Desert Vigil: Troops faced long, hot wait for war
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia — History books as yet unwritten will likely reduce the Gulf crisis and war to a few paragraphs and a handful of catch phrases — "Desert Storm," "gas mask," "Scud missile," "smart bomb."
But few of those who were on hand in the Mideast to watch the events unfold will forget the details about their months in the Gulf, or the part they played in the war. Such memories will remain with them for life.
War or peace, the Mideast is in itself unforgettable to anyone who has traveled through it. More than a few troops who deployed to Saudi Arabia, however, probably wish they'd never set foot in the desert kingdom, with its rigid customs, its severe heat, its wilderness of sand, its dour women wrapped in midnight black.
For many, in fact, the hardest part of the ordeal proved not to be surviving a chemical attack or tank battle, but simply weathering a half year spent in the sand, or afloat in the surrounding waters.
Despite Big Macs, Cadillacs and air-conditioned malls, Saudi Arabia remains a country rooted in an age centuries past, like a passage torn from the Old Testament or the Koran.
In other Mideastern lands, Islam is the religion of choice. But in Saudi Arabia it is the only choice, woven into the fiber of everyday life and thrust on believer and non-believer alike.
GIs who spent their time anywhere near a city in Saudi Arabia will remember the haunting call to prayer, wailing from tinny loudspeakers five times a day. They'll remember the ornate mosques, and they'll remember images of the faithful kneeling next to BMWs or battered pickups on desert roadsides during sunset devotion.
It's hard to forget about the country's strict censorship laws, which ban all news stories, magazine articles, music or films contrary to the government or its religion. There are no bars, discos or movie theaters, and although illicit drugs, drink and other vices can be had at a high cost, it seems that anything even remotely fun is forbidden.
Most troops in Saudi Arabia, however, spent little time getting to know the local culture. Once herded off camouflage transport planes at Dhahran air base, soldiers and Marines traveled to nearby ports to offload their tanks, trucks or other vehicles from cargo ships. Then they formed serpentine convoys that snaked north across highways, away from the cities and deep into the desert.
Along the way, dust-choked truck stops were the only links many troops ever had with the Saudis.
The combination gas station-convenience stores became more rundown with each passing mile north, but troops flocked to them to buy junk food, newspapers and cheap trinkets for souvenirs.
While some troops lived in barracks in the rear, the desert was home to many GIs during the crisis and war, though at times it proved inhospitable.
The intense heat was often hardest to bear. During the daytime from late summer until late fall, you couldn't escape the blow torch heat, and only deep in the evenings did the sand begin to cool. Troops learned to work around the heat by sleeping at midday and working or training at night.
Water kept you alive out in the sand, but to avoid dehydration you had to learn to force it down by the quart, since it usually tasted of chlorine or iodine and was always hot from the sun. The water was often so hot you could use it for coffee, although most troops just poured Kool-aid into it to make it easier to drink.
The desert regions that most troops called home were seldom filled with rolling, cactus-covered dunes as you might find in the American Southwest. Much of the northern Saudi desert is as flat and dead as the floor of an ancient sea, and littered with decades of trash left there by bedouin sheepherders. Troops added to the existing garbage with their empty ration pouches and other mounds of junk strewn across each camp — which promptly drew swarms of flies.
Desert camps were often thick with fine, corpse-gray dust that settled into the chow, clogged the nose and ground into rifle actions and other mechanical parts. And wind storms could fill the air with powdered sand that made you cough for hours.
Troops found it hard to navigate in the featureless desert, they found it difficult to gauge distances in its expanses, and tough to locate cover in the flat terrain.
And aside from marathon card games, mail from home or scorpion fights, there were few diversions to the seemingly ceaseless desert vigils. So boredom added to the other annoyances to make desert life sometimes seem intolerable.
But most GIs got used to their plight and learned to deal with their surroundings long before the war began. The sunsets and sunrises, after all, were often spectacular. And the bright, crisp nights were silent and star-filled.
Like their brothers in the desert, sailors in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and North Arabian Sea also had to deal with the Mideastern heat — especially those who worked on aircraft carrier flight decks or among the furnaces and steam turbines of a ship's power plant.
A carrier's steel deck radiates the sun's heat like an iron frying pan, and the exhaust from fighter jets makes flight deck temperatures even harder to bear.
Meanwhile, deep in the guts of any steam-driven ship, firemen and boiler technicians worked round-the-clock in temperatures above 100 degrees, keeping the furnaces burning and the steam turbines turning.
Engine room hazards could include diesel fires and severe burns from high-pressure steam, while flight deck duty posed such dangers as engine exhaust burns, loose missiles on deck, plane crashes or men blown overboard.
Even months before the war, the Persian Gulf could be a nasty place to work. The waterway was often filled with oil slicks (though much smaller than the slicks caused during the war), as well as floating garbage and bloated sheep carcasses that merchant ships threw overboard (sharks loved them). To keep things interesting, mines occasionally broke free from their moorings and drifted down from the Gulf's northern reaches, so lookouts scanned the waters night and day.
Enforcing the United Nations embargo of Iraq kept allied sailors busy in the Mideastern waters before the war. The men often had to board ships suspected of carrying forbidden cargo to or from Iraq, and sometimes had to divert vessels when such cargo was found. Meanwhile, carrier-based fighter jets flew combat air patrols near the Iraqi and Kuwaiti borders to thwart any air raids that Saddam Hussein might launch.
Above the Arabian Peninsula, U.S. Air Force fighter jets, along with those from other coalition air forces, defended the skies against attack. Day and night, Air Force refueling tankers pumped gas into the jets. And AWACS command and control planes directed operations from the sky and readied to take charge of any air battle, in the event of war.
Back on the desert floor, the pre-war buzzword was "training."
Infantrymen trained at clearing land mines by crawling on their bellies and probing the ground with sticks. Armored units bolted plows onto their tanks and practiced breaching sand berms.
Anti-aircraft gunners fired their 20mm gatling guns at model Iraqi jets. And anti-tank gunners sighted in their missile systems by shooting at demolished cars two miles distant.
Soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, everyone practiced donning gas masks and chemical protective suits. They fired their weapons while wearing protective gear and practiced cleansing their skin of imaginary chemical agents.
The months of training and preparation paid off when the hour of war came to pass on Jan. 17. The mother of all desert vigils had ended, and though no one could foresee it, the war would prove infinitely shorter — and much less frustrating — than the six month crisis that preceded it.