The Highway of Death, where American airpower destroyed a long column of retreating Iraqi armor in the first Gulf War, is back in business.
But this time, thousands of U.S. troops, tanks and artillery pieces are heading north on the barren road from Kuwait City to Baghdad, with a different purpose.
“Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” said Marine tank commander Sgt. Tom Kaplan as he inspected the barrel of an Abrams tank at a camp in the northern Kuwaiti desert.
Kaplan, a 30-year-old self-described history buff from Teaneck, N.J., with the 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, cracked a wide smile.
“I think by the time this is all over, the Iraqis are going to wish that little part of the desert was never paved.”
Marine Corps officials won’t say exactly how many mechanized vehicles are being unloaded from prepositioned cargo ships and sent to a desert staging area called the Arrival Assembly Operations Element.
But on any given day, dozens of heavy trucks pull flatbed trailers loaded with military equipment — enough to supply a division of 17,000 for a monthlong operation, officials said.
The equipment comes from bases at three storage areas: Guam, Diego Garcia and one in the Mediterranean Sea. Marine ground units pick up the gear after deploying.
More than 500 Marine logistics specialists at the Kuwait arrival area unload, inventory and assemble the equipment before loading it onto the flatbeds bound for desert camps.
The trailers carry everything: huge generators, bulldozers and forklifts, tanks, artillery pieces, amphibious landing craft, Humvees.
Most of the equipment is desert tan. But because the Marine Corps has tapped so much of its prepositioned supplies, the remainder is green.
“We started out using local national workers and trucks for transport,” said Capt. David Romley, a spokesman for the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
“But as we get more of our equipment and more of our Marines ashore, we are now using our own vehicles for transport.”
The trucks drive past Kuwaiti police checkpoints on Highway 80, headed for desert camps out beyond road signs topped with highlighter-yellow script reading “God Bless U.S. Troops.”
For years, that road was lined with the rusting, shattered hulks of Iraqi tanks and personnel carriers — half-buried monuments to the carnage visited upon retreating forces a decade ago.
On Feb. 26 and 27, 1991, U.S. planes trapped a 2,000-vehicle convoy on the Abdali Road by blasting those in front and in the rear. American pilots bombed the resulting bottleneck for hours.
A similar scene played out on the only other highway, running along the Persian Gulf, leading from Kuwait City to Iraq.
Wave after wave of attack aircraft, Apache helicopters and A-10 Warthogs swooped in, pummeling the doomed convoy with cluster bombs, missiles and machine-gun fire.
“There’s just nothing like it,” one Warthog pilot told pool reporters days after the incident.
“It’s the biggest Fourth of July show you’ve ever seen, and to see those tanks just go ‘boom,’ and more stuff just keep spewing out of them and shells flying out to the ground, they just became white hot. It’s wonderful.”
The battle, if such a one-sided engagement can be called that, became known as the Turkey Shoot. When reporters visited the scene in early March, they filed stories and photos detailing the devastation. Controversy erupted over whether the Iraqis were simply fleeing or attempting a fighting retreat.
“The first reason why we bombed the highway coming north out of Kuwait is because there was a great deal of military equipment on that highway, and I had given orders to all my commanders that I wanted every piece of Iraqi equipment that we possibly could destroyed,” Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander in the Gulf War, recounted in a 1995 interview.
“Secondly, this was not a bunch of innocent people just trying to make their way back across the border to Iraq. This was a bunch of rapists, murderers and thugs who had raped and pillaged downtown Kuwait City and now were trying to get out of the country before they were caught.”
Over the past few years, the Kuwaiti military has dug up most of the wreckage and dragged it to various bases in the desert.
“There is a large graveyard, piled with Iraqi equipment,” said Lt. Col. Ali Hamadi, a Ministry of Defense spokesman.
“But you cannot see it. All of the Kuwait military bases are off-limits during the exercises,” he said, using the word that Kuwaiti officials prefer when talking about the buildup of American troops.
Many of the younger Marines say they did not know the particular history of the road they are now traveling to reach their desert bases after arriving.
But for the most part, they agreed with its moniker.
“They should just keep calling it the Highway of Death, because that’s what this is designed to inflict,” said Cpl. Shane Davis, a 19-year-old howitzer gunner from San Diego, Calif.