Marines sure they were friendly-fire victims
By Art Harris
JACKSONVILLE, North Carolina (CNN) -- It was the deadliest day of the Iraq war.
Eighteen Marines were killed in Nasiriya on March 23 as U.S. and coalition forces drove to Baghdad.
Six months later, those who fought alongside them told CNN they remain bitter that an undetermined number of their friends were killed -- not by Iraqis -- but by an Air Force A-10 they hoped was coming to their rescue.
Pinned down on all sides, the Marines were under fire from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. Outnumbered, they fought back, their dead and wounded scattered all along the aptly named "Ambush Alley."
With no air support yet, Marine Capt. Dan Wittnam was elated as he looked into the clear skies to see it coming -- a U.S. warplane called a Warthog for its ability to root out and kill tanks.
"The first thought that went through my mind was, 'Thank God, an A-10 was on station," he told CNN.
And then, "the earth went black from the dirt being kicked up. And a feeling of absolute, utter horror and disbelief."
Wittnam, the 33-year-old commander of Charlie Company, said the Warthog fired on the Marines.
The United States Central Command wouldn't comment on the incident other than to say it's still under investigation.
It has been under investigation for six months. It remains "open" and a report is expected to be released in weeks.
The 18 Marines account for 16 percent of all U.S. combat casualties during the war, according to Central Command's official records.
Just how many Marines died from the A-10 is unclear.
"I know it's more than a handful," said Staff Sgt. Troy Schielein, displaying a muscled forearm covered in tattoos of the names of 18 dead Marines. Schielein estimated the A-10 killed five to 10.
Road to Baghdad
On March 23, the battalion got orders to seize two key bridges to help open the road to Baghdad.
By sundown, they'd accomplished their mission.
Marines on the battlefield that day described for the first time what happened in between when they were under fire from the A-10's 30-millimeter, multi-barrel cannon that spits out 3,900 rounds per minute.
"You hear this big, 'Waaah,' and then all you see is, you know, the ground just explode," said Lance Cpl. Edward Castleberry of Mount Vernon, Washington.
Lance Cpl. David Fribley, 26, had enlisted following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Castleberry said he shouted at Fribley to get in his Armored Assault Vehicle. Fast.
"I'm turning around, screaming at him, telling him to get in," said Castleberry, who was the AAV's driver.
Fribley almost made it.
"He was trying to climb in, he's got one arm trying to get in, and he just takes a huge round directly through his chest and it blew his whole back out," Castleberry said.
Marines said they are certain it was a U.S. warplane -- the Iraqis did not fly a single combat mission during the war.
Sgt. Jeremy Donaldson of Bangor, Maine, said one round just missed him.
"It came through my turret from an upper angle," he told CNN. "I'm confident it was an A-10. A 30-millimeter cannon, unless the Iraqis grew wings and hung off the clouds with a 30mm cannon."
Sgt. William Schaefer of Columbia, South Carolina, was evacuating dying and wounded Marines under withering Iraqi fire when the A-10 opened up and hit the transmission, he said. The AAV eventually crashed into a pole.
Schaefer keeps a snapshot of an armor-piercing A-10 round, made of depleted uranium, which was found inside his destroyed vehicle.
Those on the battlefield that day said the A-10 pilot -- still not identified -- was told there were no U.S. troops in the area.
The pilot reported back that he saw an Iraqi convoy heading for the city. So the ground controller -- who was never told Charlie Company was there -- gave the pilot the green light to fire.
Marines insist the pilot should have recognized the tub-shaped AAVs as U.S. assault vehicles. Only the Marine Corps has them.
"There is nothing like an AAV," said Schielein, of Peoria, Illinois. "I mean, the biggest vehicle that the Iraqis even had was a pick-up truck with a machine gun in the back."
Even though sources told CNN the A-10 was under anti-aircraft fire and performing evasive maneuvers, Marines said they cannot forget -- or forgive.
"If I could actually find the A-10 pilot, the one that did the shooting, I'd probably break both his knees," said Cpl. Michael Brown of Summit Station, Ohio.
Pentagon correspondents Jamie McIntyre and Barbara Starr and CNN cameraman David Allbritton contributed to this report.