FALLEN HEROES REMEMBERED
23 March, 2005
By Richard S. Lowry
It hardly seems that it has been two years since Camp Lejeune’s Marines rolled into the dusty desert city of An Nasiriyah. March 23rd will mark the second anniversary of the Ambush of the U.S. Army’s 507th Maintenance Company and the beginning of Task Force Tarawa’s historic battle which kicked open the door for the 1st Marine Division’s charge to Baghdad.
To this day, March 23rd remains the costliest day for American troops on the ground. At dawn, eleven soldiers lost their lives when they were ambushed in the streets of Nasiriyah and eighteen Marines were killed later as they moved to secure the bridges. Dozens more soldiers and Marines were wounded that day and six soldiers were taken prisoner. Jessica Lynch became famous. But – what about the others? Let us take a few moments to remember some of the true heroes.
Army Sergeant Donald Walters was the first American hero that day. He jumped from his disabled vehicle, far behind enemy lines, and laid down covering fire while the rest of his lost convoy turned to escape an ambush they had driven in to. He remained behind as his fellow soldiers fled to safety. He was captured and later murdered by the Fedayeen.
1st Sergeant Robert Dowdy stayed at the rear of his beleaguered convoy, shepherding all of his vehicles to safety. Dowdy’s only thought was to bring his soldiers through the terrible ambush. Dowdy died in a horrific vehicle crash at the tail end of his convoy, only a few hundred meters from safety.
Lori Piestewa, an American Indian and single mother of two, fearlessly drove Dowdy’s Humvee through Ambush Alley. She was mortally wounded in the same crash, yet hung on to life for several hours. She finally succumbed at a nearby Iraqi hospital.
As the embattled soldiers of the 507th attempted to flee south, Lieutenant Colonel Rickey Grabowski’s Marines of the 1st Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment were moving up the same road the lost soldiers had mistakenly traveled earlier. 1st Battalion was leading RCT-2 to secure a route through An Nasiriyah for the 1st Marine Division.
Major Bill Peeples led the Battalion with his Team Tank. Much to his surprise, a Humvee raced south into his position just after sunrise. Captain King emerged from the Army truck and told Peeples of the ambush ahead. Peeples raced north with his tanks and rescued ten more soldiers of the 507th.
By early afternoon, the 1st Battalion was moving to take the bridges in the middle of the city. Alpha Company secured the first bridge over the Euphrates River and Charlie Company raced up Ambush Alley to take the bridge over the Saddam Canal.
Sergeant Michael Bitz of the 2d Assault Amphibious Battalion drove one of Charlie Company’s AMTRACs north into Ambush Alley. Three quarters of the way through the city, an enemy RPG slammed into his track. Bitz expertly pushed the crippled track forward driving around and over obstacles in his path until he delivered his load of Charlie Company Marines to their objective, north of the Saddam Canal Bridge. Bitz, a father of four young children, grabbed his M-16, jumped from the burning track and into a ditch next to the infantry platoon leader. Bitz turned and looked at the burning vehicle then turned back to Lieutenant Mike Seely, “I guess I’m a grunt now.”
The Marines of Charlie Company were out of the built-up city but certainly not out of danger. They came under a torrent of enemy fire. Enemy artillery started to rain down. Lieutenant James “Ben” Reid jumped from his track and started to return fire with his Weapons Platoon. Ben helped set up the company mortars and direct their fire while Staff Sergeant Phillip Jordan directed the machine gun teams.
As the battle continued to rage, Jordan and Reid met at a newly-established mortar position. While Reid was searching for targets, an Iraqi artillery round landed smack damn on top of the mortar team, instantly killing Jordan and Lance Corporal Brian Buesing and seriously wounding nearly every member of the team. Lt Reid, wounded, rose to his feet and began to run for help. He hadn’t run more than a few steps when another artillery round landed in front of him on the road, knocking him to the ground again. This time his face had been peppered with shrapnel. Undaunted, he rose again and continued his quest for aid for his Marines.
A young Marine standing nearby, watched in horror as the mortar team was hit. Disregarding his own well being, he raced across a fire-swept battlefield to aid the fallen Marines. Lance Corporal Donald “John” Cline helped Corporal Michael Williams load the most seriously wounded of the mortar team onto a track; and climbed aboard.
As other Marines started to fall to enemy and friendly fire, Bitz ran to their aid and helped load them into another track. Only after all the wounded were loaded did he jump in to the troop compartment.
Several tracks headed south with the wounded. Just as Cline and William’s track (C208) moved back into the city, it was hit and a massive explosion killed everyone in the troop compartment. Miraculously, the driver and track commander both climbed out alive. Bitz’s track (C206) was hit next. Another large explosion caused the back ramp to drop and the troop compartment’s roof to fall in. Corporal Matthew Juska’s head was pinned under the large piece of the roof. His shattered helmet saved his life.
Crippled, but not immobilized, C206 continued to drive south dragging its back ramp. Just as C206 reached the Euphrates River Bridge and Alpha Company’s position, an RPG slammed into its side. The armored vehicle rocked from the punch as a second RPG flew in the rear and exploded in the troop compartment. No one will ever know exactly when Bitz was killed but Matthew Juska survived both explosions.
Alpha Company Marines raced to the destroyed track and found Juska, still breathing, trapped beneath the rubble. They immediately called for help.
Alpha Company’s Forward Air Controller put out the call for a cas-evac. Captain Eric Garcia “bustered” to the fallen Marines’ aid in his CH-46 helicopter. He landed his Phrog in the middle of Alpha Company’s fire fight. Then he rose, jogged and shoehorned his airplane in between two buildings. Alpha Company’s Commander, Captain Michael Brooks, got a sick feeling in his stomach when Garcia landed. He envisioned “Black Hawk Down.” He was certain that any second he would lose the bird to enemy fire.
Infantrymen ran to cover Garcia’s aircraft while others struggled to extract Juska from the wreckage. Garcia and his crew waited for what seemed like an eternity. It was an agonizing fifteen minutes until Juska could be freed and loaded into the back of the 46. As Garcia lifted off with his precious cargo, Brooks was sure that the young Marine would not survive.
Not only did Juska survive, but Major Eric Garcia has just received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his selfless efforts that day.
Most people are not aware that the battle for Nasiriyah raged for days and finally culminated with the rescue of Jessica Lynch, over a week after her capture. In their own fashion, almost every Marine of Task Force Tarawa and soldier of the 507th was a hero that week. Some received awards: many did not. One thing is for sure, the Marines of Task Force Tarawa will not soon forget their battle for “The Naz.”
Author and military historian, Richard S. Lowry, has nearly completed his next book, “MARINES IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN.” It will tell the complete story of America’s sons and daughters who fought, bled and died in the little known town on the banks of the Euphrates River. Look for it soon at a bookstore near you and in the meantime visit
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