View Full Version : Article on "Thunder Run" Part I

09 Dec 03, 12:16
This is an article that was posted on another forum I belong to. Haven't read it yet, but thought it would be interesting from both an armor in city tactical discussion and scenario design perspective.

Take care,

Los Angeles Times Magazine
December 7, 2003

The Thunder Run

'Are you kidding, sir?': Fewer than 1,000 soldiers were ordered to capture a
city of 5 million Iraqis. Theirs is a story that may become military legend.

By David Zucchino

Nine hundred and seventy-five men invading a city of 5 million sounded
audacious, or worse, to the U.S. troops assigned the mission outside Baghdad
last April 6. Ten years earlier, in Mogadishu, outnumbered American soldiers
had been trapped and killed by Somali street fighters. Now some U.S.
commanders, convinced the odds were far better in Iraq, scrapped the
original plan for taking Baghdad with a steady siege and instead ordered a
single bold thrust into the city. The battle that followed became the climax
of the war and rewrote American military doctrine on urban warfare.

Back home, Americans learned of the victory in sketchy reports that focused
on the outcome-a column of armored vehicles had raced into the city and
seized Saddam Hussein's palaces and ministries. What the public didn't know
was how close the U.S. forces came to experiencing another Mogadishu.
Military units were surrounded, waging desperate fights at three critical
interchanges. If any of those fell, the Americans would have been cut off
from critical supplies and ammunition.

Embedded journalists reported the battle's broad outlines in April, but a
more detailed account has since emerged in interviews with more than 70 of
the brigade's officers and men who described the fiercest battle of the
war-and one they nearly lost.

Times staff writer David Zucchino, who was embedded with Task Force 4-64 of
the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized), returned to the United
States recently to report this story.

On the afternoon of April 4, Army Lt. Col. Eric Schwartz was summoned to a
command tent pitched in a dusty field 11 miles south of Baghdad. His brigade
commander, Col. David Perkins, looked up from a map and told Schwartz he had
a mission for him.

"At first light tomorrow," Perkins said, "I want you to attack into

Schwartz felt disoriented. He had just spent several hours in a tank,
leading his armored battalion on an operation that had destroyed dozens of
Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles 20 miles south. A hot shard of exploding
tank had burned a hole in his shoulder.

"Are you kidding, sir?" Schwartz asked, as he waited for the other officers
inside the tent to laugh.

There was silence.

"No," Perkins said. "I need you to do this."

Schwartz was stunned. No American troops had yet set foot inside the
capital. The original U.S. battle plan called for airborne soldiers, not
tanks, to take the city. The tankers had trained for desert warfare, not
urban combat. But now Perkins, commander of the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd
Infantry Division (Mechanized), was ordering Schwartz's tanks and Bradley
fighting vehicles on a charge into the unknown.

Schwartz's "thunder run" into the city the next morning was a prelude to the
fall of Baghdad. It triggered a grinding three-day battle, the bloodiest of
the war-and dismissed any public perception of a one-sided slaughter of a
passive enemy. Entire Iraqi army units threw down their weapons and fled,
but thousands of Iraqi militiamen and Arab guerrillas fought from bunkers
and rooftops with grenades, rockets and mortars.

The 2nd Brigade's ultimate seizure of Baghdad has few modern parallels. It
was a calculated gamble that will be taught at military academies and
training exercises for years to come. It changed the way the military thinks
about fighting with tanks in a city. It brought the conflict in Iraq to a
decisive climax and shortened the initial combat of the war, perhaps by
several weeks.

But when Eric Schwartz got the mission that would prime the battlefield for
the decisive strike on Baghdad, he had no idea what he had taken on.

Task Force 1-64, a battalion nicknamed Rogue, rumbled north on Highway 8
toward Baghdad. The column seemed to stretch to the shimmering horizon-30
Abrams tanks and 14 Bradleys, their squat tan forms bathed in pale yellow
light. It was dawn on April 5, a bright, hot Saturday.

Schwartz's battalion had been ordered to sprint through 10 1/2 miles of
uncharted territory. The column was to conduct "armored reconnaissance," to
blow through enemy defenses, testing strengths and tactics. It was to slice
through Baghdad's southwestern corner and link up at the airport with the
division's 1st Brigade, which had seized the facility the day before.

In the lead tank was 1st Lt. Robert Ball, a slender, soft-spoken North
Carolinian. Just 25, Ball had never been in combat until two weeks earlier.
He was selected to lead the column not because he had a particularly refined
sense of direction but because his tank had a plow. Commanders were
expecting obstacles in the highway.

The battalion had been given only a few hours to prepare. Ball studied his
military map, but it had no civilian markings-no exit numbers, no
neighborhoods. He was worried about missing his exit to the airport at what
fellow officers called the "spaghetti junction," a maze of twisting
overpasses and offramps on Baghdad's western cusp.

Ball's map was clipped to the top of his tank hatch as the column lumbered
up Highway 8. He had been rolling only about 10 minutes when his gunner
spotted a dozen Iraqi soldiers leaning against a building several hundred
yards away, chatting, drinking tea, their weapons propped against the wall.
They had not yet heard the rumble of the approaching tanks.

"Sir, can I shoot at these guys?" the gunner asked.

"Uh, yeah, they're enemy," Ball told him.

Ball had fired at soldiers in southern Iraq, but they had been murky green
figures targeted with the tank's thermal imagery system. These soldiers were
in living color. Through the tank's sights, Ball could see their eyes, their
mustaches, their steaming cups of tea.

The gunner mowed them down methodically, left to right. As each man fell,
Ball could see shock cross the face of the next man before he, too, pitched
violently to the ground. The last man fled around the corner of the
building. But then, inexplicably, he ran back into the open. The gunner
dropped him.

The clattering of the tank's rapid-fire medium machine gun seemed to awaken
fighters posted along the highway. Gunfire erupted from both sides-AK-47
automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs, followed minutes
later by recoilless rifles and antiaircraft guns.

Iraqi soldiers and militiamen were firing from a network of trenches and
bunkers carved into the highway's shoulders, and from rooftops and
alleyways. Some were inside cargo containers buried in the dirt. Others were
tucked beneath the overpasses or firing down from bridges.

In the southbound lanes, civilian cars were cruising past, their occupants
staring wide-eyed at the fireballs erupting from the tank's main guns and
the bright tracer flashes from the rapid-fire medium and .50-caliber machine
guns. From onramps and access roads, other cars packed with Iraqi gunmen
were attacking. Mixed in were troop trucks, armored personnel carriers,
taxis and motorcycles with sidecars.

The crews were under strict orders to identify targets as military before
firing. They were to fire warning shots, then shoot into engine blocks if a
vehicle continued to approach. Some cars screeched to a halt. Others kept
coming, and the gunners ripped into them. The crews could see soldiers or
armed civilians in some of the smoking hulks. In others, they weren't sure.
Nobody knew how many civilians had been killed. They knew only that any
vehicle that kept coming was violently eliminated.

As the column lurched forward, buses and trucks unloaded Iraqi fighters.
Some were in uniform, some in jeans and sports shirts. Others wore the baggy
black robes of the Fedayeen Saddam, Hussein's loyal militiamen. To the
Americans, they seemed to have no training, no discipline, no coordinated
tactics. It was all point and shoot. The machine guns sent chunks of their
bodies onto the roadside.

The Americans were suffering casualties, too. A Bradley was hit by an RPG
and disabled. The driver panicked and leaped out, breaking his leg. A
Bradley commander stopped and dragged the driver to safety.

At a highway cloverleaf, a tank was hit in its rear engine housing and burst
into flames. The column stopped as the crew tried desperately to put out the
fire. But the flames, fed by leaking fuel, spread.

The entire column was now exposed and taking heavy fire. Two suicide
vehicles packed with explosives sped down the offramps. They were destroyed
by tank cannons. After nearly 30 minutes of fighting, Perkins ordered the
tank abandoned. To keep the tank out of Iraqi hands, the crew destroyed it
with incendiary grenades.

By now the resistance was organizing. Fighters who appeared to be dead or
wounded were suddenly leaping up and firing at the backs of American
vehicles. Schwartz ordered his gunners to "double tap," to shoot anybody
they saw moving near a weapon. "If it was a confirmed kill, they'd let it
go," Schwartz said later. "If it wasn't, they'd tap it again. We were
checking our work."

At the head of the column, Ball was approaching the spaghetti junction. His
map showed the exit splitting into two ramps. He knew he wanted the ramp to
the right. He had been following blue English "Airport" signs, but now smoke
from a burning Iraqi personnel carrier obscured the entire cloverleaf.

In the web of overpasses, Ball found the ramp he wanted and stayed right. He
was halfway down when he realized he should have taken a different one. Now
he was heading east into downtown Baghdad, the opposite direction from the
airport. The entire column was following him.

He told his driver to turn left, then roll over the guardrail and turn back
onto the westbound lanes. The rail crumbled, the column followed, and
everyone rumbled back toward the airport.

Behind Ball, a tank commanded by Lt. Roger Gruneisen had fallen behind. Some
equipment from the crippled tank had been dumped onto the top of Gruneisen's
tank, obstructing his view from the hatch. With the emergency addition of
Staff Sgt. Jason Diaz, commander of the burning tank, and Diaz's gunner,
Gruneisen now had five men squeezed into a tank designed for four.

The gunner had swung the main gun right to fire on a bunker. In the loader's
hatch, Sgt. Carlos Hernandez saw that the gun tube was headed for a concrete
bridge abutment. He screamed, "Traverse left!" But they were moving rapidly.
The gun tube smacked the abutment. The entire turret spun like a top.
Inside, the crewmen were pinned against the walls, struggling to hold on as
the turret turned wildly two dozen times before stopping. It was like an
out-of-control carnival ride.

The crew was dizzy. Hernandez looked at the gunner. Blood was spurting from
his nose. His head and chest were soaked with greenish-yellow hydraulic
fluid. The impact had severed a hydraulic line. Except for the gunner's
bloody nose, no one was hurt.

The main gun was bent and smashed. It flopped to the side, useless. The tank
continued up Highway 8, Gruneisen on the .50-caliber and Hernandez on a
medium machine gun. They rolled up to the spaghetti junction into a curtain
of black smoke-and missed the airport turn. They were headed into the city

Hernandez saw that they were approaching a traffic circle. As they drew
closer, he saw that the circle was clogged with Iraqi military trucks and
soldiers. It was a staging area for troops attacking the American column.

From around the circle, just a block away, a yellow pickup truck sped toward
the tank. Hernandez tore into it with the machine gun, killing the driver.
The tank driver slammed on the brake to avoid the truck, but it was crushed
beneath the treads. The impact sent Hernandez's machine gun tumbling off the
back of the tank.

The tank reversed to clear itself from the wreckage, crushing the machine
gun. A passenger from the truck wandered into the roadway. The tank pitched
forward, trying to escape the circle, and crushed him.

The crew was now left with just one medium machine gun and the .50-caliber.
Firing both guns to clear the way, the crewmen helped direct the tank driver
out of the circle. As they pulled away, they could see a blue "Airport"
sign. They were less than five miles from the airport.

They caught up with the column. They passed groves of date palm trees and
thick underbrush, and everyone worried about another ambush.

In the lead platoon, Staff Sgt. Stevon Booker was leaning out of his tank
commander's hatch, firing his M-4 carbine because his .50-caliber machine
gun had jammed. Enemy fire was so intense that Booker had ordered his
loader, Pvt. Joseph Gilliam, to get down in the hatch. As Booker leaned
down, he told Gilliam: "I don't want to die in this country." As he resumed
firing, he shouted down to Gilliam and the gunner, Sgt. David Gibbons: "I'm
a baad mother!"

Gilliam, 21, and Gibbons, 22, idolized Booker, who, at 34, was experienced
and decisive. He was a loud, aggressive, extroverted lifer. His booming
voice was the first thing his men heard in the morning and the last thing at

As Gibbons, in the gunner's perch at Booker's feet inside the turret, fired
rounds, he felt Booker drop down behind him. He assumed he had come down to
get more ammunition. But then he heard the loader, Gilliam, scream and
curse. He looked back at Booker and saw that half his jaw was missing. He
had been hit by a machine-gun round.

The turret was splattered with blood. As Gibbons crawled up in the
commander's hatch, he saw that Booker was trying to breathe. He radioed for
help and was ordered to stop and wait for medics. Gibbons and Gilliam tried
to perform "buddy aid" to stop the bleeding.

The medics arrived and, under fire, lifted Booker's body into the medical
vehicle. The driver sped toward a medevac helicopter at the airport, just as
the physician's assistant radioed that Booker was gone. The assistant
covered the sergeant's bloodied face and, not knowing what else to do, held
his hand. Booker's body arrived just ahead of the rest of the column, which
rolled onto the tarmac in a hail of gunfire. Some of the tanks and Bradleys
were on fire and leaking oil, but they had survived the gantlet.

At the airport that morning, Col. Perkins spoke on the tarmac with his
superior, Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, the 3rd Infantry Division
commander. Rogue battalion had lost a tank commander and tank, but they had
killed almost 1,000 fighters and torn a hole in Baghdad's defenses.

Blount wanted to keep the pressure on Saddam's forces. He had seen
intelligence suggesting that Saddam's elite Republican Guard units were
being sent into Baghdad to reinforce the capital. But, in truth, he really
didn't have good intelligence. It was too dangerous to send in scouts.
Satellite imagery didn't show bunkers or camouflaged armor and artillery.
Blount had access to only one unmanned spy drone, and its cameras weren't
providing much either.

Prisoners of war had told U.S. interrogators that the Iraqi military was
expecting American tanks to surround the city while infantry from the 82nd
Airborne and 101st Airborne cleared the capital. And that was the U.S.
plan-at least until the thunder run that morning altered the equation.

Blount told Perkins to go back into the city in two days, on Monday the 7th.
Blount wanted him to test the city's defenses, destroy as many Iraqi forces
as possible and then come out to prepare for the siege of the capital.

Perkins was eager to go back in, but not for another thunder run. He wanted
to stay. He had just heard Mohammed Said Sahaf, the bombastic information
minister, deliver a taunting news conference, claiming that no American
forces had entered Baghdad and that Iraqi troops had slaughtered hundreds of
American "scoundrels" at the airport.

When Perkins got back to the brigade operations center south of the city, he
told his executive officer, Lt. Col. Eric Wesley: "This just changed from a
tactical war to an information war. We need to go in and stay."

The brigade was exhausted. It had been on the move day and night, rolling up
from Kuwait and fighting Fedayeen and Republican Guard units-sprinting 435
miles in just over two weeks, the fastest overland march in U.S. military
history. Their tanks and Bradleys were beat up. The crews had not slept in
days. Now they had just one day to prepare for the pivotal battle of the

The charge up Highway 8 on April 7 was similar to the sprint by Rogue
Battalion two days earlier. Fedayeen and Arab volunteers and Republican
Guards fired from roadside bunkers and from windows and alleys on both sides
of the highway. Suicide vehicles tried to ram the column.

Gunners pounded everything that moved, radioing back to trailing vehicles to
kill off what they missed. It took only two hours to blow through the
spaghetti junction and speed east to Saddam's palace complex. Schwartz's
lead battalion, Rogue, rolled to Saddam's parade field, with its massive
crossed sabers and tomb of the unknown soldier. Rogue also seized one of
Saddam's two main downtown palaces, the convention center and the Rashid
Hotel, home to the Baath Party elite.

Lt. Col. Philip deCamp's Task Force 4-64, the Tusker battalion, swung to the
east and raced for Saddam's hulking Republican Palace and the 14th of July
Bridge, which controlled access to the palace complex from the south.

The targets had been selected not only for their strategic value, but also
because they were in open terrain. The palace complex consisted of broad
boulevards, gardens and parks-and few tall buildings or narrow alleyways.
The battalions could set up defensive positions, with open fields of fire.

The Tusker battalion destroyed bunkers at the western arch of the Republican
Palace grounds, blew apart two recoilless rifles teams guarding the arch and
smashed through a metal gate. The palace had been evacuated, but there were
soldiers in a tree line and along the Tigris River bank. The infantrymen
killed some, and others fled, stripping off their uniforms.

At a traffic circle at the base of the 14th of July Bridge, Capt. Steve
Barry's Cyclone Company fought off cars and trucks that streaked across the
bridge, some packed with explosives. There were three in the first 10
minutes, six more right after that. The tanks and Bradleys destroyed them

By midmorning, Perkins was meeting with his two battalion commanders on
Saddam's parade grounds. They gave live interviews to an embedded Fox TV
crew. Lt. Col. DeCamp and one of his company commanders, Capt. Chris
Carter-both University of Georgia graduates-unfurled a Georgia Bulldogs
flag. Capt. Jason Conroy toppled a massive Saddam statue with a single tank

As his tankers celebrated, Perkins took a satellite phone call from Wesley,
his executive officer. Wesley ran the brigade's tactical operations center,
a network of radios, computers, satellite maps and communications vehicles
set up on the cement courtyard of an abandoned warehouse 11 miles south of
the city center.

It was hard for Wesley to hear on his hand-held Iridium phone; a
high-pitched whine sounded over his head. He thought it was a low-flying

Wesley shouted into the phone: "Congratulations, sir, I-" and at that
instant an orange fireball blew past him and slammed him to the ground. The
whine wasn't an airplane. It was a missile. The entire operations center was
engulfed in flames.

Wesley still had the phone. "Sir," he said. "We've been hammered!"


"We've been hit. I'll have to call you back. It doesn't look good."

Rows of signal vehicles were on fire and exploding. A line of parked Humvees
evaporated, consumed in a brilliant flash. Men were writhing on the ground,
their skin seared. A driver and a mechanic were swallowed by the fireball,
killed instantly. Another driver, horribly burned, lay dying. Two embedded
reporters perished on the concrete, their corpses scorched to gray ash.
Seventeen soldiers were wounded, some seriously.

The brigade's nerve center, its communications brain, was gone. The entire
mission-the brigade's audacious plan to conquer a city of 5 million with 975
combat soldiers and 88 armored vehicles in a single violent strike-was in

It got worse. As Wesley and his officers tended to the dead and wounded,
Perkins was receiving distressing reports from Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty, a
battalion commander charged with keeping the brigade's supply lines open
along Highway 8. One of Twitty's companies was surrounded. It was "amber" on
fuel and ammunition-a level dangerously close to "black," the point at which
there is not enough to sustain a fight.

The Baghdad raid, launched at dawn, was now approaching its sixth hour-well
past the Hour Four deadline Perkins had set to decide whether to stay for
the night. That benchmark was critical because his tanks, which consume 56
gallons of fuel an hour, had eight to 10 hours of fuel. That meant four
hours going in and four coming out.

To conserve fuel, Perkins ordered the tanks set up in defensive positions
and shut down. They couldn't maneuver, but they could still fire-and each
hour they were turned off bought Perkins another hour.

Even so, time was running out for Twitty, whose outnumbered companies were
clinging to three crucial interchanges.

"Sir, there's one hell of a fight here," Twitty told Perkins. "I'll be
honest with you: I don't know how long I can hold it here."

Even after Twitty received reinforcements, tying up the brigade's only
reserve force, his men had to be resupplied. But the resupply convoy was
ambushed on Highway 8; two sergeants were killed and five fuel and
ammunition trucks were destroyed. The highway was a shooting gallery. If
Perkins lost the roadway, he and his men would be trapped in the city
without fuel or ammunition.

American combat commanders are trained to develop a "decision support
matrix," an analytical breakdown of alternatives based on a rapidly
unfolding chain of circumstances. For Perkins, the matrix was telling him:
cut your losses, pull back, return another day. His command center was in
flames. He had spent his reserve force. And now his fuel and ammunition were
burning on the highway.

On the parade grounds, Perkins stood next to his armored personnel carrier,
map in hand, flanked by his two tank battalion commanders. The air was heavy
with swirling sand and grit. Black plumes of oily smoke rose from burning
vehicles and bunkers.

Perkins knew the prudent move was to pull out, but he felt compelled to
stay. His men had fought furiously to reach the palace complex. It seemed
obscene to make them fight their way back out, and to surrender terrain
infused with incalculable psychological and strategic value.

Sahaf, the delusional information minister, was already claiming that no
American "infidels" had breached the city's defenses. Perkins had just heard
Sahaf's distinctive rant on BBC radio: "The infidels are committing suicide
by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad." A retreat now, Perkins thought,
would validate the minister's lies. It would unravel the brigade's singular
achievement, which had put American soldiers inside Saddam's two main
palaces and American boots on his reviewing stand.

Perkins turned to his tank battalion commanders. "We're staying."

09 Dec 03, 13:44
Interesting read. :)

Another interesting discussion on Thunder Run is the 3 ID AAR, which is available to the public in .pdf format. 3 ID After Action Review E-Doc (

Ivan Rapkinov
10 Dec 03, 03:17
Just finished reading The March Up, about the 1st Marines Divisions march on Baghdad - and interesting lookk at the "other" axis of advance.