In the Company of Heroes: The True Story of Black Hawk Pilot Michael Durant and the Men Who Fought and Fell at Mogadishu

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9780743530491: In the Company of Heroes: The True Story of Black Hawk Pilot Michael Durant and the Men Who Fought and Fell at Mogadishu
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Published on the tenth anniversary of the Somali conflict, the story of Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant recounts how he was shot down and taken prisoner in Somalia during a critical gunfight in October 1993, and describes his captivity and the heroic deeds of his fellow comrades.

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About the Author:

Steven Hartov is an Airborne veteran and author of the international thrillers Ramadan, The Nylon Hand of God, and The Devil's Shepherd. His nonfiction has appeared in Special Operations Quarterly, Counterstrike, and The Journal of International Security. He has two fine sons.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:



I woke up in the silence of my own grave.

At least that's what I believed in that first moment, because in my last flash of consciousness I had clearly seen the clawing hand of the Grim Reaper. I did not know where I was. I did not know who I was. It was like emerging from an altitude chamber with a case of hypoxia as my mind began to stagger, slowly, through the darkened hallways of my concussed brain. And when my eyelids finally fluttered open, I was stunned to take in the light.

The chopper's windshield was almost completely gone, pierced and disintegrated by a slab of corrugated metal that had stopped only inches from my face. Yet my first sense of emotion wasn't relief, but fury at the disfiguring of my helicopter by that rusty blade. I reached up to shove the thing from my cockpit, and then the pain swept over me like a wave of molten lava.

My back was broken.

Super Six-Four had come down like Dorothy's house in The Wizard of Oz, spinning fast, falling even faster, and finally slamming its nine tons of steel into the hard-packed ground. Two of my vertebrae had smacked together on impact, displacing the disk between them and pulverizing each other. Every muscle in my back must have tried to prevent that catastrophe and been ripped apart in the effort, and it felt like some evil giant had me on his worktable, squeezing my spine in an iron vise. I stopped moving and just tried to breathe without passing out.

I sure as hell was fully conscious now, although my thoughts and reflexes seemed to trudge through a sort of syrupy fog. Slowly I moved my aching head and glanced around the cockpit, and found I was sitting level with thefloor. The pilot seats in a Blackhawk are designed to stroke downward in a major crash, and mine had done that and more. Its supports had snapped like the legs of a child's chair under the girth of a fat man. My right leg felt strangely numb, and as soon as I tried to move it I knew that the femur had broken clean in half over the edge of my Kevlar seat. My M-9 pistol was still strapped to my right thigh, and as its weight shifted I could feel the splintered ends of my bones grinding against one another. But it didn't hurt all that much. My crushed vertebrae were monopolizing my pain centers.

I was dead sure that I couldn't get myself out of the cockpit. A Blackhawk's hard enough to get out of when you're healthy. You have to contort yourself and maneuver your limbs around the seat and the controls. Now I could barely move. I unhooked my harness and took off my helmet, feeling rivulets of cold sweat running down my temples. Some guys come back from every mission soaked through, while I rarely break a sweat. Today was different. I peeled off my Nomex gloves and then, for some strange reason, I slipped my watch from my wrist, with my wedding ring still encircling the band, and laid them on the console. To this day, I'm not sure why I did that. Maybe I knew that "time" was about to become a non-issue here. Or maybe it was the ring, and I didn't want to be distracted by thoughts of home. It was like something a man might do before surgery, or certain death.

I saw my MP-5 submachine gun lying on the floor near my left foot, right where I'd left it. If I had abided by written safety procedures, that "Skinny Popper"-our callous nickname for the compact German weapon-would have been behind me, strapped down somewhere in the back and inaccessible. So I was grateful for having a touch of the renegade in me as I reached for it, made sure it was locked and cocked and laid it across my lap. I could hear some thin, muffled shouts in the distance. The Somalis would surely try to overrun us, and it looked like I'd just have to fight it out right there where I sat. And then I remembered that I wasn't alone.

I looked over at Ray. His helmet was gone and he was slowly edging himself off his seat, which had collapsed to the floor just like mine. The acrid smell of spilled jet fuel mixed with dry dust was in the air, and I heard someone moaning unintelligibly from the back of the chopper. It was Bill Cleveland's voice, but nothing he muttered made any sense. There wasn't a sound from Tommy Field. Ray looked at me.

"I tried to pull them off." He meant the engines.

"I know it."

"Couldn't do it."

I glanced up at the power-control levers. "You got 'em halfway."

He didn't say anything for a moment, and then: "Left tibia's broken, I think."

"Right femur here. And my back, too."

"Yeah," he said, and then he slowly maneuvered himself until he was sitting in the door sill with his back to me.

"I'm movin', Mike," he said.

"I'll be right here."

Ray nodded, and then he gripped the sill with his hands and carefully lowered himself to the ground. I couldn't see him anymore, and I would never see him again.

I knew we were about to battle for our lives. We were down in the middle of Mogadishu, and there was no doubt in my mind that the Somalis were coming for us. I was dimly aware of the echoes of gunfire in the distance, the chatter of small arms, and the ominous double booms of RPGs. There was a badass fight going on out there, a real slugfest. But I didn't think, Oh my God, this is it, it's over. I was focused only on the things I had to do, setting my gun in position and getting ready to shoot it out. I felt no sense of despair or hopelessness, just a grim determination to hold them off as long as I could. I was ready.

And just then, Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon appeared on the right side of our chopper. They were Delta operators, and though I didn't know them personally or by name, I certainly knew who they were. More than once I had briefed them and other members of their teams prior to assaults into the city. Since they were wearing no helmets, I recognized them instantly. Randy was carrying a high-tech sniper rifle and Gary had a CAR-15, the short-barreled version of the M-16 assault rifle, and their load-bearing harnesses were slung with ammunition and grenades. They were the kind of professionals who could pick off a rabbit from a roller coaster with a BB gun. To me, they were Batman and Robin, only much better, and they just walked up to my aircraft like they were out for a stroll in the park.

Rescue Force! was the first thing that leapt to my mind. Already! I figured that only a few minutes had elapsed since Super Six-Four had been hit by the RPG, yet here were the Best of the Best, on the ground and setting up to get us all the hell out of there. Now there was cause for some real optimism, and a sense of elation swept through me. I was thinking that we'd all be all right, that it was over, and I assumed that Cliff Wolcott and Donovan Briley were alive and soon we'd all be swapping tales about what we'd been through. Maybe it would be bedside by bedside in an army hospital, but what the hell. We took a couple of punches, I thought. But we're still rollin'.

What I didn't know then was that Shughart and Gordon were the Task Force's last hope to defend our crash site. They had been circling overhead in Super Six-Two, watching the Somalis streaming into the area's perimeter, taking shots at the African gunslingers and bringing them down, while more and more of them just kept coming on. They knew we wouldn't last long before being overrun, and they had put in three urgent requests to the Air Mission and Ground Force Commanders to be inserted on our crash site. At last, Colonels Matthews and Harrel had acquiesced to what they must have thought would be a suicide mission.

Piloting Super Six-Two through a hailstorm of AK-47 fire and Rocket-Propelled Grenade rounds, Mike Goffena and Jim Yacone had put Randy and Gary down nearby, and almost immediately their chopper was hit hard by an RPG. One of the helo's crew chiefs had already been struck in the hand by small-arms fire, and now a remaining Delta operator on board had his leg blown off, but Goffena-with Yacone unconscious and slumped in the seat beside him-somehow nursed that chopper back to a seaside port facility and furrowed it into the ground, more or less in one piece. Some incredible flying was done that day.

Randy and Gary didn't say very much. They knew the situation was critical and they were there to work, not chat. They asked me about my injuries.

"Well, my right leg's broken," I said. "And I think my back."

"Uh-huh." They nodded and set themselves in position to lift me out of the cockpit, but I didn't fear those hands reaching in for me. I wasn't in much pain at that point, because I guess shock had set in and my body's physiology must have been intercepting those screaming messages to my brain. They acted as if they were in no particular rush, and they raised me up gently, as if they were handling an ostrich egg. They carried me to an open spot of ground to the right of the cockpit and set me down carefully in the dust. One of them recovered a large survival kit from the bird and they tucked it up behind me to support my back.

It was my first chance to get a lay of the land. No, we hadn't made the airfield, but somehow we had made it to that open area I had seen that looked like a small park. Yet now I could see that the whole space was covered with tin shanties, homemade shacks with walls and roofs of corrugated metal. By some miracle, we had come down in the only uninhabited flat spot between a cluster of huts.

To my right was a long, high wall of that same gray and rust-red tin. To my left, Super Six-Four sat in the pale dirt, its belly smeared into the ground, its big rotors dead still and drooping like wilted palm fronds. We had crashed flat and level, which was about as good as it could get, but the landing-gear struts had absorbed as much impact as they were designed to and then the whole strut assembly had snapped off. The chopper lay there like a big truck with its tires ripped away, and you could barely see a sliver of light under it. The tail rotor and vertical fin had disintegrated in flight, and what remained of the tail boom was tucked up against the wall behind me.

I couldn't see anyone in the cargo bay. Tommy Field's minigun had swung around hard and struck him full in the chest upon impact. It was a very heavy weapon and it had crushed his entire rib cage. Someone in the C2 bird flying overhead saw him briefly sit up, then fall flat back into the bay. Something else inside the chopper had torn up Bill Cleveland really bad.

Just in front and to my right was a long shack and a large tree, its high leaves rustling in the hot wind and throwing some shade onto me. The only open area was between that shack and my helo's cockpit, a clear field of fire. Randy and Gary knew what they were doing. They handed me my MP-5 and the single spare magazine, a total of sixty rounds of 9mm ammo, but they didn't say a word as they walked off around the nose of the helicopter.

I heard Bill's voice again and I twisted my head around. Shughart and Gordon had placed him on the ground behind me, and he was still incoherent and in great pain. Some of his flight gear had been removed and his trousers were soaked in blood.

I looked at my lifeless leg, knowing that it was already swelling and stiffening in the sun. Well, at least I'll be getting out of here and going home. Just that morning I had wanted to go out on every mission, but now with a broken femur I knew I wouldn't be flying for quite some time. I tried to buck myself up, but that minute of respite gave me too much time to think. I suddenly missed my family very much, and especially my young son, Joey.

I did not want to die here, and even as I fought it, the fear began to well up. I was badly injured and scared, and there was no doubt about it, I did not want to fall into the hands of the Somalis. Just a few weeks before, they had overrun some Nigerian troops, and rumors about what they'd done to them were too gruesome to believe. And the Somalis had done that to fellow Africans, so I couldn't even imagine what they might do to us. The images of mutilation that flashed into my mind terrified me.

Randy and Gary came back around the nose of the helo. I wasn't sure what they were doing, but I assumed they were looking for an area large enough to land an aircraft and get us out of there. They were calm and deliberate, talking to each other like a couple of surveyors planning a new parking lot, but I knew they were frustrated. They had four badly injured men on their hands and it was impossible to move us, even a short distance.

From the other side of the tin wall to my right I heard Somali voices. It sounded like they were trying to get at us, but I didn't think it over for more than a second. My MP-5 was set on single-shot mode and I put it to use, firing four quick rounds right through the wall. I didn't hear the voices anymore. When I stopped shooting, Randy and Gary looked at me, as if surprised that a badly injured chopper pilot might actually be useful in a firefight. They didn't speak, but they moved around the front of the helo again until they were out of sight.

At some point, Karl and Keith, the two Little Bird pilots, came back into the picture. They had already pulled off an incredible rescue at Cliff and Donovan's crash site, but they came right back in to see what they could do for us. I never saw or heard them, but they landed about a hundred meters to the right of our downed helicopter, which was as close as they could get due to the dense concentration of shacks and trees. They stayed on the ground for about a minute, but began taking so much fire that they had to get the hell out of there or lose their bird. There was nothing else they could do.

From beyond the far left side of Super Six-Four, I began to hear more frequent fire of AK-47s, that deep, hollow bang that comes from the throats of those Russian weapons. It hammered in ones and twos, yet more often, and was answered by precision sniper shots and "double-taps" from Randy's and Gary's guns. But I had my own problems. The Somalis were definitely trying to get at me now from the other side of the tin wall; I could hear their chatter and the quick flip-flops of their sandals and sneakers. I fired through the wall again, the tin rattling as my rounds punctured it and lances of light pierced back through the bullet holes. A little farther down, a pair of mahogany hands gripped the top of the wall and a dark head appeared above it. I fired again and the intruder disappeared, but my weapon jammed. I worked the bolt and a perfectly good round fell into the dust. Damn. Wasting ammunition was a luxury I could not afford.

K-k-k-kung. A burst of AK fire echoed from the far side of the chopper. B-dap, b-dap. It stopped. I looked over at my helo, at my seat collapsed there in the cockpit. It had worked exactly as advertised, stroking down with the crash and taking enough of the hit so that I'd been injured but not killed. It was cocked slightly to the right, probably because of the lateral spinning impact. I decided that I would like to meet the genius engineer who had designed those pilot seats. For just a moment, the distraction opened a brief window of hope, a glimmer of the future.

Then something moved on my right and I spun and fired four rounds. But while my trigger finger kept on pulling, the weapon just clicked. A wisp of pungent smoke curled from the barrel like a ghost. My first magazine was empty, and I switched to the second. Only thirty more rounds, Durant. You better choose your targets very carefully.

I looked to the left of the big tree out in front of me and I could see another Somali, crouched down and slinking toward the aircraft. It was obvious...

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Michael Durant; Steven Hartov
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