On June 28, 2005, U.S. Navy SEALs, Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, Matthew Axelson and Marcus Luttrell were scouting Ahmad Shah, a terrorist who grew up in the mountains near where they were operating. The team was inserted deep behind enemy lines at an elevation of almost 10,000 feet east of Asadabad in the Hindu Kush of Afghanistan in what was Operation Red Wings.
Using the assumed name Muhammad Ismail, Shah was the leader of a terrorist cell known to Afghans in the area as the “Mountain Tigers.” Shah and his group had aligned with the Taliban and other militant groups close to the Pakistani border, but he was not associated closely with Osama Bin Laden nor was he responsible for the deaths of 20 service personnel the week before Operation Red Wings as stated in the movie Lone Survivor.
The SEAL team involved in Operation Red Wings was compromised when the SEAL team, led by Murphy, was spotted by locals who presumably reported its presence and location to the Taliban. The terrorist group set out to find the SEAL team and made contact.
A firefight erupted between the four SEALs of Operation Red Wings and the enemy force. Based on the statements from Luttrell who was the lone survivor of the engagement and would write a book which was adapted into a movie starring Mark Wahlberg, the enemy had the SEALs outnumbered. Luttrell’s initial reports in his debriefs state that the enemy force was around 20 to 35 fighters. However, Luttrell’s book states that the numbers could have been as high as 200 fighters. The Navy’s official position is that 30 to 40 fighters engaged the SEAL team.
The enemy also had terrain advantage and the bad guys launched a well-organized, three-sided attack on the SEALs. The firefight continued relentlessly as the enemy militia forced the team deeper into a ravine, according to the U.S. Navy’s summary of action detailing the events of Operation Red Wings.
All of the SEAL team members of Operation Red Wings were wounded. They bounded down the mountain in an attempt to make it to safer ground. Approximately 45 minutes into the fight, Dietz, responsible for the team’s communications, sought open air to place a distress call back to the base, but before he could, he was shot in the hand.
According to the Navy, despite the intensity of the firefight and suffering grave gunshot wounds himself, Murphy risked his own life to save the lives of his teammates in Operation Red Wings. Murphy was intent on making contact with their headquarters, but he realized it would be impossible in the extremely jagged and ravine-filled terrain his team was fighting in. With complete disregard for his own life, Murphy moved away from the protective rocks which provided him cover and he exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire by going into the open and onto ground that would enable him to transmit a call to get help for his men.
Murphy became a target for the enemy and as he was fired upon, he made contact with forces at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance for Operation Red Wings. Murphy provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point Murphy was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter, but he picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in. Severely wounded, Murphy returned to his cover position with his men and continued the battle, which is different than what was portrayed in the 2013 movie, Lone Survivor which has Murphy dying atop the ridge he ascended to in order to communicate with his headquarters.
The Navy’s summary of action of Operation Red Wings states that an MH-47 Chinook helicopter, with eight additional SEALs and eight Army Night Stalkers aboard, was dispatched as part of an extraction mission to pull out the four embattled SEALs. The MH-47 was escorted by heavily-armored, Army attack helicopters.
Per the U.S. Navy, the additional weight of the attack helicopters slowed the formation’s advance prompting the MH-47 to outrun their armored escort. According to officials, the rescue team for Operation Red Wings opted to directly enter the battle space without the protection of the attack helicopters in hopes of landing and assisting their comrades. As the Chinook raced to the battle, a rocket-propelled grenade struck the helicopter, causing it to crash, killing all 16 men aboard.
The men of Operation Red Wings continued to fight, but by the end of the hours-long gunfight over the rough terrain, Murphy, Axelson and Dietz were killed, but an estimated 35 Taliban were also dead, according to the U.S. Navy.
Luttrell, the only surviving member of Operation Red Wings, stated he was blasted over a ridge by a grenade explosion and that he was knocked unconscious. Although badly injured, he later managed to escape, crawling seven miles for nearly a day. The movie depicts Luttrell fleeing the enemy by walking, but this is not true, according to Luttrell who evaded the enemy by crawling, despite having three cracked vertebrae, a bullet wound to the leg and shrapnel embedded in both legs, in addition to a long list of other injuries.
Afghans eventually came to the aid of Luttrell, the lone survivor of Operation Red Wings, and according to the Navy’s summary of action on this battle, they helped him to a nearby village where for several days he was cared for. The Taliban came to the village and demanded that Luttrell be turned over to them, but the villagers refused. It should be noted that there was no battle in the village between villagers and the enemy forces as depicted in the movie, Lone Survivor. The Taliban did come in and beat Luttrell when they tried to interrogate him, but village elders chased away the enemy militias. This is also what Luttrell stated happened in his book. The added drama at the movie’s end of a fierce fight in the village where Luttrell gets shot again, is almost beheaded and his protector also gets shot, is all Hollywood fiction.
Luttrell was rescued by U.S. forces after an Afghan villager made his way to a Marine outpost with a note from Luttrell, and U.S. forces launched a massive operation that rescued him from enemy territory on July 2, 2005. But it was an emergency beacon, placed in the window of the hut where he was being kept safe that helped rescuers find him. It should be noted that according to Luttrell’s book, Army Rangers found him in the woods with his rescuer and caretaker as they were moving him to another location.
Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for his courage and for his actions under fire. Operation Red Wings and the subsequent rescue attempt that ended in the downing of the Chinook would go on to be the worst single-day U.S. Forces death toll since Operation Enduring Freedom began at that point with 19 dead and one injured. For the Navy, it was the single largest loss of life for Naval Special Warfare since World War II.