MOGADISHU, Somalia -- Stripped to their shorts, their faces smeared with sun block, the crack commandos of the U.S. Army's 75th Ranger Regiment spent the last day of their ill-fated mission in Somalia locked in fierce combat -- on the volleyball court.
Then, before the sweat dried, the first 100 quietly packed their bags, had a last look around and prepared to board a C-5 Galaxy for home today in a departure with no ceremony.
Asked yesterday how long he had been in Somalia, one of the 750 Rangers due to leave under President Clinton's orders to abandon their mission simply shook his head and said, "Too long."
This was the end of the ambitious two-month effort by one of the United States' most highly trained combat units to capture a single Somali warlord, Mohamed Farah Aidid. Plagued by miscues and misinformation and ending in disaster, it changed the course of the U.S.-led United Nations mission to save Somalia from self-destruction.
The hunt for Mr. Aidid -- now likely to go free -- has ended, Maj. Gen. Thomas Montgomery, commander of the U.S. forces in Somalia, made clear this week. And so has the messiest chapter in recent U.S. military history.
Eighteen Rangers were killed, dozens more were wounded and one was held captive for 10 days after 16 hours of fierce fighting Oct. 3, which changed the United States' mind about Somalia. But U.N. military spokesman Maj. David Stockwell, himself a Ranger by training, tried to put the best possible face on the mission that the Rangers left half-done in this terrifying city.
"These guys did a great job. They were given an extremely difficult mission, in particular to detain Aidid," he said. "We're not cops. We've been forced to adopt war-fighting technology to a fugitive hunt in a city of 1 million."
In short, Major Stockwell said, it was Mission Impossible.
In reality, from its first operation to its last, the Rangers' hunt for Mr. Aidid was plagued by bad intelligence, lapses in communications and insufficient coordination with the U.N. officers who command the 29,000 multinational peacemaking troops in Somalia.
Taken together, the Rangers' apparent missteps made their hunt for Mr. Aidid, a mission approved by the Clinton administration when the United Nation's best efforts were failing, appear more like a comedy of errors.
The Los Angeles Times learned in interviews with U.S. and U.N. military officers, civilian analysts and influential Somali eyewitnesses that the Rangers did score some successes, capturing four of Mr. Aidid's top aides and killing hundreds of his militiamen and hard-core supporters. But it was equally clear that miscalculations left a wake of ill will among Somalis that contributed to the vicious popular assault on the Rangers during the Oct. 3 battle that changed U.S. policy in Somalia.
The Rangers' greatest success -- in fact, one of just two "clearly clean missions," in the words of one U.N. officer -- was the detention of Mr. Aidid's financial manager, Osman Ato.
". . . We rely on Somali intelligence, which is always tenuous at best," said Major Stockwell.
"You do the best you can with what you've got."