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The Haditha Dam Seizure: The Taking of Objective Cobalt

Part 3

With the top of the dam now clear, 2nd/B moved to their blocking positions at the northeast end. About the same time, 3rd/C began to move down into Objective Cobalt, on the river level below the dam face. Led by Staff Sgt. Jesse Ragan, 3rd/C moved down a steep access road into the objective area. Running into a strong Iraqi blocking force, Capt. Brad Thompson ordered the platoon to regroup before renewing the assault. Ordering his 1st squad to lay down suppressive fire, the other two squads moved up and took a number of the guard force personnel prisoner. As the force moved forward, one GMV took a wrong turn and wound up getting badly shot up, with the driver wounded but still in action. As the GMV reversed direction, the gunner manning the Mk 19 40 mm automatic grenade launcher took a point-blank hit from an AK-47 as the vehicle escaped.

Relating the incident later, Cpl. John Gale (pseudonym) said, “I was facing forward when I felt this blow to my lower left back. Looking

Rangers move across the top of the dam. U.S. Army photo.

down I could see that I had been hit, but that the round had hit the “last chance” plate on the back of my body armor. Seeing that I had not been hurt, I got back onto my weapon and helped get us out of there. Later I found that the round had hit the plate around an inch up and in from the lower left corner, which was right over my left kidney. But for that, I would almost certainly be dead.”

The rest of 3rd/C continued to take heavy Iraqi fire from a pair of buildings, which would continue to be a problem for the next three days. The Rangers called in airstrikes, which hit the structures with a total of 20 bombs. The Iraqis, however, kept trying to get back to the dam. All day on April 1, groups of 50 to 100 Iraqi solders would form up in “human wave” attacks on 3rd/C, only to be beaten back by the two Ranger 120 mm mortar tubes, airstrikes, and accurate small arms fire. These attacks would continue to come every 30 minutes for the next two days.

Back up on top of the dam, 1st and 2nd/B were in their blocking positions and working on fortifying their various points of fire when the Iraqis facing them finally began to come to life. Ten Iraqi mortar tubes, along with dozens of machine guns and RPG launchers, opened up on the Rangers, sending them running for cover. Quickly regaining their composure, the Rangers returned fire and began to call in airstrikes to take out the mortar positions. It was a routine they would conduct many times over in the week ahead. Amazingly, none of the Rangers was hit. One particularly pesky mortar position, on an island about 2,000 yards behind the dam, was taken out with a Javelin anti-tank missile, along with a pair of 1,000-pound bombs. Later, the Iraqis tried to infiltrate some personnel near the bridge in a kayak and several small boats, which were promptly sunk.

Endurance: B Company Under Fire

Summary of all of the indirect fire engagements during the seven days at Haditha Dam. 75th Ranger Regiment photo.

Late on the April 1, Doyle was informed that the expected relief forces would be delayed, and he would have to “hold until relieved.” While clearly facing a tough job, Doyle was not without means to hold on. His lines of communication back to H-1 were open, he was getting regular replenishment of ammunition and other supplies, and his casualties and POWs were being promptly evacuated.

The real challenge was one of toughness and endurance, for as the sun set on April Fool’s Day 2003, he had no real idea when the 154 men in his force would be relieved. The biggest test of those Ranger qualities began late on April 2, when the first of over 350 Iraqi 155 mm artillery shells began to land around the dam complex. It was a barrage that would last almost 36 hours, and mixed with a steady stream of mortar shells, would strain the Rangers to the breaking point.

Combat stress trauma is hardly a new phenomenon. A side effect of extended exposure to enemy fire, especially artillery and mortars, it has the ability to disable even the most hardened veterans. By late on the evening of April 2, a number of Doyle’s Rangers were showing signs of the disorder, as shells fell steadily around their positions. Already tired from almost two weeks of continuous operations, and fully exposed to the elements and noise of the barrage, some of the young Rangers began to fall victim.

As one of them said later, “I remember just starting to ‘fold up,’ and fall in on myself. I think I just laid down in the corner of the position and stayed there for a while; how long I just don’t know. But then I began to fight my way back. I thought about the Ranger creed and all the other guys on the dam, and slowly started getting back in the fight. I’m not sure how long it took and how it happened, but I remember being back with my weapon and on the line sometime on the 3rd.”

Such mental toughness is almost impossible to comprehend, and one of the reasons, Doyle later said, “As the battle progressed, [the] Rangers showed why they are specially selected and that they are well trained. [My] Rangers learned that they could survive under constant enemy direct and indirect fire if they used their training and listened to their leaders. The pace of the combat was surprising. The days seemed to pass very quickly. We really gauged the passing of time by the consumption of our ammunition.”

Toughness aside, Doyle’s Rangers were also being proactive, helping beat back the Iraqi barrage. Since they did not have counterbattery radar, observers had to visually pick up mortar sites, observation posts, and artillery pieces one at a time, and guide airstrikes to take them out. While it took time, the Americans eventually wound up destroying 24 Iraqi mortars, 28 155 mm artillery pieces, and 23 AAA guns while on the dam. Twenty-nine tanks and three trucks also fell to the Ranger-directed airstrikes, along with 300 to 400 enemy killed by the time that they were relieved.

Hold Until Relieved

By the time that the Iraqi artillery and mortar barrage abated late on the April 3, Doyle and his men knew that they were in for a long

By April 6, 2003, reinforcements, including a brace of Abrams main battle tanks, began to arrive. U.S. Army photo.

stay. However, having steeled themselves through the barrage, none were interested in giving the facility back to the Iraqis. On April 5, no artillery was fired at the Rangers, and they began expand their perimeter from their original blocking positions. 3rd/C swept back down toward Objective Cobalt below the dam. When they took the two buildings where all the fire had come from on April 1, they found 12 large arms and ammunition storage rooms, along with an Iraqi command post complete with sand table map.

By April 6, despite an occasional 155 mm artillery round lobbed into their positions, the Rangers had expanded their perimeter several thousand yards downstream. Best of all, reinforcements, initially in the form of a pair of M1A1 Abrams tanks, finally began to arrive. 3rd/B also arrived, and the pressure finally began to ease. The Rangers even reached out to several local clerics, who helped calm the local populace.

By their eighth day on the dam, Doyle’s remaining 150 men were finally relieved and being transported back to H-1. While several of the four Ranger casualties had been serious, helicopters from the 160th SOAR (some flying in broad daylight) had successfully evacuated them back to safety. Combined with Company A’s seizure of the Ramadi Highway Bridge to the south, the Rangers had taken control of all the Euphrates River crossings of importance in western Iraq. Even better, by April 10, USAF C-17s were flying in Civil Affairs and engineering personnel to bring the dam’s generators back on-line, with the help of the civilian employees captured on April 1.

The dam after the battle. Rangers have put up their own welcome sign to follow-on forces. U.S. Army photo.

Today, the capture of the Haditha High Dam is one of the most impressive examples of direct action by SOF units ever executed. Like the seizure of Point du Hoc and Pegasus Bridge on D-Day, Haditha Dam was executed with thunderclap surprise and audacity worthy of those who came before and wore the title of “Ranger.” And like the Mogadishu firefight in 1993, Haditha Dam tested the best in the 154 men who rushed Objectives Lynx and Cobalt. They were outnumbered and outgunned, and still stayed in the fight. And when unbearable conditions forced some to fall into themselves, those same Rangers fought to get back into the fight and help win a dramatic victory. It’s hardly surprising that the 75th Rangers were awarded the Valorous Unit Award, along with five Purple Hearts, four Silver and 26 Bronze Stars, and 71 Army Commendation Medals for the Haditha Dam action.

Insurgents have tried many times to attack, seize, and/or destroy both the Haditha Dam and Ramadi Bridge. Nevertheless, power continues to be generated, and road traffic passes over the Euphrates River every day. They are hardly targets of “no significance.” While the hindsight of bystanders is always 20/20, the crucible of battle makes the situation at the moment of truth far less certain for those in the fight.

This is the concluding Part 3 of Hold Until Relieved: The Haditha Dam Seizure. This story was first published in its entirety in The Year in Special Operations; 2006 Edition.

Part 1: The Target

Part 2: Move to Contact

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...