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Leave No Man Behind – the true story of Black Hawk Down
Military author Leigh Neville, writer of Day of the Rangers: The Battle of Mogadishu,
By Leigh Neville
Buy a copy of Day of the Rangers by Leigh Neville
In 1993, the East African nation of Somalia was the very definition of a failed state. After the demise of the regime of President Siad Barre in 1991, the country had plunged into an unforgiving civil war with rival warlords battling for supremacy. The country was also gripped by a famine of Biblical proportions as drought blighted the land and aid shipments from United Nations Operations in Somalia (UNOSOM) were pilfered by gunmen in the employ of the warlords.
The United States took the lead under the late President George H.W. Bush and launched Operation Restore Hope to protect the UN mission and the aid supplies. The first US forces deployed to Somalia on December 9, 1992 and had some early success; however, an attempt to relieve the warlords of their heavy weapons resulted in a massacre of Pakistani peacekeepers. The blame was laid firmly at the door of former General Mohamed Farah Aideed.
After a range of attacks on UN personnel and the downing of a US helicopter, Aideed became public enemy number one for UN and US forces. In August 1993, the decision was made to deploy a United States Army Special Operations Task Force, codenamed Task Force Ranger under the command of General Bill Garrison. Made up of elite Delta Force operators and Ranger light infantry, it would attempt to capture Aideed or demolish his network by capturing his key cronies.
“We were told that we were deploying to Fort Bragg to rehearse with special mission units in preparation for a real-world mission. The mission was classified, and the cover story would be an Emergency Deployment Readiness Exercise. We were not to discuss anything about the exercise until we reached Fort Bragg,” remembered Ranger Lieutenant Tom DiTomasso. They were soon on their way to Mogadishu.
Based in spartan accommodations at a hangar at the Mogadishu Airport, Task Force Ranger launched on their first mission, Operation Flute, on the night of August 30, assaulting the “Aideed associated” Lig Lato house. It was, in the parlance, a ‘dry hole’. More operations followed using a mix of helicopter insertions and ground convoys to keep Aideed’s militia guessing. On September 21, Delta Force captured Osman Atto, Aideed’s ‘finance minister’ and a member of his inner circle. The noose was tightening.
On the Sunday afternoon of October 3, whilst the Rangers played volleyball or spent time at their makeshift range, a CIA source identified two more of Aideed’s lieutenants who would be meeting near the downtown Bakara Market that afternoon. At 15:32 hours, a combined ground and helicopter assault force launched.
The plan was straightforward. The helicopters would land the Delta ‘assaulters’ next to the target building where the meeting was taking place. Rangers would ‘fast-rope’ to positions at the corners of the city block around the target building and establish blocking positions to stop anyone getting in or out. Overhead, nimble AH-6 ‘Little Bird’ gunships would keep a watchful eye over proceedings. Delta would storm the building, capture the prisoners, and meet up with a ground convoy of Rangers in trucks and Humvees to extract the prisoners and the Task Force back to the hangar. In all, the mission should have taken no longer than half an hour.
The first sign of that plan unraveling was the fall from a hovering Black Hawk by one of the young Rangers. Ranger Sergeant Matt Eversmann, next out of the helicopter, noted: “I got to the bottom of the rope and I saw this body of a Ranger lying on the ground and Rangers administering aid. By the time I got to the bottom [of the rope], I just assumed “Holy Mackerel, this guy’s been shot.”
“I asked one of the guys working on him where he got shot and the answer was “He didn’t get shot, he fell.” Like how do you process that one? It’s the last thing that you would think from a casualty perspective. Someone’s just fallen 60-plus feet from an aircraft but there we are.”
Delta soon had the prisoners rounded up and the ground convoy was brought forward. As they began loading the prisoners onto the trucks, the unthinkable occurred. Black Hawk Super 61 was hit by an RPG. Delta sniper Jim Smith, inside the rear cargo area of the Black Hawk, remembered that there was “no warning with the exception of feeling the helicopter shudder and shake and start spinning out of control.”
The RPG had struck Super 61’s tail rotor assembly, shredding it and sending the helicopter into a violent spin, smoke pouring from its tail boom. It crashed violently somewhere to the north-east. Teams of Delta operators and Rangers immediately raced on foot toward the downed helicopter, with others escorting the prisoners in the convoy, which would attempt to drive to the crash site. DiTomasso remembered: “As we started running, I noticed that the crowd to our north had also seen the crash. They were paralleling our movement with the same intent: to get to the crash site first.”
As DiTomasso and his men arrived at the crash site, they were surprised to encounter an MH-6 ‘Little Bird’ landed nearby. “I’m leaning out the door shooting back and forth at these guys and then looked to my right and there’s Lieutenant DiTomasso coming around the other corner!” recalled the pilot Chief Warrant Officer Karl Maier.
Maier had landed the MH-6 to extract two wounded Delta snipers from the crash site. One of them was Jim Smith, who was struggling to drag his wounded comrade to the ‘Little Bird’: “Initially I dragged him two-handed with me traveling backward. But I was receiving fire so I had to shoot an assailant down the street and then I dragged him with one hand and then shot my rifle with the other hand.”
The MH-6 was soon in the air with the two wounded and DiTomasso began to secure the crash site, which was being overrun by Somalis. Moments later the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopter, Super 68, arrived overhead, kicking up a dust storm. As the CSAR team ‘fast roped’ to the ground, it was also struck by an RPG: “The helicopter gets hit in the back, in the tail section, and lurches up with Rangers still on the ropes. The helicopter lurches up like it needs to get out of there and then it settles back down really quickly, [and] the rest of the Rangers go out,” added DiTomasso.
Super 68, the CSAR Black Hawk, managed to limp back to base trailing smoke. DiTomasso’s Rangers and the CSAR team began to treat the wounded and set up a perimeter around the crashed Black Hawk as the militia converged. On the ground convoy carrying the prisoners, the Rangers had run into ambush after ambush. There was no way they would make it to the crash site in one piece: “they were getting ambushed so bad and they were so shot up they were losing men, prisoners and vehicles.”
Overhead, Black Hawk Super 64 was completing a loop over the crash site when disaster struck a second time. Another helicopter had been shot down by an RPG. Pilot Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant noted: “I was flying the helicopter and it felt like a speed bump, like when you’re going too fast in a parking lot. It hit the tail, just below the tail rotor, and it blew the gearbox apart. The tail rotor didn’t leave the aircraft immediately, but it decided to go pretty quickly, and when it did ... we started to spin violently.”
With two crash sites to secure and the CSAR team already deployed, Task Force Ranger was stretched to breaking point. Two Delta snipers on board Black Hawk Super 62 volunteered: “Three times they called, three times permission was denied to put Super 62 in. The last time they call, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, the Delta team leader, got on the radio and called General Garrison and said “Sir, you’ve got to put us in.” General Garrison said “Gary, do you know what you’re asking for?” And Gary Gordon said “Yes sir, we are their only hope.”
The snipers managed to hold back the waves of Somali militia for perhaps twenty minutes until first one and then the other were shot and killed. Pilot Mike Durant, the sole survivor from the Super 64 crash recalled: “It was like being at the range when there’s a company or battalion of people shooting. There was a huge volume of fire and it lasted for a couple of minutes and then it went quiet except for that crazed mob that started to overrun the site”. Incredibly, Durant was captured alive and hauled away, a prisoner of war.
At the first crash site, the Rangers and Delta operators fought for the afternoon and into the evening to keep the Somalis at bay whilst efforts were made to extract the body of one of the Black hawk pilots, Cliff Wolcott, from the wreckage. With ‘Little Birds’ providing vital air cover, the soldiers struggled to recover their comrade’s body. Eventually they were successful.
“We got what we could of the body out and at that point the sun was coming up. I remember being in the aircraft and seeing the sky starting to turn – it added to the sense of urgency,” noted Delta Sergeant Norm Hooten. With the arrival of a combined UN and American relief column, Task Force Ranger could now exit the city, although one last trial remained, the ‘Mogadishu Mile’.
“When Chalk 2 got to the link-up point, all the vehicles were gone. The crowd kept coming so we just kept running,” said Tom DiTomasso. With all of the UN and US vehicles departed, a small force of Rangers and operators took off on foot, literally running from the city until they were eventually picked up by American Humvees that had returned to look for the missing men.
An 18-hour firefight. 16 killed and 83 wounded. Estimates of the Somali casualty toll ranging from 300 to 600. Views of the surviving veterans 25 years later are similar.
Matt Eversmann declared: “I believe in my heart that it will always go down as a complete tactical victory and a dismal strategic failure.” Tom DiTomasso agreed: “We stayed there to get Cliff Wolcott out of the helicopter. As hard as it is to say, this was a tactical success. We were never overrun, we stayed there as along as we had to remove Cliff out of the helicopter and then we left and that’s that.”
Published to mark the battle's 25th anniversary and using recently declassified documents and new interviews with many of the participants, Leigh Neville’s Day of the Rangers: the Battle of Mogadishu 25 Years On is a fascinating and revealing new history of a battle that would influence American Special Forces for decades to come. It is available to buy online here.