The last full measure of devotion
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published January 25, 2004
April 4, 10:30 a.m.
The GIs in the courtyard and the Iraqis outside had traded gunfire for half an hour. The Bradley fired away, and the battle raged on. Spc. Billy McConnell couldn't believe it when he saw the Bradley back out of the courtyard.
"The dumb sonofabitch," the 27-year-old thought. "Why is he pulling out?"
Without the Bradley, the Americans were in deep trouble. Enemy soldiers held the tower and still fired from it directly into the courtyard. And other Iraqis still fought from ditches about 100 yards to the west and north of the courtyard, launching rocket-propelled grenades and mortars over the walls.
The most powerful American weapon left was the .50-caliber machine gun atop an M113 armored personnel carrier. But the crew - Yetter, Berwald and Hill - had all been wounded. The gun was unmanned.
There was almost no American return fire. Some GIs had left the courtyard, others were helping evacuate Yetter and Berwald.
First Sgt. Campbell heard radio reports of wounded Americans. He ran into the courtyard and talked briefly with Smith. "We've got to kill that tower," Campbell said. Then he left to do just that.
Inside the courtyard, what to do next was up to Smith. He reasonably could have ordered everyone to safety through the hole in the wall and followed them out.
His commanding officer now believes Smith rejected that option thinking that if Iraqis overran the courtyard, they would jeopardize about 100 GIs outside. These included the infantry at the highway roadblock, the men of a mortar platoon, medics at an aid station and officers in a command center a few hundred yards down the road.
So Smith climbed on the 113. He tried to back it up, but the trailer kept jackknifing.
"Get me a driver," he yelled.
Pvt. Michael Seaman, 21, ran to help.
"Jump in," Smith said. Seaman backed the 113 to the middle of the courtyard.
Smith climbed into the gunner's hatch. He stood behind the big machine gun, the upper half of his body exposed, the lower half protected by the armored vehicle. He started blasting away.
"Keep me loaded," he shouted to Seaman. Whenever the 100-round ammunition belt that fed the machine gun was about to run out, Seaman reached down for another.
Whenever Smith stopped firing so Seaman could reload, fire from the Iraqis would pick up.
From the hole in the wall, Sgt. Keller could see Smith and waved for him to get out of the courtyard. Word had it that Bradleys were on their way.
Smith motioned back: "No."
"I knew why he wouldn't leave," Keller said. Without Smith's machine gun, "there was no firepower out there."
Keller took off running in search of the Bradley. He came across one up on the road, about 100 yards away, and confronted the men inside. "What are you doing? You need to be out there," Keller said.
The response from one of the Bradley crewmen - something like, "No, there's friendlies out there" - confused Keller.
He ran back to the courtyard, to a scene right out of Hollywood.
Smith was atop the 113 shooting toward the gate, over the wall, at the tower.
"He was firing, firing, firing - reloading - firing, firing, firing," said Sgt. Robert Nowack, 37. "It was like a director saying, "I want you to look intense."'
The sight reminded Pfc. Pace of To Hell and Back, the film about the WWII exploits of Army 2nd Lt. Audie Murphy, who climbed onto a burning tank, manned a .50-caliber machine gun and mowed down dozens of attacking Germans.
Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1945.
Seaman loaded the third can of ammo for Smith.
"Good job," Smith said, "now get down."
Seaman dropped into the belly of the 113 and looked through the periscope. All he could see was the wall. Smith's machine gun roared. Seaman stuck his fingers in his ears.
Meanwhile, 1st Sgt. Campbell had run outside the courtyard, grabbed three other GIs and set off along the outer wall of the courtyard toward the Iraqi-occupied tower.
Halfway there, Campbell realized Smith's machine gun had stopped firing. Campbell told the others to halt. Their job would be harder if Smith could not keep up fire on the Iraqis in the tower. Then the gun awakened - Seaman had finished a reload of Smith's .50 - and Campbell and the others continued.
Again the .50 went quiet.
By now, though, Campbell's team had reached the bottom of the tower. Inside, they saw Iraqis dressed in black, wearing berets. The GIs fired into the tower's narrow window. The Iraqis flopped around, blood spraying.
"It was everywhere," Campbell said.
Back in the 113, Seaman also wondered why Smith had stopped firing. He had plenty of ammo.
Then Smith's knees buckled. He slumped inside the vehicle, blood running down the front of his vest. An enemy bullet, probably from the tower, had hit him in the head.
Seaman lifted himself out of the driver's hatch. Tears streaked his blackened cheeks.
"I told him we should just leave," Seaman mumbled. "I told him we should leave."
Pvt. Gary Evans, 28, ran up to help. He jumped on the 113, grabbing the machine gun's hot barrel "like a dumb-ass." Heat seared his hand. Smith would have ripped him good for doing something that stupid.
Evans was pretty sure Smith was dead. But he spoke to him anyway as he drove the 113 out of the courtyard. "You're going to be all right. You'll be okay."
Just outside the courtyard, the 113 stalled. Some men pulled Smith out the back, put him on a stretcher and carried him 75 yards to the aid station.
It was 11 a.m., about an hour since the Iraqis were first spotted.
Campbell's team had taken out the tower. Smith's machine gun had stifled any Iraqi advance on the courtyard. Enemy fire petered out.
The battle for the courtyard was over.
Campbell joined the soldiers tending Smith.
"I need somebody on him quick," Campbell said as he approached the medics. No one responded. Campbell smacked one on the helmet.
"If you don't take care of this guy right now," he said, "he's going to die."
The aid station smelled like rotten meat, from some dying Iraqis brought there earlier. Medics stuck a tube down Smith's throat. Blood flowed from the tube and splattered on the ground. Doctors and medics took turns giving him CPR.
"We got him, we got him," a medic said, feeling a pulse. "We gotta get him out of here." Someone called for a helicopter.
"Don't give up. Come on, you can do this," another medic exhorted Smith.
From his stretcher, Berwald watched their efforts. "What happened to Smith?" he asked. No one replied.
Then a female medic holding Smith's IV bag set it down and walked away. She lit a cigarette.
|The aid station just outside the courtyard is littered with medical supplies after the courtyard battle.
[Photo: courtesy Harry DeLauter ]
It was dark by the time Sgts. Lincoln Hollinsaid and Derek Pelletier collected Smith's gear. They turned on his laptop and found letters he had written to Birgit and to his parents. They had never been mailed.
"Oh, my God, I found Sgt. Smith's death letter," said Hollinsaid, 27, who saw Smith as a role model.
"Who's going to send this?" Pelletier wondered.
Back in Hinesville, it was afternoon. Birgit sat down to write a letter.
First I want to say that I love you so very much. I hope you are doing fine. It must be very hard for you over there . . .
I always say to myself no news from you is Good news. I hope I am right.
About 11:15 that very night, the doorbell awakened Birgit. She got up, walked to the door and looked through the peephole. Two men in uniform.
"Mrs. Smith, we have bad news."
At 8 the next morning at a spot a few miles from the courtyard, the B Company engineers held a memorial service. In front of them stood a rifle, stuck bayonet-first in a dirt pile. A helmet rested on the stock. 1st Sgt. Campbell called the roll of platoon sergeants.
"Here, first sergeant."
"Here, first sergeant."
"Here, first sergeant."
"Sgt. 1st Class Paul Smith."
"Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith."
The company stood at attention. The soldiers fired a 21-rifle salute. No one had taps on CD, so they went with what they had, a bagpipe version of Amazing Grace.
That same day, April 5, Sgt. Keller asked Sgt. Hollinsaid, who had replaced Smith as head of the second platoon, why the Bradley left in the middle of the battle. Hollinsaid said he would look into it. But he died in combat two days later.
No one else raised the issue. No one knew where the Bradley came from. Younger soldiers thought it wasn't their place to ask questions.
In late August, while researching Smith's story, a St. Petersburg Times reporter tracked down the Bradley commander. He is Sgt. Michael Wilkins, a 13-year Army veteran from Westchester County outside New York City.
Wilkins said that after his Bradley pushed through the gate, he saw a group of Iraqis in the distance.
"They were charging toward the wall, shooting," he said. Wilkins fired his 25mm cannon and a light machine gun.
"I just started laying them down," he said. "I could have killed at least 25 guys, minimum."
Then a red "low ammo" light flashed on his console. Wilkins knew he needed to go to a safe location, since reloading a Bradley requires the crew to be outside the vehicle and the cannon to be tipped upward.
"With my gun in the air, I couldn't engage anything," Wilkins said. "It seemed like a good time to leave."
"I figured I would stay as long as I saw the enemy," Wilkins explained, "But at this time the situation was calm. . . ."
The situation was calm?
Spc. McConnell didn't think so. He had heard firing even as he watched the Bradley back out of the courtyard.
The recollections of other GIs differ. Some agree with McConnell. Others said there may have been a brief lull about the time the Bradley left.
"Not as heavy, but there still was fighting," Pvt. Seaman said.
Oddly, whether or not the soldiers in the courtyard could hear firing didn't affect Wilkins - because he probably couldn't hear it. Bradley crewmen wear helmets designed to keep out sound, so they can communicate by radio. And the Bradley is powered by a noisy diesel engine.
So Wilkins' perception of the battle was based primarily on what he could see, not what he could hear. And what he could see, in his words, were Iraqis "stretched out, blown to pieces."
The Army said the Bradley was forced to leave the courtyard because of repeated hits from rocket-propelled grenades. But Wilkins said he did not even know his vehicle had been hit until someone told him later.
Ten Americans were killed in action on April 4, five from the Army and five Marines. Army Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith was the only American to die in the fighting around the courtyard. His commanding officer believes he and his fellow soldiers killed as many as 50 Iraqis there.
The courtyard itself had little military importance. But the American position there secured the eastern flank for the U.S. forces occupying the airport, and the airport was, in the words of one officer, "the gateway to the future of Iraq." The 3rd Infantry Division secured the airport on April 5.
Baghdad fell four days later.