NEWBERRY — James Lechner is a retired U.S. Army infantry officer, having served in the Army for 27 years with a military career that included command and staff positions in conventional and special operations units.
He also participated in eight operational deployments, including in Somalia with Task Force Ranger, made famous by the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
“I tell some war stories, not because I get to talk about myself, but because I get to talk about some of the American heroes, men I served with, and tell their story to honor them,” Lechner said. “My first combat experience was with Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu, Somalia, made famous in the book and movie Black Hawk Down.”
Lechner was the guest speaker on Veterans Day at the Newberry Rotary Club.
After Desert Storm there was a famine and a drought in northern Africa, specifically in Somalia. Somalia’s government had fallen, and not only did they not have a government, but they also did not have services like police and schools.
“This disaster caused a flood of over a million refugees to come to the city of Mogadishu (a very dense city),” Lechner said. “President H.W. Bush, in December of 1992, decided to lead a U.N. effort to relieve that crisis going on, and it was very successful.”
President Bill Clinton, Lechner said, decided to take advantage of the opportunity the U.N. created in Mogadishu to do some nation building, restore the government and restore democracy.
“Actually, that effort was successful, up to a point. There were five major groups in Mogadishu, ethnic and political groups that were running the city. Only one was opposed to the U.N.,” Lechner said. “One group decided it was their chance for power and opposed the U.N., targeting peace keepers, killing peace keepers. Finally they upped their game and started targeting U.S. forces.”
This group was led by Mohamed Farrah Aidid, a Somali general trained by the Italians. Somalia was their colony, and trained by Soviets.
“He was a very smart and cunning opponent. One of the the things he realized was that we were going to try and use all of our Cold War era intelligence assets to try and track him down,” Lechner said.
In August 1993 four Americans were killed in an IED attack, which triggered Clinton to create a task force to go to Somalia and take out Aidid. Lechner was a part of that task force.
“We arrived in August and we attempted to locate Aidid. Between August and September, we conducted six different missions,” Lechner said.
The task force was focused on Cold War techniques, where they listened to him on the radio. But Aidid never talked on the radio nor did he use any type of electronic device. He passed everything by courier, and those couriers were all members of his family.
“He changed his signature. Every night he would stay in a different place. Sometimes he would move in a convoy with many guards, sometimes with just one, sometimes he dressed as a woman,” Lechner said.
In response to this the task force expanded its net and started going after some of the other leadership in Aidid’s group.
“If you have ever seen Black Hawk Down it opens up with this capture of his (Aidid) number two man, Osman Atto,” Lechner said. “We discovered that during that capture we could see that the Somalians were reacting to this. They would throw tires into the street, where there was a contact, and they would set the tires on fire, then everyone 12 years old and above would grab a gun and submerge on that site.”
On Oct. 3, 1993, they received intelligence that the rest of Aidid’s leadership, about 13 key leaders, were meeting in a hotel, right in the center of Aidid’s territory. It was decided that even though the meeting was in the middle of the day, they could do it.
Lechner said they assembled the task force and were sitting in the helicopters waiting to go.
“We had the human intelligence source who was going to the meeting. He went down and asked them to drive his vehicle outside of the building and opened the hood. As soon as he did that our commander called out the code word to launch. It was Irene.”
During the start of the mission one soldier was injured jumping out of the helicopter. The team did get inside the hotel and secure the prisoners, and a perimeter was established on the ground.
About 20 to 30 minutes into the mission, the Somalians were assembling outside of the perimeter. The Humvee taking the injured soldiers back to the base was ambushed, and one of the soldiers died.
“One thing we did not understand at the time, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were located right up in the Sudan. They reached out to Aidid and offered their help. They came down and taught them how to turn anti tank rockets to where you can fire them up into the air,” Lechner said.
One helicopters was shot in the tail, but the pilot kept the chopper stable enough so the crew in the back survived. The task force made its way to the crash site, but at that time thousands of Somalians are also heading to that site.
“Each step we took, there were increasing levels of resistance, increased level of gun fire. I remember I had to step over one of my soldiers that took a round to the hip. That’s a very difficult thing to do, step over somebody like that, but it was not my job to provide him with assistance. I knew a medic was behind me,” Lechner said.
Lechner said it was then that he realized his job was not fighting as an infantryman, but talking to the helicopters to get fire support. Lechner had his radio in his hand, but had not heard anything. When he checked his second radio, he heard cries for help.
“When the aircraft crashed, its beacon overrode all radio systems in the area so we had jammed ourselves by emergency transponder,” Lechner said.
He requested support from the attack helicopters, which they provided, giving them breathing room. They were able to eliminate the Somalians that got into the perimeter, and they fortified the crash site. The firefight lasted 18 hours.
During the course of this mission, five helicopters were shot down, two of which they were unable to reach. Eighteen soldiers died and thousands of Somalians were killed.
Reach Andrew Wigger at 803-276-0625 ext. 1867 or on Twitter @ TheNBOnews.