Morning News May 18, 2003
'Alone and unafraid'
2nd Tank Battalion used speed and armor to make quick work of Saddam
By Jim Landers
AL AZIZIYAH, Iraq - The Iraqis fired rocket-propelled grenades from behind a taxi parked
along a distant canal. One grenade zipped across the nose of an armored amphibious vehicle and exploded in the dirt.
That angered Maj. Andrew Bianca,
executive officer of the Marines' 2nd Tank Battalion. Sheathed in aluminum plate, the tracked amphibious vehicles known as
amtracks can withstand rifle fire, but not rocket grenades. And Maj. Bianca's
support team was in amtracks. He ordered his tank crew to fire a round at the Iraqis.
The 120 mm
cannon barrel dropped slightly, then erupted with smoke and flame. The noise ripped the air so violently that Marines standing
in an amtrack behind the tank were knocked off balance.
A cloud of
dirt appeared behind the taxi. The shell had gone through the taxi's open windows. But shrapnel from the round finished the
Iraqis and a finger of black smoke and flame soon rose from the taxi.
The tank column
resumed its march to Baghdad.
and Army soldiers fighting throughout southern Iraq,
this was their war: armored columns blasting through urban ambushes.
Air Force and
Navy bombers made it impossible for the Iraqis to fight effectively with tanks and artillery. So when the Iraqis chose to
fight, they hid in buildings and alleyways with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
The 2nd Tank
Battalion started several fights with these urban opponents. Speed mattered more than body counts or seized ground. Using
tanks to punch through enemy ambushes put the Marines closer to Baghdad and Saddam Hussein's regime.
Lt. Col. Mike Oehl, the battalion's commanding officer, put it to his officers this
way: "Speed is the essence of this endeavor." He was talking about a planned raid, but the remark held true for the battalion's
mission in the war.
to know what our part was in the overall war, but I'd like to think we made it a shorter war because we got here so quickly,"
Col. Oehl said when his unit reached Baghdad.
No single unit
won the war w/Iraq. The 2nd Tank Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.,
brought 44 tanks, 249 other vehicles and 975 Marines to a fight spread across almost 300,000 U.S., British and Australian men and women. The 2nd Tank Battalion suffered 5 killed
and dozens wounded; other units saw more fighting and suffered more casualties.
analysts agreed that the battalion exemplified the strategy and tactics that toppled Mr. Hussein in just 3 weeks of warfare.
an incredibly important role," said Marine Lt. Col. Dale Davis, director of international programs at the Virginia Military Institute. "The real
objective wasn't the destruction of the Iraqi military but the unseating of the regime and these flying columns, at the end,
were key to causing the regime to collapse."
New life for the tank
Just a few
years ago, the Marine Corps was so anxious to fund a new generation of aviation and amphibious
equipment, it was willing to give up its tanks. Both Army and Marine Corps strategists argued that attack helicopters and
helicopter-borne infantry forces were the machines needed for fast attacks.
The war gave
armor advocates new life. The Army's one major attack with Apache helicopters went awry when the Iraqis, alerted that the
helicopters were coming, shot up most of the force using rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire.
"We're going to keep the tank and it'll be highly useful," said Kenneth
Estes, author of Marines Under Armor and a retired lieutenant colonel. "Commandants
and others who would like it to go away because of its monstrous budget, I'm sorry. If you're ever going to fight someone
who's a serious opponent, you're going to have to have the tank again."
The 2nd Battalion's tanks traveled inland more than 500 miles from the shores of Kuwait to the streets of Tikrit, Mr. Hussein's hometown - farther
than any battalion in Marine Corps history, said Lt. Gen. Earl B. Hailston, commander of Marine Forces at Central Command.
They fought in Baghdad, Al
Aziziyah and 4 other towns and villages in the 26 days it took for one of the battalion's companies to reach Tikrit.
Their main weapon was the M1A1 Abrams tank.
has a 120 mm cannon and 3 machine guns. It was designed in the 1970s to give the Army tanks that were superior to anything
in the Soviet arsenal.
developed the T-72 and T-84 tanks with a 125 mm cannon and the T-72 became the main battle tank of Iraq's Republican Guards. But the Abrams fires a high-velocity round that the Marines
say is superior to the Soviet-designed 125 mm cannon. Some Abrams rounds are made with depleted uranium that's so dense it
burns through layers of tank armor before exploding inside an enemy armored vehicle.
tanks the battleships of land warfare. Unlike the warships of old, the Abrams doesn't need several range-finding shots to
find its target. The tank's "ballistic solution" computer is so precise, the first shot usually finds its mark, tank gunners
say. The same targeting excellence holds for the tank's .50-caliber "co-ax" machine gun mounted beside the cannon.
About halfway along the barrel rests a thick pad called a "bore
evacuator" that allows air to rush inside to fill the vacuum created when a shell is fired. Tankers paint names for their
tanks on the bore evacuators.
Col. Oehl's crew named its tank "Deadly Mariah" and animated the name with an angry cloud
blowing swords from its mouth. Maj. Bianca's tank crew
reached back to Greek mythology for the name "Two Furies" – anger and vengeance, minus the third fury, jealousy, which
seemed out of place in Iraq.
Abrams tank makes little room for its 4 man crew. The driver is beneath the cannon barrel, by himself toward the front of
the tank. He lies on a tilted bench and peers outside through thick prisms.
gunner sits in the well of the turret, using thermal sights that enable him to find targets emanating heat at night or during
severe storms. To his left is the tank loader, who pulls shells from a rear compartment and feeds them into the cannon. He
has a turret hatch above his head equipped with a machine gun.
tank commander sits behind and above the gunner. During the Iraq
war, a Marine tank commander usually fought with his head and shoulders exposed above the turret hatch, where he could see
the battlefield and fire a .50-caliber machine gun.
tank weighs 68 tons and is powered by a 1,500-horsepower jet turbine engine. From the perspective of an opposing foxhole,
it's a dreadful machine. It shakes the earth. It can travel at speeds as high as 55 mph. The shock from its cannon blast is
incapacitating to anyone standing (or cowering) before it.
'Bully of the battlefield'
"The bully of the battlefield," marveled Lance Cpl. Billy
Peixotto, a tank driver w/the battalion from McKinney.
Army's 3rd Infantry Division fought with more tanks than the Marines and led the way into Baghdad
with armored assaults that showed Mr. Hussein
and his sons no longer controlled the capital.
But while the Army has other armored and mechanized divisions, the Pentagon turned to the Marines
to fight the eastern prong of the war
as a second land army.
"They've been able to sell themselves better than the Army
as the embodiment of the 'revolution in military affairs' that [Defense Secretary
Donald] Rumsfeld wants," said Col. Davis.
"They train and fight as a combined arms force, with maneuver and flexibility tactics."
2nd battalion spent most of the war at the tip of the Marines' spear. It came within 3 miles of Baghdad on April 4, after 3 days that destroyed what was left of the Al Nida Division of
the Republican Guards. They cleared the way to Baghdad for the 1st Marine Division and killed
a large number of Arab Muslim volunteers who heeded Osama bin Laden's call to come to Iraq to kill Americans.
In the 1991 Gulf War, the Marines played a secondary role in
the land forces that reclaimed Kuwait, said Patrick Garrett, an analyst w/the Alexandria, Va., online firm Globalsecurity.org.
"In the Gulf War, they were used largely as a deception –
to make the Iraqis believe there'd be an amphibious landing," he said. "It wasn't as front and center as the Marines would
have liked. In Operation Iraqi Freedom, they got rid of that shadow."
Mr. Garrett credits 12 years of intense training by the Marines in combining infantry, artillery, tanks
and aircraft for overcoming doubts about their fighting ability.
2nd Battalion used such tactics from the onset of the war. As part of the 5th Marine Regiment, the battalion sprinted into
Iraq during the night of March 20, 8 hours ahead of schedule and well ahead
of the rest of the U.S. forces poised to attack from Kuwait.
regiment was ordered to strike first because of alarming (though faulty)
intelligence about Iraqis firing their oil fields and placing 90 of their best tanks near the border.
battalion raced through the night in a swinging left hook from western Kuwait
to the gates of Basra. Three companies of Abrams tanks charged
into Iraq, along with 4 armored amphibious
vehicles serving as tracked command posts. Platoons of Scouts and anti-tank missile teams in Humvees followed, along with
the Fox Infantry Company in their amtracks.
left 75% of the battalion's vehicles behind: the fuel trucks, the ambulances and the trucks and Humvees carrying food, water,
tents, ammunition and many of the other necessities of military life.
Marine tanks outraced their communications lines, their supplies and even their air cover. Col.
Oehl was reduced to sending e-mails by satellite phone to let regimental headquarters
know where he was.
Col. Oehl put fuel bladders on each side of the tanks to stretch their range and lessen
their dependence on supply lines. When the tanks started running low on fuel, they dropped the large black bladders under
the tank treads and squeezed the precious fluid into their tanks as though it were toothpaste.
column destroyed about 30 Iraqi vehicles that night, including 10 tanks and broke all hope of reinforcements reaching the
Iraqi defenders of the 51st Mechanized Division.
Col. Oehl's demand for speed was so relentless that the battalion left behind 2 disabled
tanks and their crews. The crews were told to catch up as best they could and didn't rejoin the battalion until it reached
Before the assault, the battalion's nickname was
"Masters of the Iron Horse." At the gates of Basra, Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Cordero
suggested a new slogan: "Alone and unafraid."
Marines take pride in their reputation for having lighter and quicker supply lines than the Army. The 2nd Battalion exemplified
this as well, though it came with a price.
sand and dust storm on March 26 obliterated all that was even vaguely familiar about the Marines' war machines. An orange
glow backlit the walls of dirt whipping across the barren Iraqi landscape. Before long, even the light disappeared as the
storm swallowed all trace of the afternoon sun.
Marines hunkered down for fitful naps. A thunderstorm broke around 9:30 p.m. and the rain fell as mud.
Col. Oehl left regimental headquarters in the black storm to head back to the battalion
in a Humvee. His eyes were glued to his Magellan GPS satellite compass. He was
yelling directions above the noise of the storm so his driver, unable to see a thing, could precisely retrace the 16 miles.
The meeting at 5th Regiment headquarters ended w/commanders
uncertain how to get back to their units, let alone when they might resume the race to Baghdad.
It was the low point of the war. Victory was just a couple
of weeks away and the miles between the Marines and Baghdad would soon fly by like laps at a NASCAR race. On this night, though,
weather and exhaustion brought the Marines to a standstill.
"In retrospect, the sandstorm was very fortuitous for the U.S. forces," said Col. Davis. "Had the sandstorm not occurred, we would have still had to take that pause. ...
People who said there was no supply problem were talking bull. We were very extended."
The emphasis on speed put tremendous demands on the tank battalion's
supply lines. The Marines carrying fuel, food, ammo and water went several days without any sleep as they chased the tanks
in their long, balky convoys.
Before the war's end, the tank crews were limited to two meals
a day and some days it was just one. Once, Marines guarding the battalion's command vehicles were down to just 30 rounds of
M-16 ammo apiece.
Fuel was the
most crucial supply throughout the war. The tank uses the same jet turbine engine used in the Army's Apache helicopters. The
tank consumes 8 gallons of fuel just to start its engine.
The race to
Baghdad left no time to spare, even for topping off the fuel
"We were still refueling while we were leaving," Col.
Oehl said just before the sandstorm. "We're pushing the envelope. We really are.
The only thing that's going to give us that rest is if something happens up north [to Mr. Hussein]. We really need to stop here at some point and get our senses and see
what tanks have issues."
Capt. Dave Bardorf of Middletown,
R.I., was the officer responsible for moving supplies to the tanks. He was awake
for 4 days in a row before the sandstorm brought the battalion to a halt and gave him a chance to sleep.
"You make yourself uncomfortable to stay awake," he said. "You tighten the strap on your Kevlar [helmet]."
In the darkness,
behind night-vision goggles that illuminated a two-dimensional green-and-black landscape, Capt.
Bardorf found himself hallucinating.
"I was staring through the night-vision goggles and telling the driver,
'Stay straight. Watch that hill. There's a ditch on the right.' And the driver was yelling, 'Captain, Captain!' I told him,
'Yeah, just stay straight.' He shook my shoulder and told me we'd been stopped for 5 minutes."
The dust, lightning
and mud gave Capt. Bardorf a chance to sleep. He woke
up the next day "feeling like a million bucks."
Maj. Pat Cox, the commanding officer of a Marine reserve company attached to 2nd Tanks as Delta Company, had a grimmer perspective.
Lance Cpl. Eric Orlowski, 26, of Buffalo, N.Y., died when another Marine accidentally tripped
the trigger of a .50-caliber machine gun on March 24. The major believed that fatigue – to both men and machines – played a role in Cpl.
"We're trying to make this a second land army and it ain't working out
too well," he said.
The battalion was consciously trading fatigue for speed.
believe speed is a casualty saver," said Mr. Estes.
"It may look chaotic and worse, but you upset the enemy plan by showing up faster than anyone anticipated. It allows you to take advantage of the chaos that exists on his side."
Central Command's Gen. Tommy
aggressive commanders who would move their units with speed and mobility.
One of the
1st Marine Division's regimental commanders was replaced during the war. The Marines offered no official explanation, but
the talk among officers in the field was that the commander and his operations officer hadn't been aggressive enough.
Before the war began, 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. James
Mattis held a press conference to explain his expectations.
"We can move
very, very quickly," he said. "These boys were brought up in southern California [at Camp Pendleton].
They're fast on the freeway."
integrate their own air forces into their battle plans, including combat aircraft such as F-18 fighter-bombers, Harrier jets
and Cobra attack helicopters.
All of these
units train together. The Marines feel so strongly about integrating ground and air forces that their pilots spend a year
with infantry and tank units as forward observers calling in air strikes.
Capt. Mike Shayne, a Cobra pilot who fought in Afghanistan, was a forward observer and tank cannon loader with the 2nd Battalion.
A fellow Marine looked at Capt. Shayne's size 11 ˝ feet
one day and nicknamed him "Krusty" (after
the clown on The Simpsons). Krusty was painted on the side of the "Polish Knights" tank in the 2nd Battalion's
Capt. Shayne watched glumly one afternoon as Cobra helicopters destroyed an Iraqi position while the tanks sat silent.
"I'm not having any fun right now, because I can't jump in the fight," he said.