PODCAST PRODUCER: This is Laura Cross of Rebel Seed Studio for Military Dispatch podcast. I am currently in production on the audio documentary series Battlefield Fallujah, which will tell the true story of one of the deadliest battles of the Iraq War, the incursion into Fallujah in November 2004. The podcast series is based on retired Marine Colonel Dick Camp’s book “Operation Phantom Fury: The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq” and features interviews with more than 30 participants including General Richard Natonski, General Joe Dunford and Colonel Michael Shupp.
Originally scheduled for release early this year, the release date has been pushed to the Fall of 2019, closer to the 15th anniversary of the event - mostly because of the amount of time required for me to review the massive amount of audios and material, which were graciously provided by the Dept of Defense and the Marine Corps History Division.
In the meantime, I invite you to listen to a short preview of the series. Please be aware, this AUDIO CONTAINS EXPLICIT LANGUAGE, DESCRIBES GRAPHIC WAR VIOLENCE, AND DEPICTS THE DEATH OF MILITARY PERSONNEL. It was recorded in October 2005 at Firm Base Sparta in Haditha, Iraq - so you may hear some background noise and military vehicles.
This is an account of “Hell House” by Lance Corporal Justin Boswood, Team Leader, 2nd Platoon, Kilo Company, Third Battalion, First Marines [RCT-2]. [Producer’s Note: This story is told from the perspective of only one Marine and does not identify all participants of the event.]
LANCE CORPORAL JUSTIN BOSWOOD, USMC: The plan was, the next day, they were gonna start back sweeping, or back clearing, the Jolan district from where we were at. And, I guess, you’d say the push is pretty much over. It was November 13th, when we started back clearing, but we still weren’t done. We thought we were done, but we weren’t. My platoon went up on a QRF [quick reaction force] for a company and 3rd Platoon, probably 1st Platoon, they set out to start clearing in zone. Hell, 3rd Platoon didn’t make it a block away from the house before they come into a house that was just covered with foreign fighters inside. The first couple guys that went in, immediately started taking fire. Had a good little shoot out on the bottom level. As they moved in, the house had a rotunda and started taking more fire. Shit, probably four or five guys right off that was just wounded. Ended up having to push in at rooms all underneath the rotunda to get out of the line of fire. Already calling in support.
First Sergeant [Brad] Kasal, he was there, and he was Weapons Company, first sergeant. He was with 3rd Platoon, ‘cause they had CAAT [combined anti-armor team] attached to them, ‘cause they didn’t have any tanks or Amtracs with them, so they had CAAT for the up guns. And, First Sergeant Kasal went in with PFC [Alexander] Nicoll and I think Sergeant [Byron] Norwood. I think that’s when he entered. And they went in, and right off the bat, when they entered, First Sergeant Kasal—they made it, the run through the rotunda, and they didn’t get shot at for the first minute that they went through the rotunda, and when they went into one of the back rooms, first sergeant like, was clearing the room and swept and looked to the left, and rounds just started flying, and he was staring right at a damn Hadji, so he shot him. He got shot himself from behind. And, I think, from the front he took maybe two rounds. He backed out of the room and Nicoll had been in the main room of the house, under the rotunda, and he’d taken a round in the leg.
So, first sergeant grabbed him, and they started making their way into the shitter room, this really tight, little, cramped room. It probably wasn’t even six foot by four foot, and they’d pulled in there and as soon as they got in there, the foreign fighters upstairs, they just started dropping grenades like it was cool. First sergeant covered Nicoll through the blast and absorbed most of the blast himself. Had other guys just pouring into the house trying to get in and get at it. Everybody, at that time, there was probably, shit, six, seven casualties in there. Sergeant Norwood went to go in. Peeped his head around, trying to get his shot up in the rotunda, and caught one in the forehead.
At that time, Corporal [Francis] Wolf, and a couple of his boys, they again tried to make entry in and tried to find out what was going on, and Wolf got shot a couple times in the chest with his sappy plate. He got right back up. And that was just Wolf, he’s just a hard head. Hel even if he would’ve been shot in the arm, he still would’ve been going. It was just raw determination. So, there was pretty much—about 11, 10, or 11 wounded, and one KIA [killed in action] in there at that time. And that’s when they called up QRF. All that probably happened within maybe two, three minutes time span, if that. Fast.
Called up Company QRF, which we were about a block away. We all heard the firing, but we didn’t know what was going on. And when our platoon commander come in, Lieutenant [John] Jacobs, all he told us was 3rd Platoon ran into some guys in a house and they were hurting in a bad way. They had 10, 11 wounded, and one KIA. Pretty surprising to us. We were all pretty shocked that we were so damn close. So, we took off running out the road. First spot, second spot, third spot, order of movement. We had about two, three HMMWVS, that 2nd Squad was on, had security on. And as soon as we ran to the corner to go down the road to the house, we started taking fire from the top of the house. My spot advanced and returned fire. Cleared the building on that side of the road. Set up the support by fire, and I continued to fire on the house.
For some reason the rest of the platoon didn’t advance. I think they were holding ‘em back in reserve ‘til the others know where to push ‘em, no cover, no nothing. We set up our own support by fire and <unknown word> into our squad and punched across the road and run up into a house and when we got into the house, 3rd Platoon’s platoon commander, Jesse Grapes, he was there, standing at the doorway, and him and Lieutenant Jacobs, they were pretty good buddies, he just said, “Hey, you know, what’s going on? What’s the story?” He was just trying to let Lieutenant Jacobs know what was going on and he told him to the best of his ability what he could, but he didn’t really know anything himself, ‘cause nobody could get into the room to find out what was going on in there.
And he told ‘em the number of guys he had in there and roughly where he could tell, to the best of his knowledge, where they were inside the house. And, we started devising a plan on how we were gonna get in there. None of us really could tell what the set up in the room was, ‘cause all of us outside hadn’t been inside, and the ones that had been inside, were already CASEVAC’d. They were all shot up; either walking wounded or had to be carried out. So, we had no idea what the inside looked like.
Lieutenant Jacobs said he was gonna throw a flash bang on the roof and he wanted us to run into the open area and try to get into one of the back rooms. And when he did that, everyone just kind of stood there like, “No, not yet.” Just wasn’t feeling the—momentum wasn’t there. And AKs were clattering from upstairs into the downstairs. And from their positions, they could shoot in pretty much every doorway, so you had to stand way the hell away from the damn doorway. The second time Lieutenant Jacobs said he was gonna throw a frag up on the roof, try to distract ‘em, and then Kody Barnes and Sean O’Rourke, they were gonna run across to the back room and try to get in and see where all the Marines were, see what we could do.
When they popped the corner to run in there after the bang, Kody could see one of the insurgents standing upstairs on the edge of this rotunda just gunning down. He popped off a couple rounds and pulled back and he was damn lucky he did, or probably would’ve ended up getting himself shot. So, we pulled back into the room and decided that that wasn’t the best way to enter that house and we had to come at it from a different angle. So, we pulled outside. There was a kitchen door to the right and myself and Lance Corporal [Christopher] Marquez and our Doc, Shaun Aragon and we went in through there and as soon as I went into the kitchen, I was like, “Holy shit!” 3rd Platoon’s platoon sergeant was laying in front of the door. He was just all kinds of riddled with shrapnel. I don’t know if he’d been shot. He might’ve been shot once, but just shrapnel everywhere; his shoulders and his leg. And he was laying right in the doorway and the door was closed and it had a kind of non see-thru window on it, and I was like, “Holy shit!” I couldn’t believe this guy had been here this long and nobody had pulled him out of the house.
And I didn’t really think nothing about the door being where it was and anybody that was up in the rotunda being able to look down in there, it just didn’t really cross my mind. We sat down and started to treat his wounds. As a squad medic I’d assisted the corpsman throughout the push with bandaging up guys, so it wasn’t really nothing new. It was just, you know, another task at hand. So, I posted Marquez on the door. Just had ‘em stand, kind of stand up against the wall, while me and Doc Aragon started to go to work on staff sergeant. And we started cutting his pant legs off and Doc was up at his head, checking out his wounds up there, and they just started letting loose with bursts of AK fire through the door, just right in between me and Doc. We kind of did a classic matrix move and we were like, “Whoa!” Kind of backed the hell up, and we were like, “Damn!”
We thought it was friendly fire at first, because I figured they’d seen us moving around behind the door. So, I started yelling, “Friendly fire, friendly fire!” you know, “you got friendlies in here.” And they’re like, “Bullshit, it’s not friendly fire, you ain’t got nobody over there that could get an angle on ya. It’s coming from up top.” I could see through the window, ‘cause it had been shattered by all the fire, and I could see just little feet up there, and I was like, “Damn, we got to get out of here. We got to get staff sergeant out of here.” So, we pulled him out and took him out to the HMMWV and when we went back, we went into the main room and we were still trying to devise a plan to get in. And there was Marines in two different rooms; in the shitter room, there was Sergeant [Robert] Mitchell and First Sergeant Kasal, PFC Nicoll, and then in the back room, was [Lance Corporal Cory] Carlisle, [Corporal Jose] Sanchez, and [Private Rene] Rodriguez. So, there was six, seven guys in there still.
So, they were talking back and forth with Lieutenant Jacobs and Lieutenant Grapes trying to, you know, see were the guys were, if they could get angles on ‘em, if they could even get close to the doorways they were in. They couldn’t. All the guys that were in there that weren’t shot up, were busy treating the guys that were shot up. So, they couldn’t really free themselves to fire on anybody. We decided we were gonna try to go in through the back window. Lieutenant Grapes told me to run down and grab the breach kit from the HMMWV, so I went down and grabbed the sledge hammer and a pair of bolt cutters and we went around to the back, left side, of the house to a back room, and there was a dead insurgent laying in the doorway. It was the one that First Sergeant Kasal had shot when he’d run into the house.
The windows, they all got damn bars on ‘em. Probably like quarter inch think, rebar, or just any kind of bars they could find that they’d put over the windows, and they’re just cemented in. So, we went ahead and started beating the hell out of these bars trying to make entry. We couldn’t use any demo because we didn’t want to injure anybody inside, as far as our friendly units. So, we were there probably a good five minutes, just beating away on the rebar with a sledge hammer. We couldn’t even use the bolt cutters ‘cause the metal was too thick. Me and Lieutenant Grapes and Corporal <unknown name>, my team leader at the time, spent a good five minutest trying to beat these bars out of the way. Broke the welds. Got, managed to get two bars out. Lieutenant Grapes stripped his gear off and slid through. I was like, “Fuck, I ain’t letting him go by himself.” So, I stripped down and went in after him. And they passed our weapons and some rounds through and then passed our gear through.
I kind of crawled up on my belly, making my way to the door, where the insurgent was at. He was just laying right inside the doorway. I grabbed onto his ankle, and I remember thinking, “This guy’s fat. I ain’t gonna be able to pull with one hand.” It was tile floor, and when I’d give him a tug, he just slid ‘cause there was so much blood, just huge blocks. It was no problem me moving him. I just pulled him right back with ease. And as I pulled back, Lieutenant Grapes, he went up and jumped down in the prone right where they guy had been in the biggest puddle of blood I think I’ve ever seen in my life. Got down and started worming his way up to the door to get an angle on the rotunda. As soon as I moved the Hadji out the way, I went in and got on top of Lieutenant Grapes, angling the other way, so we were both trying to get an angle, and covering the stairs, and covering the far side of the rotunda.
So, at that time, we had, pretty much, half the rotunda covered, so we had it limited to where the insurgents could move, with us seeing ‘em. And so, half of it was secured and that allowed everybody else that was in there to kind of inch up and inch up as we were firing to get in better firing positions themselves. Got in better firing positions and established good fire support and they decided that they were gonna send Marquez and my buddy, Shaffer, Dane Shaffer. They were gonna send over into the rooms and start pulling people out. They dropped their weapons and we had a count set. On Lieutenant Jacobs’ count, we started firing. As soon as we started firing, the whole house was just shaking with 556 rounds. SAWs [squad automatic weapon] going off with a 200-round burst and the 16s just as fast as you could pull the trigger, burst. Just dropping magazines and reloading and getting thrown mags from the window outside. It was just an awesome, overwhelming fire inside there and it allowed Marquez and Shaffer to run to the shitter room from the kitchen and start carrying out the casualties. They made three trips in and three trips out to carry everybody out under fire. It was pretty awesome. I don’t even know how they could see in there ‘cause there was so much dust and everything flying around from the amount of rounds.
Ended up pulling everybody out and right next to me and Lieutenant Grapes on the backside, was a room where Carlisle, Rodriguez, and Sanchez were in, and while we were firing up into the rotunda, while they were carting everybody out, Corporal Jensen had come up on the back of the house with a chain that was hooked up to a HMMWV and he wrapped it around the bars and they gunned it and yanked the bars off the window and were able to EVAC Carlisle and get Sanchez and Rodriguez out the back window that way. So, as soon as all the friendly forces were out, and we had everybody CASEVAC’d that we could, started breaking down our combat power inside the house.
We decided we were just gonna blow the damn thing. Our senior 51  that was with us was Corporal [Richard] Gonzales. This guy was good with explosives. He really knew his shit. And, he come in with a 20-pound satchel and the problem was figuring out where we were gonna lay it. It needed to be somewhere in the center of the house. Hell, the center of the house was the damn rotunda. So, there were still insurgents up there. We hadn’t been able to get a shot on them. They’d pulled back into a little room up top and just were pretty much unaffected by all the firing we’d done while we were in there. So, we started hooting and hollering like there was 20, 30 Marines in there, just cussing and, hell, it was nothing but a stream of cuss words that was out of my mouth. Couldn’t comprehend what everybody else was saying. And we gave ‘em some covering fires.
He run in and he dragged one of the insurgent’s bodies into the center of the house and placed a 20-pound satchel on his chest, popped smoke, and we run out of the house. Went around the corner of the house across the street and the house blew and it was the coolest thing in the world. First thing I noticed was the door, a door was about 100 feet in the air just rolling around, and the second thing was the pink mist that was underneath the door, and that had to have been the insurgent. It was, no shit, a pink mist, like 80 foot in the air. It was awesome. And shit just flying everywhere.
After the blast, we were gonna go up and search the rubble and make sure anybody that was there was dead. And when we went up, there was, not shit, an insurgent trapped underneath the rubble with his right shoulder, I believe, and his right arm and his head, out of the rubble. Dark complected, dark kinky hair, and he looked like a Chechen, and a huge beard. They started walking up to him. It was Lieutenant Jacobs, Lieutenant Grapes and now, Corporal [Andrew] Wingett. They were making their way up to ‘em and they were gonna double tap him. And as they were making their way up to the rubble, the guy kind of poked his head up and extending his hand, he had a grenade and he tossed the grenade out, and there was probably about eight or, maybe eight or ten of us stacked up alongside the wall. And the grenade come out and we all started screaming, “Grenade! Grenade!” and run around the corner and get down. The only person who didn’t get down was Lucian Read... that was our civilian photographer that was there. And he just stood there taking pictures and ended up catching shrapnel on both his ankles. It was pretty funny. We all used to give him a hard time about that; didn’t have sense enough to get down for the grenade.
After that, we just all got on line and dumped thousands of rounds into him. Everybody was pretty heated about everything that went off, so …no shit… insurgents that we could see so, we had a good little ammo dump, and then went up and dead checked him with a bayonet, just to ease our minds. And we pulled back to the house. That was the 13th. And they started calling that house the Hell House.
There was five Marines decorated with Valor and Combat come out of that house. Sergeant Mitchell got a Silver Star in that house for the Marines that he treated and the insurgents that he took when he entered. Corporal Sanchez got a Bronze Star with Combat V in that house for what he did for Carlisle. Dane Shaffer and Christopher Marquez got Bronze Stars with Vs for that house, for running through and taking everybody out. Lieutenant Jacobs got a Bronze Star with a V for coordinating. Lieutenant Grapes got one with a V for coordinating. Myself, got one for pulling staff sergeant out and going through the back room, I guess, it said risking my life by over exposing myself to direct enemy fire to allow everybody else to come out. So, there was a handful of Marines that were decorated very highly in that house that’s not really well known.
That was a bad day. Probably the worst day we had while we were there. That was the 13th.
Image Description: Marine Corporal Justin Boswood talks on the radio while conducting clearing operations, as part of “Operation Pit Bull” on February 14, 2006 in Sakran, Iraq (NOT FALLUJAH).
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense.
Photograph by Cpl Adam Schnell.
Interviewer: Lt. Colonel Timothy Crowley, USMC Field Historian
Interview Recorded: October 21, 2005 at Firm Base Sparta in Haditha, Iraq.
Interview Recording courtesy of the Department of Defense and the United States Marine Corps History Division.
Music courtesy of Rebel Seed Films (from the “Devil Dogs” film soundtrack).