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This Day in History: Black Hawk Down

On this day in 1993, the Battle of Mogadishu begins. It wasn’t supposed to be a full-fledged battle. It was supposed to be a quick operation to capture two top Somalian faction leaders. Instead, two United States helicopters were shot down and full-fledged urban warfare ensued.

You might know this incident as Black Hawk Down.

Two Delta Force snipers, MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart, attempted to save the crew of one of the Black Hawk helicopters. Their mission was almost certain to end in death—and unfortunately it did. Their bravery in the midst of the unexpected conflict would earn them both the Medal of Honor.

The operation had begun with 19 aircraft, 12 vehicles, and 160 men. Oddly, the mission was simultaneously working—and also going badly awry. There had been casualties and unexpected problems, but the Delta Force members assigned to seize the Somalian leaders had done just that. The mission should have been mere minutes away from a (mostly) successful conclusion. But then a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down by the Somalians below.

“[M]obs of Somalis were moving toward the crash site from all directions,” journalist Mark Bowden writes. “Securing it would take all of the men on the ground. The mission had been designed for speed: swiftly in, swiftly out. Now they were stuck. The entire force at the target building and on the convoy would have to fight their way to the crash site.”

Perhaps American forces could have handled a single helicopter crash. But then a second helicopter was struck, too.

Who was supposed to help the survivors of the second crash? American ground forces were already dedicated to helping those who’d survived the first one. The only people available to offer immediate assistance were aboard a helicopter circling overhead. Two Delta Force snipers were aboard that aircraft, Gordon and Shughart.

Such well-trained soldiers might be able to hold off even a very large mob for a time. But the mission was more than risky.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of Black Hawk Down and the chaos that consumed portions of the mission. But have you focused on the heroism of the two men who left the relative safety of their aircraft and dived into the heart of a city in tumult?

Gordon and Shughart went into the city with no safety net. It wasn’t clear who would be coming to save them and the downed helicopter crew—or how long such a rescue might take. They just knew that they needed to help if they could. They had only their sniper rifles and pistols.

Once on the scene, they pulled the injured helicopter crew out of its aircraft and established a defense perimeter. They fought back against the mob. They used the weapons they had, then pulled more from the helicopter wreckage. They armed the helicopter pilot who had been left propped up near a small tree with a broken leg. They patrolled the perimeter until each was fatally wounded.

Gordon and Shughart knew that they were taking on a mission that was nearly impossible, but they didn’t live long enough to know that they managed to save one person: The pilot, Mike Durant. He was captured after Gordon and Shughart were killed, but survived and was released nearly two weeks later.

Durant’s story of captivity, of course, is a story for another day. But it is one that wouldn’t have occurred at all, but for the selfless bravery of Gordon and Shughart.

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