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Authors: David Zucchino

Thunder Run

BOOK: Thunder Run
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THUNDER
RUN

David Zucchino is a foreign correspondent
for the
Los Angeles Times
.
His work has been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize
on three occasions.

First published in the United States of America in 2004 by Grove/Atlantic, Inc.,
841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003–4793, USA.

First published in paperback in Great Britain in 2004
by Atlantic Books an imprint of Grove Atlantic Ltd.

This E-book edition published by Atlantic Books in 2015.

Copyright © David Zucchino 2004.

The moral right of David Zucchino to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

E-Book ISBN: 978 1 78239 686 4
Paperback ISBN: 978 1 84354 283 4

Interior maps by Matthew Ericson.

Printed in Great Britain

Atlantic Books
An imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd
Ormond House
26–27 Boswell Street
London WC1N 3JZ

www.atlantic-books.co.uk

For my father,
First Sergeant Ernest Joseph Zucchino
(World War II, Korea, Vietnam),
who served with honor

FOREWORD

B
y far the most important and decisive part of the stunning American sweep of Iraq in 2003 was the surprise armored thrust into the heart of Baghdad. While pundits at home and around the world (myself included) were predicting a potentially bloody, protracted siege of Saddam Hussein's capital, and while the notorious “Baghdad Bob” was before microphones in the Al Rashid Hotel denying that American forces were anywhere near the city, the Spartan Brigade, the Second Brigade of the Third Infantry Division (Mechanized), was blasting its way up the city's central avenues. It was a perfect illustration of how history is usually made, not by planners and critics, but by brave men with their boots on the ground—or, in this case, Abrams tank treads. The Spartan Brigade's thunder run became the turning point of the war both militarily and psychologically.

I have to say that I was not surprised to learn that my friend and long-time colleague David Zucchino was with those men. Zook is one of the best reporters of our generation, and he's been putting himself at risk to get good stories for many years. He's smart, fearless, tenacious, and (thank God) lucky. He survived one serious brush with death covering the war, and dove right back into the action. This book will outshine and outlast the flood of embedded memoirs of that war, because of both where he was and who he is.

We both started as reporters at
The Philadelphia Inquirer
almost a quarter century ago. Zook and I, the late Mark Fineman, Buzz Bissinger, Richard Ben Cramer, Mike Capuzzo, Bob Rosenthal, Lucinda Fleeson, and Joyce Gemperlein were among a group of young reporters at that paper who competed with one another each week to land the “Sunday Strip,” the story stripped over the masthead on the Sunday paper. It was the paper's premier showcase for dramatic writing. The Sunday editor then was the late Ron Patel, a dashing man with a lusty appreciation for a lurid tale (for which reason, and others, he was nicknamed the Dark Prince). Philadelphia furnished plenty of opportunities for these stories—cannibal mass murderers, serial rapists, mobsters, animals and damsels in peril, madmen, shipwrecks, mystery, and gore. We called the stories Dirtballs. They were and are the bread and butter of newspaper writing. While other reporters were trying to master the arcana of state budgets or probing for malfeasance in City Hall, we were out looking for the sleazy stuff that would appease the appetite of the Dark Prince. You had to be fast to win the weekly contest, and you had to be good. You had to spot the small item with dirtball potential before anybody else, find the gory details, write it, and have it in Patel's hands whole by Thursday afternoon—he was a stickler for freshness. We all had our moments of glory in this sweepstakes, but I think Zook was the master.

He went on to become the paper's best foreign correspondent, winning a Pulitzer Prize for an amazing series of stories he wrote from South Africa before the overthrow of apartheid. I once had the chance to work with David in the Middle East. We spent a few days together in Jerusalem trying to cover the first Intifada, driving off together into the West Bank and Gaza. He was a veteran by then and I was a rookie. I vividly remember him behind the wheel of our rental at the crack of dawn, heading off from the walls of the Old City into Palestinian territory looking for trouble, remarking gleefully, “Look out, he's got a car!” We always found trouble. Zook had a nose for it. He was getting ready to take off for some other hot spot, and he kindly stuck around for a few extra days to help me get acquainted with the turf.

I thoroughly enjoyed working with him, but I have to admit I was a little relieved when he departed. He was wearing me out. His motor ran in a faster gear than my own. He combined boundless energy with a bottomless appetite for action, and liked to stay up late in the bar drinking beer, swapping tales, and trying to understand the huge story unfolding all around us. I didn't get a full night's sleep until he was out of town.

When I wrote the first draft of
Black Hawk Down
in 1997, Zook had taken a serious career misstep. He had accepted the job of Foreign Editor, chained to a desk through long days and nights, trying to get other people to do what he could do better himself. It worked to my benefit, however, because he became one of the early enthusiasts for my story at the paper, and eventually helped me with it enormously. He edited that first draft into a crisp newspaper serial, so when I sat down to write the book version, I had the inestimable benefit of his earlier guidance. He performed a similar service when I wrote my book
Killing Pablo,
which also first appeared as a Zook-edited serial in the newspaper. I remember him telling me, “Next time, I get the story and you get the damn editing job.”

Well, this time Zook gets the story, and I'm lucky enough to have ducked doing the edit—not that he needs any help from me. Already with
Thunder Run
he's got one leg up on my efforts. He was there.

And, as I expected, he has come back with the single best story of the Iraq War. Watching on TV, many of us had the impression that Baghdad's resistance just melted away at the approach of American forces.
Thunder Run
will dispel that illusion. This was the most bitterly contested moment in the war, one that left thousands dead, including some very brave American soldiers. Zook's writing captures the drama, the heroism, the fear, noise, confusion, horror, and, yes, the thrill of battle. It is a masterwork by a master reporter and writer. I'm proud to introduce it to you.

—Mark Bowden

 

 

 

 

War is neither magnificent nor squalid; it is simply life, and an expression of life can always evade us.

—Stephen Crane,
War Memories

ONE

CHARLIE ONE TWO

J
ason 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.

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