Second Lieutenant Donald R. McGlothlin, 2d Plt commander, ran through a curtain of enemy fire to cover their withdrawal. “He asked if everybody was out,” Mooi said. “I heard a couple more exchanges of fire. The last thing I heard was a loud, muffled explosion.”
McGlothlin was awarded the Silver Star for his action. According to his citation: “Learning that the forward squad had sustained heavy casualties and with complete disregard for his own safety, Second Lieutenant McGlothlin maneuvered through the insurgents’ strongpoint and immediately engaged the insurgents to secure and recover his embattled Marines. Six enemy personnel had the hallway and interior rooms of the building covered with automatic weapons fire and threw grenades from recessed firing ports within the walls. While his last Marine was being evacuated from the building, Second Lieutenant McGlothlin shielded the recovery effort from grenade blasts and commenced a fierce exchange of small arms fire with the enemy until he was mortally wounded.”
Outside, Mooi learned that his officer was still in the building. “Sure enough, I looked inside down the hallway, and there’s the lieutenant lying on the floor,” he said. “The two of us went back in, grabbed the lieutenant and got him out as well.” As they pulled out, Mooi spotted an insurgent in a stairwell, who was throwing grenades over the roof into the front yard, and shot him. By this time, seven wounded Marines huddled together at the wall in front of building six.
Hospital Corpsman Third Class Jesse P. Hickey, the platoon corpsman, rushed 75 meters through the enemy’s kill zone to reach the casualties. “It was a bad situation,” Hickey said. “A lot of Marines were getting injured. I wasn’t really worried about myself. … I was worried about whether I was going to be able to take care of everybody.”
Suddenly, explosions rocked the collection site, felling two more Marines, including Cpl Rogers, who succumbed to his wounds. Insurgents on the roof had lobbed grenades over the top into the mass of wounded men. Hickey “ran into the heart of the fierce melee to provide first aid to a severely wounded Marine who lay immobilized in the kill zone,” his Silver Star citation noted. “Enemy grenade explosions wounded Petty Officer Hickey with shrapnel to his entire body … undeterred by his wounds, he continued treating casualties,” one of whom was Cpl Javier Alvarez, 2d Squad leader.
Alvarez had taken three bullets in the legs as he sprinted across the open area. “It felt like something hit me, and I looked down and I saw that I was bleeding,” he said. “I continued to push toward the house, about 20 feet away at that point. I didn’t know if it hit an artery, so I stopped and took cover behind the wall.”
When LCpl Lawson L. Salisbury (2d Fire Team leader) rushed over to help with the wounded, he was shot. “I picked up my weapon and started shooting into the windows where the round came from,” Alvarez said. “As I ran out of rounds, I put my weapon down. And as I looked back up, I see Salisbury’s face, you know, with a pretty intense look. I look down to see what he’s looking at … and there was a grenade.” Salisbury shouted, “Grenade, grenade, grenade!” as it rocked back and forth on the ground. “I have two to three seconds to get rid of this,” Alvarez thought. He grabbed the missile and tried to lob it away. “I don’t know if it went off in my hand or within a foot of it … everything was black for a couple of seconds, and when I came to, there was just a ragged bone sticking out, with my sleeves from my uniform black and red from blood.”
Cpl Alvarez was awarded the Silver Star for actions as set forth in the following citation. “Corporal Alvarez detached his squad on tank security, leading it 100 meters through enemy kill zones to reinforce an embattled squad and his platoon commander. He continued to direct suppressive fires to kill the enemy and evacuate wounded Marines. Although receiving medical treatment for his own serious wounds, Corporal Alvarez continued to engage the enemy within the building and provide direction to his Marines. As he took cover to change magazines for a third time, an enemy grenade was thrown amidst his Marines, the Corpsmen and Corporal Alvarez. He immediately retrieved the grenade, but as he hurled it away from his Marines and toward the enemy, it detonated, severely injuring him by the blast.”
Both Salisbury and Homer were wounded by the grenade. Salisbury had wounds to the arm and side, while Homer was peppered with shrapnel. Despite the injury, Homer managed to twist his own belt around the badly wounded Alvarez’s wrist to stop the bleeding and then tried to get him to his feet. “Hey, you got to help me,” he shouted at Alvarez. “You gotta stand up.”
In great pain, Alvarez made it to his feet and with Homer’s assistance made it back to Bravo Co’s command post (CP) at the base of building 21. “We were able to get all the casualties collected and moved back to a more secure site,” Oltman said. Captain Brian J. “Tonto” Gilbertson was there when “Staff Sergeant Homer appeared bloodied about the knees and face and yelled to Captain Ross Parrish that we had a mass casualty situation.”
It was not the last time that Homer braved the enemy fire to rescue the wounded. According to an excerpt from his Silver Star citation, Homer “repeatedly exposed himself to the effects of grenades and small arms fire as he moved to assist Marines who were heavily engaged. … After saving three wounded Marines’ lives by removing them from the effects of enemy fire, Staff Sergeant Homer returned to the stronghold and rescued another wounded Marine. He suppressed the enemy with his personal weapon, directed tank, and machine gun fires, and without regard for his own safety, he maneuvered towards the heart of the firefight to provide first aid to a Marine who lay severely wounded in the kill zone. Undeterred by the enemy grenade explosions that wounded him, Staff Sergeant Homer suppressed the enemy, applied a tourniquet to the Marine’s arm, and evacuated him to the platoon’s casualty collection point. He refused treatment for his own wounds and continued evacuating others until he was ordered to board a casualty evacuation aircraft.”
The Fox Co CP was located in a “three-story cream-colored building with multiple roof terraces,” Fay recalled. As he reached the second-story terrace where the company’s mortar section was setting up, Fay looked over the edge. “The scene in the dusty courtyard was simply awful. Bodies lay everywhere. … [O]ne Marine was screaming in pain from a nearly amputated lower leg. … [T]he booted foot was still attached and twisted grotesquely to the rear. He writhed on the ground, screaming: ‘It hurts; it hurts!’ ”
Salisbury, with only one functioning arm, helped move the severely wounded man to a more secure location and assisted in placing a tourniquet on his leg to stop the flow of blood. The irrepressible Marine was awarded the Bronze Star with combat distinguishing device for “leadership, bravery, and dedication to his fellow Marines.”
Other corpsmen arrived to help with the wounded. “In an area no bigger than a kiddy pool lay 11 wounded and five dead. One man lay splayed out in the arms of a fellow Marine. His gear had been removed, and his blouse had been removed. … [B]lood was everywhere. His buddies cried, ‘Hang in there; hang in there. Keep breathing. Stay with us!’ ” A grim-faced corpsman gently spoke to them, “He’s dead. Stop. He ain’t coming back. Find someone else to help.” The casualty joined “several figures close by that neither moved nor made a sound; their pain was over.”
Mooi returned to building six to find Rogers lying facedown in the sand. “I’m a little heated up and upset at this point,” he said, making light of his feelings, “because I’m the only person left from my squad.”
Tom Lindley of the Oklahoma Watch wrote, “Mooi fired a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) through the door and stormed in with LCpl Justin Mayfield. They cleared three rooms and the stairwell before going out back, where another insurgent had Mooi in his sights. ... Mooi’s weapon jammed … but the bullet struck his rifle, giving Mayfield time to kill the insurgent.”
The intrepid LCpl Mooi was awarded the Navy Cross, which stated in part, he “attacked the enemy at close range with grenades and his rifle to personally recover four wounded Marines and destroy fierce adversaries who were determined to fight to their death. On six occasions, Lance Corporal Mooi willingly entered an ambush site to pursue the enemy and extricate injured Marines. Often alone in his efforts, he continued to destroy the enemy and rescue wounded Marines until his rifle was destroyed by enemy fire and he was ordered to withdraw. Lance Corporal Mooi’s relentless and courageous actions eliminated at least four insurgents while permitting the immediate care and evacuation of more than a dozen Marines who lay critically or mortally wounded.”
The company’s forward air controller (FAC), Capt Gilbertson, worked feverously to evacuate the casualties. “The first of several U.S. Army medevac helicopters from the 571st Air Ambulance Company, blazoned with bold red crosses, came in at rooftop level, flared and landed in a swirl of dust,” Fay recalled.
The wounded quickly were loaded aboard the aircraft, and it lifted off. “The last to take a final flight were the dead,” he said. “Groups of four grasped the handles of the black body bags and dashed awkwardly to the waiting ‘bird,’ leaning away from the bodies’ weight with outstretched arms and clenched fists.”
With the casualties evacuated, Gilbertson brought in a mixed-helicopter section (UH-1E Huey–AH-1W Super Cobra), call sign “Gunshot 01,” from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 369 against several insurgents regrouping in the palm grove. “I ran two to three runs of 2.75-inch rockets and guns on a south-to-north run-in heading through the palm grove,” he explained. “It was about this time that ‘Gunshot’ told me the enemy was preparing another defensive position in building 14. I cleared a section of F/A-18D Super Hornets from VMFA (AW)-332 ‘Moonlighters,’ call sign ‘Dealer,’ onto the target.”
Gilbertson also ran a strike which destroyed two hidden vehicles that were suspected of containing improvised explosive devices. The helicopter/fixed-wing combination resulted in an estimated 12 insurgents killed. Capt Gilbertson was awarded the Bronze Star with combat “V” for his actions.
Fay recalled: “The final house clearing was anticlimatic. After the mortars, helo gun runs and bombing, there was only silence. … All we found were the enemy dead, dozens of them. They lay singly and in groups. … [S]ome looked calm and restful, while others were unrecognizable.”
LtCol Oltman said: “We thought they were Syrians, with crisp 100-dollar bills in their pockets. It was clear to us that they had been paid to come across the border and fight us.” After completing the sweep of the area, “each platoon was assigned a building,” Fay recalled, “and the guys are just collapsing all around me against the wall. … [T]he Marines began to shut down. I remember seeing guys cold and shivering and the blank look on their faces. There was little talk, wrapped in commandeered blankets and poncho liners. With their helmets and battle gear removed, they all looked small. Head socks and watch caps framed their pale faces with 1,000-yard stares and wind-burned cheeks. They knew this fight was over.”
Editor’s note: While this two-part article mainly focuses on 2/1, there were many heroes in the combined arms, air-ground team during Operation Steel Curtain. There is more outstanding history to be recognized in this battle. Well done to all involved. You added other proud lines in the history of our Corps.
Retired Col Dick Camp is the vice president of operations for the National Museum of the Marine Corps and a frequent contributor to Leatherneck. His latest book, “Battle for the City of the Dead: In the Shadow of the Golden Dome,” was reviewed in the May Leatherneck. It is available from the Marine Corps Association bookstore by calling (888) 237-7683, or online at www.marine