(Redacted by George E. Hand IV)
“The beer is on us!” was the last radio transmission from the Ranger fire support Sergeant as we departed the Haditha Dam in our AH-6 attack helicopters. The sun was just peaking up that morning, the morning after the first day of the four-day battle. D-Day is always the worst day of a campaign worst… trying to get that first foothold in so as to gain momentum and advantage. Fire superiority we had certainly gained and maintained. As for the rest of it… it always a crapshoot!
Haditha Dam was a very high priority target in Iraq. From where it is located in NW Iraq it provides electricity for hundreds of thousands of people all the way south to Baghdad. It is a tremendous structure. Built on the Euphrates river it is some five miles long by 200 feet high. It is classified as one of the largest dams on the planet.
America wanted to be able to control one of the country’s key pieces of strategic infrastructure. Iraqi propaganda promulgated that America wanted control of the dam so they could destroy it to flood the Euphrates Valley wreaking all the more havoc on the war-stressed nation. It was just the fog of war; he-said/she said, war propaganda that you could assimilate with a grain of salt, or disregard completely.
But as far as Chief Greg “Gravy” Coker and the men of the assault force were concerned, their orders said to take it from the Iraqis and nothing else in the Universe mattered. As much as the Iraqis wanted to keep their dam and have things their own way in their country, well, unfortunately for them the Rangers Led the Way and Night Stalkers Didn’t Quit — those two things alone prevented Iraq from having its precious dam.
Scheme of Maneuver
Haditha Dam was designated “Objective Lynx.” West of Lynx was Objective Serpent, an old airfield and pumping station. In order for U.S. forces to use Objective Serpent for fixed-wing transport aircraft in support of the assault on Objective Lynx, they dropped a unit of the 75th Ranger Regiment in a combat jump to seize Serpent. Once they secured Serpent they brought in heavy C-17 transports with an additional mobile Ranger force to travel by vehicles overground to Objective Lynx.
Chief Greg Coker’s airborne fire support team was based on a concept that faired well during the Vietnam conflict in the 1960s. They used an MH-6 Little Bird with a Forward-Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR [rhymes with steer]) to fly forward of Greg’s pair of AH-6 attack helicopters. The FLIR bird would spot targets and mark them, or it would draw enemy ground fire, at which point the attack birds would pounce on them much like Red-Tailed hawks pounce on chickens.
The Serpent was about a 17-minute flight away from the Lynx — too far for adequate fire support. So they had the Rangers lay in a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) for the helos just a scant few minutes’ flight from the dam. There at the FARP, they placed four additional loads of fuel and ammunition for air attack support:
17-lb rockets 2.25” Hydra 70 ATG rockets with high-explosive payloads
7.62 x 51mm ammunition for M-134 Miniguns, fires variable, 2,000 – 6,000 rounds per minute
.50 caliber (12.7 x 99mm) ammunition for the GAU-19 Gatling gun, fires variable 1,000, 1,300 or 2,000 rounds per minute
AvGas (aviation gasoline) in 100-lb rubberized bladders
Food and water were available there in modest quality. Also provided by the Creator himself was a great expanse of land at the FARP for relieving oneself between sorties. The turn around time at the FARP was approximately five minutes, with all the rearm and refit work being done in some cases by the pilots themselves. Let me tell you something about pilots back in the States: back in the States, you’re lucky if you can get them to load their own luggage on their aircraft let alone arm and fit an attack helicopter — there is dirt and grease on those things like you wouldn’t believe!!
Attack helo pilots from the Night Stalkers 160th Special Air Operations Regiment fly using just two techniques for a strike. Those techniques are “hard,” and “again.” They hit their targets hard, and then they hit them again, and again:
“We don’t believe in over-complicating assault plans with diagrams with bunches of circles, Xs, and arrows,” one AH-6 pilot was (probably) heard saying somewhere at some time, “we just have a proclivity to dive in and hit the enemy really really hard… and then we have a penchant for circling around and hitting then again — a whole bunch of times!”
Night Stalkers only fly during pristine weather conditions too, like the pilots in the States — said nobody ever. The night of the attack on Lynx the weather offered nothing but low ceilings and strong winds that kicked up dust that chocked off visibility and lowered the already feeble illumination even more. All of those things summed up the worse aspect of the whole situation: there was no visible reference horizon! That left the already taxed pilots to depend on instruments to keep from augering their gunships into the ground and leaving the Rangers in the fight with their heads virtually cut off.
Out at the FARP, the Crew Chiefs and ammo slingers worked like the best NASCAR pit crews in existence. In NASCAR the pit crews operate by the mantra: “we want to win the game!” while crews at the FARP operate by the mantra: “we don’t want to die!” You can decide for yourselves which is the more proficient crew. Turn-around times were as low as three minutes.
“Well, NASCAR crews can pit is as low as 11 seconds.”
Yeah but screw them; screw NASCAR pit crews because you know why? Because they are playing a game back home; FARP crews are going in balls-to-walls to kill or get killed.
Chief Greg Coker’s Little Birds were so laden with ammunition that they had almost zero hover time; that is, they were either going or coming but had to keep moving in order to have lift. I liken them to how sharks must keep moving to keep oxygenated water flowing through their gills. Aside from the basic loads for his rocket pods and Gatling guns, the Chief and his copilot had M4 assaults rifles with ten magazines (300 rounds 5.56 x 45mm) and M-67 fragmentation grenades stuff in every conducive crevice of the cockpit.
I conservatively concluded that were his helo ever to ignite, it would put us all in mind of the Hindenburg disaster.
At Lynx the Rangers had stormed and secured the dam as planned and on schedule. Delta Force breachers moved through the dam infrastructure to clear it of any explosive devices. The Rangers set up blocking positions on the east and west ends of the dam to protect entry. SFC Mo Morris and six Rangers were positioned in the blocking position on the western end of the dam.
As Greg’s team raced off from the FARP to the fight at Serpent they struggled with the horrid flight conditions the night had cursed them with. They fought with multiple radios and networks trying to cobble together a semblance of situational awareness. The absence of any identifiable horizon threatened to cut short their flight at any moment. Control was so ponderous as to limit each man’s control of the flight to roughly one minute, whereby he would relent control to the other pilot for the next minute.
Chief Coker finally did make contact with “Mo,” his Ranger point of contact on the ground, who was responsible for directing the fire missions of the gunships. But he was horrified to hear the sound of very heavy gunfire in the background of Mo’s transmission. Mo’s concern was for the gunships’ arrival time (Time on Target — Tot), which at the time was about 14 minutes.
A continued harrowing struggle, with the radios trying to re-establish comms with Mo, made Greg curse the notion that a man standing on the Moon could make comms with Houston, Texas 240,000 miles away but Chief couldn’t talk to Mo less than 25 miles away.
As Greg finally made contact with Mo again, using a satellite radio network, he took immediate note of the high level of stress in Mo’s voice. Mo indicated that they were only minutes away from being overrun by a vastly superior force. With roughly three minutes left in his transit to reach the dam Chief “pulled the guts” out of his airframe to shave as many seconds as possible off of the flight to the dam.
(Continued in part II)
By Almighty God and with honor,