On March 31, 2004, armed insurgents ambushed and killed four American civilian security contractors who were driving through the city of Fallujah, Iraq. Within hours of the attack, shocking images of the Americans’ desecrated bodies – burned, and hung from a bridge – were broadcast around the globe.
When the horrific killings occurred, Marines were finalizing their turnover with U.S. Army units in the area and had just assumed command of security operations. Marine leaders understood the severity of the attack and immediately condemned the brutal murders, but simultaneously recommended not to launch an immediate offensive reaction.
When writing the 1st Marine Division’s daily report on April 1, 2004, then-Brig. Gen. John F. Kelly, the assistant division commander, wrote “we must avoid the temptation to strike out in retribution.”
Despite initial calls for restraint, on April 3, 2004, the combined joint task force commander issued the order for Marines to go on the offensive in Fallujah, and on the next day Operation Vigilant Resolve began.
On the night of April 4, 2004, Marines launched their assault on the city, and by sunrise the following morning, Fallujah was surrounded by U.S. Marines. Throughout the next five days, Marines engaged in fierce urban combat with a level of intensity not seen since the Battle of Hue City.
“Several infantry battalions, tanks battalions, some (U.S. Navy) Seabees, and some aviation units were all focused on securing Fallujah,” said 19th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy E. Black, who was a company gunnery sergeant with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines during Operation Vigilant Resolve. “Amazingly, in those five days a good portion of the city was cleared.”
While being engaged in constant, violent combat, Marines successfully gained control of strategic areas within the city, cutoff insurgent withdrawal routes, and destroyed several key insurgent defensive positions.
“1st Battalion, 5th Marines; 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, and a handful of other units fought their way into Fallujah and took a ton of ground – inch by bloody inch, and then held (that ground),” said Sgt. Maj. David A. Wilson, the current II Marine Expeditionary Force sergeant major.
Although the Marines were having success and driving the insurgency back, the newly formed Iraqi Governing Council quickly grew concerned with the intensity of the urban combat happening in Fallujah. Following increased skepticism and vocal criticism, the United States announced it would unilaterally institute a ceasefire within the city of Fallujah beginning at noon, April 9, 2004. Despite the ceasefire, insurgents continued to assault Marines throughout the following weeks.
On May 1, 2004, then-Lt. Gen. James Conway, the I MEF commanding general, announced he was turning over all remaining operations in Fallujah to the newly formed Iraqi Fallujah Brigade, and all
Marines would depart the city. The withdrawal of Marines from the city officially ended Operation Vigilant Resolve.
“I think a lot of learning happened during that deployment. Not because of a lack of training, we had the best training we could possibly have, but it doesn’t matter how well you are trained, you learn to apply that training,” Sgt. Maj. Black said. “We went from turnover with the Army, directly into that first battle, and then learning how to operate in a counterinsurgency environment. I think every Marine came away from that deployment with an understanding of what they would face over the course of the next 12-15 years of deployments.”
Twenty-seven U.S. service members died during the 1st Battle of Fallujah, and roughly 200 insurgents were killed. Six months later, Marines would once again find themselves back on the streets of Fallujah, engaged in violent house-to-house fighting – Operation Phantom Fury.