A Proud Legacy
Continues: The Fighting 5th Marines
by LtCol Ronald J. Brown, USMC(Ret)
A common refrain at the 1st Marine Division (1st MarDiv) processing
center at Da Nang in 1969 was, If you want action, join the 5th
Marines! That statement was certainly true in Vietnam, but it
also applied equally for Operation IRAQI FREEDOM
(OIF) more than three decades later. Each Marine Corps infantry regiment
has a glorious and unique heritage. What makes the 5th Marines special
is that its regimental colors are adorned with the most battle honors.
The 5th Marines was initially formed as a temporary floating Caribbean
intervention force in 1914. Since that time the fighting 5th Marines
has seen combat service in every clime and place. The muddy
trenches of France, the steamy jungles of Nicaragua, the fire-swept
beaches of the Pacific, the frozen hills of Korea, the rice paddies
of Vietnam, and the desert sands of the Persian Gulf are all familiar
to the regiment. In fact, the 5th Marines has been involved in more
combat action in the past century than any other similar-sized military
unit in the world. The regiment has a proud legacy.
The assault would occur in the Iraqi III Corps zone of responsibility
where the 6th Tank Division and the 51st Mechanized Division occupied
the Ar Rumaylah oilfields and shielded Basra. Eventually the 5th Marines
would face the vaunted Republican Guard in and around Baghdad, but the
way north would be blocked by a variety of irregular forcesill-trained
but well-armed local militia controlled by Baath Party extremists,
fanatical Saddam Fedayeen fighters, and jihadist volunteers from an
assortment of nearby countries. The Iraqi Army and the Republican Guard
presented the most serious conventional military threat, but the irregulars
were expected to mount some spirited local resistance. It was hoped
that the enemy might be cowed by the promised shock and awe of the opening
rounds of the allied offensive or that they might quit if Saddam was
killed or captured early in the campaign. Unfortunately, neither happened.
The initial objective was an important one. Iraqi oilfields were a
key asset for a successful postwar recovery. Coalition planners feared
Saddam might sabotage his own oil wells to keep them out of coalition
hands. Thus, the opening gambit called for speedy seizure
of the oilfields and their infrastructure. This vital mission was given
to I MEF. The 5th Marines was to seize and secure oilfields located
near Rumaylah and then be relieved in place to continue its attack.
For the drive north, RCT5 would advance up a four-lane highway
before swinging east toward the Tigris River until the 1st MarDiv reunited
to push into the red zone that encompassed Baghdad and its suburbs.
Then, after all objectives had been secured, the Marines would either
occupy assigned security sectors or conduct follow-on combat operations.
This journey of more than 1,000 kilometers was potentially the longest
combat advance by U.S. Marine forces in history, and it would be spearheaded
by the 5th Marines.
On the morning of 20 March, Col Dunford was notified that the attack
would begin as scheduled. The 1st LAR stepped up its counterreconnaissance
activities and screened the final efforts of Marine engineers to prepare
the breach sites. Two breaches with three lanes each were carefully
prepared, but the electronic fence along the border was left intact
until the eve of the invasion. This activity suddenly accelerated after
the division commander pointedly asked Col Dunford, How fast can
RCT5 be ready to move? The regimental commander quickly
replied, Within 4 hours. The trigger for this unexpected
request was information that Iraqi demolition teams were preparing to
light off the oilfields. Suddenly, and without warning, the whole timetable
for the I MEF assault on Iraq moved forward by 9 hours.
Into the Oilfields
The Move North
The Weather Pause
On 27 March, RCT5 resumed its advance to seize Hantush Airfield,
which was actually just a straightaway in the road wide and long enough
to serve as a C130 landing strip. This objective was critical
because the regiment was running short of fuel, food, and ammunition.
The Marines had been conducting operations in an austere logistical
environment dubbed log lite whereby no excess equipment
or supplies were carried, so timely aerial and overland resupply operations
were necessary to continue the attack. The airfield was taken by 2/5
after a brief fight with Iraqi mechanized forces. At that time, however,
the Marine advance was overtaken by events. The Marines were not the
only ones on short rations. The U.S. Army V Corps was also hampered
by lack of supplies and deteriorating weather as well. The Marines were
prepared to push on, but the V Corps situation was bad enough that the
coalition land force commander (LTG David D. McKiernan, USA) ordered
all coalition forces to halt. For the 5th Marines, this meant giving
up Hantush Airfield and pulling back south of the cloverleaf at Diwaniyah
where Highway 1 intersected Route 17. This pause lasted from 28 to 30
March, but the Marines were not idle during that time. Continual combat
patrols sought out enemy forces. There were several firefights, and
a massive enemy ammunition resupply point was uncovered by elements
of 2/5 just east of Diwaniyah.
On 31 March RCT5 retook Hantush Airfield after a day-long fight
with Iraqi Army units. The airfield soon thereafter began landing C130
cargo planes and became an advanced rapid resupply point. Concurrently,
the I MEF main attack sped along Route 27 to seize a bridge over the
Saddam Canal. MajGen Mattis had originally planned this movement for
3 April, but that timeline was moved forward several times until it
was compressed into 4 hours rather than 3 days. Once again the 5th Marines
was attacking way ahead of schedule. The 1st Battalion cleared enemy
from both sides of the canal to allow the 8th Engineer Support Battalion
to erect several bridge crossing points in the dusk of 1 April.
The Race to Baghdad
The attack continued on 3 April. The 2d Tank Battalion engaged enemy
along Highway 6 as 3/5 approached the town of Al Aziziyah. Enemy tanks,
armored personnel carriers, and mechanized infantry of the Al Nida Republican
Guard Division held the town. Marine tanks led the way and provided
suppressive fire as Marine Cobra gunships, Harrier jump jets, and Hornet
attack jets buzzed overhead. Dismounted Marine infantrymen, covered
by the 20mm guns of their supporting AAVs, slowly cleared the roadstead
and several troublesome palm groves. Previously most fights ended after
a brief exchange of fire in which the Iraqis inevitably got roughed
up and fled. This time, however, the Republican Guard put up prolonged
resistance. After each firefight ended every nook and cranny along the
road had to be painstakingly searched and cleared to keep them from
becoming potential ambush sites. The back of Iraqi resistance was broken
by dusk, and the 3d Battalion began clearing Aziziyah block by block
that evening. This was the most significant battle between the Marines
and conventional enemy forces of the war to that point. True to predictions,
resistance was getting stiffer as the Marines neared Baghdad.
On 4 April RCT5 took on the jihadists, self-styled freedom fighters
from other countries sent to defend Saddams regime. Several hundred
of them, reinforced by remnants of the Al Nida Division, engaged 2d
Tanks in the vicinity of 61 Easting, a battle named for
its map coordinates. Numerous Marine vehicles were hit, and two tanks
were knocked out by fierce enemy fire that lasted until silenced by
a 3/5 infantry assault that required 8 hours of unrelenting fightingthe
longest sustained firefight of the campaign. Close air support and the
artillery fire of 2/11 were crucial. During the destruction of the jihadists,
a well-stocked terrorist training center was captured, and an Iraqi
corps commander was killed.
The next 2 days were devoted to aggressive reconnaissance patrols looking
for a place to cross the Diyala River that curved around Baghdads
northeastern suburbs. No suitable sites were discovered, but elements
of 2/11 were attacked by Iraqi armored vehicles, that were then destroyed
by AT4 fire from Weapons Company, 1/5.
The next day RCT5 once again led the division main effort. The
1st Battalion was tasked to secure al-Azimiyah Palace. En route, LtCol
Padilla learned he was also to search some possible prisoner of war
holding sites and clear Imam Abu Hanifah Mosque. This entailed running
a gauntlet of fire through RPG alley. The attacking Marines
were subjected to unrelenting barrages of grenade, machinegun, and small
arms fire as they moved into Saddam City. The battalion commander noted,
There was a Baathist, fedayeen, or jihadist around every
corner and on every side street with an RPG, AK47, or PK [Pulemyot
Kalashnikova] machinegun. The Marines responded with their own
suppressive fires and called on U.S. Air Force A10 and Marine
F/A18 aircraft that dropped bombs and strafed enemy positions
with good effect. Alpha Company was sent to secure the mosque, Bravo
Company took the palace, and Charlie Company searched several suspicious
buildings looking for American prisoners or Baath Party leaders.
The confused nature of this urban fighting offered good insight into
modern warfare. At one moment the Marines were ducking incoming fire,
and the next they were accepting accolades from newly liberated celebrants.
OIF was that kind of a conflictthe three block war
so often espoused by former Commandant Charles C. Krulak. On the first
block the Marines might be fighting well-armed and well-trained conventional
enemy forces, on the second block they would be rooting out guerrilla
fighters trying to blend in with the population, and on the third block
they would be delivering humanitarian aid and restoring civil services.
After a night marked by continual harassment, RCT5 pushed out
patrols to secure northwest Baghdad. In general, the people responded
with a warm welcome. Some even showed the Marines where to find hidden
arms or identified Baathist Party members. Numerous arms and ammunition
caches were uncovered. Company G, 2/5, routed an enemy company-sized
formation west of the city on 12 April. Not long thereafter the fighting
died down to only a few isolated incidents. At that point the city was
considered secure enough to release the 5th Marines for follow-on operations.
On to Tikrit
>Editors Note: This article
covers regimental action through October 2003. The regiment has since
returned during 2004 and has performed admirably in Al Anbar Province.
>>LtCol Brown is also the author of A Few Good Men: A History of the Fighting 5th Marines (Presidio Press, 2003). He is retired and lives in Novi, MI.