The Battle of Takur Ghar
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 24, 2002 The battle on an Afghan mountaintop called Takur Ghar is a story of American courage and bravery. It is a story of a small band of highly trained professionals overcoming the fog and friction of war. It is also at heart, a story of Americans service members' unwillingness to leave one of their own behind.
The battle featured special operations forces from all three services. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers and pilots and Air Force combat controllers and pararescuemen fought against entrenched al Qaeda fighters atop a 10,000-foot mountain.
According to an executive summary of the battle, Takur Ghar was the most intense firefight American special operators have been involved in since 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.
U.S. commanders of Operation Anaconda wanted to insert special operators on the crest of the mountain. They reasoned the area would serve as a great observation point. "Unfortunately, the enemy thought so too," the battle report stated. Al Qaeda had fighters perfectly positioned to fire on helicopters and troops operating in the valley below.
An MH-47E helicopter with the call sign "Razor 03" was to airlift SEALs and an Air Force combat controller to the mountaintop. As it neared landing, it took intense enemy fire. A rocket-propelled grenade struck the aircraft and machine-gun fire severed hydraulic and oil lines aboard it. The pilot immediately applied power to get out of the area. Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, a Navy SEAL, slipped on the fluid and fell five to 10 feet onto the snow below the aircraft.
The helicopter flew out of the area and crash-landed about seven kilometers away. Roberts was alone atop the mountain. "Based on forensic evidence subsequently gathered from the scene, we believe Roberts survived the short fall from the helicopter, likely activated his signaling device, and engaged the enemy with his squad automatic weapon. He was mortally wounded by gunfire as the (enemy) closed in on him," the report said.
Another helicopter "Razor 04" picked up the SEALs and Air Force TSgt. John Chapman a combat controller and went in to save Roberts. The helicopter took fire but was able to deliver the team. The SEALs and Chapman approached the last known area of Roberts, but were fired upon. As they maneuvered, they engaged the al Qaeda fighters and killed several. Chapman was killed and some of the SEALs were wounded.
The SEALs decided to disengage. An Air Force AC-130 gun ship provided covering fire as the SEALs moved down the mountain and requested immediate assistance.
The mission fell to the U.S. Army Ranger Quick Reaction Force based in Gardez. The 23-man team loaded onto two MH- 47E helicopters and headed to the area. Communications breakdowns, however, caused the Rangers to believe the SEALs were still atop the mountain, and that is where one helicopter went.
As the chopper came in, al Qaeda fighters shot it down with RPGs and heavy machine-gun fire. Door gunner Army Sgt. Phil Svitak was killed and both pilots wounded. The MH-47E crashed and all aboard struggled to get out. Sgt. Brad Crose and Cpl. Matt Commons survived the initial fire, but were killed as they exited the aircraft. Spc. Marc Anderson was hit and killed while still in the chopper.
Even with the confusion, the Rangers, the Chinook crewmen and Air Force combat controllers moved to attack the enemy. Once it became apparent that the al Qaeda force on the mountain was too numerous, the group called in close-air support. The combat controllers called in 500-pound bombs within 50 meters of the special operators position.
In the meantime, the other helicopter with the rest of the Quick Reaction Force landed at another location. The Rangers climbed the 2,000 feet up the mountain to the original position and converged with their comrades at the scene around 10:30 a.m.
The linked teams then assaulted the al Qaeda positions. "As the Air Force (combat controller) called in a last air strike on the enemy bunkers and with two machine-guns providing suppression fire, seven Rangers stormed the hill as quickly as they could in the knee-deep snow shooting and throwing grenades. Within minutes, the Rangers took the hill, killing multiple al Qaeda," the report said.
The Rangers and airmen consolidated their position. But al Qaeda on another ridgeline about 400 meters away fired on the team's makeshift aid station . Air Force Pararescueman Senior Airman Jason Cunnigham was hit and eventually died from his wounds.
The group stayed on the top of Takur Ghar until nightfall as commanders decided the area was too hot for another daylight rescue attempt.
Seven Americans died in the battle, and 11 were wounded.