‘My God, you guys. Look at this!’
Chief Warrant Officer Wolcott was a funny guy whom everybody called Elvis because he affected the hair, walk and talk of his musical idol. There were guys in his unit who had known Elvis for years but would scratch their heads if you asked them about somebody named Cliff Wolcott. His exploits were legendary. He had flown secret missions behind enemy lines during the Persian Gulf war, refueling in flight, to knock out Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile sites in Iraq.
On this mission, Wolcott’s Super 61 had delivered a Chalk of Rangers and was now flying a low orbit over the target area in central Mogadishu. The bird’s two crew chiefs were blasting targets with their mounted miniguns, and two Delta Force snipers in the rear were picking off Somalian gunmen. Every time the sleek black copters moved overhead, it gave the guys on the ground a good, protected feeling the D-boys called ”a warm and fuzzy.”
As Wolcott’s Blackhawk passed overhead, Nelson’s eye caught the distinctive flash and puff of an RPG – a rocket-propelled grenade. He saw the rocket climb into the helicopter’s path. Then came a thunderclap. The bird’s tail boom cracked, the rotor stopped spinning with an ugly grinding sound, and a chug-chug-chug coughing followed. The whole helicopter shuddered and started to spin – first slowly, then picking up speed.
”Oh, my God, you guys. Look at this!” Nelson said to the Rangers crouching with him. ”Look at this!”
Wolcott’s bird moved directly over them, spinning faster now.
Pvt. John Waddell, gasped, ”Oh, Jesus.” He fought the urge to just stand and watch the bird go down. He turned away to keep his eyes on his corner, watching for Somalian gunmen.
Nelson couldn’t stop watching. The helicopter started to tilt as it hit the top of a house, then flipped over as it crashed into an alley, on its side.
”It just went down! It just crashed!”
The disbelief in Nelson’s voice echoed the feelings of every soldier on the corner.
”What happened?” called First Lt. Tom DiTomasso, the Chalk Two leader, who came running.
”A bird just went down!” Nelson said. ”We’ve got to go. We’ve got to go right now!”
He knew the six men inside the Blackhawk needed help immediately – before Somalis got to them.
Word spread wildly over the radio, voices overlapped with the bad news. There was no pretense now of the deadpan calm of radio transmissions, the mandatory military monotone that said everything was under control. This was dreadful shock. Voices rose with surprise and fear:
We got a Blackhawk going down! We got a Blackhawk going down!
We got a Blackhawk crashed in the city! Sixty-one!
It was more than a helicopter crash. It was a blow to the sense of invulnerability in all the young men on the ground. The Blackhawks and Little Birds were their trump cards. The helicopters, even more than the Rangers’ rifles and machine guns, were what kept gunmen at a distance.
Nelson saw smoke and dust rising from the crash three blocks east. He saw crowds of Somalis running in that direction, and guns poking out of windows nearby. He spotted two boys running toward him, one with something in his hand. He dropped to one knee and felled them both with a burst from his M-60. One had been holding a stick. The other got up and limped for cover.
Nelson’s buddy Waddell was feeling the same urge to run toward the crash. When another unit’s Blackhawk had gone down two weeks earlier, the dead crew members were mutilated by the crowds. In the hangar the Rangers had talked about it. They were determined that such a thing would never happen to their guys.
But now they had to get permission on the radio from Capt. Mike Steele, the Ranger commander. Steele understood the urge to go help, but if Chalk Two left, the security perimeter around the target building would break down. He tried to get on the command network, but the calls were coming so thick and loud now he couldn’t be heard.
”We need to go!” Nelson shouted at DiTomasso. ”Now!”
Nelson started running at the same moment Steele called back. The captain had decided to authorize it himself.
IT HAD TAKEN Chief Warrant Officer Keith Jones, piloting a Little Bird with the call sign Star 41, a few minutes to find the crash. Chief Warrant Officer Mike Goffena, piloting Blackhawk Super 62 above him, had helped guide him.
Two hundred meters. One hundred meters. You are coming over it right and low. Just passed it.
Jones banked hard left and then flew in. Landing in the big intersection closest to the downed Blackhawk would have been easier, but he didn’t want to sit down where he would make a fat target from four different directions. So he’d eased his copter onto the street called Freedom Road and set it down on a slope between two stone houses.
Jones saw dark smoke choking the interior of the downed Blackhawk, and he knew just looking at it that his friends Elvis and Donovan ”Bull” Briley, the copilot, were probably dead.
Somalis were coming at them. Both Jones and his copilot, Karl Maier, fired with handguns. Then Sgt. Jim Smith, a Delta sniper who had climbed out of the Blackhawk wreckage, appeared alongside Jones’ window. It was Smith who had encountered Abdiaziz Ali Aden, the slender Somalian teenager who had hidden inside the old car nearby.
Now, over the din of the helicopter, Smith mouthed the words: ”I need help.” Smith had been shot in the meaty part of his left shoulder. The wounded sniper had dragged his injured Delta buddy, Staff Sgt. Daniel Busch, from the wreckage and positioned him against the wall with his weapon. While propped there, Busch had been shot again.
Jones hopped out and followed Smith to the downed Blackhawk, leaving Maier to control the Little Bird and provide cover up the alley.
Seconds after Jones left, Lt. DiTomasso rounded the corner and came upon the Little Bird. Maier nearly shot him. When Maier lowered his weapon, the startled lieutenant tapped his helmet, indicating he wanted a head count on casualties. Maier didn’t know.
Nelson and the other Rangers behind DiTomasso went after Jones and Smith. They saw that Busch, the gung-ho commando everybody called ”Rambusch,” had a bad gut wound. His SAW (squad automatic weapon) was on his lap and a .45-caliber pistol was on the ground in front of him. Busch, a devoutly religious man, had told his mother before leaving for Somalia: ”A good Christian soldier is just a click away from heaven.”
Nelson found three Somalian bodies beside Busch. There was a woman and two men. One of the men was still breathing and trying to move, so Nelson pumped two finishing rounds into him. He then got down behind the bodies for cover while Jones and Smith pulled Busch uphill to the Little Bird. Nelson picked up Busch’s pistol and stuck it in his pocket.
The rest of the squad fanned out to form a perimeter. Jones and Smith were having trouble dragging Busch, so Jones stooped and lifted him with both arms, and placed him in the small back door of the Little Bird. Then he helped the wounded Smith into the helicopter.
Jones examined Busch. He had been shot in the belly, just under his armor plate. His eyes were gray and rolled up in his head. He was still alive, barely, but Jones knew there was nothing he could do for him. He needed a doctor immediately. Jones climbed back into his pilot seat. On the radio he heard the command from the bird overhead.
Forty-one, come on out. Come out now.
With intensifying fire, there was a real risk that the Little Bird would be damaged and get stranded on the ground. Smith and Busch needed doctors. The pilots would have to leave the rest of the Super 61 crew and hope the Rangers could hold on until more help arrived.
Jones grabbed the stick and told Maier, ”I have it.”
Jones told the command network: ”Forty-one is coming out.”
Chapter 6: Another Blackhawk is fired on.