More than just a rendering of a single battle, Thunder Run is a candid account of how soldiers respond under fire and stress and how human frailties are magnified in a war zone.
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CHARLIE ONE TWO
Jason Diaz was worried about his tank. It had taken a terrible beating on the long, swift march up from Kuwait that spring. Roving packs of Fedayeen Saddam, the fanatic Iraqi militiamen in their distinctive black pajamas, had shot it up outside the holy city of Najaf and in firefights along the muddy Euphrates River. The tank's pale tan skin was peppered with holes gouged out by automatic rifle fire and exploding grenades, leaving a splatter pattern of dinks and scrapes and blisters, like a chronic case of acne. The 1,500-horsepower turbine engine had sucked in several pounds of coarse sand and grit. The groaning twin tracks had been ground down by two weeks of firefights and ambushes as Diaz pushed the tank ruthlessly over the hard-pan deserts of southern and central Iraq. He and his crew had been on the move, day and night, for two weeks, and he badly needed a day — or at least a few hours — for maintenance and repairs and sleep.
Diaz was a tank commander, and his life depended on his tank. It was, literally, a mobile home for Diaz and his three crewmen — his gunner, his loader, and his driver. They slept on the decks, wolfed down lumpish MREs — meals-ready-to-eat — inside the turret, hunkered down in the cramped hatches on cold desert nights. The tank's thick steel hull kept them alive; they had stayed buttoned up inside as RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades, exploded with heavy metallic jolts that made the cupola shutter, and as AK-47 rounds beat a steady ping, ping, ping on the two-inch-thick steel ballistic skirts. Diaz loved its squat, ugly frame, its bull-shouldered arrogance, even the rank sulfurous stench that permeated the turret each time the aft caps blew off the main gun rounds. The tank was a seventy-ton gas hog, getting a mere one kilometer per gallon, highway or city. It burned fifty-six gallons an hour at full clip and ten gallons an hour while idling. But for all its inefficient bulk, the tank was a $4.3 million killing machine. It was capable of ripping men in half with its coax — its coaxially mounted 7.62mm machine gun — and popping off enemy tank turrets three kilometers away with long sleek rounds from its 120mm main cannon. It was a mobile armory, hauling forty-one main gun projectiles, a thousand fat rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, and more than ten thousand 7.62mm machine-gun bullets. Pitted against an Iraqi army with three-decade-old Soviet tanks, the big pale beast seemed virtually invincible.
The M1A1 Abrams was designed for brutal conditions, and this particular model was a mule. It looked like a junkyard wreck by now, on this cool evening in central Iraq, but it had brought Diaz and his crew all the way from the Kuwaiti desert to the dull gray plains south of Baghdad. The entire Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized), all four thousand tankers and infantrymen and medics and mechanics, was camped out, eighteen kilometers south of the capital on a grimy stretch of scrub flatlands in the shadow of a soaring highway cloverleaf. The division had just completed the fastest sustained combat ground march in American military history — 704 kilometers in just over two weeks, and 300 kilometers in one twenty-four-hour sprint. It was April 4, 2003, and Jason Diaz from the Bronx — budding army lifer, husband of Monique, father of little Alondra and the twins, Alexandra and Anthony — was weary and filthy and longing to go home. But now, on this cold starry night, he was obliged to demand even more from his exhausted crew and his overextended tank. He had just been ordered to take them straight into Baghdad.
Diaz had received the OPORD — the operation order — in the dark that night. At his level in the chain of command, a mere staff sergeant in charge of just three men, he was provided no computer printout, no written battle plan. His platoon lieutenant simply called him over and said, with little elaboration, "We're going into Baghdad at first light." Then the lieutenant felt compelled to add, unnecessarily, Diaz thought, "Be ready for a fight." The whole tank battalion was going — all thirty tanks and fourteen Bradley Fighting Vehicles and assorted armored personnel carriers of the Desert Rogues, more formally known as the First Battalion, Sixty-fourth Armor Regiment, which formed the core of Task Force 1-64. And Diaz's well- traveled tank, part of the lead platoon of Charlie Company, would be squarely in the middle of the armored column.
Diaz was surprised by the sudden operation order, for there had not been the slightest hint that the brigade was going anywhere near downtown Baghdad. No American forces had entered the city; the war's main front was still well south of the capital, where the Medina Division of the Republican Guard was defending the southern approaches. In fact, Diaz and the rest of the battalion had spent most of that day foraging south, blowing up Medina Division tanks and personnel carriers on a sort of combat joyride that some of the tankers were now calling the Turkey Shoot.
Long before "LD-ing," before crossing what soldiers called the line of departure from Kuwait into Iraq sixteen days earlier, Diaz and his men had been told that they would stop short of Baghdad. The Second Brigade, nicknamed the Spartan Brigade, was a heavy-armor unit. The tankers had trained to fight in open desert, not in a city. The U.S. military strategy — as it had been briefed to Diaz, at least — was to surround Baghdad with tanks while airborne units cleared the capital block by block in a steady, constricting siege. The Pentagon brass was still spooked by the disastrous U.S. raid into Mogadishu ten years earlier, when American soldiers were trapped in tight streets and alleys and eighteen men were killed by Somali street fighters. But now, with no warning and with only a few hours to prepare, Diaz was being ordered to take his banged-up tank into a hostile city of 5 million Iraqis, a treacherous urban battlefield of narrow streets and alleyways.
The mechanics worked on the tanks all that night. There were four tanks in Diaz's platoon, and two of them were in worse shape than his. They had debilitating track and battery problems. In fact, they were so degraded that the mechanics couldn't get them battle-ready. They were scratched from the mission in the middle of the night. The platoon would have to go into the city at half strength. Diaz had been up all night with the mechanics, and now he was too agitated to sleep. He didn't know anything about Baghdad. He didn't know anything about the enemy in the city. He wasn't afraid of combat or the enemy. He was afraid of the unknown.
On the same barren field, Eric Schwartz was also having a fitful night. Schwartz was a short, spare forty-one-year-old, the son of a Navy Huey gunship pilot who had won a Silver Star in Vietnam. With his clipped graying hair and studious manner, he looked more like a college professor than a soldier. He had a degree in education and a graduate degree in human resource development. Like most tankers, he was neither tall nor heavyset; trim, compact men fit more comfortably in the tight hatches. Schwartz had fought as a tank commander in Operation Desert Storm, and now, twelve years later, he had risen to battalion commander. A lieutenant colonel, he was the man in charge of the Rogue battalion, and now he was trying to make it through what was becoming the longest night of his life.
Schwartz had wrapped up the planning sessions for the mission at about 11:30 p.m. He walked out in the dark and climbed up on the deck of his tank to try to sleep. He stretched out there for a while, staring at the stars, his mind racing, and finally he gave up. He climbed down and strolled over to the tank crews. Nobody was sleeping. The tank commanders were talking quietly to their drivers and gunners, laying out details of the mission, their low voices like soft music in the dark. Schwartz went from crew to crew, patting backs, talking about families and food and home. He needed that human contact, and he thought his men did, too. He kept at it for a couple of hours, then went back to his tank deck and tried again to fall asleep. This time, he went down. Thirty minutes later, he woke up. It was nearly dawn. He was ready.
Schwartz had not expected to be preparing to fight his way into Baghdad so soon. His focus had been in the opposite direction, more than thirty kilometers south of the capital, where his battalion had spent most of that day, April 4, lighting up the Medina Division. This was the Turkey Shoot — what amounted to target practice, only with actual enemy tanks and armored personnel carriers instead of the rusted hulks the gunners had fired at on the target ranges in Kuwait and back home at Fort Stewart, Georgia. The Iraqis had hidden their outdated, Soviet-made personnel carriers and tanks — T-55s and T-72s, mostly — in garages, next to homes and schools, and in date palm groves. They were experts in camouflage, and much of the armor had survived coalition air strikes.
Many of the Iraqi regulars manning the vehicles had fled, so the Rogue battalion was firing on quite a few empty tanks and personnel carriers that day. The battalion had absorbed a few stray RPG attacks and small-arms rounds from Iraqi stragglers, but the biggest threat came not from the enemy but from the hot burning metal of exploding Iraqi vehicles. Abrams tanks normally fire at targets two or three kilometers away — the typical kill distance for the American tankers who had destroyed Iraqi tanks in the first Gulf War. But now Rogue's targets were only a few hundred meters away, so close that the gunners could see the curling fronds on the date palm camouflage.
As the Abrams tanks tore into the Iraqi armor, the tanks and personnel carriers exploded. They didn't just pop like firecrackers. They blew like bombs, the tank turrets spinning crazily and chunks of flaming steel and cooked ammunition hissing through the air. A shard of burning metal burned through one of Rogue's Humvee trailers, setting a heap of gear on fire. Several Americans were cut and bloodied by flying metal, none seriously, and the drivers quickly learned to speed up to escape the barrage.
From his tank commander's hatch, Schwartz had spotted an empty T-72. He got on the radio and said, "This one is mine." He told his gunner to fire a SABOT round, a forty-five-pound, armor-piercing projectile with aluminum stabilizing fins and depleted uranium rod — an exceptionally dense metal ideal for penetrating military armor and heating it to molten metal. The round easily punched through the tank's steel skin, but it didn't pop the turret. Schwartz ordered up a HEAT round, a high-explosive antitank projectile tipped with a shaped charge. It turned the T-72 into a bonfire. Schwartz's driver had to speed away to avoid the firestorm.
But at one point Schwartz got tagged. He was passing a burning Iraqi vehicle about 150 meters away, and he told his loader to keep an eye on it. It seemed ready to explode. An instant later, it blew. Schwartz felt a blast of heat and ducked down into the cupola. He popped back up to look around and was slammed down to the bottom of the turret. He briefly lost consciousness. His loader shook him roughly and shouted, "Sir! Sir! Sir! Get up! Get up!" Schwartz came to and looked at his shoulder. A hot shard of metal had smacked into it. The shard burned him and hurt like hell, but Schwartz was okay. He got back up in the turret and moved on.
The shoulder was still aching later that afternoon, when Schwartz got a radio call from Colonel David Perkins, the Second Brigade commander. Perkins wanted to see Schwartz right away at the brigade command tent. Schwartz had just finished the Turkey Shoot, and he and his men were beat. He had hoped to give them time to rest, repair their vehicles, perhaps even grab a few hours' sleep. They had barely slept on the long slog up from Kuwait. Schwartz was a disciplined officer, and when his commander summoned him, he reported right way, no matter how tired and miserable he felt. A slight figure in his green Nomex tanker overalls, Schwartz hustled over to the command post at the edge of the dusty field along the highway.
Inside, Perkins, a slender officer with an erect bearing, was hunched over a map, his head down. Normally, the command post was a loud, busy place, a collection of communications vehicles backed up end to end and covered with canvas. But now it was quiet, and the headquarters staff officers and battle captains were milling around, silent. Schwartz took off his helmet and flak vest. An officer cleared off the map board in front of Perkins. The icons showed Second Brigade's battalions clustered south of the city, the division's First Brigade camped to the west at the airport, and the Third Brigade set up northwest of the capital. A division of U.S. Marines was still on the move southeast of the city, off the map. Baghdad itself was a blank expanse of enemy forces, size and capability unknown.
Perkins looked up. "At first light tomorrow," he told Schwartz, "I want you to attack into Baghdad."
Schwartz heard a whooshing noise in his ears. He felt disoriented. He had just spent several hours in a tank, pushing south, ducking hot shrapnel, and the last thing on his mind was going north into Baghdad. He had always assumed airborne units would clear the capital at some future date, with the Spartan Brigade setting up blocking positions outside the city.
"Are you fucking crazy ...?" Schwartz blurted out, then added, "... sir?" He waited for the other officers to laugh.
There was silence.
"No," Perkins said. He wasn't the type of commander to kid around. "And I'm coming with you. We have to do this."
Just after dawn the next morning, April 5, the entire battalion was lined up on Highway 8 south of the capital, engines gunning, weapons primed, the squat tan forms of the tanks and Bradleys bathed in gold morning light. Jason Diaz's tank, radio call sign Charlie One Two, was fifteenth in the order of march. He was up in the commander's hatch, awaiting the order to move out, when his driver radioed up from the driver's hole tucked below the turret. "The AIR FILTER CLOGGED light is on," he said.
They hadn't even launched the mission yet, and already the tank was balking. Diaz was anxious enough — and now this. He climbed down to check it out and saw his platoon leader, First Lieutenant Roger Gruneisen, inspecting his tank. The lieutenant's right track was damaged and the cooling tubes were worn. Every time the track turned a rotation, it made a horrible clanking sound. Gruneisen looked at Diaz and asked, "You think we'll make it?" Though Diaz was an enlisted man and Gruneisen was an officer, Diaz had more experience as a tank commander. He didn't want to lie. "Really, sir," he said, "I'm not sure." And that was the honest truth.
Diaz respected the lieutenant too much to try to bullshit him. Gruneisen was a platoon leader who trusted his men and let them do their jobs. He was the kind of man that Diaz, a Latino from the Bronx, probably never would have known if he hadn't joined the military. Gruneisen was a white southerner, a pale young twenty-four-year-old, with a shaved head and a soft Kentucky twang. He was a West Point man, focused and resolute, commissioned less than two years earlier.
Diaz, twenty-seven, had already put in eight years and was thinking about becoming an army lifer. He had drifted aimlessly after graduating from John F. Kennedy High in the Bronx, working odd jobs in Puerto Rico before wandering into an army recruiting station one day. The recruiter showed him videos of various military MOSs, or specialties — medic, personnel, supply. Then he put on the tanker video. Diaz saw the thermal sights and the computerized targeting system and all the other high-tech turret gadgets. He watched a tank pulverize targets, spitting out awesome bursts of orange fire from the main gun tube. He thought it would be cool to blow things up. He signed up to be a tanker.
Diaz had a deep affection for his current Abrams, which he had trained on and fought in for the previous six months. He and his gunner, Sergeant Jose Couvertier, had nicknamed it Cojone Eh? The phrase had no literal English translation. Essentially, it meant "Yeah, right" — a skeptic's challenge. All the tankers had spray-painted their main cannons with leering names that suggested a particularly aggressive and retributive brand of patriotism: Apocalypse and Crusader, Courtesy of the Red White and Blue and Cry Havoc and Let Slip the Dogs of War. Charlie One Two's nickname just happened to be more esoteric than most.
Standing next to Diaz on Highway 8, Gruneisen did not seriously consider aborting his platoon's mission. They were only going seventeen kilometers from their staging area south of the city, a straight shot north up Highway 8 and then west on 8 where the highway curved toward the international airport. There, the battalion would link up with the division's First Brigade, which had seized the airport the day before, rechristening Saddam International as Baghdad International.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Thunder Run"
Copyright © 2004 David Zucchino.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
FOREWORD BY MARK BOWDEN,
ONE – CHARLIE ONE TWO,
TWO – THE RIGHT THING,
THREE – DOUBLE TAP,
FOUR – PUPPY LOVE,
FIVE – THE PLAN,
SIX – A COVERT BREACH,
SEVEN – THE PALACE GATES,
EIGHT – SUICIDE AT THE GATES OF BAGHDAD,
NINE – THE PARTY IS ABOVE ALL,
TEN – GOD WILL BURN THEIR BODIES IN HELL,
ELEVEN – GOING AMBER,
TWELVE – CURLY,
THIRTEEN – BIG TIME,
FOURTEEN – CATFISH,
FIFTEEN – MOE, LARRY,
SIXTEEN – PLAYING THE GAME,
SEVENTEEN – COUNTERATTACK,
EIGHTEEN – THE BRIDGE,
NOTES ON SOURCES,