Tanks in the Garden of Eden
Fort Knox Marines
Prove the Value of Armor in Urban Warfare
by Richard S. Lowry
Hidden within the Army's longtime home of mounted warfare at Fort Knox, is a
three-story building housing a small Marine contingent. The building is only
distinguishable by the Globe and Anchor displayed at the entrance. Building
6015 was the home of the United States Marine Corps' Alpha Company, 8th Tank
Alpha Company's Commander, Major Bill Peeples, was sitting at his planning
commission desk when the call came in early January of 2003. Within three short
days, his "weekend warriors" had notified their civilian employers, gotten
their affairs in order, packed up their every-day civilian lives and bid
farewell to family and friends. Virtually in the blink of an eye, the Marine
Reserve tankers of Alpha Company were driving through the night toward Camp
Lejeune. They would soon be the first to prove the usefulness of armor on the
21st Century urban battlefield.
Peeples' Marines arrived at Camp Lejeune in the early morning just as
Lieutenant Colonel Rickey Grabowski USMC was loading his 1st Battalion of the
2d Marine Regiment (1/2) onto ships that would carry them halfway around the
world. Peeples and his tankers had their work cut out for them. They collected
fourteen M1A1 tanks from what was left at 2d Tank Battalion, quickly inspected
the paperwork and moved their armored vehicles to Onslow Beach.
Navy hovercraft swam ashore from the waiting amphibious ships. The giant LCACs
(Landing Craft Air Cushioned) skimmed across the North Carolina waves and
literally flew up onto Onslow Beach. Peeples' tanks were squeezed onto each
craft and ferried out to the waiting ships, one at a time.
The Marines of Alpha Company were now part of Brigadier General Richard
Natonski's 2d Marine Expeditionary Brigade (2-MEB) and they were headed to
Iraq. They spent a month at sea and another month waiting in the Kuwaiti
Desert. Finally, in late March, they were ordered to lead Grabowski's
mechanized infantry battalion into Iraq. The 1st Battalion led Colonel Ron
Bailey's 2d Marine Regiment (Regimental Combat Team-2) across the border toward
his first major objective, the bridges of An Nasiriyah.
Staging in Kuwait
While 3rd Infantry Division's (3ID's) armored battalions led the charge to
Baghdad across the Arabian Desert, Alpha Company, 8th Tanks led the Marine
charge toward An Nasiriyah. Colonel Dan Allen's 3rd Brigade Combat Team (BCT)
reached the outskirts of An Nasiriyah first. They quickly secured Tallil
Airbase, southwest of the city, and then moved north a few kilometers to secure
the Highway 1 Bridge and the interchange with Iraq's older Highway 8. After
securing the intersection, 3ID's tanks raced west on Highway 8 toward the
Task Force Tarawa, 2-MEB, was ordered to move in and relieve Allen's soldiers
at the far western Euphrates River Bridge and to move up Highway 7 into eastern
Nasiriyah to secure a second route through the city. Marine commanders wanted
to advance toward Baghdad on both Highway 1 and Highway 7. Lieutenant Colonel
Paul "Brent" Dunahoe's 3d Battalion, 2d Marines (3/2) was ordered to the Far
Western Bridge on 22 March 2003. Grabowski's Marines were ordered up Highway 7.
1/2 was to secure the Eastern Bridges over the Euphrates River and the Saddam
Canal. Major Bill Peeples' Marine tank company led Grabowski's reinforced
mechanized battalion up Highway 7.
Everyone expected the Iraqis to fire a couple of shots, and then melt away into
the city. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Thousands of Iraqi
soldiers, thugs and fanatics were waiting to take their first stand in An
In the early predawn hours of March 23rd, a small Army convoy raced up Highway
7. and passed Grabowski's Marines. Captain Troy King led eighteen supply and
maintenance vehicles of the 507th Maintenance Company toward a sleeping lion.
King was lost. He thought he was on the Main Supply Route. Instead, he was
headed for the Eastern Euphrates River Bridge.
As the sun rose on a clear Sunday morning, King's soldiers drove over the
Euphrates River and into the center of An Nasiriyah. They continued north and
crossed the Saddam Canal. Soon, King realized that he was lost. He ordered his
soldiers to turn around. As they moved to retrace their path back through the
city, all hell broke loose.
The city had awoken and defenses had been manned. The Iraqis opened fire on the
doomed convoy well before they reached the Saddam Canal. The enemy fire
continued all the way back through the city, as King's vehicles were picked off
– one by one. Captain King managed to race south across the Saddam Canal,
through the city and over the Euphrates River. The lead three vehicles kept
An Nasiriyah was an armed camp
Major Bill Peeples' tanks were methodically advancing up Highway 7 when his men
saw a HMMWV racing south, tires blazing. It was Captain King and the lead three
vehicles of the 507th. Meanwhile, the next five vehicles in the beleaguered
convoy were shot up so badly that they couldn't continue. Ten soldiers took
refuge in a ditch along the side of the road. Five were wounded. They tended
each other's wounds and set a defensive perimeter, waiting to be overrun.
After speaking with King, Peeples bounded forward with a platoon of tanks and
several Marine AMTRACs (Amphibious Tractors). They easily beat back the
Iraqis who had been closing in on the stranded soldiers. All ten soldiers were
rescued, loaded into the tracks and quickly moved south. Unfortunately, none of
the remaining trucks of the 507th Maintenance Company's convoy made it to
safety. Eleven soldiers were killed in the ambush and six captured. Five of the
prisoners were quickly whisked away by their captors but Private First Class
Jessica Lynch lay near death in an Iraqi military Hospital.
Some of Peeples' tanks were now dangerously low on fuel, so Grabowski ordered
them to return to his combat trains. While the tanks were refueling, Grabowski
pushed forward with his mechanized infantry. Bravo Company crossed the
Euphrates with the first platoon of tanks to refuel. The Marines were greeted
with a hail of gunfire. They turned east and moved to skirt the city. Captain
Brooks' Alpha Company pushed across the Euphrates River Bridge on the heels of
Bravo. He stopped his company on the northern bank and deployed his Marines to
defend the bridge. Then, Charlie Company raced across the Euphrates and through
Alpha Company's position. They charged up "Ambush Alley" and sped over the
Saddam Canal Bridge.
Now, Grabowski's Marines were involved in three separate infantry battles.
Neither Alpha nor Charlie Company had tank support. They fought with their
M-16s, SAWs, machine guns, MK19 grenade launchers and their 61mm mortars, while
the enemy charged forward in ever increasing waves of fanatic Fedayeen
Once Major Peeples heard that the grunts were engaged, he stopped the refueling
and raced toward Nasiriyah with four tanks. As Peeples approached the Euphrates
River Bridge, Captain Brooks was starting to get concerned. The Iraqis were
firing on his men from all sides. They were hiding in buildings and shooting
from every window, rooftop and doorway. More and more Iraqi fighters were
rushing to the fight from within the city. Brooks was certain that, at any
moment, he would start taking casualties.
Then, Captain Jim Thompson crested the bridge in the first of Peeples'
remaining tanks. Thompson pulled into Ambush Alley and instantly all of the
Iraqi fire was directed at his Abrams tank. A flurry of RPGs roared toward the
M1. Most missed, some hit and a couple actually exploded. When the smoke
cleared, Thompson's tank stood unscathed. Thompson's .50 caliber machine gun
began raking the buildings.
Major Peeples raced over the bridge and searched for the AMTRAC with a diamond
painted on its side. He found Brooks' command track parked against a block wall
on the left side of the road. Peeples jumped from his tank and ran to Captain
Brooks, who was already moving toward the tank. "What do you need?" Peeples
Brooks told Peeples that he was taking fire from the southern bank of the River
on the west and from a few buildings just north and east of the bridge. Most of
the enemy was in the buildings northwest of the bridge. Peeples deployed his
tanks (two forward and two back), and they started taking out enemy strong
points. Windows and doorways were peppered with heavy machine gun rounds and
the tankers selectively pounded buildings with their main guns, crumbling them
to the ground.
Quickly, the battle started to turn. Then, a disabled AMTRAC came roaring south
through Ambush Alley. C206, one of Charlie Company's tracks, had been hit while
trying to bring casualties back to safety. The track was dragging its back
ramp. C206 had nearly reached the southern bridge when an RPG slammed into its
side, rocking the 28-ton vehicle. Then, another RPG rocketed through the air.
It flew in the open back and detonated. C206 stopped dead in its tracks.
Marines raced to the destroyed track. They helped the wounded driver and track
commander to safety, and then moved to the back ramp to find a grizzly scene of
twisted metal and human flesh. Everyone inside was surely dead. Gunny Justin
LeHew climbed into the track to zero the radios. Much to his amazement, he
heard groans coming from the pile of rubble and bodies on the floor.
Corporal Matthew Juska was still alive, but his head was pinned by a large
piece of the track's roof. He was bleeding from the nose, mouth and ears.
Without quick medical attention, he would die. Alpha Company's Forward Air
Controller (FAC) was on the radio immediately.
"Any aircraft, any aircraft! This is Kool-Aide on TAD, over!" A Huey pilot
answered his call. Captain Jim Jones continued, "This is Kool-Aide requesting
an emergency med-evac in Nasiriyah!"
Within minutes the Huey Pilot replied, "Kool-Aide, we're checking off station,
you have med-evac inbound."
Captain Eric Garcia was inbound in his CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. "Kool-
Aide, Kool-Aide, this is Parole-Two-Five, checking in on TAD."
"Parole-Two-Five…we are still taking fire from multiple positions on both sides
of the road."
"Copy, understand that the LZ is secure."
"Negative, the LZ is as secure as we can make it, but we are still taking
Garcia acknowledged with a simple "Roger" and continued to land his aircraft in
the middle of a raging battle. After many tense minutes, Juska was freed from
the wreckage and rushed to the waiting helicopter. No sooner had Juska been
gently laid on the helicopter's back ramp, than Garcia was gunning his engines
and lifting back into the clear blue sky. Doc Moses Gloria started working on
Juska immediately, as Garcia cartwheeled and headed south.
Matthew Juska would have died that day had it not been for the Alpha Company
Marines who rushed to his aid and the selfless efforts of Captain Eric Garcia
and his crew: Captain Tod Schroeder, Gunny William Hetterscheidt, Corporal
Lewis and Navy Corpsmen, Docs Mark Kirkland and Moses Gloria. More importantly,
Garcia would have been surely shot down, had Major Peeples' tanks not been
Peeples' four tanks turned Alpha Company's battle at the Euphrates River
Bridge. But Charlie Company was in real trouble north of the Saddam Canal.
Major Peeples went to Captain Brooks and told him that he was taking his tanks
north to help Captain Dan Wittnam's Charlie Company. It was like someone had
kicked Brooks in the gut.
"Can you leave me a couple tanks?" Brooks pleaded. Within the last
half-hour, Captain Brooks had learned the effectiveness of Abrams tanks in
urban warfare. Four M1s had turned a dangerous situation into a manageable
fight. A mechanized Marine Infantry Company is a fearsome force. Brooks' men
were easily stopping wave after wave of Iraqi attacks, but they weren't winning
the battle. As quickly as they mowed down one wave, more Iraqi fighters would
rush from within the city. Brooks' AMTRACs and HMMWVs were vulnerable to RPG
attack, as the destruction of C206 had demonstrated.
Peeples' tanks had provided the overwhelming firepower to scare the living
daylights out of the enemy. Just watching and hearing a main gun fire sent the
half-hearted home. The effects of the tanks were impressive. Buildings would
crumble after being hit. Their machine gun fire was deadly accurate,
penetrating walls and sandbagged positions. The enemy had no defense against
the tanks. RPGs and small arms fire bounced off of them like BBs bouncing off
of an oil drum. Now that Alpha Company had won the initiative, Brooks wanted to
keep some tanks with his company. They were awesome.
Peeples left Captain Thompson and his wingman with Brooks' Alpha Company, while
he and Dyer buttoned up and raced north through Ambush Alley. They drove
through another hail of gunfire and RPGs. Once across the bridge, the tankers
could not believe their eyes. There were burning and destroyed tracks all over
and an enemy mortar barrage was throwing walls of black dirt into the air.
Peeples quickly found the familiar diamond on Captain Wittnam's command track.
He stopped and Wittnam climbed up onto the top of his turret. "Shoot that
building." Wittnam ordered. Over and over, Wittnam pointed out targets from
atop Peeples' turret. After hours of taking enemy fire, Wittnam knew exactly
where to lash out.
Wittnam told Peeples that Lieutenant Mike Seely was several hundred meters
north of the bridge with what was left of his platoon. Peeples ordered Dyer to
move north with Hawk to the northern edge of the battlefield. Captain Scott
Dyer carried the Company's most lethal of weapons. Riding with Dyer was Team
Tank's FAC, Major Scott "Hawk" Hawkins. Hawk brought with him Marine Air Ground
Task Force (MAGTF) doctrine, and the capability to use it.
Ever since Peeples had encountered the stranded members of the 507th, Marine
Cobra and Huey helicopters and fixed wing aircraft from every service had been
pushed to Nasiriyah. Hawk really had three jobs. He was the tank crew's loader.
He was the 7.62 machine gunner. Last, but not least, he was one of only three
FACs in the Battalion. He popped up and down in his hatch, loading MPAT
(Multi-Purpose, Anti-Tank) rounds, then looking for Cobras overhead, and then
firing several bursts from his machine gun.
As the FAC, Hawk was in a perfect position. He was sitting in a wide-open
space, at the battalion's forward-most position. Sitting in the middle of
Iraq's Highway 7, north of the Saddam Canal, Hawk called in wave after wave of
Cobra attack helicopters and A-10 Thunderbolts, pausing occasionally to kick an
MPAT round home in the breech.
The Fedayeen fighters had no stomach for standing up against Marine tanks,
artillery and close air support. Soon, the fighting stopped north of the Canal,
as the Iraqis left alive fled. The day had not ended for Peeples and his tank
crew. There were Marines trapped in the city. C206 was not the only track to
have braved Ambush Alley. C201 had lost steering as it crossed the Canal Bridge
and had crashed into a light pole. Its Marines had scrambled into a nearby
building. They were under attack - and they had wounded.
As soon as Major Peeples heard that there were Marines in Ambush Alley, he told
Captain Wittnam that he was going back in. Wittnam climbed down from the tank
and Peeples drove south over the Saddam Canal to the building where the Marines
were holed up. He ordered his Forward Observer, Lieutenant Carter, to lay down
covering machine gun fire while he went into the courtyard and talked with the
squad leader about what the best course of action would be. They decided to
load the four wounded Marines onto the back deck of the tank and drive them
north to safety.
Peeples returned to his tank, ordered Carter to turn the turret to expose the
back deck of the tank, then Peeples personally helped load the wounded. Once
they were safely aboard, Major Bill Peeples drove his tank north again. The
casualties were left at the Casualty Collection Point and within a few minutes,
Captain Eric Garcia had returned to collect Charlie Company's wounded.
Captain Eric Garcia loading casualties, north of the Saddam Canal
Peeples' tanks, and the CAS they brought with them, won the Battle of An
Nasiriyah. They were unstoppable. On the ground, Hawk rode in the most highly
armored vehicle on the battlefield and was able to call in devastating close
air support missions.
The first major battle of the invasion, at An Nasiriyah, demonstrated that M1
tanks are an integral part of the MAGTF. They provide an overwhelming
superiority on the Iraqi urban battlefield. The lessons learned in Nasiriyah
are even truer today. Tanks, when supported by infantry, are very effective in
urban war. They protect our troops and can project devastating fires upon the
enemy. The reserves of Alpha Company, 8th Tanks were the first to demonstrate
the continuing utility of Abrams' tanks in the 21st Century.
. The Marines used their AMTRACs as armored personnel carriers; much like
the Army used Bradley Fighting Vehicles.
. The 4 km strip between the Euphrates River Bridge and the Saddam Canal
Bridge ran straight through the eastern side of downtown An Nasiriyah. American
commanders dubbed this stretch of road “Ambush Alley” because it was the
perfect spot for the Iraqis to attack advancing American forces. The Marines of
Task Force Tarawa are quick to point out that they fought a battle in the city
and that they were never “ambushed.” Yet, the name has stuck.
. Telephone Interview with Major Bill Peeples on 1/29/04.
. Entire radio conversation taken from Captain Jim Jones’ personal account
in email to the author and telephone interview with Captain Eric Garcia on
. Personal interview with Captain Michael Brooks, 10/27/03, and telephone
interview with Major Bill Peeples on 1/29/04.
. Personal interview with Captain Dan Wittnam, 3/24/04, and telephone
interview with Major Bill Peeples on 1/29/04.
- - -
Copyright © 2006 Richard S. Lowry
Watch for Marines in the Garden of Eden , Berkley, New York, which
will be released on June 6, 2006. It tells the story of America's sons and
daughters who fought, bled and died in a dusty desert city on the banks of the
Euphrates River. It is the complete story of the Battle of An Nasiriyah, as
seen through the eyes of over one hundred of its participants.
Richard S. Lowry is an internationally recognized military historian and
author. He proudly served in the United States Nuclear Submarine Service during
the Vietnam War. Richard has lived in Central Florida for the last 24 years. He
is married and a father of three young men. He is an entrepreneur, consultant,
public speaker and eleventh-generation American. Richard is a frequent
contributor to several military websites such as military.com and
armchairgeneral.com. He has been published in Military Magazine, Leatherneck
and the Marine Corps Gazette.
Richard is currently working on his fourth book. Viking in the Valley will
tell the story of the 2d Marine Regiment's recent operations in Western Al
Anbar Province. Also look for Osprey Publishing's latest addition to their
Warrior Series, U.S. Marine in Iraq – 2003 and The Gulf War Chronicles
which is a complete, yet concise military history of Operation Desert Storm.
For more information on Mr. Lowry's work, visit
Published online: 03/05/2006.