Master Sgt. Scott Fales wasn’t a junior Air Force Pararescueman (PJ) when he deployed to Somalia as a member of Task Force Ranger. He had 16 years of military service, 13 of those years as a PJ, and numerous combat search and rescue (CSAR) operations to his name. The Jolly Green Association awarded him “Rescue of the Year” in 1982 after he saved eight victims stranded high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after their plane crashed. He led 40 rescue missions in the Icelandic Mountains and later was a part of the jump-clearing team during a night combat jump into Panama in 1989.
In short — he was no slouch.
On Aug. 22, 1993, US special operations forces composed of Army Rangers, Delta Force operators, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), the 24th Special Tactics Squadron airmen — the special missions unit of the US Air Force, which Fales was assigned to — and a handful of Navy SEALs arrived in Somalia as part of Task Force Ranger. Their mission was to hunt down the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his lieutenants. The warlord and his hired help were responsible for killing United Nations (UN) aid workers and confiscating food from starving refugees.
Throughout the month of September, the task force had conducted a handful of raids against Aidid’s lieutenants. The PJs’ assignments were to handle the CSAR efforts in case a helicopter was shot down, a devastating reality that was realized just one week prior to what would become known as the Battle of Mogadishu.
On Oct. 3, 1993, Task Force Ranger launched its seventh mission into Aidid’s stronghold. Intelligence had determined that two of Aidid’s lieutenants were meeting in a building near the Bakaara Market in the Black Sea slum district.
The Delta Force operators entered the target location near the Olympic Hotel and brought 24 Somali militants, including the two lieutenants, out to the vehicle convoy of Rangers. A circling MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter (call sign “Super 6-1”) was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. The Somalis had executed a tactic of firing in volleys to make evading more difficult. An MH-6 Little Bird and a modified MH-60 helicopter (call sign “Super 6-8”) carrying a joint 15-man CSAR element immediately flew 3 miles from the target building to the crash site. The Little Bird landed in an alleyway, immediately engaged in a firefight, and rescued two wounded soldiers.
“Normally when you assess a crash site one of our tactics is to turn hard over the top of the site and look down on top of it to see exactly what you have and then come back and set up on an approach and either land or fast rope to the crash,” Fales recalled. “In this particular case, (Super 6-1) brownout was very bad, the enemy situation was very bad, enemy fire was very high, to include lots of RPGs being fired at the helicopter in the sky, so it was made clear we were only going to have one attempt. So we basically flew straight to the relative vicinity of the crash site.”
Fales and another Air Force PJ, Tech. Sgt. Timothy Wilkinson, hovered over the crash site in Super 6-8 as the modified MH-60 dropped the ropes.
“This is going to be a wild one,” Fales thought, as the pair were the last to fast-rope into the street.
Fales slid down the rope just as another RPG slammed into their helicopter. Super 6-8 kept steady until the CSAR team had hit the ground. Then, with black smoke coming from its engine, the pilots hobbled the aircraft back to the airfield before making a hard landing.
The brown dust made it impossible to see as the operators ran toward the crash site. Fales was hit by a bullet in the leg, and a Ranger helped him limp to cover to apply a pressure dressing to his own wound. Wilkinson tried to free the bodies of the pilot and co-pilot from the cockpit while Fales set up a casualty collection point (CCP). The pilots had been killed after their helicopter nose-dived into the ground, but five Rangers in the cabin were still alive in the wreck. He attended to the needs of wounded Rangers and helicopter crewmen while simultaneously shooting his rifle at any muzzle flash he saw.
The Somali militants had converged on the crash site, too, and they were in a desperate fight for their lives. A team of Rangers noticed an IV sticking out from Fales’ arm. The quick-thinking PJ had put it in to avoid going into shock. This heroic display of courage led to the Rangers ordering him onto a litter to avoid worsening his injuries. Their efforts, however, couldn’t keep the PJ from returning to the fight — and they needed all the help they could muster.
“As we carried folks back to the triage point, Scott positioned himself at the tail of the aircraft and was setting up and providing cover down the alleyways and up the street, and we would put the casualties behind him,” Wilkinson recalled.
With Somalis shooting from every direction, the Rangers and PJs pulled away the helicopter’s Kevlar floorboards to add some cover to their exposed position. From across the four-way intersection, a frantic call for a medic screeched through the sound of gunfire. Wilkinson turned to Fales and some of the other Rangers and yelled, “Cover me!” as he zigzagged through the chaos.
Wilkinson made two additional scrambles across the intersection and returned each time with his arms and pockets filled with medical supplies. Each trip helped stabilize three wounded Rangers.
Fales later recalled that it seemed every Somali man, woman, and child showed up to fire on the Americans, wielding AK-47s, RPGs, and even hand grenades. Five grenades plopped over the wall into their CCP. Fales watched as each one landed, then yelled a warning while he dashed over to two wounded Rangers to shield them from shrapnel. Somehow, nobody was hit.
The firefight only intensified from the afternoon and into the night. The Rangers and PJs moved into a building for better cover and concealment. Not knowing where they were holed up, the militants aimlessly approached their position. They “would walk down in twos and threes right by the windows of the house that we were in,” said combat controller Jeffrey Bray, who was later awarded the Silver Star for calling in danger close strikes from helicopter gunships. “They were talking to each other, and we would sit right there and drop them. I remember thinking, ‘What are they doing? We’ve been fighting from the same house all day. How can they not know we’re here?’”
The Somali militants keyed in on their position and brought a heavy machine gun to spray their fortifications with high-caliber rounds.
“As these tracers [went] through, it lit the room up like a flashbulb going off,” Fales recalled in a 1994 interview with Air Force magazine. The airmen and Rangers lay on their stomachs and pushed their faces into the ground to avoid being hit.
Fales, Bray, Wilkinson, and the Rangers were relieved when help eventually arrived in an armored UN task force vehicle around 7 a.m. Following the Battle of Mogadishu, Wilkinson received the Air Force Cross, and Fales was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. In 2012, Fales became a recipient of the Bull Simons Award, honoring his lifetime achievement in the special operations community. He retired from active duty service in 1997 but continued to serve in a variety of capacities including at Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) where he provided his expertise in personnel recovery.
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.