The 150 marines with whom I traveled, Company B of the First Battalion, Eighth Marines, had it as tough as any unit in the fight. They moved through the city almost entirely on foot, into the heart of the resistance, rarely protected by tanks or troop carriers, working their way through Falluja's narrow streets with 75-pound packs on their backs.Read the whole thing.
In eight days of fighting, Company B took 36 casualties, including 6 dead, meaning that one in four of the company was either wounded or killed in little more than a week.
The sounds, sights and feel of the battle were as old as war itself, and as new as the Pentagon's latest weapons systems. The eerie pop from the cannon of the AC-130 gunship, prowling above the city, firing at guerrillas who were often only steps away from Americans on the ground. The weird buzz of the Dragon Eye pilotless airplane, hovering over the battlefield as its video cameras beamed real-time images back to the base.
The glow of the insurgents' flares, throwing daylight over a landscape to help them spot their targets: us.
The nervous shove of a marine scrambling for space along a brick wall as tracer rounds ricocheted above.
The silence between the ping of the shell leaving its mortar tube and the explosion when it strikes.
The screams of the marines when one of their comrades, Cpl. Jake Knospler, lost part of his jaw to a hand grenade.
"No, no, no!" the marines shouted as they dragged Corporal Knospler from the darkened house where the bomb went off. It was 2 a.m., the sky dark without a moon. "No, no, no!"
Nothing in the combat I saw even remotely resembled the scenes regularly flashed across movie screens, but often seemed no more real.
Mortar shells and rocket-propelled grenades began raining down on Company B the moment its men began piling out of their troop carries just outside of Falluja. The shells looked like Fourth of July rockets, sailing over the ridge ahead as if fired by children, exploding in a whoosh of sparks.
Whole buildings, minarets and human beings were vaporized in barrages of exploding shells. A man dressed in a white dishdasha crawled across a desolate field, reaching behind a gnarled plant to hide, when he collapsed before a burst of fire from an American tank.
Sometimes the casualties came in volleys, like bursts of machine-gun fire. On the first morning of battle, during a ferocious struggle for the Muhammadia Mosque, about 45 marines with Company B's Third Platoon dashed across 40th Street, right into interlocking streams of fire. By the time the platoon made it to the other side, five men lay bleeding in the street.
The marines rushed out to get them, as they would days later in the minaret, but it was too late for Sgt. Lonny D. Wells, who bled to death on the side of the road. One of the men who braved gunfire to pull in Sergeant Wells was Cpl. Nathan R. Anderson, who died three days later in an ambush.
Sergeant Wells's death dealt the Third Platoon a heavy blow; as a leader of one of its squads, he had written letters to the parents of its younger members, assuring them he would look over them during the tour in Iraq.
"He loved playing cards," Cpl. Gentian Marku recalled. "He knew all the probabilities."
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