FALLUJAH, Iraq -- Marines of Combat Service Support Battalion 1 fought fatigue, Mother Nature herself and a lack of necessary equipment and relied on their ingenuity alone to unearth a tank from an irrigation canal in northern Fallujah April 13, 2004.
While providing support for Marines of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, who were ambushed April 8, 2004, two M1A1 Abrams tanks cut across a small farming community via a nine-foot wide dirt road in an effort to cut off their assailants.
As the ground collapsed underneath its right side, one of the 70-ton tanks slid into the man-made canal used to deliver water to the area's wheat fields and palm groves, and was quickly sucked into the mud, burying one-third of the huge vehicle.
The tankers turned to the help of their unit's massive M88 tank recovery vehicle, capable of towing 140 tons, which broke its main cable and eventually met the same fate as its immobile cousin, sinking deep into the muck.
Lacking the resources to make further attempts to remove the tank on their own, the tankers sent out a request for CSSB-1, to send its vehicle repair and recovery unit, Combat Service Support Company 121.
Early the next morning, a convoy hauling another M88 and a crew of seven CSSC-121 Marines made its way over to assist the stranded tankers.
Marines from 2nd Military Police Battalion, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., provided security for the short convoy and upon reaching the village, integrated its assets into the existing security matrix provided by the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. Having been there for a full day already, they were sure the enemy knew their location.
"Definitely seeing (CSSC-121) is like the cavalry coming," said Capt. Michael D. Skaggs, 35, commander of C Company, 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division. "We're not leaving until the tank leaves, and right now (they) are the only way the tank is leaving."
Positioning the newly arrived M88 vehicle on a small patch of the most solid ground available, CSSC-121 Marines began to pull the first M88 out of its rut, felling a palm tree in the process.
Once the first M88 was freed, the Marines attacked the tree with an ax, taking turns hacking at it until its massive trunk could be moved. The road now cleared, they were left with two M88s, which even together lacked the requisite cables, to complete the mission.
The Marines charged on regardless, and attempted to pry the tank free by pulling its front out with one recovery vehicle while bracing the its rear with the other. The attempt, however, was unsuccessful since the rear end of the tank continued to slide further into the canal as the front end was freed.
After a day of fruitless attempts to recover the $6 million vehicle, Capt. Neil G. Anderson, 46, commanding officer of CSSC-121, requested that it be destroyed where it lay.
The enemy knew exactly where the Marines were located, he said, and it was too risky to stay there much longer. He also stated that many of the assets needed were tied up supporting other missions in the city.
The request was sent up to the Division's commanding general, Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who decided that no one was leaving the excavation site without the tank in tow.
According to Anderson, the general said that the enemy would most likely say that they had blown the tank and use that as a moral victory, a result unacceptable to the Marines.
Knowing that they had to find a way to retrieve the tank, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Walter A. Harris, 30, convoy commander, called back to CSSB-1's combat operations center and requested that both a bulldozer and a backhoe be sent out. When they arrived, though, neither piece of equipment could successfully dig out the mound of earth underneath the belly of the tank.
Their presence necessary for ongoing operations in the city, the tankers were pulled away from the scene the following morning. They took their only recovery vehicle and left the fate of their tank solely in the hands of CSSC-121.
Soon after, a group of local farmers began mulling about the area to calculate the damage that had been done to their land, and even attempted to help in whatever way it could.
With the sun setting on the second day, morale began to drop. Darkness was settling in and the Marines knew they weren't going anywhere without the tank. The vehicles were parked and fresh fighting holes dug before the Marines bedded down for the night.
The following morning the Marines awoke to find that their M88, the dozer, the backhoe and a humvee had all sunk into the mire during the night. The Marines began to brainstorm ways to remove the various vehicles without the large machinery necessary since they knew that it too would end up stuck.
Their options limited, they buckled down and began the slow and arduous process of digging the M88 out with small shovels.
"Marines digging a tank retriever out by hand - that's incredible!" marveled Anderson.
As the process lagged on, someone finally piped up with an idea.
"I was thinking about how when you get your car stuck in the snow, you put cardboard down to give it traction," said Lance Cpl. Robert F. Beard, 19, a tank mechanic who lived through many snowy winters in his hometown of Baltimore.
He assumed that the same principle would apply to the slippery mud and suggested the Marines lay down branches from the fallen palm trees to form a path so that the M88 could gain traction.
The plan worked, but they were still left with a stuck tank and fragile canal-ridden earth that continued to swallow up many of the Marines' necessary tools.
The leadership on site decided that laying down a road was their best bet at providing solid ground on which to strategically place the heavy equipment needed to recover the tank. A request for gravel was immediately sent back to headquarters.
While awaiting the needed supplies, the Marines noticed that the massive amounts of mud they had repositioned had begun to block the canal and flood both the main road and one of only two exit routes.
After only moments of contemplation, they decided to build a hasty drainage ditch to re-route the overflow into a wheat field on the opposite side of the road.
As the Marines pondered their next move, Col. John A. Toolan, Regimental Combat Team 1's commanding officer, quietly arrived to assess the situation, and was gone before many knew that he had even been there.
"We did a lot with nothing out there, but after Col. Toolan came out and saw what was going on, he made sure we got the gear we needed," said Harris.
Early the next morning an excavator and the missing M88 cables arrived. Unfazed by another night of rockets and mortars that landed closer to their position than before, the Marines immediately marched on.
They dug a 15-foot canal around the tank, allowing it to lay almost flat. Then, hooking a single cable to its side, they used the M88 and tugged the beast out of the mud in one easy attempt.
After building a road by laying down the heavy trunks of the fallen palm trees and covering them with gravel, the Marines cut the tank's tracks off with a torch, and began dragging it through a wheat field, where it got stuck once again.
Seasoned in combating the limitations of the terrain, the Marines, who had already recovered the tank once and various other sunken equipment twelve times during the course of the mission, reacted quickly to unearth the tank a final time so that it could be sent back to the camp to be repaired.
After accomplishing a mission many thought to be impossible due to a lack of necessary supplies, the burden of an unsupportive environment and the constant threat of enemy attacks, the Marines were overjoyed to be able to head back to camp four and one-half days later with the tank in tow.
"There were tears of joy when the Marines pulled that tank out," said Harris. "It was a happy moment."
(Editor's note: Marines returned to the scene April 14, 2004, and rebuilt the damaged irrigation system. Additionally, civil affairs representatives compensated the farmers for the damage that had been caused by the recovery mission. A follow-up trip is planned to determine the need for any further work.)