The third of October, 1993, was a Sunday, a day off. The Rangers could do whatever they wanted. Sgt. Keni Thomas was writing a letter to his mom.
Earlier that day they had gotten a call, geared up, and gotten ready to go. Then they sat in the back of the helicopter with the rotors spinning, just to be told it was a no-go.
In Somalia just about two months, Thomas had found false alarms were common. And then there were the signature flights. “We did flights twice a day just to throw them off so they never knew when a real mission was coming,” Thomas said. “But every now and then you’d get the call – and they were pretty interesting – the instant mental transition you have to make from a point of realization to combat readiness and getting yourself in the mindset. It’s handled differently by everybody, but it’s a strange roller-coaster ride.”
Thomas was 23 then, and team leader of a small squad led by Sgt. Doug Boren, also an E-5 sergeant. Spc. Melvin Dejesus was just back from Ranger school, Pfc. Eric Suranski and Pfc. David Floyd completed the small unit. Their job going into Somalia was to be a blocking force. Other forces would clear the target building as they secured the perimeter.
“Basically it was a template contingency operation,” Thomas said. “Every time they would say: here is the target; here is where we’ll be going in; this is your corner, any questions? Let’s go.” Ranger squads were assigned the four corners of the perimeter, where they would be blocks of security for the assault team.
With such a template, very little planning had to go into each mission. As in football, the teams had a list of plays, both offensive and defensive, and were highly prepared for their game. Sometimes the means of exfilltration would vary – by helicopter, vehicles or maybe exfiltrating to a place. But those were just different alterations to the template – the actions were the same.
“These were the kind of things you would draw in the sand in a backyard football game,” Thomas said, “because we knew our job so well, it really came down to fundamentals – how well you prepared in advance equaled the outcome when you were faced with the moment.”
At about 3 p.m. they got the call.
Thomas looked at the letter to his mom and added a few more words: “Oh, we got a call. We had one this morning – it’s probably a false alarm.”
He and others went inside the hangar and this one was a “go.”
Doug Boren, the other squad leaders, and higher ranks gathered for the mission briefing. Thomas checked his men to make sure everybody had their assigned weapons and everything they carried into battle, fuze igniters and demolitions, the aid bag, extra ammo and grenades. He made sure everybody was squared away.
When the meeting broke, platoon leader Sgt. 1st Class Watson walked over to the squads. “He had a picture of the building; our point was the southeast corner; Chalk Three. Super Six-Six was the bird’s name,” Thomas said. Then switching to an animated pinched, southern voice, imitating Watson, he said, “He-ah’s the tah-get, he-ah’s the corner. We ‘ah goin’ in he-ah – any questions?”
They walked to the bird, jumped in, and didn’t wait very long before they got the “Go.” At 3:30 they were taking off. Soon the sprawling city of Mogadishu was beneath them. Foreign and exotic, it was carved like a checker board into friendly and enemy territories, neighborhoods and streets owned by rival gangs. Only these gangs were warlord chiefdoms who murdered and starved each other for control.
“The only thing different about the mission going in, was that it was in a particularly dangerous part of town. We’d already been told that,” Thomas said.
Considering the speed of the Black Hawks and the size of Mogadishu, the force wasn’t in the air very long. At about one minute from target, Watson got a call on his headset that observers had seen heavy weapons going into the building next to the target. The intensity of the game cranked up a notch.
Close to the target, Super Six Six reduced altitude to about 30 or 40 feet – treetop level – and the rotors whipped street dust in giant billows up into the cargo bay.
In the choking brown-out Thomas wondered how the pilots could possibly figure where they were going. He couldn’t see. Twice he was absolutely sure they were at their intersection, but they kept moving. He would have been wrong both times. He wondered if the pilots had some special instrument, but they didn’t. They just knew what they were doing.
Finally they threw or kicked the huge, braided, stretchy ropes into the brown-fogged air and hit them with precision and determination.
When they hit the ground, there was already gunfire – a little sooner than other missions. One of the other chalks was obviously on the ground and returning fire. “We had done this many times before, and on some missions there was gunfire, but it was sporadic,” Thomas said. The helicopter dust settled quickly as Rangers cleared the building looking for prisoners, and others blocked at the corners, returning fire to keep the area clear.
“At that time, we had one casualty to take back, Pfc. Todd Blackburn, who had fallen off the rope. He went back with about three Humvees,” Thomas said. “Then we waited. We got the prisoners out of the buildings, loaded them up on the five-ton vehicles, and drove them out of there.”
Waiting to be exfilled, the men heard that one of the five-tons coming to pick them up had been hit by an RPG. So they waited longer.
Overhead Black Hawk Super Six One flew in a circle, and was coming back over the target area.
From the myriad of dying buildings with dingy roofs a Somali launched an RPG into the sky.
Spc. Shawn Nelson saw the whole thing – the launch flash, the RPG trailing smoke as it raced toward the Black Hawk, the flash and thunder of the explosion when it hit the tail.
The Black Hawk began a slow spinning dance – unscrewing itself from the blue sky.
“It was weird watching this slow spinning turn,” Thomas said, “and the Black Hawk crashed off in the neighborhood, as if you were standing in your own neighborhood and watched him go over the trees somewhere.”
Chalk Four, led by Sgt. Matt Eversmann, got dropped a little north of the target a little too soon and was separated from Chalk Two, Lt. Di Tomasso and his men, including Nelson. Remembering the horror of the crash the previous week, when the Somalis had mutilated the crewmen, Nelson was begging to run to the crash site. He had done his best to protect Chalk Four, by firing at the backsides of Somalis between them. As Nelson begged, Di Tomasso received permission to go. Leaving a part of their troops in position, the Rangers ran to the crash site.
“And it was a good thing, too,” Thomas said. “They got there right as some of the guys were stumbling out of the helicopter. And you’ve seen the story where the little bird pilot landed his helicopter in the street.” He laughed, “It’s crazy – I saw it in the video. It’s insane how close he landed it, and then they jumped out and he held it down while the other pilot ran and pulled some of the wounded guys onto the skids and he took off with them. And that’s when Di Tomasso’s men got there – right in time to put up a tight perimeter around the helicopter.
“And when you see the video footage of it, it’s crazy to see how many people there were around there – because when you were on the ground, you didn’t see that many,” Thomas added. “It was kind of amazing that those guys were able to hold the crowd off as long as they did. Soon after that, the Search and Rescue (SAR) team roped in. When they hit the ground they helped fortify that position and then probably within three to four minutes the rest of us got there. So it was pretty quick – but it sure seemed a long time before we were able to get moving. It seemed like an eternity before they gave us the go-ahead to move to the crash site.
The remaining chalks ran in a line down the street, with Thomas and his squad bringing up the rear. They ran about three blocks directly east from the target building, and turned left to go another few blocks toward that helicopter crash. When they made the left, everything bogged down.
“The level of fire got really intense – coming from every direction at that point – and people started getting hit. We were jammed into a one-or two-block area with a lot of fire coming from all directions,” Thomas said.
“There were a lot of alleys, and there’s no way to plan for something like that – that’s where your basic skills, your preparation came into play. I tell this to everyone,” Thomas said. “The reason we didn’t lose more people that day was because of how well trained we were and the increased level of training that we did every day in the sand dunes. We fired so many live rounds, and we fired every weapons system available, 203s and pistols and shotguns. Firing became second nature; we just got very good at what we did. It came down to our basic infantry skills, you know? We just were so good at it, that even in the face of the numbers [of enemy] we were up against, the training got us through.”
Chalk Three set up another blocking position to the south of that corridor.
Unbelievably, it was only an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes from the beginning of the mission.
The soldiers held those positions until night began to fall and commanders made the decision to pull inside to a casualty collection point. Once it started getting dark Thomas and his men shuttled all the guys in their area through a little hole in a wall and met up with a lot of other guys, many wounded.
“My group moved another couple of buildings down to try and link up with the rest of the company. We were all spread out in a couple of different casualty collection points in different buildings and the commanders wanted us to consolidate everybody; but they weren’t sure where everybody was.
“I told Sgt. 1st Class Watson I knew where everybody was, ‘cause I’d been moving up and down the line a lot – and knew where most of them were,” Thomas said. “So they sent our squad a couple of buildings further down.”
Throughout the night there was sporadic gunfire. “If you poked your head out, shots would hit. And they would fire RPGs at us every now and then,” Thomas said. “But the helicopters made runs all night and kept everybody away from us. They could see people moving on our positions, and flew tirelessly – keeping us alive.
“In the morning, the 10th Mountain got there and put up a really big perimeter. That’s when there was surprisingly very little gunfire, and I remember some rockets exploding. Then it was time to go – when they finally got all of the casualties loaded on the Malaysian vehicles and took off.”
There weren’t enough vehicles to ferry everyone, so a lot of soldiers had to go out on foot. That was one of the times Thomas got most nervous. He hadn’t noticed a fear factor before that, because he was able to concentrate on doing his job and anticipated things that needed to be done.
“But the next morning when we were running out, it kind of got a little, you know, border-line panic,” Thomas said. “When your situation borders on panic, it’s the level of training and leadership that takes over, and that’s what saves the day.
“We had great, outstanding leadership at every level, especially the young guys, the team leaders and the squad leaders. They were able to keep their men together and keep them doing the right thing,” Thomas said.
“In the morning when we were running out, a couple of guys got hit, and so we loaded them, and they took off. A sergeant major made the call with about 30 of us left. He said if there are no more rides coming we’re moving on foot. So we started moving out.”
At that point the Rangers had gone half of the two mile distance. Before long, more Malaysian troops came up behind them in white UN vehicles. “We jammed about 18 guys into a nine-person vehicle. And I remember everybody lying on top of each other.
“That was the only time I got scared – when I was in somebody else’s hands, in a foreign vehicle where I couldn’t see out, I couldn’t shoot out, and it stopped,” Thomas said. “And you are just sitting there. All I could imagine was all the people that I’d been firing at all night, thinking that they are all aiming RPGs at us right now.
“But we didn’t know where we were in the town. We were probably in a safer place than we imagined,” Thomas reasoned. “But the old guys up in the gun turrets were just firing away. So we could just picture what was out there – when really there was nothing. They were just firing to clear the road. We don’t fire unless we see a target, so we thought there were masses of people out there.
“So inside this vehicle it was not fun,” Thomas added.
“When we finally got back to the stadium, we piled out. I remember jumping out, and my legs were long-gone – asleep from people piled on them, so I just fell over on the ground, and someone asked, ‘Are you all right?’ Oh, its just my legs.”
Daylight in the stadium shown down on a gruesome site. The many dead and wounded were separated into groups. Friends searched for each other and burst into tears or laughter. Others sat numbed by it all.
“There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t, at some point in the day, think about being in that battle,” Thomas said. “And it just makes me more grateful for the men that were to my left and my right. You know, we basically fought to bring each other home, to get each other back. And that’s the thing that sticks with me now. I’m grateful to the guys – and especially the ones that I am still friends with – that we are still here.
“I could go on for hours telling you stories of different guys and what they did, but it basically came down to good men trained very well – doing what they needed to do – and doing it for each other.”
Editor’s Note: This article was first published in A Tribute to Special Operations by our late friend and colleague Barbara Hall, a great person and exceptionally talented writer who died two years after it first saw print.