Remembering the 3rd Infantry Division's Thunder Runs
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 18, 2004 The "Thunder Runs" of the war in Iraq seemed to come from nowhere. One day the fighting was far to the south, and seemingly the next, soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division were liberating Baghdad.
The Thunder Runs were the audacious answer to charges that American forces were stuck in a quagmire in Iraq.
Army Col. David Perkins commanded the 2nd Brigade of the "Rock of the Marne" Division. There were two armor battalions the 1st Battalion, 64th Armor and 4th Battalion, 64th Armor and an infantry battalion the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry in the brigade.
Perkins, now with the Joint Staff here, said the unit got the assignment April 4. The first Thunder Run was a battalion-sized raid up from the south, through downtown Baghdad to link up with the 3rd Infantry Division's 1st Brigade at the international airport.
"We were fighting the Medina Division and completing their destruction," Perkins said. The other two battalions were attacking of the Iraqi division.
The Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the battalion moved into Baghdad April 5 and encountered a "pretty dense gauntlet of fire," the colonel said. They found that the Iraqis had heavily defended the roads, because they knew the U.S. soldiers were coming.
The Iraqi forces' strongpoints were the overpasses. Under them, the Iraqis placed tanks and armored personnel carriers. This prevented observation from above. For their counterattacks, the Iraqis placed dismounted infantry in bunkers and fighting positions on and around the on ramps and off ramps of the highways.
Perkins said that in the fight up to Baghdad, the unit found momentum was the key. Once U.S. soldiers broke through the defenses, the Iraqis could not reorient well. Still, breaking through the defenses was tough for his soldiers, Perkins said. They faced a "hail of fire," and it was immediately apparent that thin-skinned resupply vehicles could not survive.
The first Thunder Run encountered very heavy fighting, Perkins said. "We had one (killed in action) and a number of casualties two serious," he said. "There (were) a lot of heroic activities." An anti-tank missile disabled one tank, and the crew still under fire went out to put the fire out and save their tank. The fire extinguishers ran out, and they poured water from five- gallon cans to finish putting out the fire. The tank commander climbed on top of the vehicle and saw a rocket-propelled grenade team working toward the vehicle. He pulled his 9-mm pistol and engaged the enemy, Perkins said.
The battalion successfully completed the raid. They went through downtown Baghdad and out the western side, linking up with the 1st Brigade. Saddam Hussein's spokesman said the Iraqis had defeated the American probe into Baghdad. At the airport, a reporter came up to Perkins and said the BBC reporters in the city had not seen the Americans. "My initial flippant response was 'Well, I was in the city and I didn't see the BBC, so maybe they weren't there,'" Perkins said.
"We captured an Iraqi brigadier general in the raid," he said. "He was completely surprised there were American tanks in the city. He believed their propaganda that the Americans were a hundred miles south, dying by the thousands. All of a sudden he's coming to work and there is a tank battalion rolling down the center of Baghdad."
It became apparent to Perkins that the propaganda being put out by Saddam's regime was giving the Iraqis a false sense of security and emboldening them to continue to fight. "What I really took away from it was maybe there was a psychological benefit to be gained by making sure people knew exactly who was controlling the city, that the war was over," Perkins said.
On April 6, the brigade was ordered to conduct a second Thunder Run into Baghdad. "As we looked at the situation and plans and what happened to us on the 5th, to go in and stay in would be of much more tactical and strategic significance than going in and coming out," Perkins said. "We began the plan at the brigade level to attack into the city and stay in the city."
But staying would mean resupply. It would mean that the thin-skinned fuel and ammunition vehicles would have to enter the city. Perkins figured that the American tanks could operate for about 10 hours before refueling. He would have to make the decision on the operation after four hours, as to whether it would be successful. "What I did not want to do was attack into the city and get cut off and end up with a Mogadishu, Somalia, situation," Perkins said.
U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force personnel were ambushed in Mogadishu in October 1993. The bloody firefight left 18 dead and 84 wounded.
The Thunder Run would require the whole brigade. Perkins said the two armor battalions would lead and punch on through to the center of the city. "The idea was not to stop for anything," Perkins said. "Don't stop to attack strongpoints. Don't stop for disabled vehicles. Just go."
The 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry would come up behind and take the three overpasses the Iraqis had fortified. In typical American humor, those objectives were named Moe, Larry and Curley.
The brigade attacked, and as the two tank battalions got into the city they attacked down two avenues. The 4th Battalion, 64th Armor went down the river and took the palaces. The 1st Battalion, 64th Armor went into the city and took the parade field and ministry buildings. "Essentially, we had two tank battalions attacking abreast through downtown," he said.
But securing the supply line was difficult. Between 300 and 500 enemy soldiers attacked infantrymen at Objective Curley. Perkins had only two platoons as a reserve. He committed them.
Still, no supplies were getting through, and it was decision time. The infantry battalion commander said he thought he could secure the area. Perkins took tanks, put them at strategic locations, and then shut the engines down. "We needed to do it to save fuel," he said.
At Objective Moe, the unit was "black" on ammo that meant they had about an hour's worth of ammunition left.
In the midst of this, an enemy missile landed in the center of the brigade's tactical operations center. "It left a crater 10 feet wide, 10 feet deep," Perkins said. Five people were killed and 20 were wounded many seriously. The tactical operations center lost its communications, and the assault command post up in Baghdad took over the air and artillery support mission.
Resupply vehicles moved up to Objective Curley and were ambushed. Two soldiers were killed and some vehicles were lost. "Between Hour 4 and 6, what you have is two tank battalions in the city with the engines shut down, on the highway the group is almost out of ammo, the brigade TOC has been destroyed, and my lead resupply package has been destroyed," Perkins said.
But determination from bottom to top made it work. "Got what was left of the ammunition and fuel resupply and drove them through blazing infernos to get ammo up to the northern guy," he said.
The young privates and specialists drove in the northbound lanes. On the overpasses, American soldiers laid down a wall of fire in the left-hand lanes to keep Iraqi soldiers away from the fuel- and ammunition-packed vehicles. "They were driving up the highway while friendly forces (were) firing back down the passing lane," Perkins said. "And they are driving aluminum-skinned bombs."
After the initial ambush every vehicle made it through, and the tankers and infantrymen received their ammunition, food and fuel.
Perkins said there were huge challenges that everyone worked through. "Everyone had this unbelievable focus and sense that we're going to make this happen," Perkins said. "Because in our minds, if we can stay in the city, the war is over."
That night, the force countered localized counterattacks. On April 8, the force defeated a major counterattack. On April 9, the soldiers defeated an assault across the Tigris River. "Later on the 9th was when the Marines came up and we linked with them at the bridge," Perkins said. "That was the end of the organized resistance."