- The US Army recently upgraded dozens of awards given for valor during the October 3, 1993, special-operations mission in Mogadishu.
- The operation, recounted in the 2001 film “Black Hawk Down,” is widely remembered for how it went awry.
- Thirty years on, former Delta Force members remember it with frustration about the limitations they faced and pride for the odds they overcame.
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Almost 30 years ago, members of the special-operations unit Task Force Ranger fought for their lives in one of the toughest battles since the Vietnam War.
The battle in Mogadishu, Somalia – popularized by the movie “Black Hawk Down” – was so fierce that it resulted in two Medal of Honors and dozens of lesser awards.
Now the US Army has upgraded 58 of those awards to the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor under fire, and two others to the Distinguished Flying Cross, which recognizes heroism in aerial combat.
Task Force Ranger
Task Force Ranger was the best the US military had to offer.
A few hundred strong, the task force comprised Delta Force’s C Squadron, Bravo Company from the 3rd Ranger Battalion, small elements of Air Commandos, a four-man reconnaissance and sniper team from SEAL Team 6, and helicopters from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the “Night Stalkers.”
Operation Gothic Serpent, their mission in Somalia, was a US-led effort to stop the civil war in the East African country by capturing warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, a key player in the conflict, and his lieutenants.
The task force had been operating in Somalia for some time before the fatal battle on October 3, 1993. On that day, Delta Force operators, Rangers, and Night Stalkers conducted a daytime raid to capture Aidid’s lieutenants, who were meeting in downtown Mogadishu.
Although the mission started smoothly, it was upended by a series of mistakes and bad luck – most notably, the shoot-down of two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.
What was meant to be a quick in-and-out direct-action raid ended up being an hours-long personnel recovery mission conducted under fire in an urban environment.
Somali militiamen shot down the first Black Hawk, call sign Super 61, using a rocket-propelled grenade, killing the two pilots and gravely injuring the rest of the crew. As Delta Force operators and Rangers rushed to the downed Black Hawk, Somali fighters shot down Super 64, again with an RPG.
At the first crash site, US troops’ efforts to extricate the two dead pilots were frustrated by intense Somali resistance.
At the second site, two Delta Force snipers, Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart, volunteered to be inserted and hold off the Somalis until a rescue operation could be mounted. They died defending Super 64, and both received the Medal of Honor.
In the end, 19 American soldiers were killed, including six Delta Force operators, and 73 were wounded. Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant, one of the Black Hawk pilots, was captured.
“I was there in Somalia the day after the battle of the Black Sea,” retired Delta Force operator George Hand told Insider, using another name for the battle.
“Coming in from Egypt, there was much to ponder about the mental state of our comrades. How would they be, what would they be like – aloof, angry, frightened?” Hand added.
“To my utter surprise, there was none of that from any of the men. The only thing I would say was that they played an inordinate rate of very rigorous volleyball. I had never seen a combat team ever fare so well through such trauma.”
“I credit the maturity of the operators and the Unit’s selection process,” Hand said. “These men went through sheer horror for many hours on end but managed to complete the day with comparatively light casualties.”
Hand, author of “Brothers of the Cloth,” a brilliant account of Delta Force missions and men, spent 10 years in Delta Force, completing deployments to Latin America, the Balkans, and Somalia, among other places.
Only hours after the battle ended, reinforcements arrived in the form of Delta Force’s A Squadron and additional Rangers. Their initial mission had three components: rescue Durant, recover the bodies Gordon and Shughart, and continue the hunt for Aidid.
In the end, political backlash at home over the operation and its casualties forced Task Force Ranger to stand down. Delta Force’s A squadron conducted a few missions, but the Somalis ultimately handed Durant over after diplomatic negotiations.
“It’s not a secret that we did a lot of things wrong in Somalia. We didn’t fully utilize the assets we had at our disposal for honestly bullshit reasons,” a retired Delta Force operator said, referring to the Clinton administration denying the use of AC-130 gunships and M-1 Abrams tanks in Mogadishu.
“But that didn’t stop us from taking it to them. People say that we lost in Somalia because we suffered too many KIAs [killed in action]. But we did degrade Aidid’s ability to operate while devastating his militiamen,” the retired operator added.
The few hundred US commandos fought thousands of Somali militiamen, killing hundreds – some reports claim thousands – and wounding many more.
That the US forces accomplished the objective of capturing Aidid’s lieutenants is often forgotten, the retired operator said, “so I guess it’s something that the task force’s fighting spirit is universally recognized after so many years.”
Delta operators in Somalia wanted to get back into the fight “as quickly as possible,” and volleyball was their outlet, Hand said. “When they saw that there would be no more city combat, they played constant, rigorous volleyball to ease off the kettle.”
That three soldiers from Delta Force’s Special Unit received grave injuries during and after the battle and recovered is also often overlooked, Hand added.
“They returned to the US to be fitted with prosthetic limbs and returned to the front line of battle to join their crew. That’s the American fighting man, and as long as he is held to the same rigorous standards as always, we will field the same deadly fighting machine,” Hand said.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.