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Happy 245th Birthday to the United States Marine Corps!

Happy 245th birthday to the United States Marine Corps!

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library takes pride in collecting, preserving and sharing the stories of the Marines who have served our nation since its colonial beginning. The steadfast faithfulness which “the Corps” has demonstrated at Derna, Bladensburg, Chapultepec, Belleau Wood, Blanc Mont, Wake Atoll, Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Inchon, Chosin, Khe Sanh, Hue and many more battlefields has produced countless stories of honor, courage, an unwillingness to quit, a determined focus arising from a commitment to something greater than themselves, and a love for their fellow Marines. An exemplary Marine who demonstrated these Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment was then-Private First Class Christopher S. Adlesperger, Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. It has been often stated that it is not the size of the dog in the fight; in this story, it was the size of the fight … and the heart…in the Devil Dog.

Fallujah, a city of 250,000-300,000 in 2003, west of Baghdad in Al Anbar Province, is in an area often referred to as the “Sunni triangle”. The city was comprised of 50,000 structures packed into a 25 square kilometer area on the banks of the Euphrates River. An initial clearing operation, VIGILANT RESOLVE, launched in April 2004 following the murder of four Private Military Contractors, failed to achieve Coalition goals to eradicate the insurgency in Fallujah and pacify the region. Instead, Al Jazeera reports of civilian casualties inflamed the Sunni population, forcing an early end to OPERATION VIGILANT RESOLVE.

Most of the civilian population left Fallujah during the following months as a Shi’a uprising swept the province. Renewed plans were finalized to clear Fallujah from the terror grip of insurgents led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, Jordanian-born founder of Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which became known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in late 2004 after al-Zarqawi joined al-Qaeda and pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden.

OPERATION PHANTOM FURY / AL-FAJR, the Second Battle of Fallujah, began November 7, 2004. The Coalition effort was comprised of two U.S. mixed USMC/Army Regimental Combat Teams, US Special Operations Forces, supporting aviation assets, the United Kingdom’s 1st Battalion, The Black Watch, as well as several Iraqi units. Two Marine battalions from Regimental Combat Team 1: 3rd Battalion/1st Marines and 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines crossed their Line of Departure north of the railroad tracks, cleared insurgents defensive positions in and around the cemetery, and assaulted into the northwest portion of the city, methodically clearing the heavily fortified Jolan District. This process continued for three days.

The Marines advance through Jolan continued shortly after dawn on November 10, through intense barrages from insurgent rocket propelled grenade and mortar teams. Jihadist snipers added fire to complex ambushes. Foreign fighters manned strongpoints with mutually supporting fields of fire. Marines methodically breached buildings then became intense entangled in room by room squad-level fights with machine guns and grenades. The need to clear rooftops and courtyards added to the tactical problems. November 10 would be the heaviest day of fighting for 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. Company K discovered bodies of civilians tortured and executed by Zarqawi’s fighters. Their advance destroyed two jihadist observation posts. They discovered numerous arms caches in the immediate vicinity of al-Kabir Mosque. It was now 4:00 pm as the Marines planned to clear several more buildings then halt for the night.

The insurgents defended interior strongpoints in homes, hoping to draw Marine units into “Chechen ambushes”. The tactic was used by insurgents in the narrow streets that prevented Marines from bringing up Abrams tanks for close support. The insurgents injected themselves with lidocaine, Novocain and adrenaline to enable themselves to continue fighting even after receiving grievous wounds. The insurgents used automatic weapons fire to kill or wound the advancing point man, corpsman, NCO or officer and radio operator. As additional Marine units and vehicles would respond to the ambush, heavy automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenade fire, as well as IEDs, would hit the arriving Marine reinforcements. Lance Corporal Ryan W. Sunnerville’s fire team from 1st Squad, 1st Platoon, Company K had killed an insurgent with an RPG, cleared the adjacent building and had found a weapons cache. 

They advanced to the next building, Lance Corporal Erick J. Hodges killing an insurgent in the road with his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon before advancing toward the next building. The building was typical of structures in Jolan: a wall surrounded the building with the courtyard in front with an outdoor stair leading to the roof. PFC Christopher Adlesperger on point, with LCpl Hodges with his SAW right behind. LCpl Sunnerville advanced behind them. Adlesperger, Hodges and Sunnerville were inseparable best friends. All three had wrestled in high school. Adlesperger, five foot eight inches and 150 pounds was athletic and muscular; attempted to enter the building but the attempt to breach the first locked door was unsuccessful. That would be the only task Adlesperger failed to complete that day. LCpl Hodges was moving to the second door when a loopholed machine gun cut him down, also wounding Team Leader Sunnerville in the leg and Hospital Corpsman Alonso A. Rogero in the stomach. The remainder of the fire team advanced forward to the building’s exterior wall, exchanged fire with the insurgents at distances of twenty feet.

Corporal Jeremy Baker, Fire Team Leader from 2nd Squad, 1st Platoon advanced through heavy fire to cross the courtyard and reach the pinned fire team as insurgents threw grenades. Baker and Adlesperger used their bodies to shield Rogero and Sunnerville from the grenade blasts. Adlesperger was wounded by the grenade fragments in the face and elsewhere but was not out of the fight. Baker then ordered to Adlesperger to clear the stairway and roof of the structure. Quickly doing so, Adlesperger returned to ground level; he and Baker next moved the wounded to the roof. Adlesperger and Baker moved the wounded Marines behind a wall on the L-shaped roof to protect them from grenade fragments as grenades from the insurgents below signaled a rush up the stairwell. The insurgents attempt to advanced up the stairwell to attack the Marines on the roof, again wounding Adlesperger with grenade fragments. Adlesperger, in turn, threw a grenade that flushed the insurgents from cover, killed one shot one insurgent and Marines on the street killed the other.

Heavy small arms and sniper fire, as well as rocket propelled grenades, pinned the remainder of 1st Platoon and Kilo Company from advancing to assault the ambush. The company commander, Captain Andrew J. McNulty, and nearby SEAL snipers witnessed Adlesperger singlehandedly engage insurgents by firing his M203 40mm grenade launcher through barred windows into the building. The close range prevented the grenades from arming, but the fire forced three insurgents into the courtyard where Adlesperger killed two of them. The third paused to look up at the roof as he attempted to steal the M249 SAW from the fallen Hodges. That pause was fatal as Adlesperger shot and killed him and then returned to Baker’s position to triage and stabilize the wounded. Insurgents inside the building were continuing to fire into the lifeless body of his friend, LCpl Hodges. Angry, Adlesperger first used his rifle to engage the insurgents below but the walls of the structure prevented his rounds from penetrating. Adlesperger fired M203 grenades, blowing holes in the building, forcing four insurgents to flee across the courtyard. Adlesperger dispatched each with a single shot to the head.

Another Marine squad was moving across rooftops to reach Adlesperger’s position but found a wall atop one building too tall to climb over; the Marine squad put their shoulders into pushing the wall over, toppling it so they could reach their fellow Marines and begin to evacuate the wounded. An Assault Amphibious Vehicle moved forward to pour machine gun fire into the building, detonating a weapons cache inside and igniting a fire. The company commander directed his 1st Platoon’s Third Squad, led by Corporal Terrance Van Dorn, along with Baker and Adlesperger to move to a nearby building’s rood to set up a support by fire position. Realizing the rooftop wall there was too high, the men returned as the AAV breached the compound wall by demolishing a side gate. Adlesperger and Baker advanced forward into the courtyard and threw high concentrate smoke into the building suffocate the defenders, followed by Captain McNulty tossing in fragmentation grenades. Adlesperger then led the breach force into the building to eliminate the remaining insurgents. Hodges body was finally recovered from the courtyard after the final insurgent resistance had been eliminated. The fight had only lasted about thirty minutes but the insurgents defended it so tenaciously because it was the final insurgent command and control center located in the Jolan district.

That night, Adlesperger’s platoon sergeant, Gunnery Sgt. Paul Starner, spoke with him to confirm information for the company report. That report, describing the action in which Adlesperger killed at least 11 insurgents despite his wounds, would eventually form the basis of a Medal of Honor recommendation for PFC Adlesperger. As he quietly wept for his close friend, Adlesperger kept repeating, “Hodges, we had to get him out.”

Two weeks later Thanksgiving weekend, PFC Adlesperger was promoted to Corporal for his actions of November 10; he was given his own fire team. Two weeks after that, Kilo Company was assigned on December 9 to sweep a Fallujah neighborhood that had been cleared by a different Marine unit during the initial assault. LCpl Adlesperger was advancing toward a building when automatic weapons fire slammed into his armored vest, the force of the multiple rounds spinning him around. A second burst struck his side where no armor plate protected him; the round penetrated his heart, killing him instantly. The Marines called in an airstrike that destroyed the building.

3/5’s battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Malay went to the Marine mortuary unit that night to view his fallen Marine. He would later tell a reporter from the Los Angeles Times, “It’s a hard thing to explain but somehow I felt compelled to say goodbye. He had a touch of greatness…He was a quiet kid, but he was remarkable. He was one tough bastard.”
More than five hundred people attended Cpl Christopher Adlesperger’s funeral in New Mexico; he is buried at Santa Fee National Cemetery where his grandfather, an Air Force veteran, is also buried. A Kilo Company Marine, later wrote this on an online memorial page for Adlesperger, “This is to you and your family, a sincere thank-you for letting us all come home and live and love. But most importantly, showing us what sacrifice and being a true man is all about.” Several Kilo Company Marines later got tattoos of Adlesperger’s name.

Adlesperger was posthumously promoted to Lance Corporal and recommended for the Medal of Honor. The recommendation had concurrence from Adlesperger’s battalion commander, regimental commander and division commander. It took two years for the recommendation to reach Marine Expeditionary Force Commander, Lt. General John Sattler. At that point the recommendation was downgraded to the Navy Cross, our nation’s second highest award for military valor. The recommendation was not accompanied by comment nor explanation. LCpl Adlesperger was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross on April 13, 2007. In April 2014, the Lance Cpl Christopher Adlesperger Building was rededicated at the Wounded Warrior Regiment, Marine Corps Base, Quantico, VA.

LCpl Adlesperger lived the Marine Corps values of honor, courage, commitment. PMML salutes everyone who has earned the Eagle, Globe and Anchor and lived those values. Thank you for remaining Always Faithful.

You can read more about LCpl Adlesperger’s valor in U.S. Marines in Battle: Fallujah, November – December 2004 from Marine Corps University Press

Operation Phantom Fury: The Assault and Capture of Fallujah, Iraq by Dick Camp is also available for loan.

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