Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith gripped the two spade handles at the rear of the M2 Browning .50 Caliber HB machine gun, his thumb tensely poised on top of the butterfly trigger.
Heat waves from the tapered barrel blurred his vision through the iron leaf sight, making the dark outlines of the enemy flooding the hills less than a mile from his position more like specters than men.
SFC Smith had just squeezed off more than 50 rounds in less than a minute. The “Ma Deuce” could fire up to 450 or even 550 rounds per minute, but Smith needed to keep the barrel cool enough to last through the gunfight.
There was no room for operator error. SFC Smith knew his weapon like an old friend. If he did right by [John Browning’s greatest gift to the American forces](LINK TO M2HB ORIGIN STORY), she’d do right by him.
He couldn’t fail. He wouldn’t fail.
SFC Smith, the Private driving the M113 armored personnel carrier under him, and the Browning M2 .50 CAL HB were the only thing between approximately 200 enemy Iraqi soldiers and the more than a 100 wounded Americans in the medical unit behind them.
Smith’s eyes caught movement on the 10 foot high wall to his side. He swung his machine gun to the right, smashed the butterfly trigger, and his line of sight exploded with muzzle fire.
Just hours earlier…
It was during the 2003 Iraq invasion by coalition allies led by U.S. Forces. The U.S. 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment was moving through the Karbala Gap across the Euphrates River towards the Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. An Iraqi force was positioned to stop them.
After a brief battle, the Americans subdued the Iraqi force, capturing multiple Iraqi soldiers. Unfortunately, many Americans were wounded in the conflict.
The battalions quickly set up a medical unit to care for the wounded and organize their extraction before heading out again for the Baghdad airport. But there was the question of the enemy prisoners of war (EPW).
SFC Paul Ray Smith and his company, a part of the 11th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry which was there to support the 2nd Battalion, was assigned to locate a suitable spot for a temporary prisoner of war holding area.
After a short recon, Smith and his men found an abandoned, triangular shaped courtyard with 8 to 10 foot high walls, a metal gate at one end, and an empty tower just outside the gate.
Smith surmised they could cordon off one corner of the courtyard and keep the EPW’s there.
As the troops were setting up the concertina wire for the holding area, the guards Smith had stationed at the gate began to shout.
“Sergeant Smith, you better come look at this. We’ve got about 10 to 20 Iraqi’s out here!”
In a matter of minutes, the guards at the gate began taking in enemy small arms fire and RPG’s. When Smith got to the gate, he realized this was more serious than he’d ever imagined.
Twenty-five, fifty, a hundred—the numbers of Iraqi Republic Guards grew as they poured out of a nearby barracks, heavily armed.
Smith and his company were in the middle of an ambush.
Then things went from bad to worse… the Iraqis took the tower.
Enemy fire began to rain down on Smith and his men from the tower.
Outmanned and outgunned, Smith ordered for a Bradley assault vehicle to come to their aid.
The Bradley pounded through the metal gate, climbing over top the twisted metal frame straight into the line of fire. It began taking hits immediately, as it returned fire with its massive 25mm cannon and auxiliary weapons.
The Iraqi soldiers shielded themselves from the Bradley’s fire power behind foliage and in trenches. More enemy troops streamed onto the battlefield, pummeling the Bradley with anti-tank weaponry.
Smith, along with another soldier, ran out under enemy fire, ducked behind the Bradley, and began firing at the enemy.
Sgt. Timothy Campbell gathered a group of soldiers and lead them behind the courtyard to try and capture the tower. But it was to no avail.
The enemy fire from the tower was pinning Campbell and his men down.
They couldn’t get a single shot up into the narrow windows of the tower.
A M113 Armored Personnel Carrier positioned nearby came to support the attack at the gate. It pulled up next to the Bradley, and began firing the Browning M2 .50 CAL HB machine gun mounted to the top, providing suppressive fire for the ground troops hunkered down around the two armored vehicles.
Then, the mortar rounds began to fall from the sky.
Deafening bursts of deadly shrapnel flew through the air, wounding the M113 personnel M113.
“Medic! Medic! We’re hit!”
Smith and his company managed to drag the wounded out of the line of fire. At that time, the Bradley ran out of ammunition. There was no other choice, the Bradley withdrew to reload.
That left them with an unmanned M113 outside the gate and only 3 or 4 men with rifles to protect the gate.
Enemy fire continued to stream down from the tower above. Sgt. Campbell and his men were unable to recapture the tower.
Smith was nearing the final rounds in his M16 rifle at the gate.
He knew it was a matter of time before they’d be overrun, but retreat wasn’t an option.
Right before his deployment to Iraq, SFC Paul Ray Smith had written to his parents…
“There are two ways to come home, stepping off the plane and being carried off the plane. It doesn’t matter how I come home, because I am prepared to give all that I am to ensure that all my boys make it home.”
Bullets whistled fiercely passed his head busting the rocks of the courtyard walls into dusty fragments. SFC Smith made the choice to uphold his commitment.
“Private! Come with me. I need a driver!”
The Private and Smith ran out under fire and climbed into the abandoned M113 outside the gate. The Private jumped into the driver’s seat. Smith had him back the M113 back into the courtyard where they could see the tower, the gate, and the wall to their right side in front of them.
Smith climbed to the turret and trained the Browning M2 .50 CAL HB on the gate.
“Keep your head down! Whenever you hear the gun go quiet, just feed me another box of ammo!”
SFC Smith emptied the first box within minutes, alternately firing at enemy targets at the gate, on the wall, and in the tower. The Private threw him the next box of ammo.
With no ACAV gun shields on the turret, Smith stood exposed as he fired between the three targets where enemy troops were swarming in to kill him and his men.
The M2 .50 CAL HB went quiet.
The Private threw up another box. SFC Smith threw open the lid of the receiver and quickly inserted the new ammo belt—less than two minutes thanks to his disciplined approach to training with the weapon.
Smith felt the white hot sting of enemy shrapnel ripping through his armored vest’s protective ceramic armor inserts.
Laced with adrenaline, and determined to stand his ground, Smith slammed down the receiver lid, yanked back the charging handle, and commenced firing a barrage of incendiary BMG’s at the enemy.
The onslaught of Smith’s M2HB rounds kept the Iraqi soldiers in the tower so busy they didn’t see Campbell coming behind them.
Sgt. Campbell and his men began to take control of the tower. In the courtyard, Smith’s men continued to evacuate the wounded out of the line of fire while Smith covered them with his suppressive fire atop the M113.
The wounded were taken out safely. The enemy fire died down. The tower was now in American hands.
SFC Paul Ray Smith’s M2 .50 CAL HB went quiet.
Sergeant Smith’s men found his body slumped over the M2 his body armor riddled by 15 bullet holes. But it was the fatal wound to the back of his neck from one of the last bullets from the tower that took his life.
Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously in a ceremony where his eleven year old son, David, received the honor from President George W. Bush.
His was the first Medal of Honor awarded during the Iraq War.