- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2005

It was all over by 5:30 a.m. April 3, 2003. Lt. Col. Ernest P. “Rock” Marcone’s Task Force 3-69th Armor had defeated three Iraqi brigades and captured the key bridge over the Euphrates 20 miles south of Baghdad known as Objective Peach. At the tip of the 3rd Infantry Division’s spear pointing towards victory, they had what its leader called “the best armor mission in the world — lead the attack, blow a big hole in the enemy’s defenses, get the rest of the division and V Corps in position to finish off Baghdad.”

Seizing that objective, the Al Kaed (Leader) Bridge, defined the decisive battle. Four hundred meters long with concrete columns that could easily support a 70-ton Abrams tank, it had to be captured. As Rock Marcone put it: “You never cross the river, you can’t win.” Because it was so vital, the Iraqis deployed the Medina Division’s 10th Brigade, an armored brigade, and a Special Republican Guard commando brigade to defend it. In his book “American Soldier,” Gen. Tommy Franks tells of an intercepted message from the Medina Division’s general to his brigade commanders. “The message was simple — and frightening: ‘Blood, blood, blood.’” And the general commanding all Republican Guard units in the area ordered the bridge demolished before American forces could cross it.

On April 1, nine days and 350 miles after Lt. Col. Marcone’s task force had roared across the berm into Iraq, they were in position to assault the objective. A and C Companies, 3rd-69th Armor along with B and C Companies, 3rd and 2nd Battalions, 7th Infantry, and A Company, 11th Engineer Battalion, supported by artillery and attack aviation, had battled past a 250-foot escarpment, taken the Al Kifle bridge and fought through an apocalyptic two-day sandstorm. Now they faced the dangerous Karbala Gap, where vehicles were channeled through an 1,800-meter-wide strip and where chemical weapons were expected to be used. To divert and disperse Iraqi units in the area, V Corps ordered five simultaneous attacks. The strategy worked. Deployed in a “power dive” formation, Lt. Col. Marcone’s 1,100-man force charged through the chemical-weapons-free Gap, meeting and overcoming moderate enemy resistance.

The decisive battle began at 11:30 a.m. April 2. Lt. Col. Marcone sent his scouts ahead to reconnoiter. Three miles down the road they encountered Iraqi forces and came under mortar fire. Maneuvering away from it, they called in artillery and air support as Capt. Chuck O’Brien’s A Company tanks executed a flanking attack, three platoons abreast. An hour and 15 minutes later they had routed the enemy and the rest of the task force fell in behind them into another power dive formation. Nearing the bridge, A Company was firing at targets at distances ranging from 10 to 1,000 meters away, some of them truck-borne rocket-propelled-grenade teams. During this fight, Staff Sgt. Steve Smith’s tank was hit by an RPG that severed hydraulic power and filled the turret with smoke. He and his crew kept fighting, cranking the turret manually. Iraqis began moving through tall grass for the kill. They never had a chance as company tanks laid down lethal protective fire. When their missions were completed that day, A Company had been in combat for six straight hours.

Captain Dan Hibner’s engineers, protected by 3-7th infantrymen, had the dangerous daylight job of motoring out beneath the bridge in 15-foot boats to locate and cut the demolition wires. To give them some cover, Lt. Col. Marcone ordered a smoke platoon forward. The occluding pall they generated was augmented by artillery smoke rounds. At this point, Iraqis detonated their charges. Only a few exploded, damaging the northern span, leaving three lanes open. The bold engineers persevered and soon rendered the bridge safe.

At 4:30 that afternoon Capt. Jared Robbins’ C Company tanks and Capt. Todd Kelly’s 2-7th infantrymen charged across the bridge. Muddy terrain forced C Company into a hasty arc-shaped defensive position for the expected enemy counter-attack. At 11:30 the Iraqis started coming. What became known as the Battle of Charlie 6, lasting until 2:30 a.m., had begun. It was the biggest tank-mechanized engagement of the war. With their 120-mm main guns, thermal sights and combat-tested crews, the Abrams tanks, supported by artillery and attack aviation, proved to be deadly in the night. In the aftermath, over 20 armored vehicles had been destroyed. Over 600 Iraqis had been killed in action.

The rest of task force had since secured the near side and then crossed the Al Kaed bridge, engaging and defeating 3 enemy brigades. It was indeed “blood, blood, blood,” and it all belonged to the Iraqis.

Summing up the victory, Lt. Col. Marcone compared it to the achievements of Maj. Gen. “Tiger Jack” Wood’s famed 4th Armored Division of World War II:

“We fought 3 major battles, defeated 7 enemy brigades and sustained only 3 killed KIA and 60 wounded total. The task force’s accomplishments were historic in proportion. It was given more responsibility, covered more ground, fought more battles, accounted for more enemy formations destroyed and took fewer casualties than any other task force in the theater. We were a ‘perfect storm’ of men and machines combined into an unbeatable force.”

John B. Dwyer is a military historian, author and Vietnam veteran, 1/69th Armor and 1/14th Infantry, 1968-69.

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