By Barry McWilliams
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from "This is the Enemy?"The sergeant was on another boring mission in an endless string of boring missions ferrying men and supplies to the front -- when, suddenly, out of nowhere, 21 Iraqi soldiers charged onto the road ahead.
Their hands were raised and they were waving white sheets and towels. Even their undershorts -- which after the saturation bombings weren't all that white.
The driver ground the big rig to a halt, grabbed the M -16 carbine off the seat, and jumped out. Checking the Iraqis closely for weapons and being satisfied they were unarmed and quite sincere about surrendering, the sergeant directed them up into the bed of the 2 1/2-ton rig, tossing
them bottled water and MREs as they boarded.
Then the driver took off her helmet, shook her hair loose, and climbed back into the cab of the truck. All at once a chorus of wails rose from the prisoners. "Woman! Woman!" they cried, realizing to their horror that they had just given up to a female. And one by one they dismounted and began hoofing it down the road, apparently to find some American male to capture them.
But this truck-driving female was not buying Saddam's concept of a woman's lot in life. She leaped down from the cab again and sprayed the air above the departing Iraqis with her M-16. Terrified, they dove for the sand -- and once more gestured their desire to surrender.
Later that afternoon, the sergeant pulled into camp with her EPWs. The company CO, amazed by the sight of her considerable cargo on what had supposed to have been a deadhead run, strode over to check it out.
One of the Iraqis turned to the American captain and, jabbing his finger in the direction of the driver, hollered in his limited English, "MEAN WOMAN! MEAN WOMAN!"
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from "Confusion Control"If you think the Bradleys had their share of problems rolling across the Kuwaiti desert, wait'll you hear what happened to a bunch of marines in the air above them.
I'm referring to a mission flown into Kuwait involving fifty-six helicopters, many of them carrying TOW missiles to form a "blocking force." When the waves of coalition armor penetrated the Iraqi barriers, these TOWs would protect their flanks. As with most missions, this one was based on a good plan. Only the plan changed.
The worst part of the mission was waiting for it to start. As the
crews sat in their helos ready to launch, a thousand worries raced through their minds. For many, it was a difficult scene to describe, but Marine Ist Lt. "Schtick" Duniec of HMM-261 gave it a try:
"I almost had a 'high' feeling, like I was inebriated. I was just talkin' to a kid from Montana about similar places we'd been and things we'd done, like hunting and stuff. But always in the back of my mind was the fact that, at any minute, we could launch -- and within thirty minutes after that, I could be dead.
"There were plenty of reasons to fear what lay out there. Aside from the massive AAA threat, numerous powerlines had to be crossed, many as high as 200 feet, and the plan called for a go-in-low approach. Then there was the unsettling prospect of flying in formation with such a huge air armada -- fifty-six helicopters in close proximity, possibly with some itchy trigger fingers on board.
"Also, it was a multinational force, with Syrians involved, and no one was sure if they were really friendly. Just a whole lot of variables to consider, as the crews sat in their birds under the hot sun and waited."
Some, like Schtick, tried not to think about it.
"Like the psychologists say, when you're a pilot or a crew member it's as if you're crawling back into your mother's womb -- everything's real comfortable once you sit down. You go through your procedures and your checklists, and it's like any other flight."
Still, few could completely ignore the fact that they would be flying into a hostile-held Kuwait against the most sophisticated air defenses that the United States had ever faced. More sophisticated even than in Vietnam, for the Iraqis had all the latest technology in radar, missiles and antiaircraft guns. Even Schtick had to weigh these realities:
"I looked in my holster. I had a .45 caliber pistol, which was designed in 1897. Loaded in the back of my helicopter was a Willy's jeep, which was designed in World War II. And my helicopter itself was designed in the fifties. I said to myself, "I'm goin' in against the most sophisticated defenses in the world -- and the youngest thing on this mission is me!"
The mission was the "on-call" variety, meaning that everyone had been up and ready by 7:30 that morning, just waiting for the word. Schtick vividly remembered what happened after that:
"We were standing around, chemical gear on up to our necks. And they said, 'When you see the white star cluster go up, run to your helicopter, put your gas mask and your helmet on, get the airplanes turning, and get ready to launch in 15 minutes.'
"So we sat around all day, waiting. Everybody was kind of nervous, thinking about the S-2 brief on how many ways Saddam could kill us. There were a few nervous jokes here and there.
"Then, finally, we saw the white star cluster go up, at 3:30 in the afternoon. Our hearts stopped. We ran to the aircraft, started getting suited up. But we didn't start up our aircraft. We were gonna get a signal first -- the next white star cluster.
"So here it was, 3:30 in the afternoon. We had our chemical gear and gas masks on. I mean, the suits are good by design, compared to anyone else's in the world, but they're still hot. And sitting in the helicopter cockpit, with all the glass around us, and nowhere for the air to escape -- in short, we had the old greenhouse effect!
"So we sat in the blazing sun, with our chemical gear on, waiting nervously for the mission to start. We ended up sitting there for about an hour and forty-five minutes before the word came down. And even then, it didn't happen.
"The word passed that everybody was to get out of the aircraft so we could have a hasty brief -- the plan had been changed. We hopped out of the aircraft. I took my gas mask off, and found a big pool of water around my neck. There's a seal that goes around your neck. I tried to take it off, and it got stuck on my head somehow. As I pulled the gas mask off, I brought the water up to my face. So I was drowning in my own sweat -- and I was still stuck.
"Finally I got my mask off, and we went to our brief. They said, 'The plan has been changed. We're flying this mission at night, and it's not an NBC environment.' Apparently our attacking forces had gotten real far up and, throughout that time, they hadn't encountered a single chemical weapon.
"So we were going to fly our mission at night, with night vision goggles [NVGS] on. We manned up the aircraft, launched them, and got out of there -- at long last, we were heading towards Kuwait."
The Flight In
At last they were airborne and, once launched, their fears disappeared. At least those that you'd notice. The crews were altogether too busy now to worry, concentrating on the job at hand.
"When I saw what it was like up there," said Schtick with a grin, "it didn't even seem like a war. I guess I'd envisioned war movies of flying in with tracers and AAA, but it was like just another flight. Except that the whole world below seemed to be on fire."
"The only thing I can compare it to is looking into hell. Everything was burning. The whole horizon was aflame. It was so bright that my goggles, which magnify the light 20,000 times, shut down. They have an automatic brightness control and it compensates for light changes. Plus, there was so much light pollution that I was losing sight of the other helicopters.
"Instinctively I put my goggles up and, again, I was flying in the middle of the night -- only I could still see silouettes of all the other helicopters in formation. It was like flying directly into a sunrise."
Military analysts had been predicting for months that the Gulf War would give birth to the biggest tank fight in history, with unheard of numbers of everything from landmines to missiles, artillery to armor -- "The Super Bowl of Tank Battles," they'd called it. But from up above, Schtick witnessed a very different reality.
"I was expecting to see tanks dueling left and right, and TOW missiles being launched. But, instead, as we were flying in over Kuwait, I looked down and saw busses driving north. Busses!
"I thought, 'What the heck is going on here?' I flipped out. I thought it must be the Partridge Family down there or something! But the EPWs had been surrendering en masse, so our people had to drive busses up there to haul them all back.
"We went further on, then we began to see the tank battles. One tank got hit right below me -- a huge flash. It was like lightning, hit so fast and with such finality. Scary stuff! Up to this point, all was going as planned. But that's exactly when Murphy's Law is most apt to counterattack -- and exactly what happened here.
As the helos forged on, they got the word -- the landing zone (LZ) where the helicopters had planned to put down was still under artillery fire. Suddenly, the mission was being aborted. Fifty-six helicopters in formation heading into Kuwait, and now they had to turn around. It was a scene Schtick will never forget:
"That's when it got exciting! If jets are flying in formation and they hit each other, tapping wings or something, they come back and land, scrape the paint off the wing and laugh about it at the Officers Club. But if helicopters have a mid-air collision or tap each other in formation, it's catastrophic. If the rotors hit each other, the helicopters just fall apart. It's not very graceful.
"It must be really tough for the crew chiefs because, while they see everything, they don't have controls in their hands. Plus the crew up front are officers, while the ones in the back are enlisted men and bound by law to be respectful: 'Sir! Sir! Please, sir! You're coming in a little too close, sir!' You know what they really wanted to say, but didn't!"
The helos began to turn south. It wasn't pretty. In fact it was more like a melee, with some birds going underneath others, some going above, some circling around to the left, others to the right. Lt. Col. Rick "Pappy" Husty, XO of the HMA-775 Coyotes, drew me an analogy for the folks back home.
"If you were in a parking lot filled with 56 big cars and somebody hollered, 'Okay, everybody make a right-hand turn! And maintain formation!' -- you'd get the exact same result. People would be all over the place, crossing behind, coming from the opposite direction.
"And then just exaggerate that," said Husty, "by having it done in the pitch black night -- with the lights out."
But all 56 survived the turn, and 51 of the 56 helos headed for a new destination. Lonesome Dove.
At Lonesome Dove, a forward base for helicopters, there were precisely enough parking spaces for its routinely deployed Hueys and Cobras. That was it, except for what parking might be available on the small, makeshift landing strip alongside the fuel pits.
Even for the resident flyers in normal times it had been an ongoing struggle to land at the Lonesome Dove LZ, according to Capt. Marc "Ace" Richardson, another Coyote.
"Once you took off, you were lucky if you got to land in the dirt coming back," he said. "Everybody and their brother would come in, assume they were good to go, and land!"
As a result, Lonesome Dove's own Hueys and Cobras would often simply forget about making proper approaches. "If they saw a parking space open, they'd just beeline for it," said Capt. Terry "Reverend" Shep- herd of the 775.
"You'd have three birds goin' in -- first come, first served -- fully armed, at night, on night vision goggles, with plane captains just rurming! If you went to the runway, you'd lose your place, so you landed right on the spot."
You can imagine the uproar, then, when the 51 helos came throbbing in for landings after the big abort.
"Half of those aircraft hadn't ever been to Lonesome Dove," said Husty. "And they didn't know what the hell it was!"
"There was just one corporal in the jerry-rigged control tower," Shepherd recalled. "And our flight leader was saying, 'Roger, fifty-one aircraft in-bound for fuel and landing on three different runways.'
"All you could hear was, 'Oh shit!' and the click of a microphone being dropped in the tower."
Husty continued. "When the first aircraft started coming in, landing in all these different directions, I got on the Bat-phone to Command and Control and told them things were really screwed up, and that they'd better get control of the tower. The Marine Air Group's CO went over there and saw what the hell was going on.
"This young corporal was overwhelmed," said Husty. "He'd lost total situation awareness. Even an experienced tower operator could have had no control over that! They were coming in from every direction, lights on, lights off, trying to hit any spot they could, and didn't know where they were going."
"Then one of our biggest birds, a 53, landed," Shepherd said. "They had a hard landing and put the sconces up through the helo's floor, breaking the bones of some of the troops. The ambulances were driving all over the base trying to find them, and all they heard was, 'No, no! They're not over here! You got the wrong spot!'"
"And all these birds were fully armed or loaded up with troops and vehicles."
"Maintenance Control got a new designation," Husty added. "It became 'Confusion Control.'"
"This Ain't Hell ... But You Can See It