Operation Gothic Serpent was a United States SOF (Special Operations Forces) op with the objective of capturing Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. As leader of a powerful and vicious Somali clan known as the Habr Gidr, Aidid ravaged the area – Mogadishua in particular – and, after years of bloody, vile killing, he proclaimed himself President. And so, between August and October 1993, the United States took action in the form of Operation Gothic Serpent, hoping at the very least to capture Aidid’s key advisors, if not Aidid himself. On October 3, 1993, actionable intel on their locations came in, and a sizeable raid was formed consisting of 19 aircraft, 12 vehicles, and 160 troops, and this is where we find our heroes.
“It was terribly risky, maybe even hopeless…” Black Hawk Down
The task force was made up almost entirely of Bravo Company 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta – Delta Force – and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) – Nightstalkers.
A raid that should have been a simple in-and-out thanks to our overwhelming show of strength turned into a Charlie Foxtrot of epic proportions in a series of stuttering events. The first event occurred when Black Hawk callsign Super 67 somehow ended up a block north of their insertion point. Heavy ground fire prevented the helicopter from moving to the right location, and so the operators went ahead with their mission. It was then that Ranger PFC Todd Blackburn missed the rope entirely as the men fast-roped in; he fell 70 feet to the crowded streets below, suffering serious head and neck wounds. Clearly Blackburn needed medical attention, so SGT Jeff Struecker’s column of Humvees took over evac.
On the way out with the wounded Ranger, the three Humvees met heavy resistance from the militiamen who were filling the streets; the mission had been a success, and Delta Force operators a block away were carrying out the extraction of their prisoners, two of Aidid’s advisors. It was then that a SGT Dominick Pilla, who was assigned to SGT Struecker’s Humvee, spotted a Somali militiamen taking aim at him. Although Pilla reacted quickly, it wasn’t enough; sources say Pilla’s shot took out the militiaman, but the Somali’s own shot struck Pilla in the head, killing him instantly. All 3 Humvees did eventually reach base, and all 3 were smoking and riddled with bullet holes. The men still in the city were not faring as well.
Black Hawk helicopter callsign Super 61 was shot down by an RPG. The activity on the streets of Mogadishu had reached mob proportions as heavily-armed men, along with some women and children, carried out an open assault on the American soldiers. The militiamen were armed with assault rifles, pistols, RPGs, machetes, and all matter of weaponry, and their frenzied charges took place en masse. On board Super 61, pilots CW3 Cliff “Elvis” Wolcott and CW3 Donovan Briley were killed in the crash while their two crew chiefs were badly hurt. However, SSG Daniel Busch and SGT Jim Smith survived and turned their Delta sniping skills onto the mob in an attempt to protect the wounded men at the crash site.
A cloud of dust shows the site where Super 61 crashes after being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and spiraling out of control.
An MH-6 with the callsign Star 41 managed to land near the destroyed skeleton of Super 61, and co-pilot CW5 Keith Jones left the cockpit to aid the Delta snipers, Busch and Smith. Under heavy fire, Jones carried Busch back to the helicopter while the other pilot, CW3 Karl Maier, laid down cover fire. Maier refused repeated orders to lift off because his co-pilot was not in the helicopter; fortunately Jones reached the helicopter, carrying Busch and followed by Smith, who was able to move under his own power. The heroic actions of Jones and Maier saved Smith’s life; sadly, Busch had been shot four times while defending the crash site and he later succumbed to his wounds.
A Black Hawk with the callsign Super 64 was shot down by an RPG; pilot CW3 Michael Durant survived the crash. Immediately prior to Durant’s crash, CSAR (Combat Search and Rescue) was fast-roping down to the first crash site, where they found the dead pilots and wounded crew chiefs. Bullets continued to rain down as the team moved the wounded, using Kevlar armor plates from the wreckage of Super 61 for shelter as they dug in at a collection point.
As all this went down and Delta Force operators and Rangers were effectively pinned down in multiple locations on the streets of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Super 62, piloted by CW3 Mike Goeffna, stayed a safe distance away, not yet having touched down. From Super 62, a group of operators surveyed the wreckage of Super 64. The fallen helicopter was nothing but a 6-million dollar sitting bird, and although the soldiers in the air could not immediately tell who was alive or dead on the ground, it was clear that someone was holding off the hordes of armed militia flooding the site. There was no telling when ground forces would make it in or when – or if – more air support would come, so, for the moment, the herculean task of rescuing the men on the ground fell on the shoulders of the operators on board the Super 62.
On the streets of Mogadishu, the susurrus of gunfire echoed for blocks as thousands of militiamen swarmed the area, intent on killing the approximately 90 American SOF trapped in the city. Fires burned and explosions concussed the air, and although a large portion of the mob was focused on the operators, a sizeable chunk had noticed the second downed helicopter.
In the air, those in the Super 62 watched in growing horror as the murderous mob raced to the fallen helicopter. Two men, in particular, could watch no longer and requested they be allowed to leave the relative safety of the helicopter to aid those at the second crash site. Their request was denied, not once, but twice: the situation was far too dangerous, they were told, and it was nothing but a suicide mission. One can only imagine their growing frustration as the Somali militiamen below moved continually closer to the downed Black Hawk. Finally, permission was granted, and Delta Force Sniper Team Leader Sergeant Major Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart prepared to fast-rope into the death-trap below.
Michael Durant ‘Chief Warrant Officer’ “Without a doubt, I owe my life to these two men and their bravery. Those guys came in when they had to know it was a losing battle. There was nobody else left to back them up. If they had not come in, I wouldn’t have survived.”
On the ground, inside the Black Hawk, Chief Warrant Officer Durant was still alive, sitting in the pilot’s chair. Durant was using an MP5 submachine gun set to single-shot fire, taking careful aim into the mob in an attempt to halt their progress. But there were far too many of them, and there was no way Durant could possibly survive for much longer. He had to have been aware of his dire situation, and yet he continued to fight.
But before Gordon and Shughart could attempt to establish a perimeter around the downed helicopter, they had to get there. Their own helicopter’s first attempt at landing failed; the LZ was far too hot, and even if the gunfire and RPGs hadn’t been too much, the fire and debris badly hindered landing. Unable to touch down, Super 62 hovered as close by as they could get, and Gordon and Shughart simply jum
ped out, armed to the teeth and ready to strike terror into the hearts of the Somalians swarming Durant in the wreckage. Moments after their boots hit the ground, an RPG slammed into Super 62; the impact was so great the door gunner’s leg was blown off and multiple crew members were injured (the pilot ended up flying his bird full of wounded men back to base while his co-pilot was unconscious and he himself was suffering from a bullet wound to the shoulder. Yes, the pilot was an enormously courageous man).
Gordon and Shughart began working their way to the wreckage of Super 64, fighting through crazed militiamen. They reached the Black Hawk at the last possible moment, right as Durant was down to his last few rounds and the militiamen were about to overtake him.
Durant was devastatingly wounded; his leg was broken in multiple places and several vertebrae had been crushed, and yet he continued to do battle with grim determination. He knew he was the only protection for the three other crew members, all of whom were grievously wounded and unable to fight back in any way.
Michael Durant ‘Chief Warrant Officer’ “They didn’t seem alarmed the situation that we were in. It was just focused on the task, doing what they needed to do to improve our situation, and get through it, get us rescued. Whatever it is they needed to do.”
The two Delta Force operators approached the cockpit, pulling Durant free and quickly moving him and all three crew members – Bill Cleveland, Ray Frank, and Tommy Field – away from the Black Hawk. Gordon and Shughart attempted to take cover with the wounded men and establish a defensive position even as they were badly outnumbered by the advancing Somalians. The pair of operators were some of the best of the best, and they made their stand, facing off against what was quite literally a village’s worth of attackers.
And then, the mob was upon them. Gordan and Shughart fought valiantly, putting all their skills and courage to work in the face on unspeakable hatred. They were the only thing standing between a horde of murderous militiamen and four wounded Americans, and by God they were going to fight, and fight they did.
This was Sergeant Major Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart’s last stand.
There has been some confusion as to who was killed first, and although it goes contrary to the order listed in the official citation, we will remember the great sacrifice of these American Heroes according to the accounts of men who were there on the ground that day.
According to Durant, Gordon was positioned to his left at the end. Gordon and Shughart did their best to create a wall of death for the encroaching mob, armed only with the two rifles and two pistols they’d left their helicopter with minutes earlier. The Delta Force operators fought with surgical precision, picking off their targets methodically, yet with impressive speed, and one imagines the militiamen had to have been angry that just two Americans were managing to hold them off this long – and kill so many of them in the process.
It was then Durant heard Gordon speak: “Damn, I’m hit,” and then, nothing. Shughart had rushed to his brother-in-arms the moment he was hit, and when he came back into Durant’s field of vision, he was carrying Gordon’s prized rifle, his CAR-15. The lone operator approached the painfully injured pilot, handed him the dead soldier’s weapon and remaining mag, and simply said two words: “Good luck.” And then Randy Shughart circled back around to face down the enemy.
He fought with the ferocity of a Spartan, burning through his ammo until his rifle ran dry and he was forced to resort to his pistol. Down to just his pistol, Shughart continued to fight for ten more minutes, showing the kind of tenacity and courage under fire few could possibly hope to achieve. At the end he died a warrior’s death, just as Gordon had, battling to protect his fellow American soldiers, and our Delta Force American Heroes were gone.
This left Durant and the three badly wounded crew members, and there was really nothing Durant could do to stop the Somalis from overwhelming them. The Somalis beat the soldiers mercilessly, sparing no one and nothing. Bill Cleveland, Ray Frank, and Tommy Field were murdered by the brutal actions of the vile men, and Durant was nearly beaten to death but survived because some of Aidid’s men realized he might be worth something alive. The Somalis dragged Durant off, heedless of his shattered vertebrae, caring not about his broken leg, having beaten him very nearly to the point of no return.
As a result of the stunning sacrifices made by Sergeant Major Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart, Durant lived. He was held prisoner for 11 days before being released to return to his wife Lisa and their 6 children. After recovering from his extensive injuries, Durant went back to his service as a Nightstalker, not retiring until 2001 when he had more than 3,700 flight hours behind him, 1,400 of which were flown using NVG’s (Night Vision Goggles). Today Durant gives seminars about helicopter maneuvers and CSAR as well as offering talks about what happened that day in Modagishu. He owes his life to the heroism of Gordon and Shughart, and not a day goes by where he does not remember that.
Gordon and Shughart were each awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for their actions that day. At that time, they were the first soldiers since Vietnam to be awarded the military’s highest honor. It is the heroism of men such as these our nation is built upon. Without men like Gordon and Shughart, our nation would flounder hopelessly, but with their valor we stand strong, the land of the free, and the home of the exceptionally brave.
Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, Sine pari.