Missing U.S. tanks were broken, stranded in desert
Britons rescue the two American crews after days of hobbling along.

By Sharon Schmickle
McClatchy News Service
(Published Tuesday, April 1, 2003, 5:43 AM)

CAMP VIPER, Iraq -- Learning Sunday that they had been considered missing in action was only the latest nightmare for eight Marines whose M1A1 Abrams tanks broke down in the Iraqi desert and lost contact with U.S. forces.
On Monday, for the first time, the Marines told the story of their 11-day ordeal that began March 20 when the United States invaded Iraq from Kuwait. The Marines' 2nd Tank Battalion was in the first wave of U.S. forces.

One of the first tanks to rumble onto Iraqi sand was the Gabriel. Its crew of four expected no enemy opposition, but the laser range finder showed another tank.

"We waited for a positive ID," said Cpl. Ben Webster of Columbus, Ohio, the Gabriel's gunner. "It was an Iraqi T-54 [tank]. We killed it."

They took some gunfire from Iraqi fighters posing as camel herders, nothing serious for a tank. Then came their literal downfall.

Anticipating tanks, the Iraqis had dug an 8-foot-deep trap on the route, and the 67-ton Gabriel went into it nose down.

The Gabriel was broken. An arm that helps maintain tension on the tank's wheel track was shot.

The Marines knew the rest of their unit had pushed forward, leaving them behind. They didn't know that they had company a couple of miles to the north.

Another U.S. tank, the Intimidator, had double trouble. It had started with a finicky fuel sensor that gave out entirely, and it had a break in one of the rollers that connect with the track.

There was no way to inspect the damage, let alone fix it, because the Intimidator was taking heavy artillery fire.

"I didn't sleep at all that night," said Lance Cpl. Michael Holmes of Miami. "I stayed up in the gunner's hole all night."

At one point, Holmes saw a tank he knew did not belong to the United States. He asked another crew member to take a look with night-vision goggles. It wasn't one tank. It was 13 -- all in a position to blast the Intimidator.

"The only thing that saved us was one man," Holmes said. "The tanks were British, and they were waiting for their commanding officer to give the authorization to fire. He knew enough about American tanks to recognize us."

The British rolled north, expecting a recovery unit to rescue the fallen U.S. tanks. It didn't happen.

On the second day after the breakdowns, the Marines lost radio contact with their units. On the Gabriel, Webster went to sleep that night "trying to imagine how we were going to fix this thing."

The next morning, the crew went to work with rope, wire and duct tape.

When the Gabriel was rolling, it came upon the Intimidator. "We made a pact before we moved that we were not leaving each other behind," Webster said.

By the fourth day after the breakdown, they were out of water and low on food and fuel.

"Suddenly a little moped dirt bike came speeding out of nowhere," Webster said. "We knew for sure it was British."

A British air-naval unit was camped nearby. For three days, the Marines helped guard the camp while British mechanics patched their tanks.

On Sunday, the tanks limped in to a repair station at this U.S. encampment.