Boots and rifles are lined up in front of four MH-6 Little Birds of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993 during a memorial service for 18 Americans killed in the ‘Black Hawk Down’ battle. Photo courtesy of Brad Thomas.
The book and movie Black Hawk Down provided the outside world a glimpse into what occurred during the 17-hour firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct. 3, 1993. Army Rangers and operators from the US Army’s Special Operations Command — commonly known to the general public as Delta Force — fought block-to-block to reach the crash sites of two downed American Black Hawk helicopters. Their heroism and sacrifices during that battle were significant, but what happened before and after the battle, during their Operation Gothic Serpent deployment?
Four months prior to that fateful battle, Army Rangers from the 3rd Ranger Battalion participated in a Joint Readiness Exercise (JRX) as part of their normal predeployment training.
“At some point in time, we got called in by our platoon leadership and were told that in Somalia we’re sending aid by way of the UN and the aid is getting picked off by these different warring factions,” Brad Thomas, a former Army Ranger who participated in Operation Gothic Serpent, told Coffee or Die Magazine. “They were hurting and killing aid workers, so the president was looking to possibly spin the Ranger regiment up to go over there.”
Four US soldiers were killed on Aug. 8, 1993, after a command-detonated land mine exploded, which raised the total number of American troops killed to 12 since the beginning of Operation Restore Hope. At the time, US policy in Somalia was to reduce its military presence. But increasing hostilities led to a call for additional troops to continue operations.
Thomas and his team went to Fort Bragg to train with Delta Force. “We were there for 10 days figuring out how we were going to capture people and who do we think we are going to capture,” Thomas said. “We did rehearsals for the better part of a week or so and then the word came down that the president wasn’t ready to do this yet. So we were going to head back to the JRX at Fort Bliss and continue training.”
The Rangers flew back to Fort Bliss. Within minutes of landing, before anybody had time to offload equipment from the plane, they got the news in the middle of the tarmac that the mission was, in fact, going forward. The flight crew swapped out while the Rangers slept on the airfield. After more training at Bragg, they were on a C-5 cargo plane headed for Mogadishu 30 days later.
“We landed on Aug. 22, [1993,] and got off the plane. We realized the hangar wasn’t secure because there were other people on the airfield — from Russian doctors to Swedish nurses and other UN people,” Thomas said. “We established a perimeter to ensure other people on the airfield couldn’t walk into the hangar.”
Thomas was a 24-year-old specialist assigned as a SAW gunner at the time, with aspirations of going to selection for the 75th Ranger Regiment’s Reconnaissance Detachment (RRD) in the fall. While Thomas trained at Fort Bragg, his platoon’s initial role was the air assault package — flying on helicopters to the target building. However, just before their deployment to Somalia, their mission was reassigned to the vehicle package — assisting the assault force by providing blocking positions with Humvees.
During their first night at the airfield, a mortar round came in and hit the Joint Operations Center (JOC) building. The round landed within 30 to 45 feet from where Thomas was standing. He had no radio or body armor but wasn’t hit by any flying shrapnel. For many young Rangers, this was their initial welcome to the badlands of Somalia.
“The first couple things we did was getting our drivers out with night vision and practiced driving around Mogadishu because they had never done that before,” Thomas said, in reference to his platoon’s sudden change from air assault to ground assault. Before conducting any raids, they familiarized themselves with the city and fulfilled resupply tasks driving to and from United Nations buildings.
In September, prior to the Battle of Mogadishu, the Rangers and Delta Force conducted six or seven successful missions. They targeted Mohamed Farrah Aidid and six of his top lieutenants. During one night mission, Thomas and six or eight vehicles rolled out of the gate and set up a blocking position, with a stadium at their backs where Aidid frequently gave speeches. Helicopters landed at the target to pick up the exfiltrating assault force and the captured Somalis. Then, the men at the blocking position heard a noise coming from the stadium.
“We sent a squad across the street to check the stadium out, and I turned around to watch the squad cross the street, and it was like all hell had broke loose,” Thomas said. “They fired RPGs and automatic weapon fire at the blocking position, and it was two or three minutes of hellacious gunfire. If you saw how much shit was flying through the air, in terms of bullets and everything else, for everybody not to have gotten hit was absolutely like a miracle.”
Firefights were the norm in Somalia — a rocket propelled grenade would scream down the street or sporadic gunfire would smack the walls near where Rangers were standing. The urban setting and the large crowds in the streets made identifying the source of incoming fire very difficult. The tactics used by both sides in the city adapted with each battle.
The Somali National Alliance, known better as the SNA militia, had introduced mine warfare to target vehicles, but their mortar teams were used to draw out Quick Reaction Force (QRF) helicopters and expose them to groundfire. On Sept. 25, 1993, a QRF helicopter — Courage 53 — was shot down by an RPG. Three Americans were killed, and the 10th Mountain Division as well as Pakistani forces helped secure the crash site and rescue the casualties.
The threat of RPGs, mines, mortars, small arms, and heavy weapons increased the longer Task Force Ranger was on the ground. “Every time we went out you could feel the tension in the city,” Thomas said. “The bad guys were getting more bold, and every time we went out and did something, it was a little bit more amplified. You could tell tension was building.”
Between Oct. 3 and 4, the tension erupted into chaos after two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and a 17-hour firefight ensued that left 19 US soldiers dead and more than 70 Americans wounded. In the aftermath of the Battle of Mogadishu, US forces reconsolidated and reorganized at the soccer stadium at 9:30 a.m. Many of the Rangers hadn’t known the entirety or magnitude of the situation that had unfolded. The wounded were medevaced to field hospitals or flown to Germany for a higher level of medical care. The TVs at the hangar on the airfield showed horrifying images of American soldiers dragged through the streets, and the focus shifted to recovering their comrades still missing in action.
The remainder of Task Force Ranger trained and rehearsed for a hostage rescue mission to save Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mike Durant, who had been taken alive as a prisoner of war after his helicopter, Super 6-4, was shot down. While they were zeroing in on Durant’s location, the US ambassador to Somalia, Robert Oakley, negotiated his release.
“The mission was viewed as a failure because it became high profile, and we didn’t have the support package that we needed,” Thomas said. “We felt that if we had a AC-130 gunship overhead during October 3rd and 4th, it would have been a completely different battle.”
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.