Daring and Dangerous: the Army’s ‘Thunder Run’ to Oust Saddam Hussein in 2003

Washington Post photo by William Branigin
The view from an M88 armored vehicle that was part of a U.S. Army convoy driving into Baghdad on April 7, 2003, during decisive battles to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Even the chaplain picked up a gun.

Fearing their position was about to be overrun, U.S. Army medics, mechanics, drivers and staff officers also joined the fight. Alongside outnumbered infantrymen and gunners, they became “trigger pullers” in a battle to hold a key interchange on the main highway into the heart of Baghdad.

On that morning of April 7, 2003, two battalions of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles from the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade had staged the second “thunder run” of the Iraq War, blasting their way into the exclusive “regime zone” on the west bank of the Tigris River and capturing two of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. It was a bold strike aimed at ending Hussein’s nearly three-decade grip on power – weeks, if not months, sooner than expected and without the protracted urban combat that Army planners dreaded.

But to succeed, U.S. soldiers had to secure Highway 8 from the south into the Iraqi capital, the vital supply line that would allow the strike force to remain in place. Key to that challenge was occupying three intersections – dubbed by Army planners in a lighter moment as Objectives Moe, Larry and Curly, after the Three Stooges.

Eighteen days after the invasion began on March 20, 2003, the battalion assigned to hold that supply line, Task Force 3-15, drove up the highway under an ocher haze from an early-morning sandstorm. Soon, it was locked in pitched battles at all three interchanges.

Twenty years ago, as a Washington Post reporter embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, I watched the battle for Objective Curly unfold from an M88 armored recovery vehicle positioned under an overpass that carried the Dawrah Expressway over Highway 8.

The fighting steadily intensified as Hussein loyalists converged on the interchange. By the afternoon, the American tanks and Bradleys farther north began to run low on fuel and ammunition.

The mission to capture the capital and topple the Iraqi dictator hung in the balance.

This is the story of the invasion mainly as experienced by the unit I accompanied on the drive to Baghdad – Bravo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment (a.k.a. Task Force 3-15), of the 3rd ID’s 2nd Brigade. The division brought a storied record to the campaign. Its 15th Regiment spent 26 years in China in the early 1900s, giving TF 3-15 its nickname, the China Battalion.

Roughly 600 reporters covered the invasion as “embeds” with various military units, and a few hundred more, dubbed “unilaterals,” moved around independently. At least 16 from both groups died, four of them embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division. They included Michael Kelly, 46, an Atlantic magazine editor and Post columnist, and David Bloom, 39, an NBC correspondent.

The M88 was used mainly for towing and repairing tanks and Bradleys. But the 56-ton behemoth sat higher than other vehicles, and I had access to the rear hatch, enabling me to write stories on the move and transmit them by sticking the magnetic antenna of my Iridium satellite phone onto the armor on top.

By March 2003, the 2nd Brigade had already spent six months in the Kuwaiti desert, training rigorously and conducting live-fire exercises. For the soldiers, the road home went through Baghdad. They wanted to topple Hussein, who had survived the 1991 Persian Gulf War, so that American troops would not have to keep coming back. Little did they know that years of additional deployments lay ahead in a war that would become increasingly unpopular as it dragged on. (The U.S. combat mission in Iraq did not formally end until December 2021, and more than 2,000 troops are still there in an advisory role.)

After a relatively brief aerial bombardment of Baghdad, the 3rd ID launched the ground invasion under a full moon the night of March 20, its roughly 20,000 soldiers, 200 tanks and nearly 7,000 other vehicles rumbling in miles-long columns across a six-mile-wide patch of no man’s land between Kuwait and Iraq. They poured through breaches in earthen berms, tank ditches, fences and electrified razor wire and traversed a mine field cleared by Army engineers.

In Bravo Company, gunners were startled by what looked like an array of Iraqi armor lying in wait. But it turned out to be the carcasses of tanks and other vehicles destroyed during the Gulf War. Also spotted on thermal sights was a formation initially thought to be enemy soldiers on foot; actually, it was a herd of wild camels plodding across the desert. That prompted banter over the radio about whether the camels could be considered hostile.

“They spit at you,” one soldier said. “I know that for a fact.”

As the troops of the 2nd Brigade barreled north in two main columns – dubbed Rock ‘n’ Roll and Heavy Metal – before converging on March 22 at a refueling point about halfway to Baghdad, the main foes seemed to be sandstorms and fatigue. The brigade had little trouble fighting off attempted ambushes by Iraqi militiamen and soldiers in pickup trucks and armored vehicles.

By then, the division had covered 240 miles from Kuwait in two days. Commanders said it was the fastest, farthest and largest advance by an armored invasion force in history.

But it left soldiers exhausted, forcing a pause. When the advance resumed after a bad sandstorm, an explosives-laden taxi driven by an Iraqi soldier detonated at a checkpoint near Najaf, killing four 3rd ID soldiers. It was the first such suicide attack of the war – Hussein’s government warned that the tactic would become “routine” – and it profoundly worried the Bravo Company commander, Capt. Ronny Johnson.

Two days later, he watched with growing alarm as an old Land Rover sped toward his unit at an intersection with Highway 9 in central Iraq.

Johnson, 37, an imposing 6-foot-4 combat veteran who had risen from the enlisted ranks, ordered a Bradley platoon leader to fire a warning shot.

“Stop f—ing around!” he yelled over the radio when nothing happened. Then: “Stop him! . . . Stop him!” One or more of the Bradleys fired about a half-dozen 25mm cannon rounds at the vehicle.

“Cease fire!” Johnson ordered. Peering through binoculars, he roared at the platoon leader, “You just f—ing killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!”

Sixteen people were crammed into the vehicle. Ten of them, including five young children, were killed on the spot, and a badly wounded man died later in an Army field hospital.

The tragedy cast a pall over the battalion as it headed north past the twinkling lights of Karbala, a city about 65 miles southwest of the capital that is sacred to Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslims. A long column of armored vehicles and supply trucks had to pass through the Karbala Gap, the Army’s name for a strip of land between Lake Razzaza and Karbala.

“That’s where everyone thought we were going to die,” Johnson recalled later. But numerous fighting positions dug into both sides of the route lay abandoned.

The force then turned east and crossed the Euphrates River for an expected clash with Iraqi forces guarding the southern approaches to Baghdad: the vaunted Medina Division of the elite Republican Guard.

By the time the 2nd Brigade reached the Euphrates, though, the Medina Division had been effectively annihilated by U.S. airstrikes and rocket barrages.

Johnson, a former Army Ranger who had parachuted into Panama during the 1989 invasion and fought in the Gulf War, professed to mixed feelings about the lack of action. “I have no wish to get shot,” he said, “but when you plan and rehearse for something . . .” His voice trailed off.

Closing in on Baghdad the next day, the division’s 1st Brigade seized the international airport west of the city after heavy fighting, while the 2nd Brigade set up its command center near the intersection of Highways 1 and 8 about 11 miles south of downtown.

Col. David Perkins, 45, the 2nd Brigade commander, launched his first thunder run on April 5 – a tank-led foray into the city and west to the airport. It came under fire the whole way but emphatically disproved the regime’s claims that the Americans were incapable of entering the capital and were being obliterated far from it by Iraqi forces.

Now the U.S. Military Academy graduate saw a way to end the war quickly. The original plan for capturing Baghdad called for the 3rd ID to stop outside the capital and for airborne troops to begin clearing it block by block. That would be time-consuming, would allow the depleted Iraqi forces to regroup and would cost more American lives, Perkins felt. He received permission from higher-ups for a second thunder run – a drive into Baghdad’s center of power, later to become known as the Green Zone.

Washington Post photo by William Branigin
An M1A1 Abrams tank waits out a sandstorm on March 26, 2003, during a pause in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Whether the U.S. troops could hold the supply route to it and stay through the night was essentially left up to Perkins, who was on his first combat deployment. At dawn on April 7, he sent his brigade’s 1st and 4th battalions of the 64th Armor Regiment to capture Hussein’s palace complex and other installations at a bend in the Tigris River. Most of Lt. Col. Stephen Twitty’s China Battalion of mechanized infantry followed, assigned to hold Objectives Moe, Larry and Curly.

Hanging over the operation was the specter of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, where U.S. Special Operations troops were cut off by hundreds of armed rebels in fierce street fighting. Eighteen Americans were killed in that 1993 debacle, which was portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”

The two tank-heavy battalions initially encountered little resistance as they followed the thunder run route. But the three interchanges soon came under ferocious attack.

For many of the soldiers, it was their first real taste of combat. Now they were facing thousands of Iraqis and foreign Islamist mercenaries, mainly Syrians, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, antiaircraft guns mounted on rooftops and assorted suicide vehicles packed with explosives.

These were the pivotal battles of the invasion, none of them more precarious than the combat at Objective Curly, the southernmost of the interchanges. There, the Hussein loyalists had dug trenches leading into the cloverleaf from neighborhoods and bunkers on either side of the highway. They used them to launch wave after wave of attacks, often suicidal, as other fighters fired rifles and RPGs from nearby buildings.

The Hussein loyalists belonged to disparate groups: Republican Guard remnants; members of the ruling Baath Party’s militia, known as Saddam’s Fedayeen; and some of an estimated 5,000 foreign Islamist. They showed little sign of coordination or tactics, but they wielded a seemingly inexhaustible supply of AK-47s and RPGs.

Objective Curly was initially defended by a “pickup team,” as Perkins described it, a crew thrown together at the last minute under the command of Capt. Harry “Zan” Hornbuckle, a 29-year-old assistant battalion operations officer with no prior combat experience. His “Team Zan” totaled about 70 men – including one infantry platoon – with four Bradleys and various other vehicles, one of them a combat earthmover.

But no tanks.

Apparently noticing the lack of armor, the regime loyalists concentrated attacks on the cloverleaf. It began to look like the kind of battle that the battalion’s command sergeant major, Robert Gallagher, dreaded most. The 40-year-old former Army Ranger had been wounded in three places in the “Black Hawk Down” battle in Mogadishu 10 years earlier and still set off metal detectors.

At Curly, he was hit again. But he kept firing his M4 rifle as Hornbuckle bandaged a shrapnel wound in his leg. “Here we go again,” he remembered thinking.

The captain ran under fire between his soldiers’ positions to buck them up, shooting one attacker who emerged from a trench.

Alarmed by the intensity of the onslaught, Capt. Steve Hommel, 41, the battalion chaplain, picked up a wounded soldier’s M16 and joined the fight. A former combat infantryman, he fired at muzzle flashes in the trenches and a nearby building, but didn’t know whether he had hit anybody, he said later.

“I thought, we just can’t get overrun,” the Baptist minister said. “Surrendering to those guys is just not something we can do.” He later received a reprimand of sorts from the chaplain corps, but also a Bronze Star for his service.

Twitty, a 39-year-old Gulf War veteran who was directing his own fierce fight at Objective Larry, worried that Curly would fall, jeopardizing the whole mission. He ordered Johnson, his Bravo Company commander, to rush to the intersection with reinforcements from a position farther south.

As the fighting escalated, medics lay on top of wounded soldiers to shield them from bullets and shrapnel. Capt. Erik Schobitz, 30, an Army doctor from Northern Virginia, worked on wounded American and enemy combatants alike at a makeshift aid station under the overpass, sustaining a shrapnel wound in the process.

A wounded soldier, Pfc. Christopher Nauman, 19, held his shotgun across his chest as medics carried him from the trench line on a stretcher. A fallen fighter near a pillar suddenly rose and reached for an AK-47. Nauman dropped him with his shotgun from close range.

One medic, Pfc. Russell Dahl, 21, fired his Beretta M9 sidearm at an attacker near the aid station. “When you do a confirmed kill with a 9 millimeter, they’re too damn close,” he said later. “It got to the point, ‘Well, God, it’s been a good life.’ That’s how bad it was.”

The M88 I was in pulled up to the forward edge of the overpass. It was commanded by Staff Sgt. David Fields, 38, a burly former hockey player from Missouri who joined the Army out of high school and became a mechanic. Pvt. Luke Tate, the 28-year-old assistant mechanic on the vehicle, used binoculars to scour a building about 400 yards ahead for attackers. He called out targets to Fields, who opened fire with the M88’s .50-caliber machine gun, showering me with hot brass shell casings in the hatch behind him.

“Muzzle flashes in the window!” Tate shouted. Then, a short time later: “RPG on the roof! RPG on the roof!”

The soldiers poured 25mm cannon, machine gun and antitank fire at targets in the four- and five-story buildings overlooking the interchange, but the incoming rounds continued. Officers decided to call in “danger-close” artillery fire from Paladin 155mm howitzers several miles to the rear. One round hit within the cloverleaf about 50 yards in front of the M88, slightly injuring two soldiers, and the artillery support was called off.

At one point, an RPG hit the edge of the overpass above the M88, peppering Fields with bits of concrete and shrapnel.

The Bravo Company reinforcements helped clear trenches, killing or capturing dozens of fighters. Johnson, fearing that some of those surrendering could be suicide bombers wearing explosives, shouted to his men over the radio: “Make ’em strip! I want these guys butt-ass naked!” Most of the captives were allowed to keep their underwear on, but some soldiers took the order literally.

Eventually, 30 surrendered, all but two of them Syrians. One wounded man offered a medic a thick wad of Iraqi dinars for treating him. When the offer was refused, he ceremoniously tore up the bills while denouncing the Iraqi leader pictured on them.

“This bitch is almost over,” said Pvt. Damon Winneshiek, the M88 driver and a former blackjack dealer at his Native American tribe’s casino in Wisconsin. “These guys are going to have to give up soon.”

At Moe and Larry, the China Battalion’s Abrams tanks and Bradleys were running dangerously low on ammunition as they fought off relentless waves of suicide bombers and other attackers. Twitty ordered a resupply convoy of fuel tankers and ammunition trucks, accompanied by some Humvees and personnel carriers, to make the risky run up Highway 8 from a rear area. Direct hits from RPG fire killed Staff Sgt. Robert Stever, 36, and Sgt. 1st Class John Marshall, 50, as they stood in the turrets of their vehicles. A 27-year-old staff sergeant, Lincoln Hollinsaid, was killed later en route to Curly.

More friendly fire hit the intersection. Bradleys to the south destroyed two Special Forces Toyota pickup trucks parked inside the cloverleaf, apparently mistaking them for enemy vehicles of the same type.

As the convoy arrived at Curly, an RPG fired by the Hussein loyalists hit an ammunition truck, igniting a chain reaction of blasts from its cargo. Another ammo truck and a fuel tanker exploded, turning the junction into an inferno. Black smoke billowed into the sky as soldiers took cover from the exploding rounds.

In one of many acts of valor that day, Staff Sgt. Joe Todd ran over from his own vehicle and tried to move a burning ammo truck but could not get it started. Sgt. Andrew Johnson, a member of the resupply convoy, also jumped into a fueler that was about to catch fire and tried to move it. Other drivers followed their lead and drove vehicles away from the blazes at great risk. Ultimately, three ammunition trucks and two fuel tankers went up in flames, explosions and smoke. But the rest of the 21 resupply trucks survived.

The convoy, along with Hornbuckle’s team and Johnson’s reinforcements, moved out as another battalion, the 2-7 Infantry, arrived to occupy Curly. Small-arms fire pinged off the M88 and other vehicles heading north. RPGs flew, one of them clanking off the M113 armored personnel carrier of the company’s 1st sergeant just ahead. A dud.

The convoy reached Larry, Moe and the tank battalions in the palace area, ensuring that Perkins and his force could remain in place. Fewer than 1,000 troops – the armored spearhead of Perkins’s 4,000-strong brigade – had forced Hussein to flee. With U.S. Marines taking control east of the Tigris, his regime collapsed two days later.

In addition to the three Americans killed in action, nearly 40 were wounded at Curly in eight hours of fighting, nine of whom required medical evacuation. Nine others were wounded at Larry and Moe. The Hussein loyalists lost hundreds killed and scores of vehicles destroyed, U.S. commanders said.

But the U.S. soldiers’ heroic actions – as well as the sheer military accomplishment of the invasion that culminated in the stunning thrust into Baghdad – were soon overshadowed, at least in the public’s eye, by popular revulsion toward a war that eventually claimed the lives of more than 4,500 Americans and at least 186,000 Iraqi civilians.

Despite an intensive search, the United States never found the purported “weapons of mass destruction” that formed President George W. Bush’s main rationale for invading. And his administration’s failure to plan for and properly implement the occupation phase of the campaign contributed to the growth of an insurgency that ensnared U.S. troops and inflicted casualties long after combat was supposed to be over. Another rationale, deposing a brutal dictator, also came to be viewed as insufficient justification for going to war.

“The thunder run was an example of what happens when the leadership is really good,” said Peter Kilner, an ethics instructor at the U.S. Military Academy who participated in an Army study of the invasion. The downside was that “the rest of the Army was totally unprepared for the fall of Baghdad.” It happened so fast that “we caught ourselves off guard.” As the occupation foundered and the insurgency grew, he said, “people weren’t proud of the war,” making it harder for the public to celebrate the troops’ achievements.

For the soldiers involved in the thunder run, however, “that point never comes up,” said Perkins, who retired in 2018 as a four-star general. “What they really focus on is the accomplishment of that day. And they focus on the courage and heroism of their fellow soldiers.”

Washington Post photo by William Branigin
A soldier mans an Mk19 grenade launcher atop a Humvee during the battle for a Baghdad intersection, dubbed “Objective Curly,” on April 7, 2003. In the background are two Special Forces pickups before they were destroyed by friendly fire.