‘Aumakua: Sacrifice in a Fallujah Hell House
By Jack Mandaville
The November, 2004 offensive into the city of Fallujah, Iraq—dubbed Operation Phantom Fury—placed the individuals involved into the renowned annals of American Military narration. The young men who meticulously stormed into the city will forever have their own unique moniker: Fallujah Veterans—a name that has involuntarily set them apart from other Iraq War veterans.
The Marines of Charlie “Warpig” Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, attached to 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 31st MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit), had been a part of this brutal house-to-house fighting from day one.
By November 11th, the invincible feeling they had all benefited from while clearing the city was crushed when the company lost two of its popular Marines, Lance Corporal Kyle W. Burns and Staff Sergeant Theodore Holder II, both in the same firefight. The demoralizing nature of these losses only compounded the growing logistical problem of maintaining able-bodied personnel throughout the continuing operation.
The wounding of a quarter of the company by late November had created a constant vacuum of small unit leaders and tested the psyche of the company as Marines were not only coming and going from the hospital, but the cohesive makeup of the unit was now being battered and jumbled through constant vehicle and team changes in order to compensate for the growing casualty list.
One of those walking wounded was Lance Corporal Blake A. Magaoay, 20, a rifleman from Pearl City, HI. A proud Hawaiian, Magaoay had a tribal-style tattoo of a shark on him. The shark was known as ‘aumakua mano in early Hawaiian culture, a deity that was thought to be the reincarnation of deceased loved ones. The shark was a big part of Hawaiian tradition and families used to worship the ’aumakua, which was thought to converse with its living relatives in dreams and offer them physical protection in the real world.
After sustaining his second wound during Phantom Fury, an incident from a frag that sent shrapnel tearing through his back leg up to his buttocks, Magaoay snuck out of the hospital in Camp Fallujah to rejoin his company. He was placed back on full-duty and reassigned to Team 4 of 3rd Platoon along with Lance Corporal Chris “Fish” Anderson and team leader Lance Corporal Matthew “Mac” MacMillan—all three of them were close friends and veterans of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Shortly after his return, Magaoay, who was known for his confidence and buoyant character, made an ominous declaration to Anderson and Lance Corporal Nathan Medinger while they were getting ready to bed down one night. He spoke of a dream he had the night before where the Marines of Warpig were running into a house, looking for him. Magaoay conveyed to them that as they were firing into the house, he stood outside of the domicile screaming, “I’m right here, guys… I’m okay!” He was ignored by his comrades in the dream and they continued assaulting the home.
Stressed out from weeks of combat and close calls, his confession was largely dismissed as fatigued thinking by Anderson and Medinger. Both assured him that everything would be fine.
Even though the two Marines were trying to downplay their friend’s dream, it wasn’t the first time they had heard it from Blake. Anderson, 20, from Tucson, AZ, had been hearing Magaoay talk about his dreams since early on in the operation.
“He was Hawaiian and he really took these dreams seriously,” he said. “The weird thing was he never seemed too bothered by them. It’s like he made peace with it. He kept coming back after being wounded. He wanted to be there for us.”
By November 29th, the Fallujah campaign appeared to be slowing down for members of Warpig—offensive missions were transferring into stability and support operations as the first democratic elections of Iraq were approaching.
Regardless of the fleeting combat tempo, reports continued to come in of insurgents reoccupying homes that had previously been cleared in a last ditch effort to inflict casualties on allied troops.
Warpig’s 3rd platoon had found quarter in an abandoned fire station where they had began conducting around the clock patrols to thwart any insurgents from reentering homes. As personnel from the platoon were fortifying the two-story fire station by sandbagging, MacMillan’s Team 4—assisted by an overwatch on top of the station’s roof—was tasked out with clearing homes in the immediate vicinity in order to assure no insurgents would be within firing range of 3rd Platoon as they occupied the fire station.
After clearing a home on an adjacent block, the three moved onto the next home and stacked outside of a tall gate that surrounded the house and its yard. Upon entering the gate and moving through the courtyard, the team made its way to a side door that took them through the kitchen and into small foyer in the middle of the house. A stairwell leading to the second floor sat in front of three bedrooms. Magaoay posted in front of the stairwell in order to keep an eye on any potential movement upstairs while Anderson and MacMillan moved down the opposite end of the hallway to clear the main living room first.
Magaoay was peering up the stairs, standing guard for his fellow Marines, when a young male (later estimated to be no older than sixteen) emerged from the bedroom door located to the left and fired a three round burst into the back of the unsuspecting Marine’s head.
Anderson and MacMillan were stacked against a door leading to the house’s living room, getting ready to enter, when they heard the shots ring out. When the two peered over, Blake’s shooter was in the process of throwing a grenade at the two remaining Marines. The two hastily sprinted across the hall and dove for cover in an opening under the stairwell. A loud explosion roared through the house when the pineapple grenade detonated. Dust and debris thickened the murky hallway and MacMillan, without giving any thought, immediately emerged from under the stairs where he saw Blake Magaoay’s motionless body laying at the foot of the stairs and an armed man attempting to step over him in order to make a dash upstairs.
Before he could even process what was happening, MacMillan raised his M-16/203 service rifle and began unloading his twenty-six round magazine on the combatant as he tried running up the stairwell.
“I got at least half of my rounds into him and he was dancing around the stairs while I was yelling ‘motherfucker’ at him,” MacMillan recounts.
The young insurgent didn’t make it more than two steps up the stairwell before he collapsed from an estimated twelve to fifteen 5.56 rounds that ripped through his body—causing him to fall on top of Blake Magaoay.
MacMillan explained the immediate aftermath, “As soon as he fell… BANG!”
The images of seeing Blake’s body and reacting to his shooter are still etched in Matthew MacMillan’s brain to this day, but the actual time it had taken to answer Blake’s shooter were mere seconds—a few seconds that had allowed the insurgent’s second grenade he threw before trying to run upstairs to land near Macmillan’s and Anderson’s feet. No sooner than MacMillan went to reload his rifle after dropping the aggressor, the grenade went off.
MacMillan came to in a daze, surrounded by a thick cloud of floating debris. He instinctively began to crawl away from the spot where he was hit and made his way into a bathroom where he was followed by Anderson seconds later. The two Marines were sitting up against the bathroom walls, trying to gather themselves, when the shooting continued. Another shooter was in the house—they could hear it coming from the top of the stairwell and impacting down by Blake and the insurgent’s bodies.
“That was fuckin’ close,” exclaimed Anderson in a fit of excitement.
In an almost comical response, Mac responded, “Gee, Fish, ya think?!”
After MacMillan and Anderson were able to gather themselves a bit, the reality of the second grenade had kicked in.
“Ah, man, you’re fucked up, Mac,” Anderson exclaimed.
“I didn’t want to look down,” MacMillan said. He then looked at Anderson and was startled to see the state he was in, “You are, too, Fish!”
Upon assessing each other’s injuries, the two decided that they had to get out of the house right away. MacMillan’s wounds were potentially life threatening and the insurgents upstairs were concentrating so much fire down by Blake’s body that the two were unable to get to him.
Not knowing the fate of his friend Blake, Anderson threw a nonlethal flashbang grenade into the foyer where they had gone through hell just moments earlier and the two made a dash past Blake’s body and through the kitchen they had entered previously. Weakened by his wounds, MacMillan had to grab on to Anderson once they reached the courtyard.
Lance Corporal Ed Lonecke, 20, a rifleman from Manchester, GA, was filling sandbags in the courtyard of the fire station with the rest of 3rd Platoon when he first heard the shots ring out. The previous weeks of fighting in the city had made the Marines in Fallujah almost impervious to gunfire around them. Lonecke didn’t give it a second thought, until moments later when one of the Marines providing watch on the roof began screaming to the Marines below, “Mac’s hit! Mac’s hit!”
The house where Team 4 was engaged was about fifty feet from the fire station. Lonecke and Lance Corporal Paul Aldrich ran straight to their gear and weapons, hastily got dressed, and then began moving towards the house without orders. As they turned the corner they were met by MacMillan and Anderson. Shrapnel from the grenade blast had hit MacMillan in the lower stomach below his flak jacket and had penetrated his bladder—he was bleeding profusely and unable to walk. Anderson was propping him up and had also endured shrapnel wounds around both of his shoulders and hands.
The two wounded Marines were screaming at Lonecke and Aldrich, “Blake’s still in the house, Blake’s still in the house!” Lonecke tried to pry more information from them, but the two were unable to say anything else due to their shock.
Lonecke went on to say (MacMillan who was half African-American and Anderson who was half Mexican-American), “Their faces became as white as a ghost’s.”
After Lonecke and Aldrich made their way through the courtyard, they entered through the kitchen door where Team 4 had come in earlier. As soon as they approached the foyer, the other insurgent—who was most likely alerted when the two entered the house—began to open fire again. Lonecke couldn’t get a good view of anything. Not knowing Blake Magaoay’s fate or location, he blindly threw a stun grenade into the hallway and took a quick peak after its explosion—giving him enough time to see Magaoay’s and the armed insurgent’s static bodies at the bottom of the stairs. After giving one more peak, Lonecke moved out from the kitchen and towards Magaoay’s body.
Before he could even make it one step, the insurgent on the second floor fired a burst of 7.62 rounds from his AK-47 through the open part of the stairwell, instantly dropping Ed Lonecke. In the haze of combat, he didn’t remember being hit or falling to the ground, but he came to in the kitchen with Paul Aldrich staring down at him.
Aldrich had braved the onslaught of enemy bullets in the hallway and dragged Lonecke back into the kitchen.
“You’re gonna be ok, man,” Aldrich told Lonecke.
He was lying on his back and began to scream in massive pain when he looked down and saw a thick puddle of blood below the inner portion of his right leg—close to his femoral artery.
“I was so angry I took the helmet off my head and threw it across the kitchen,” Lonecke says. “Then I immediately realized how stupid it was for me to do that considering there were two shooters in the house.”
It was at that moment a Corpsman came in through the kitchen door and was able to apply a tourniquet to Lonecke’s wound. He was carried out soon after and taken back to the fire station where a vehicle was waiting to transport him to the hospital on Camp Fallujah.
By the time Lonecke was removed from the house, a large portion of the company had pulled up on site. It had become apparent the sole mission at this point was to safely recover Blake Magaoay’s body, but the volatile nature of the fight had created massive amounts of confusion for the Marines showing up on scene. They were still unaware of Magaoay’s status and location because MacMillan, Anderson, and Lonecke were removed so quickly due to the need of immediate medical attention that they were unable to relay what they saw to others.
One of the Marines who showed up on scene was Lance Corporal Nathan Medinger. Medinger and a few other Marines were inside the fire station, making coffee after getting off patrol, when they heard the firefight in the house begin. Like Lonecke and Aldrich, they immediately rushed to the scene. Unlike the riflemen who had shown up on foot earlier, Medinger was an LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) crewman in the turret of his LAV-25, a 14-ton vehicle that houses multiple machine guns and a 25mm bushmaster chain gun. The LAV pulled up directly in front of the tall gate that guarded the house, then oriented its main gun directly at the 2nd floor.
With Marines running around the gate of the residence, trying to coordinate another assault into the house, and the unit’s main assets—the LAV’s—now on scene, Medinger can’t help to think years later if this was the scene Blake Magaoay was talking about when he made that eerie proclamation about his dream days earlier.
After being given the command to fire, Nathan Medinger held down the trigger of his main gun and swept the second floor of the house in a violent spray of high explosive rounds. He didn’t implement the standard three round burst per standard operating procedure; just a left-to-right, right-to-left sweep of the entire second floor, firing an estimated three-hundred rounds in a little over a minute.
Along with Medinger’s lethal barrage, Sergeant Walter Garcia—a platoon sergeant—fired an estimated 4,000 rounds from his M240 Golf. The only breaks he took from firing were to reload his machine-gun, but the intensity of the firefight was so great that he didn’t even switch out barrels to the weapon.
“I can’t believe that thing didn’t melt [the M240’s barrel],” Medinger says. “You could see it glowing in broad daylight.”
Corporal Dan Boehme was one of the Marines waiting to go inside the house while Medinger and Garcia were firing at the second floor. He describes the damage the two did while the riflemen were stacked up outside of the house: “Chunks of concrete were getting ripped apart and landing on us. I’ve never seen so much debris flying through the air.”
Medinger’s destructive firepower was assuring that no insurgent was going to walk away from that house.
Boehme continued, “He [Medinger] was a very competent gunner, the perfect guy to have there at the time.”
As soon as Medinger was finished, Boehme and the other riflemen, along with a sniper attachment from 1/3, rushed inside the house and recovered Blake Magaoay’s body from underneath his killer.
“It was evident he was dead,” says Boehme.
After Magaoay’s body was removed, Medinger pumped another thirty 25mm rounds into the second floor for good measure. Then the riflemen and snipers carefully moved upstairs to assess the damage. On the second floor they found two insurgent bodies still clinging onto their weapons, almost unrecognizable of any human features. It was evident that one of the insurgents had been ravaged by a 25mm round, while the other apparently took his own life at some point.
Corporal Dan Boehme, in summarizing his company’s experiences as Fallujah Marines, stated, “We were the luckiest and unluckiest Marines during Iraq.”
Days after the death of Blake Magaoay, a large red sign was placed on top of the fire station where Warpig’s 3rd Platoon would continue to operate out of—in constant view of the house that took their brother. It read: FIREBASE MAGAOAY.
Matthew MacMillan, Chris Anderson, and Ed Lonecke were all going through emergency surgeries by this time. Macmillan was shipped to Germany shortly after, went through multiple surgeries to his stomach and right leg, and was sent home. Anderson made his recovery in Camp Fallujah and was able to rejoin the company a while later. Lonecke went through four surgeries in four days at Camp Fallujah and was sent back to the states two weeks later. All three of them still carry the physical scars from that day.
When the three wounded warriors were able to gather together for the first time in Camp Pendleton, they headed to a local tattoo parlor outside of base. Forever on their bodies, it reads: B.A.M. —11-29-04.
Above Blake’s initials and final day, a Hawaiian shark that looks coiled for attack is printed on their bodies. Their ‘aumakua is always standing guard for his brothers.