Battle for Afghanistan's Gambir Jungle: 1st Platoon's 'last stand'

By the end of Day 1 of Operation Hammer Down, 1st Platoon needed help. But when reinforcements arrived, they found they had more than enough of their own troubles.

Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 32nd infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division take cover near Shigal village in Kunar Province in eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 7, 2009.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

[To read the previous installment of this series, please click here.]

Operation Hammer Down had begun in the hours before midnight of June 24 as an operation to flush insurgents out of terrorist training camps in the remote valleys of eastern Afghanistan. Now, in the full light of Sunday, June 25, it was clear that B Company's 1st Platoon was, in the words of one soldier, being "rocked."

From a ridge some 500 yards away, the soldiers from B Company's 3rd Platoon, also a part of Operation Hammer Down, could see the battle raging between the 1st and the Taliban.

It was clear the enemy were experienced fighters. "They were using our tactics against us, basically," says Staff Sgt. Christopher Panter of the 3rd. "And they know our rules of engagement probably better than we do."

When US aircraft sped down the valley in an effort to fire on enemy positions, "You'd see a lot of females getting up on the buildings, waving fighters in to hide them," Panter says. "It's hard to see that. You can watch eight fighters pile into a building, but you know there are women and children in there so you can't do anything about it."

As the 3rd watched from a distance, 1st Platoon soldiers who could were rallying to a safe house they had established, creating a strong point for the unit in a nearby mud-walled house called a kulat. It was "a 'last stand' kind of thing," as one soldier describes it.

From then on, says Sgt. Elwyn Lovelace of the 1st, "We just kind of focused on keeping ourselves alive."

Meanwhile, in the gulch, injured Staff Sgt. Nigel Kelly and the soldiers of the 1st working to save him remained vulnerable, with Taliban fighters all around. "At one point when we were down in there we could hear them above us," says Spc. Derrick Dickerson. "All they had to do was lean over and spray, and we'd be done."

Kelly urged the soldiers to just leave him behind. "He told us that while we were playing dead. He told us that it wasn't worth us getting hurt," says Dickerson.

Dickerson and the others did not heed his suggestion. Slowly, as darkness fell, he and the other soldiers pulled Kelly up the gulch and to the rooftop of the kulat that had become the strong point in hopes of having him airlifted to safety.

A medevac chopper, under cover of night, came at last. For five minutes, it hovered above Kelly and the other soldiers. "But it wouldn't land," Dickerson says. The area was too dangerous. "Once it left, probably about 10 minutes after that, [Kelly] died."

Barring the 'back door'

By that night, senior commanders overseeing Operation Hammer Down had made a decision. They would not pull the plug. Instead, the 1st Platoon would hold the strong point and wait to be relieved by a new unit: Havoc Company.

Just as the soldiers of the 1st had done the night before, Havoc Company was to land on a 10,000-foot ridgeline and move some 4,000 feet down the mountain before sunrise. But by the early hours of Sunday, June 26, it was clear to commanders that Havoc would be forced to dig in and fight its own battle.

First, Havoc's Chinook crashed, and medics began calling for an alarming number of casualty evacuations, says Pfc. John Litwinczuk. Of the 57 troops from Havoc Company on the mission, 13 were injured during the hard landing and flown out in the hours before dawn.

Then, at first light, the 44 US soldiers left felt the brunt of the insurgents' first salvo. A rocket-propelled grenade hit with "a big huge boom," Litwinczuk recalls. His intuition told him there was some strategy to the enemy barrages. "I think they were trying to gauge where we were and where our guns were – because the next attack was huge."

Havoc Company, commanders were rapidly realizing, had been dropped in the middle of a key insurgent transit route. "We knew it was a route," says Lt. Col. Colin Tuley, commander of the 2nd Battalion. "But we didn't know it was the route."

As night fell, intercepted radio intelligence backed up that assessment. The chatter indicated that insurgents were getting reinforcements from a neighboring province and were planning to attack again at daybreak.

Havoc soldiers were ordered to fortify their fighting positions.

This was not an easy proposition, as they dug into the stone-cold ridge where snow had only recently receded. "That ground was rock hard," says Litwinczuk. "Me and my buddy went around grabbing up big rocks. We built a three-foot-high wall, and we put tree [limbs] around," he says. "Those trees saved our lives."

As the temperature dropped, soldiers stripped the helicopter for anything that would keep them warm. They tore the lining from the ceiling of the downed Chinook and wrapped themselves in it. Troops who brought extra socks used them on their hands and arms. Others wrapped bandages around their necks to keep out the cold. Everyone dispensed with modesty to sleep as close together as possible.

"We were spooning," Litwinczuk adds. "Everyone was spooning."

As the soldiers of Havoc Company sought what rest they could, a fresh plan was taking shape. A new unit would come to the aid of the stricken 1st Platoon – if it could arrive before daybreak.

To see a video of the battle recorded by Sergeant Lovelace working with the 1st Platoon, click here.

The battle for the Gambir Jungle:

Part 1, Tuesday: Soldiers' tales of an epic battle

Part 2, Wednesday: Into the 'Valley of Death'

Part 3, Thursday: First Platoon's 'last stand'

Part 4, Friday: A race against daybreak

Part 5, Saturday: What was it all for?

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