To many Americans, the words “Black Hawk Down” refer to a 1993 battle in Somalia, recaptured in a film based on the book by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden.
An earlier UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter loss is important to the Army’s history. It happened during Operation Desert Storm.
On Feb. 27, 1991, U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf were mobilized for a hoped-for rescue of Air Force Capt. William F. Andrews, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot who was shot down and parachuted into an area infested with Iraqi Republican Guard troops.
In an interview after the war, Andrews said it “probably would have been difficult,” for anyone to rescue him since he was “almost immediately surrounded by bad guys.” Despite a broken leg, he did escape for a few minutes only to be recaptured. At gunpoint from Iraqi soldiers, Andrews used his survival radio to warn another F-16 pilot overhead of an Iraqi surface-to-air missile launch. His four words were “Missile launch! Break, break!” They are credited with saving an A-10 pilot overhead – and they resulted in an award of the Air Force Cross to Andrews.
Officers interviewed after the war describe confusion in deciding whether to try to rescue Andrews. A senior officer later said he authorized the attempt, while rescue experts at a lower level counseled against it. Against this advice, a decision was made to launch an Army Black Hawk of the 2nd Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Four Philip Garvey and using the radio callsign Bengal 15.
An article in the Aug. 20, 2001 U.S. News & World Report describes pilot Garvey receiving a last-minute radio call before taking off. “Do you have Doc Cornum on board?” someone asked Garvey. Maj. Rhonda Cornum was flight surgeon for the battalion and quickly joined others aboard the helicopter as it took off and lifted skyward.
“This was the real thing, combat search and rescue,” Cornum wrote later in her autobiography, She Went to War, co-authored with Peter Copeland. “My heart beat faster and my stomach tightened. This was it. We were doing it for real.”
American fighter pilots in the area were warning that a rescue wasn’t possible. “The Black Hawk crew went in without a map and without intelligence,” said Darrel Whitcomb, an author, analyst and retired Air Force Reserve colonel.
Small-caliber weapons firing green tracers hit the Black Hawk. Over the radio, someone warned Garvey: “Don’t put the rotor in the ground, Phil!” Instead, veering sideways so its 53-foot, 8-inch diameter would slam into the ground, Bengal 15 flew straight into a berm at a speed of 130 knots, buckled, and flipped over.
An AH-64 Apache pilot following the Black Hawk reported that the aircraft had exploded in a fireball upon impact and that the crew was presumed dead.
Iraqi troops surrounded the helicopter almost immediately.
Killed in the crash were Garvey, Chief Warrant Officer Three Robert Godfrey, Sgt. 1st Class William Butts, Staff Sgt. Patbouvier Ortiz, and Sgt. Roger Brelinski. Seriously injured and taken prisoner were Cornum, Staff Sgt. Daniel Stamaris, and Specialist Four Troy Dunlap.
Cornum was one of two women held prisoner during Operation Desert Storm. She later wrote of being abused in captivity.
Some press reports identified her incorrectly as an Army helicopter pilot. She sustained the most serious injuries of the trio and was kept alive in part because of help from Dunlap.
Cornum had only been severely injured, but her first thought was that she might be dead. “When I looked up and saw four or five Iraqi soldiers standing over me … carrying AK-47s,” Cornum recalled, she knew she had survived. Still, she had two broken arms, a bullet wound to her shoulder, and several other injuries. Iraqi troops quickly took her prisoner along with the two other Black Hawk survivors.
In an interview, Cornum acknowledged that she was sexually assaulted in captivity. It happened in the back of an Iraqi Army truck bumping along a desert road in the dark. An Iraqi soldier wiped Cornum’s muddy, bloodied hair away from her face and attempted to kiss her. After pulling a blanket over the two of them, the Iraqi began unzipping Cornum’s flight suit.
At five foot six and 115 pounds and severely wounded, Cornum had few options for fighting back. She knew that at any time her assailant could strike her and break more bones. She resisted quietly but screamed with pain when the Iraqi touched her injured arms. Cornum said her main worry was that Dunlap, the American sergeant with her, might try to defend her and be shot. “Other than that, [the sexual assault] didn’t make a big impression on me,” she said in an interview with Time Magazine. “You’re supposed to look at this as a fate worse than death. Having faced both, I can tell you it’s not. Getting molested was not the biggest deal of my life.”
Most observers give the Black Hawk crew credit for great heroism. They were not merely willing, but eager, to go into harm’s way when an American was down and needed help. Still, experts say that in rescue work the most difficult decision often is the one not to attempt a save. Bengal 15 was launched on a mission that was flawed, but its crew performed nobly.
Iraq released prisoners of war in March 1991, shortly after the Persian Gulf fighting ended – among them, Cornum, Stamaris, Dunlap, and Andrews.
Today, Cornum is a brigadier general in the Pentagon. She is one of the few female soldiers to be awarded the Purple Heart, and the only female general officer in any branch of the Armed Forces to be a recipient.
F-16 pilot Andrews retired from the Air Force as a colonel in June 2010.