By David Vergun
Army News Service
WASHINGTON — Exactly 25 years ago, Feb. 24-28, 1991, U.S. and coalition ground forces rolled across the desert from Saudi Arabia with the goal of routing Iraqi occupiers out of Kuwait. That mission took just 100 hours.
Two Desert Storm veterans recounted their experiences in the Gulf War: a Soldier who led his tank formation into Iraq, and an Army civilian who, then a Marine, fought alongside resistance fighters in Kuwait.
Lt. Col. Mark Cassel was a second lieutenant when he received orders to Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield, the buildup phase to Desert Storm.
In August, the tank platoon leader, assigned to the 2nd Armored Brigade, 24th Infantry Division, arrived with four M-1 Abrams tanks, each manned by four Soldiers for a total of 16.
Normally, a second lieutenant would need to rely on his senior non-commissioned officer for a lot of advice on how things are done, he said. However, Cassel was a former enlisted Soldier with the Nebraska Army National Guard, so he already had a lot of experience “shooting and driving tanks.”
In the months that followed, he would get to know his men very well, and they him.
Their first priority when they arrived, he said, was setting up a defensive line in Saudi Arabia, because, as the thinking went at the time, the Iraqis would not stop with the capture of Kuwait. They would try to take Saudi Arabia and push the U.S. forces out to sea or neutralize them.
That, of course, didn’t happen, so Soldiers spent months practicing drills and going out on maneuvers, “but, you can only do so much of that,” Cassel said, adding that “everyone was eager for action.”
Then a rumor went around that “we’d be out before Christmas,” he said. “Soon, people were saying ‘Let’s just go get this over with.’ That was the prevailing attitude.”
They didn’t go home for Christmas, but did get welcome Christmas presents: brand new M1A1 Abrams tanks out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, to replace their weary M-1 tanks. The nice thing about the M1A1s, he said, is that they sported 120mm guns that could shoot farther and more powerfully than the 105mm guns that were on the M-1s.
So they took a two-day training class on how to take the new 120s apart, clean the breach, and so on, he said. They were soon ready to go again. When the air and naval bombardment phase of the war began Jan. 17, heavy equipment transporters arrived and the men loaded their tanks on them. “You’re basically sitting in your tank on a low-boy trailer, going down the road,” toward the border with Kuwait, he said, adding that it was pretty neat.
For the next five weeks, they just sat at the border waiting for the word to cross the line of departure (LD).
ACROSS THE BERM
Then on Feb. 24, they were ordered to cross the LD into Iraq. The brigade’s 56 tanks, which included his four, swept far to the left across the desert in an effort to outflank and cut off the Republican Guard, Cassel said. Infantrymen in Bradley Fighting Vehicles were also in the formation.
From the time they crossed the LD to the end of the first day was a surreal experience, he said. They were literally driving blind through a ferocious sandstorm where no one could see anyone else, were it not for their thermal sights.
“You don’t really appreciate those sights until you need them,” Cassel said.
For the first two days they drove deep into Iraq, driving about five or six hours. Then they stopped for the fuel tankers to catch up. The tanks with plow and mine roller attachments gobbled up more fuel than the other tanks, he said, so when they were down to a quarter of a tank, “we’d stop until they’d fueled us up and then we’d keep going.”
At the time, GPS wasn’t in use so “when I talked to a buddy who was doing the fuel mission, he said they just followed our tracks [through the sand] until they caught up to us. We drove a long ways and used lots of fuel.”
From time to time, they heard small splattering sounds outside their tanks. “At the time, we thought people were test firing their 50-cals,” he said. “We found out we were taking enemy artillery and mortar fire. It just wasn’t impressive” and there was not much in the way of damage and no injuries.
Their objective was the Jalibah Airfield in Iraq, Cassel said, some 80 miles west of Basra. They reached it the night of the third day.
The brigade’s tanks formed a defensive line and throughout the night the U.S. artillery and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems “just pounded the airfield,” he said.
The next morning, they engaged the Iraqi tanks, which were the old Soviet ones, dating back to World War II.
“Ours was a fairly easy operation,” he said. The Iraqis had their tanks dug in facing south in a defensive line. “We came around from the west and tore them up. They didn’t have the range to get us and weren’t oriented to shoot us,” he said.
One of the most interesting parts of the war, he said, was that some tanks in his unit shot at Iraqi fighter jets on the airfield, in an attempt to take them out before they became airborne and posed a threat.
“People were calling in SITREPS [situation reports]: ‘This is White Platoon. Destroyed three enemy tanks and one jet fighter.'” Higher headquarters was incredulous, he said.
The battle lasted maybe half an hour, he said. “That was it for us.” His unit was ordered not to cross the Euphrates River and continue northward.
Their next objective was to take the Rumaila oil fields in southern Iraq. They refueled, rearmed, rolled into the fields and took up defensive positions, he said. Then the 100-hour ground war ended.
That the war ended so quickly came as a huge surprise to everyone, he said. “That’s it?” people said. “We thought we were still in the first phase of the operation.”
“‘OK guys, we’re going home,’ I told them.”
Everyone was happy they survived, he added. No one in his unit was killed or injured.
Although the war was short, the experience bonded Cassel with his men. Over the years, he said they stay in contact and have celebrated their 10th- and 20th-year reunions.
Sometimes, Cassel, who works as an Army civilian in G-3 training in the Pentagon, runs into one of his drivers who also works there.
Cassel plans to retire in June from the Army Reserve, after 31 years of service.
LACK OF INTEL
Dr. Scott Moore, who is now the division director for Field Programs, U.S. Army Center of Military History, or CMH, was a Marine major with the 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, during the war.
He deployed to Jubail, a port in eastern Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf, just before Christmas 1990. From there, he linked up with his unit at the Kuwaiti border. He was the regimental intelligence officer.
“My job was to figure out what the enemy was doing,” he said.
But there was a problem, he said. He wasn’t receiving any useful intelligence.
The only intel they received came from observers at the border, he said. All they saw was an empty expanse of desert stretching into the distance.
“We had a sketchy picture of what was out in front of us. We kind of knew there was an Iraqi army out there. We didn’t know near what everyone thinks we knew.”
Surveillance images from satellites and aircraft “never made it to us,” he said. “Most of that stuff stayed where it was. When we crossed the line of departure, I had one aerial image. It was just a picture of the desert.”
Moore said he requested an unmanned aerial vehicle mission be flown six hours before they crossed the LD “to see if anything had moved in, but for all we knew, it was denied.”
A UAV was out there taking pictures of enemy artillery and other things on the ground and “somebody had those coordinates, but we didn’t get them. Nobody could tell us where it was.” It was incredibly frustrating, he said. “We just went in blind.”
INTO WESTERN KUWAIT
His unit went into Kuwait on the left side of the 1st Marine Div., which headed to the Kuwait City International Airport. The 2nd Marine Div., of which Moore was a part, crossed into western Kuwait, ending up just south of Al Jahra, Kuwait, 20 miles west of Kuwait City, he said.
To the left of Moore’s unit was “Tiger” Brigade, 2nd Armored Div., which was attached to the 2nd Marine Div. “They came through the breach behind us,” he said.
After the first day, Moore said he picked up intelligence about what was out in front by interrogating prisoners and using a very useful captured map. “By the second day we had an idea of what was out in front of us. Using that map, we hit them,” he said.
By the end of the second day, Marines of his regiment were operating elsewhere and Moore, along with his driver and another Marine, were attached to a Kuwaiti resistance fighter unit and operating independently.
When they reached Al Jahra, Moore said they “had no idea what was in there.”
This caused a bit of anxiety, because he only had a Humvee and a Kalashnikov AKMS assault rifle that he found, since Marine officers are not issued their own rifles, just side arms.
For the last two days of the ground war, Moore fought alongside the resistance fighters, who were not all that eager to take risks, he said.
“The Kuwaiti resistance wouldn’t go into a building until I certified it was safe,” he said. “So my corporal and I would go into these buildings just to make sure they weren’t booby trapped,” he said. “We had a 17-year-old kid we called ‘door kicker.’ Every time we needed a door opened up, we’d ask him to go do it and he’d run into the door. We were lucky we never found one that was booby trapped.”
Moore said they engaged the enemy several times, and all came out of it alive and uninjured. They also provided a lot of useful reconnaissance information to friendly forces.
When the 100 hours ground war ended, Moore said he “ended up by default being the liaison officer to the resistance.” That lasted for a couple of weeks. They did a number of useful things for the Kuwaitis, he said, including bringing engineers in to get their gas stations up and running. That was one of their priorities.
As for the Iraqis, many just took off their uniforms and melted away into the population and others were taken prisoner.
The resistance fighters turned over 150 prisoners to Moore at one point.
Sgt. Alvin York brought back 132 German prisoners during World War I and received the Medal of Honor. “I got nothing,” he said, laughing.
When Moore retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, he used his G.I. bill to get his doctoral degree and ended up at Center of Military History. He said having served gives him a greater perspective and understanding as a historian for the Army. “It makes more sense what you’re seeing,” he said.