NBC News Transcripts
March 26, 2003 Wednesday
SHOW: Dateline NBC (8:00 PM ET) – NBC
Helicopters come under fire from people who look like civilians
BYLINE: BRIAN WILLIAMS
LENGTH: 1106 words
Announcer: Operation Iraqi Freedom, a DATELINE Special, continues.
TOM BROKAW: My colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq.
Brian, tell us about what you got yourself into.
BRIAN WILLIAMS reporting: Well, in the end, Tom, it did give us a glimpse of the war being fought as few have seen it. We asked the US Army to take us on an air mission with them. They accepted. We knew there was risk involved, we knew we would be flying over Iraq, we discussed it. We weren’t cavalier about it.
(Voiceover) We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) A jagged hole in the skin of a helicopter, a symbol for the unexpected challenges faced by US soldiers in a war that does not always go according to plan.
(Hole in helicopter; helicopter flying)
Unidentified Soldier #1: We took fire on the way in.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) It all started Monday morning, a round trip that’s supposed to take six hours. Routine, yes, but we’re all aware it’s over Iraqi air space. And in war, routine gets thrown out the window.
(Soldiers donning clothing; helicopter on ground; pilot in helicopter cockpit)
WILLIAMS: Do you regard your job as dangerous?
Sergeant CLAY SOWER: Oh, it’s got some danger to it.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Sergeant Clay Sower of Washington state is with the Bravo 159th Army Aviation Regiment based in Germany, now deployed here in Kuwait. Their job is to move troops and supplies around the battlefield. Today that means dropping huge sections of a steel bridge near Najaf, some 100 miles south of Baghdad. We’re going along for the ride. We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north.
(Clay Sower; Sower and other soldiers; soldier manning gun in helicopter as it takes off; bridge section suspended beneath helicopter; soldiers in helicopter; aerial view of convoy)
Offscreen Voice #1: Man, look at all the tanks. That’s our guys, right?
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us.
Voice #1: See those people at 9:00 down on the ground? They’re not doing anything.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) But these soldiers have heard reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes firing on American troops.
(Soldier sitting in helicopter)
Voice #1: What’s the weapon status?
Offscreen Voice #2: Right now it should still be locked and loaded on safe.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble.
(Aerial view of countryside; bridge section beneath helicopter)
Offscreen Voice #3: We took fire on the way in. We currently are not under fire–I say again, not under fire–but we look for some type of security, over.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade. We meet a unit from the 3rd Infantry called in, as it turns out, to protect us from the enemy which they say doesn’t look like the enemy.
(Bridge section being dropped; aerial view of countryside; helicopter and soldiers on ground; hole in helicopter; helicopter with hole in it; helicopter and tanks; truck with gun mounted on back; tank and soldiers)
WILLIAMS: How would you describe the quality of the Iraqi soldiers you’ve encountered?
Unidentified Soldier #2: Guys in–in pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns and RPGs. With the M-1s and this rolling into against those guys, it really wasn’t a fight, it was more of a mop-up.
WILLIAMS: Would you call this American-held territory?
Soldier #2: Yeah, they don’t like us very much here. We all expected them to not fight but, you know, throw a couple rounds down range and then put their hands up. But that was not the case at all.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) The soldiers from the 3rd Infantry tell us they killed about six Iraqis the day before. And while they say they’re surprised to keep encountering these irregulars, they certainly haven’t lost their confidence. Sergeant Hernandez is with the 315, Charlie Company, out of Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Sergeant HERNANDEZ: They’re brave. You know, they see a big tank and they want to come at us, or a Bradley. They don’t have a chance.
Offscreen Voice #4: They sky just got totally yellow.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) A massive sand storm grounds us for two nights. The infantrymen stand guard the whole time. This morning, the skies finally cleared and we prepared to move out.
(Helicopters in sand storm; soldiers in sand storm; helicopter, tank and soldier; soldiers cleaning windshield of helicopter)
Unidentified Soldier #3: We’ll kick and burn and get the heck out of here.
Unidentified Soldier #4: Yeah, man.
Unidentified Soldier #5: Have a safe trip back.
Unidentified Soldier #6: Yeah.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) We thank our protectors who prepare to push on toward Baghdad, and we head back to base. Our routine six-hour mission had turned into 50 hours that were anything but.
(Soldiers shaking hands; soldiers preparing helicopter; aerial view)
WILLIAMS: We should, of course, add one more note about the men doing the real work just a few feet from us. There is no way to overstate the comfort having an armored platoon look over your platoon in four helicopters, shoulder to shoulder there in the desert. And as if to underscore that, we heard a short burst of machine gun fire on the way to morning our first night there, and learned a few hours later that, using thermal imaging cameras, they had seen four more Iraqis with another rocket-propelled grenade approaching our perimeter. They surmise they saw the cutout figure of the four choppers and saw what they thought was an easy target with all of us, by the way, sleeping inside the bodies of the helicopters. Tom:
BROKAW: Thanks very much, Brian, and welcome back. Good to have you back.