They were pinned down in a wooded area next to a swamp last Oct. 4 in Niger, expecting to be overrun.
They had destroyed their radios to prevent their capture by the enemy, and left final messages for loved ones on personal devices. French helicopters had been circling overhead for 40 minutes but couldn’t find them. Then, an as yet unidentified member of Operational Detachment Alpha Team 3212 walked alone into a clearing. He waved a U.S. flag to distinguish himself from the enemy.
They had been found, and the firefight that left four U.S. troops, four Nigerien troops and a Nigerien interpreter dead was over. The Americans killed were Sgt. La David Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida; Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The previously missing details about the joint patrol of members of the Army’s Third Special Forces Group and Nigerien forces were released Thursday in the form of a nearly 23-minute, mixed animation and video compact disc. For as yet unspecified reasons, the Pentagon showed only a 10-minute version of the video and animation preceding a briefing May 10 by Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of U.S. Africa Command. Waldhauser was accompanied by his chief of staff, Army Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, who led the Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation on the joint patrol known as Team Ouallam, for their base in Niger.
Cloutier’s investigation was more than 3,000 pages long, but the Pentagon released only an eight-page unclassified summary May 10. The longer, unclassified version of the video and animation had already been shown to the families of the fallen and members of Congress. The shorter version ended with the death under a thorn tree of Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was not recovered until two days after the ambush. It left unclear what happened afterward. At the outset, the narration of the long version cleared up earlier confusion on the number of troops and vehicles involved, and provided more detailed timelines on the recoveries of the bodies and rescue efforts.
The joint patrol consisted of eight U.S. Special Forces troops, two special operations support troops and one intelligence contractor. They were joined by a three-member Nigerien reconnaissance team and 31 other Nigerien troops. They had eight vehicles, mostly pickups. The U.S. troops had three vehicles — two of them mounted with M240 machine guns. The Nigeriens had five vehicles.
Their mission began Oct. 3 and changed at least twice before it ended. The captain leading Team Ouallam had filed a plan stating that the mission was to be a civil and military reconnaissance patrol in the area of Tiloa, north of the village of Tongo Tongo near the Mali border. However, the captain “did not accurately characterize” his actual plan, which was to kill or capture a sub-commander of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Greater Sahara (ISIS-GS), the narration said. The patrol did not find the sub-commander in Tiloa; they found only an empty enemy camp west of Tongo Tongo, although the fire pits were still warm, the narration said.
The patrol stopped in Tongo Tongo to let the Nigeriens take on water. There, they met with at least 27 villagers, the narration said. Almost immediately upon leaving Tongo Tongo, proceeding south toward their base, the patrol was hit by fire coming from the east. The attack built in intensity, and they withdrew to a defensive position. At about 12:50 p.m. local time, more than an hour into the firefight, “they wrote short messages to loved ones, believing they would soon be overrun,” the narration said.
French Mirage jets from neighboring Mali arrived, and made several passes at “treetop level,” helping to scatter the enemy. French helicopters also arrived at the scene. Shortly after 4 p.m., “a team member moved into a clearing, waving an American flag to a helicopter to establish his identity as friendly forces,” the narration said.
A Nigerien quick reaction force was the first to arrive on the ground, but they initially mistook the patrol members “for enemy forces, firing on them for 48 seconds until they were positively identified. Fortunately, no one was injured,” the narration said. At 6:25 p.m., the Nigerien quick reaction force found the bodies of Staff Sgts. Wright, Black and Jeremiah Johnson. At 6:25 a.m. on Oct. 6, Tongo Tongo villagers told Nigerien troops where they thought the body of the fourth American could be found. The Nigeriens found Sgt. La David Johnson at the thorn tree.
He had been shot multiple times. He was lying on his back, his arms at his side. “He was not captured alive,” the narration said.
— Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.