Military history


Hells Bells

Falluja, Iraq,

November 2004

THE MARINES were pressed flat on a rooftop when the dialogue began to unfold. It was 2 a.m. The minarets were flashing by the light of airstrikes and rockets were sailing on trails of sparks. First came the voices from the mosques, rising above the thundery guns.

“The Americans are here!” howled a voice from a loudspeaker in a minaret. “The Holy War, the Holy War! Get up and fight for the city of mosques!”

Bullets poured without direction and without end. No one lifted his head.

“This is crazy,” one of the marines yelled to his buddy over the noise.

“Yeah,” the buddy yelled back, “and we’ve only taken one house.”

And then, as if from the depths, came a new sound: violent, menacing and dire. I looked back over my shoulder to where we had come from, into the vacant field at Falluja’s northern edge. A group of marines were standing at the foot of a gigantic loudspeaker, the kind used at rock concerts.

It was AC/DC, the Australian heavy metal band, pouring out its unbridled sounds. I recognized the song immediately: “Hells Bells,” the band’s celebration of satanic power, had come to us on the battlefield. Behind the strains of its guitars, a church bell tolled thirteen times.

I’m a rolling thunder, a pouring rain

I’m comin’ on like a hurricane

My lightning’s flashing across the sky

You’re only young but you’re gonna die

The marines raised the volume on the speakers and the sound of gunfire began to recede. Airstrikes were pulverizing the houses in front of us. In a flash, a building vanished. The voices from the mosques were hysterical in their fury, and they echoed along the city’s northern rim.

Allahu Akbar!” cried one of the men in the mosques. “God is great! There is nothing so glorious as to die for God’s path, your faith and your country!”

I won’t take no prisoners, won’t spare no lives

Nobody’s putting up a fight

I got my bell, I’m gonna take you to hell

I’m gonna get ya, Satan get ya!

“God is Great!”

The shouting continued until the houses in front of us were obliterated and the firing and the music began to die.

For seven months Falluja had been controlled by jihadis who had held the city in a medieval thrall. And now the marines were taking it back, six thousand of them, going into the city on foot in the middle of a November night. I was traveling with a company of 150 marines called Bravo, of the First Battalion, Eighth Regiment. Ashley Gilbertson, an Australian photographer, was with me.

We stepped into the blackened streets and Bravo split into three columns, one for each platoon. We moved half a block before the mortar fire began. Big mortars, 82 millimeters, exploding in the next street over. Everyone froze but Read Omohundro, a stocky Texan and Bravo Company’s commander. Omohundro was thirty-four, which was old for a marine captain. He’d enlisted out of high school, went to Texas A&M on a scholarship and became an officer later than most. But he was a better captain for it. Omohundro advanced in the darkness as if guided by some inner sonar, sensing the location of his men, confident he knew where the shells would fall.

“This way,” Omohundro said, and we crept for another block in the darkness until he stopped and put up his hand.

Gunfire rang out and we scrambled for the walls on the sides of the street. The insurgents knew what they were doing; they were bracketing us with their shells, dropping them to the left and to the right. They were falling close now, exploding in titanic crashes, more closely each time. I’d seen mortars in the movies and even in Iraq but never this close and never so big. Their booms were crushing, and I imagined the shards of metal flying away from each shell. I felt sure we were going to die if we didn’t move, and I felt sure we would die if we did. We tried to back up, to retrace our steps, but there were snipers behind us, too. With the mortars crashing closer, Omohundro and his radio man, Sergeant Kenneth Hudson, were the only ones still in the middle of the street. Hudson looked terribly young. Some of the marines were grimacing, preparing to be hit.

Four men stepped from the darkness. They were not part of Bravo Company; I hadn’t seen them before. They wore flight suits that shimmered in the night and tennis shoes and hoods that made them look like executioners. The four men wore goggles that shrouded their eyes and gave off lime-green penumbras that lightened their faces. With the shells exploding I got off the wall and rejoined the captain in the street, shaking in the knees, and I listened to him tell the executioners the location of the snipers. Up ahead, he said. One of the four men mumbled something but I couldn’t hear. I couldn’t see their eyes through the green glowing but one of them was on the balls of his feet, bouncing, like a football player on the sidelines. Coach, he seemed to be saying, put me in the game.

The four men peeled off into the blackness without a sound. Moments passed and the shelling stopped. And then the sniper fire stopped. We never saw the men again. Omohundro got off his knee and looked at his men who were hugging the walls. “Get moving,” he said.

The pace quickened, a movie reel in the dark. Sailing in from above came a white flare that shattered as it descended into our ranks. Someone yelled, “Phosphorous!” and one of the marines screamed and grabbed me and threw me into a mulberry bush. I was angry at him for that, running me over. Then another marine yanked off my pack and pointed to the fist-size chunks burning through my sleeping bag. “All the way to your bones,” he shouted. I threw the pack on my back and ran to catch the marines, leaving behind me a trail of white feathers.

A moment of quiet gave way to dawn.

We broke into a trot, our boots thudding on the pavement like hooves, rounding a corner, to the right, to the left, up Tharthar Street, when a jeep, a blue Cherokee, entered our flowing ranks. The doors swung open. I was still running and wrenching my head to see when a bunch of men piled out with guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Suddenly I saw them: black eyes, pale skin and baggy gray suits with ammo belts. I thought they had us, they thought they had us, when the marines on the roof opened fire. I had no idea how the marines had gotten up there or when; I thought we were dead. The head of one of the jihadis burst like a tomato, the deep red of his brainy blood spattering against his clammy skin and his head disappearing. The jihadi fell back onto the street and spread his arms wide like a headless Christ. Three more jihadis died right there on Tharthar Street and two of them scampered away. A couple of the kids ran them down and shot them, and one of the wounded jihadis rolled over on the ground and pulled something on his jacket and exploded.

“Fuck!” the kids were yelling, running back. “Fuck! Fucking jihadi rag-head motherfuckers! They’ve rigged themselves. Fuck!”

The kids started slapping plastic explosives onto the Cherokee, taking out big cakes of it and throwing it on, and one of them said it’s going to blow, and somebody yelled, “Fire in the hole!” and we got behind a wall and the earth shook and the jeep disappeared. An axle remained in the road and a piece of engine block and some smoke. The jihadis were gone. Like the moment never happened.

We gathered in an enclosed area behind a brick wall, spilling into it, the clop-clop of boots and clangs of metal and heavy breathing. There were forty of us, Bravo Company’s First Platoon, and Ashley and me. More nineteen-year-olds went up to the roof with their giant guns. A road lay in front of us, a six-lane boulevard, one of Falluja’s main drags called 40th Street. Just then the insurgents spotted us, and they opened up from both ends of the road. Bullets flew up the boulevard and down, thousands of bullets, multitudes of them, crisscrossing in front of us. The marines opened fire at once, screaming and shooting, everybody’s guns on full auto, shouting and shooting. All the testosterone of forty young men. They clambered for space along the top of the wall where they could fire, standing on oil drums and old washing machines. I stood against the bricks, the boots of the kids level with my head, and felt strangely safe, almost serene against the roar of the guns. The one safe place. Bullet casings tumbled over my shoulders.

Captain Omohundro was on his knee, and Hudson was handing him the radio. Omohundro yelled something and in a few minutes the American artillery started coming in. One shot after another landed on the buildings from which the gunfire was coming, one of them the Mohammadiya Mosque. The artillery was too accurate to believe; American guys a mile back were dropping 155mm shells right through the ceilings, one after the other after the other, each one coming in with the whistle of a train. It was a clear day and from my spot on the wall I followed the shells with my eyes, the streaking black lines, all the way in.

Without warning Omohundro yelled, “Go!” and pointed into the street and all the kids started running. Just like that, no discussion, with the firing carrying on in its horrendous way. It seemed lunatic, but everyone tore out from behind the brick wall and into the street and I tore out after them. Ashley was out in front of me, moving like a greyhound. I took ten strides and felt the bullets whiz past and bounce off the pavement and I knew I was going to die so I stopped cold, knowing immediately I’d done a stupid thing, running and stopping both. I turned and dashed back behind the wall. For a moment I felt like a coward behind that wall, and then I remembered it wasn’t my war, not my army. I’m just a goddamn reporter, and I’ll wait the war out here. Come back and get me when it’s over. A handful of marines who had stayed behind to cover the crossing of the others were climbing down, the last marines, and with the gunfire still roaring down the boulevard they ran and I forgot my thoughts and took off behind them.

The wind from the bullets brushed my neck. Marines were writhing in the street, tangles of blood and legs, while other marines were stooping and helping them and also getting shot. I kept running, pumping, flying toward the other side as fast as I could with my seventy pounds of gear when I saw a pair of marines standing in a doorway and waving to me to come on, come on. I ran straight for them and I could see by the looks on their faces they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They were holding their arms out like they wanted to save me, and I reached them and they grabbed me by my pack and threw me through the door. I lay on the floor for a minute as I regained my senses and thought I was nothing so much now as a child. A child in his crib in the care of his parents, they nineteen and me forty-three.

I found Ash lying against a wall; he nodded that he was okay. Then I found Omohundro, who had planted himself on the second floor. Steady as a brick. He was standing next to a window, scanning the scene, and he raised his hand over his shoulder and asked for the radio. Snapped his fingers.

“Hudson, radio,” Omohundro said.

“Hudson, give me the radio,” he said again.

He turned around.

“He’s been shot, sir,” someone said.

Hudson was one of five guys hit crossing 40th Street; he lived. Sergeant Lonny Wells, of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, bled to death on the spot, right in front of us. His worried eyes looking upward as his life ebbed away.

The shooting began to fade. I looked out the window with Omohundro. We were standing across the street from the Mohammadiya Mosque, badly damaged and smoking but still resplendent with its shot-up green dome. A squad of bedraggled marines were circling the mosque, moving around and peering into the windows but not venturing inside. At that moment, an amazing sight appeared, men in clean uniforms, as if transported from another world. Iraqi men, a long row of them, holding their guns with worried looks and stepping toward the mosque: The Iraqi army. One of the marines, stooped and filthy, swung open the mosque’s front door. The Iraqi army marched inside.

It was 2 p.m., twelve hours since we’d climbed out of the troop carriers and walked into the city. We’d advanced about two hundred yards. Omohundro ordered some men up on the roof to stand watch. We put our backs against the wall, slid to the floor and fell asleep.



If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!