Blood on the Altar: Poncho’s Last Walk

SSGTewes
SSG Tewes of 2-14 INF on September 25th under fire at the crash site. Photo Credit R. Burke.

An expanded excerpt from the full chapter.

Setting: the early morning hours of September 25th, 1993 in Mogadishu Somalia. A chapter that could easily be called “The Original Black Hawk Down”. Based on the firsthand accounts of 1-87 INF, 2-14 INF, 3-75 RGR and 5th Special Forces soldiers.

Blood on the Altar

The incident we’re about to re-live in this chapter is largely unknown by the American public as a whole, but not completely. It was briefly addressed in “Black Hawk Down” and received a few paragraphs of mention in a handful of major newspapers. If I had to give the mission itself a title, it would be “The Original Black Hawk Down”. The result of this mission was 3 American dead, and 3 American wounded with two of the wounded being what I would describe as brutally severe, and one of those two is a man I call a friend and a brother. My children know his name and his gift upon the altar. However, you do not; which is a major reason as to why I’m writing this book. Those of us who know Rolando “Poncho” Carrizales call him a hero, a title he would readily reject.

In July and August of 1993, at the end of the “Summer in Hell”, the call was passed to C CO 1-87 Infantry as they were deployed to “The Mog” as attachments to TF 2-14, relieving 1-22 Infantry. By now, the US involvement in Somalia was dedicated as a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) in the city of Mogadishu. TF 2-87 had also been the main QRF for operations in Somalia, but unlike those of us in A CO 1-87 Infantry and the rest of TF 2-87, TF 2-14 was under UN control. Not only was their command structure vastly different while being under international control, their utilization was very different as well.

The 24th of September started out as just another day, a day they would refer to as another “Groundhog day”. Wake up at 0530 hours, vehicles loaded by 0600 hours and by 0900 hours chow. The day would then continue with squad drills followed by cards and “bones” while the QRF say back, waiting to be called. SSG Rossman was the squad leader for 3rd platoon of C CO 1-87 Infantry. As a Ranger, SSG Rossman was viewed as one of the most competent leaders through his soldier’s eyes as well as his superiors in the Mog. He spent the day listening to “Mad Man of the Mog” on the Armed Forces Network (AFN).

Called the Mobile Weapons Squad, their QRF mission was normally to pull rear security during missions for C CO 2-14 Infantry, while attached to the company’s TOW platoon, which was similar to our own E-87 (Provisional). With their desert camouflaged fast back hummers which they had spray painted with “C CO 1-87”, they had two .50 caliber M-2 machine guns, no fewer than TEN 7.62 M-60 machine guns and four MK-19 40 MM grenade launchers.

By mid to late afternoon, the squad began settling in for naps, which the chain of command encouraged. Being the QRF meant that at any moment you’d be called out without any idea of how long it would be before you’d get a chance to rest again. So, taking naps became a big part of “Groundhog Day” for the QRF in Mogadishu. However, today there was a birthday. Poncho was turning 23 today and the napping would have to wait a bit longer than usual while his squad mates took opportunity to celebrate a little; I imagine many of the same juvenile pranks we would pull on birthdays or holidays were much the same. Poncho still remembers the number they pulled on him that day, but I’m choosing to leave those details for him and his squad as a happy moment for them to hold on to.

At 1700 hours, the squad unloaded their vehicles for the day. As the evening turned to night and the squad lay fast asleep in their desert camouflaged uniforms and boots (DCU’s).

At approximately 014500 hrs, Ranger Adam Bittner was on guard when he saw what he described as a “fireball” in the sky over the city.

By  0200 hours the squad was awoken by 1SG Tucker. It was “Go time”. A black hawk helicopter was “missing” and the QRF was going to find them. SSG Rossman notified SPC Archibaul and SGT Boult ready the squad. This meant the QRF had to have the vehicles loaded and ready to go within 10 minutes, during which time Rossman received a five-minute briefing on the situation. During the briefing, Rossman learned that a black hawk had been shot down in the city; the pilots were alive and fleeing the crash site.  SSG Rossman briefed his squad on the situation and presented their operations order. They would travel the K-4 circle to the airport, circumventing the 13 mile secure route, and they would follow aircraft to the site.

As the squad started out of the back gate, the atmosphere among the group was tense. How had Somalis managed to shoot down a black hawk, they wondered. The black hawk was said to have been traveling at over 100 knots as is flew over the city, an impossible shot with a mere Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG). They had no idea what to expect. After a while Poncho began a conversation with SGT Boult, not sure why the route seemed to be taking so long. According to the briefing they had received, it wouldn’t have taken this long to get to the crash site. As it turned out, the convoy had missed a turn to the crash site by about 100 meters.

At 0300 hours, Poncho’s Humvee was the first to arrive at the crash site. Until SSG Rossman could get the rest of the vehicles turned around, they would have to secure the site alone. Immediately Poncho’s group came under fire; an RPG exploded just behind them. They dismounted and began returning suppressive fire, with Archibald unleashing hell’s furty with the M-60 machine gun. Archibald is the only M-60 gunner that I couldn’t beat during M-60 qualification (though I was told I tied him eventually), having placed 3rd in the all Army competition, with Poncho as his AG. There couldn’t have been a finer group of soldiers defending this crash site.

When Rossman arrived, he left part of the squad further down the road making an arc type perimeter around the crash site, with Poncho’s Humvee at the 12 o’clock position, and everyone else placed at their 10 o’clock on down. Rather than being rear security, the squad was now on point. As they maneuvered into position, Poncho could see that while the left was secure, he was worried about a gap in the perimeter to his 1 o’clock.

As Rossman approached the scene on foot, having stopped two hundred meters shy, he encountered a head sized object in the road which turned out to be a smoking helmet, eventually learning it had been the helmet worn by the crew chief on the black hawk who was now dead and in the wreckage. As they approached the site, they looked for trip wires and booby traps, figuring at this point that they were walking into an ambush.

A call over the radio confirmed that the pilots had been safely recovered, so the rescue mission was now a recovery; they would be recovering the bodies of the 3 dead crew members. As Rossman moved over to Poncho’s team, all hell was being unleashed as they unloaded on the Somali positions with everything they had. The other team was covering their six at an intersection just 50 meters away as Archibald suppressed the enemy positions, exercising good fire control. As abruptly as it started, the firing stopped. Having shot high, which was pretty typical, the Somalis hadn’t managed to inflict any casualties on the group.

As SSG Rossman began to move toward the other fire team which had secured the intersection, their M-60 opened up when a Somali had come into the intersection firing an AK-47. He took cover until the firing subsided, which coincided with that team’s M-60 jamming, making a sound “you hope you never hear in combat”. After moving to Carr’s position in the intersection, he used his leatherman pliers to help Carr free up the machine gun. Once the machine gun was again operational, Carr again returned fire, this time quickly silencing a sniper.

By the time the sun began to come up, Rossman was able to make out the rotor of the downed black hawk, noticing that it looked as though it was “surgically removed”. They were beginning to run low on ammo, having consumed about 50% of their basic M-60 load, and fearing the crash site was booby trapped, they initially stayed clear of the wreckage. In the center of their perimeter was a mosque; as their initial orders were to keep everyone away, they now had to adjust to civilians heading into the mosque for morning prayer. Rossman and his men redistributed ammo and Rossman secured another few hundred rounds of 7.62mm for the machine guns.

Then a call over the radio came for Rossman to bring a poncho to the crash site; the crew chief had been located. After getting a sitrep from his fire teams and learning that Carr’s team reported only kids in front of their position, Rossman headed toward wreckage.

When he got to the wreckage, SFC Ed Ricord asked Rossman for his pliers before then reaching in and removing a dog tag from the deceased; SGT Ferdinand C. Richardson. As SFC Ricord instructed SSG Rossman on recovery procedures, the thing that stuck in Rossman’s mind the most were SFC Ricord’s instruction telling him “Above all, treat him with respect”. During the recovery, those words echoed repeatedly through Rossman’s mind. Treat him with respect. Even in death, maybe even especially in death, we respect and honor each other as soldiers. For the dead, the ultimate sacrifice has been laid upon the altar; their fight now over. As the recovery continued for the remaining crew members, the crash site again began taking more and more fire, rounds striking the wall just above the helicopter.

As Rossman moved to gather SITREP’s (situation reports) from his fire teams, he could hear SGT Boult yell out as he returned fire.

“RPG! RPG!” Boult yelled as his team began suppressing a partially opened doorway in which stood an approximately 12-year-old boy with an RPG.

The boy fired, but fired short. Though Rossman reported that he was unaware of the boy’s fate, Poncho confirms that he had been killed.

Now, as Poncho had feared, the group began taking heavy fire at their 10 and 1 o’clock positions, with the 1 o’clock being the most vulnerable. To their 1 o’clock, a 3 story building erupted with fire coming from each floor, causing the squad to return 40mm grenades in volume into the building, while the squad machine guns ripped each floor apart. Archibald yelled out that he was running low on ammo as the cobra gunships tore through the buildings around them in an attempt to cover the soldiers exposed on the ground. Rossman was able to secure another 200 rounds from 1SG Doody just as several more explosions ripped around Poncho’s Humvee.

Poncho saw Archibald retrieving something from the Humvee. Believing his gunner needed his help, Poncho got up to assist him. As Rossman got to the site, several explosions rocked the group as they took a volley of several more RPG’s, followed by automatic gunfire. As Rossman got to the team, Poncho fell back into the street, seemingly unconscious. Rossman yelled for Poncho, believing that the explosions had knocked him unconscious, but to no avail.

As Rossman grabbed Poncho, he noticed a small one-inch hole in the left side of his neck. At first, there was no blood. Within a few seconds, the wound began pulsating, covering Rossman with Poncho’s blood as Rossman immediately yelled for medic. The blood was shooting out waist high and Rossman tried his best to stop the bleeding. After several more minutes and no medic arriving to dress Poncho’s wounds, Rossman continued to save Poncho as best he could, using Poncho’s field dressing to apply pressure to the wound.

One of the FO’s (Forward Observers) SPC Gregg Long exposed himself to heavy fire as he ran to retrieve a medic for Poncho.

As SFC Ed Ricord, a Special Forces Medic with 5th SFG, arrived at their position, Poncho was again conscious and able to speak.

“What do we have here? You picked a fine place to try and lay down.” SFC Ricord calmly said to the pair.

“I think need to get the fuck out of here…” Poncho replied as he choked on his own blood from the wound in his neck.

“We’re working on it buddy.” SFC Ricord calmly replied as he took over treating Poncho’s wound from SSG Rossman.

As Rossman started to re-assess the situation of the rest of his squad, Archibald yelled out that he had been hit. SGT Boult pulled Archibald out of the turret where he had been manning the machine gun which was now conspicuously silenced. Rossman noticed a bullet hole that had ripped through the windshield of the Humvee and had initially thought Archibald had been gut-shot, but it turned out to be his thigh.

“The only thing harder than self-pity is facing your own wounded soldiers.” – SFC (Ret) Olin Rossman

SFC Ricord worked frantically to save Poncho’s life as the fight raged on. The skill of a Special Forces medic is second to none, and in the heat of the battle, they can perform surgery on a patient. Eventually Ricord was able to pinch of the artery in Poncho’s neck enough to drastically slow the bleeding.

Rossman jumped into the turret to man the M-60, finding it difficult to operate with his hands slick with the blood of his soldiers. From the waist down he was soaked in blood, and his hands and wrists were as well. As the battle raged on, 1SG Doody and Rossman coordinated several more 40mm strikes at a sniper position, using HE and CS rounds. The gunships also took seveal passes ripping through the enemy positions in the surrounding buildings.

As the fight raged on, 2-14 was also completely engaged in the fight, as RPG after RPG ripped into the perimeter with nonstop machine gun fire. SGT Reid was struck with an RPG, blowing off one of his hands and a leg, blinding him in one eye, and leaving him covered with shrapnel wounds.

After pulling the mangled, charred Black Hawk apart by using a vehicle, and recovering the remains of the crew, the order would soon come to withdraw.

————————————————————–

 

“TO THE TOP!!!”

Copyright© 2014 by Steve Slane / Bravo Charles and Behind The Gun

 

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