Heroes at Mogadishu

June 1, 1994

Last October 3, a Somali gunman firing a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launcher shot down a US Army MH-60 helicopter, sending the aircraft and its load of Rangers plummeting into the streets of Mogadishu. Somali irregulars raced to the scene. A successful Ranger raid, which had just bagged most of the high command of warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, was about to go haywire.

Nearby, the main task force of some 100 Rangers, informed of the crash, snapped to alert. Under nonstop fire from automatic weapons and RPG launchers, the group moved 500 yards southwest to secure the crash site and protect Americans on the ground. The entire US party was soon engulfed in a ferocious firefight that lasted eighteen hours and became a war for survival against thousands of well-armed Somali toughs.

At battle’s end, the US force had eighteen dead and eighty had been wounded. More than 300 Somalis were dead-including most of the original twenty Somali captives scooped up in the raid-and several hundred were wounded. It is not generally known that the US toll, bad as it was, could have been far worse had it not been for the uncommon valor of three airmen who played a major role in sustaining the wounded and beating back the attacks of the surrounding Somali forces.

They were TSgt. Timothy A. Wilkinson and MSgt. Scott C. Fales, both pararescue technicians, and SSgt. Jeffrey W. Bray, a combat controller. All three were assigned at the time to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron, Pope AFB, N. C. For his actions October 3­4 in Mogadishu, Sergeant Wilkinson received the Air Force Cross, the Air Force’s highest honor. Sergeants Fales and Bray also were honored, each winning a Silver Star. Earlier in 1993, Sergeant Fales had been named one of AFA’s twelve Outstanding Airmen of the Year.

Sergeants Wilkinson and Fales went in as part of a fifteen-man combat search and rescue (CSAR) team sent in response to the downing of the helicopter. Sergeant Bray served with the main Ranger force whose goal had been to capture Aideed’s top lieutenants.

A Wild One

The CSAR element came in by MH-60 helicopter. The pilot hovered his aircraft over the crash site despite intense small-arms and RPG fire. Sergeant Fales said that as they hovered, he thought, “This [is] going to be a wild one.”

While Sergeants Wilkinson and Fales and thirteen Rangers slid down the ropes, their Pave Hawk took a direct RPG hit to its main rotor. The pilot held the crippled aircraft in position until troops were clear of the ropes. The helicopter made it home.

Intense AK-47 and RPG fire poured in from every direction as the two airmen assessed the situation. “By the time I got over to the aircraft itself, they [the Rangers] had already progressed into the incident site,” Sergeant Wilkinson said. “I set up some equipment and then started to make my way around the tail of the aircraft.

“That’s when I saw Scott [Sergeant Fales] coming back around the corner, and I asked what was going on. He said he was going to the triage point. He said he’d been shot in the leg. I said, ‘Shot? Holy s-!’ Then I told him I was going into the incident site.” With the help of a Ranger, Sergeant Fales limped back to the control point. He bandaged his own wound.

Sergeant Wilkinson saw that both helicopter pilots were dead, apparently killed when the helicopter crashed nose-first. The danger was compounded by the location of the crash site. It was on a rise in the road, exposing those in and around the aircraft to deadly crossfire.

Five wounded Rangers were still on board the riddled aircraft. With the help of other Rangers, Sergeant Wilkinson extricated the injured one by one and brought them to the aid point where Sergeant Fales, despite his own wound, provided medical care. When all the wounded from the crash were gathered at the control point, Sergeant Wilkinson continued medical care and Sergeant Fales provided covering fire. Sergeant Fales also found it necessary to start an intravenous line on himself to combat the onset of shock.

Sergeant Wilkinson worked furiously on patients. “One after the other, he continued working on people,” Sergeant Fales said of his colleague. “He’d holler for some medical supplies every once in a while because”–here he smiled–“he always believes that you don’t use your own med ruck. Always trash somebody else’s.”

Sergeant Wilkinson said, “As we carried folks back to the triage point, Scott positioned himself at the tail of the aircraft and was setting up and providing cover down the alleyways and up the street, and we would put the casualties behind him.” Both medics, their citations noted, shielded the wounded from continuous rifle fire with their own bodies.

The airmen and Rangers ripped the bulletproof Kevlar floorboards from the downed MH-60 to build a barrier against Somali gunfire. Their position, up to that point, had been largely exposed. While building the shelter, Sergeant Wilkinson noticed Sergeant Fales sitting beside a Kevlar board. Wilkinson said, “Scott, why don’t you get behind the damn boards?” Immersed in his work, Sergeant Fales had forgotten to seek cover.

A relief convoy was expected to come and pull the force out of the area. Sergeant Fales noticed some vehicles making their way to the site and called for a cease-fire to prevent friendly-fire casualties. At that point, Sergeant Wilkinson ordered Sergeant Fales onto a stretcher. He said, “No, I’m not getting on the litter. I’ll shoot from here.”

Finally, the troops convinced Sergeant Fales to get on a litter, but they found it necessary to tie him down. They soon learned that the convoy was meeting tremendous resistance and could not reach the area any time soon.

As the battle raged, cries for a medic came from across the intersection. Sergeant Wilkinson jumped up with his medical rucksack. Sergeant Fales and the Rangers around him were amazed and grimly amused when Sergeant Wilkinson turned to them, screamed, “Cover me!” and charged diagonally across the intersection.

There was no way Sergeant Fales or the wounded Rangers could provide covering fire against a foe shooting from every direction. Later, Sergeant Wilkinson said sheepishly, “It seemed like the appropriate thing to say. They do it in the movies, you know.”

Sergeant Wilkinson made two more dashes across the four-way intersection, crying “Cover me!” each time, bringing armloads of medical supplies that would save the lives of at least three badly wounded Rangers. The Ranger team leader on the scene said that Sergeant Wilkinson displayed absolutely no fear.

In the meantime, Sergeant Fales had squirmed out of his litter bonds and continued to care for the wounded coming in.

Somali gunfire was fierce but seemingly random and inaccurate, Sergeant Fales said. It is now known that nearly any Somali with a weapon showed up to take shots at the Americans. They often used women and children as spotters; others seemed crazed, firing automatic weapons indiscriminately.

The Tide Turns

As dusk approached, Sergeant Fales took up a security position, from which he helped suppress rifle and RPG fire. However, he could not prevent it all. When five grenades flew over a wall toward the casualty point, Sergeant Fales yelled a warning and threw himself over two injured Rangers to protect them from shrapnel. Miraculously, the shrapnel missed everyone.

While Sergeant Fales stayed at the casualty point, then moved himself and the other casualties to a secure location, Sergeant Wilkinson remained with the wounded Rangers on the other side of the intersection for the remainder of the battle.

The Rangers were surrounded. Somali assaults continued. Another US helicopter was lost to ground fire, and the initial US quick-reaction force, sent to relieve the Ranger unit, sustained heavy casualties and was forced to pull back to wait for UN armored support.

Ammunition ran low for the lightly armed and outnumbered Rangers and airmen. Dehydration set in. Extreme exertion, lack of water, and the African heat were taking their toll. The Americans also contended with heavy RPG fire, which rocked the streets and buildings around them. As night fell, however, the Rangers and airmen felt the tide turn. Trained to fight in darkness, Sergeant Bray said later, “We’re most at home at night.”

RPGs and rifle rounds were still cracking everywhere, and the roar of battle was continuous. “The RPGs, as they slammed into the walls and exploded, really shook everything,” Sergeant Wilkinson said. “It definitely had a roll to it. . . . In target practice, you lie beside someone who is shooting, without ear protection, and it’s deafening. That sound jars your brain. Well, while you are doing all this, and you’re in a firefight, you don’t hear any of that. It registers in your mind that all that is going on, but there is almost an absolute silence to things at the same time there is a deafening roar.”

Despite superior numbers, the Somali force continued to make serious errors. Sergeant Bray recalled that the American group had set up a security position in a house and that the local gunmen “would walk down in twos and threes right by the windows of the house that we were in. They were talking to each other, and we would sit right there and drop them. I remember thinking, ‘What are they doing? We’ve been fighting from the same house all day. How can they not know we’re here?’ “

That night Sergeant Bray proved invaluable to the survival of the task force. He coordinated helicopter gunship fire on targets all around his position. His citation said he “personally redefined the term ‘danger close.’ ” He developed tactics and techniques on the spot that allowed him to mark friendly forces’ locations so that helicopter gunships could destroy close enemy concentrations.

Sergeant Bray said he sent runners out to marked points. In many cases, these points were marked with infrared strobe lights, which only the orbiting gunships could see. The runners found targets and relayed the information to Sergeant Bray. He plotted each location and called the missions in to the gunships. He said he plotted the locations out beyond the targets and corrected the fire by walking it in to enemy positions. At times, he coordinated fire on targets only fifteen meters away.

Sergeant Bray’s citation said his actions were integral to the survival of the Ranger task force. His expertise in controlling air-to-ground fire almost without question prevented friendly-fire casualties.

The Americans were aware of their extreme vulnerability. All three sergeants, at one time or another, faced the likelihood of dying. “There were points, I think, where everybody–though nobody actually said it–thought, ‘This is going to be it,’ ” Sergeant Wilkinson said later. “At the point when we got the call that the Humvee [High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle] element, which was trying to get through to us, could not because they had taken too-heavy casualties, and it was going to be a long time before help came, several of us thought, ‘We’ll fight until we have no more ammo. This is how it’s going to end.’ “

Sergeant Wilkinson said there was never a sense of futility, only a sense of purpose. “When Jeff [Sergeant Bray] was calling in danger close missions on the wall right next to us–that I’m almost leaning up against–and hot brass is raining down on my head, and the whomp of the rockets they are shooting is shaking the house, you have a sense that things are indeed grave.”

At one point, Sergeant Wilkinson said, he saw a flash of light and heard clicking. He quickly swung his weapon around and leveled it at the noise and flash. Over on a couch in the room was an injured Ranger. Sergeant Wilkinson said, “This guy had just been through a heck of a battle. He had shrapnel wounds from his foot up to his backside and his side to his face. I said, ‘What are you doing over there?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to light a cigarette, Sarge.’ I said, ‘Man, you’ve got to stop that smoking. That s- will kill you.’ “

The two later joked that they were hungry and should file for missed meals and, perhaps, a per diem for a night on the town.

Sergeant Fales said that the Somalis moved up a heavy machine gun. He and the wounded sprawled on the floor when the gun began spitting bullets through the house. “Somebody started firing this heavy machine gun straight through the walls,” Sergeant Fales said. “As these tracers [went] through, it lit the room up like a flashbulb going off.” Scrambling Rangers would appear frozen, and debris suspended in the air, each time a strobe-like tracer round flashed through.

One Ranger, badly wounded, immobilized, and in a lot of pain, couldn’t reconcile himself to the fact that he could not take part in the fight. Sergeant Fales said, “He wanted to get up and help so bad. He had a pretty serious wound. . . . He would try to get up. Then he would collapse and say, ‘God, I’m worthless.’ “

Sergeant Bray said that when he realized he might not survive the battle, his only regret was that he might not ride his beloved motorcycle again.

“I had a Harley-Davidson,” he said, “and I had just spent a lot of money on it. That morning I got a package in the mail–[the Harley] had a custom paint job–and it had pictures of it,” Sergeant Bray said. “I was so excited; I was running around showing everybody. I remember going back to where Tim [Sergeant Wilkinson] was and saying, ‘You know what [irritates] me about this? I’m not going to get to ride that damn Harley now.’ “

Sergeant Fales worried that he would never go fishing again.

Help at Last

Help finally broke through in the early morning of October 4 in the form of an armored UN task force. By 7:00 a.m., local time, most of the original task force had walked to safety. Somali gunmen melted back into the dusty streets and houses. Upon arrival at their base of operations, the men quickly were overcome by exhaustion, and many dropped off to sleep.

All three airmen credited their survival to training-intense, realistic, and frequent. “We train a lot, and it takes the stress out of it,” Sergeant Fales said. “Everything is muscle memory. I don’t even remember changing magazines in my rifle. It was happening so fast. [We were] moving from cover to cover. There’s a thought process for some people, but for us, we train like we’re going to fight. We trained to react in a certain way, so we did.

“We were thinking ahead all the time. We were planning what we were going to do all the time. When one factor would weigh against us, no one [said], ‘Well, that’s it. Fort Pit. It’s over.’ Everybody said, ‘OK, they did this. Now we’re going to do this and move here.’

“Our training was right on the money.”

Requiem for the Other Heroes

In a statement issued after the three airmen received their decorations from Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, Air Force Chief of Staff, TSgt. Timothy A. Wilkinson, representing all three, said:

“We feel it’s necessary to put things in perspective. Today, you have honored us, and we are humbly grateful. I say humbly grateful because, though we are privileged to enjoy the honors you have bestowed upon us for our efforts, one must be humbled by the sacrifices of our comrades who are no longer with us–our fallen teammates–who have given the fullest measure. There is no greater love than for one man to give his life for another. We would ask, as you have honored us today, remember our fallen teammates, and when you remember these events of today and of 3–4 October, that you remember them, their families, and their loved ones.”