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‘Black Hawk Down’ veteran dies at age 64

Delta Force sniper Sgt. First Class James P. McMahon. (U.S. Army/Released)

Delta Force sniper Sgt. First Class James P. McMahon’s face was so badly battered and cut, “he looked like he was wearing a fright mask” as he stood atop a downed Black Hawk helicopter and pulled free the body of a fellow soldier from the wreckage.

That’s the first description of McMahon in the book by journalist Mark Bowden called “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.” It is a detailed account of the horrific Battle of the Black Sea fought in the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993. It claimed the lives of 18 elite American soldiers.

Among the survivors was McMahon, a 1972 Durand High School graduate who served in the U.S. Army for nearly three decades.

Friends and family along with fellow soldiers and veterans on Saturday will lay McMahon to rest at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Durand. He died Nov. 5 at age 64, according to his obituary, which did not reference a cause of death.

A McCorkle Funeral Home director said family members did not wish to comment.

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The obituary says that McMahon served 16 years in the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment and then later as a member of the elite Delta Force. He retired in 2002 with the rank of sergeant-major. He went on to work as a defense contractor overseas and in the United States. And since 2013, worked as a special operations instructor at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

McMahon was aboard one of two Black Hawk helicopters brought down by rocket-propelled grenades during Operation Gothic Serpent. What began as a humanitarian mission to feed the hungry being starved by Somali warlords in Africa became a combat operation after U.S. soldiers were attacked in August 1993 by forces directed by one of the warlords, Gen. Mohammed Farah Aidid, according to “Black Hawk Down” and other sources.

McMahon was one of 99 elite soldiers who were part of Task Force Ranger, consisting of Rangers, Delta Force and others, sent to capture lieutenants of Aidid’s Habr Gidr militia. They were ambushed and found themselves “surrounded and trapped in an ancient African city fighting for their lives,” Bowden wrote.

A mission that was supposed to last an hour turned into a ferocious 15-hour battle for survival in a hostile city. In addition to the soldiers who were killed, 73 were wounded, a pilot was captured and held captive for 11 days and the U.S. was horrified by television images of angry mobs abusing the bodies of American soldiers.

McMahon, who continued to fight until reinforcements arrived, was awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for valor, according to his obituary.

“The Battle of the Black Sea was perceived outside the special operations community as a failure. It was not, at least in strictly military terms,” Bowden wrote in the epilogue of his book. “It was a complex, difficult and dangerous assignment, and despite terrible setbacks and losses, and against overwhelming odds, the mission was accomplished.”

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© 2019 Rockford Register Star