Storm Break: Curator of the Navy Recalls War’s First Night 25 Years Later – Part I

By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command

Editor’s Note: At the time Desert Storm began, NHHC Director Sam Cox was an active duty Lieutenant Commander, serving as an assistant intelligence officer on the staff of Vice Adm. Stan Arthur who commanded the U.S. Seventh Fleet and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command embarked on the command ship USS Blue Ridge operating in the Arabian Gulf. This is Part I of a two part series click here for Part II.

General Quarters! General Quarters!  All hands man your Battle Stations!”

0230 January 17, 1991 – This time, it was for real. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d been lying awake in my bunk in the midnight hours, waiting for it. The “Mother of all Battles” was about to begin, and we were going to start it.
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Waiting for the war to begin, I was unable to sleep, so I was re-reading some letters from my wife as well as one my father sent me several months earlier. I’d called my parents from Japan when we first received word we would be deploying to the Arabian Gulf (in early August 1990). It was a short conversation; I couldn’t say much because our movement was still classified. I just said that we were “shipping out,” watch the news, and that I loved them. By my choice of words, my dad knew exactly what I meant. I suspect he said the same thing to his parents when he shipped out to Korea, and heard the same thing from his father when my grandfather shipped out to the Solomon Islands during World War II. I suspected I now had some idea what my father and grandfather were thinking when they went off to war, and my dad’s letter confirmed that he understood completely; it was a very special letter.

As I made my way forward through the dark red-lit passageway to my battle station, a word processor in the staff intelligence office, my state of mind was calm and fatalistic. It was a strange feeling; I didn’t want to be going to war, but I certainly didn’t want to be anywhere else than right where I was. This would be one for the history books, no matter how it turned out.

I arrived in the office and looked at the TV monitor with the tactical display, and marveled at the incredible blob of blue aircraft symbols approaching the Iraqi border. No one had ever seen anything like it. I took a sharp breath, thinking, “Well, here it goes.”

A BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) is fired toward an Iraqi target from the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63) at the start of Operation Desert Storm (Courtesy of the National Archives

A BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack missile (TLAM) is fired toward an Iraqi target from the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63) at the start of Operation Desert Storm. (Photos Courtesy of the National Archives)

We knew special operations forces were already attacking Iraqi early warning radar sites, and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles were already launching from nearby Navy warships. Within a few minutes, the blue blob of hundreds of U.S. and Allied aircraft and cruise missiles would cross the border and begin striking Iraqi targets. We wouldn’t be able to see it on the monitor, but Iraqi surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery would be rising to meet our aircraft. Since it was the middle of the night, we didn’t expect much opposition from the Iraqi Air Force. Only one thing was for sure; a lot of people were going to die in the next hour.

Vice Adm. Stan Arthur commanded the United States Seventh Fleet. At the time, the Seventh Fleet staff was directing U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and was forward deployed in the Persian Gulf so Arthur oversaw the U.S. Navy buildup for Dessert Shield, then directed the operations of more than 96,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel and 130 U.S. Navy and Allied ships in Operation Desert Storm. This represented the largest U.S. naval armada amassed since World War II. He continued directing Naval Forces Central Command until April 1991, when he returned to Yokosuka to take up Seventh Fleet duties once more.

Vice Adm. Stan Arthur commanded the United States Seventh Fleet. At the time, the Seventh Fleet staff was directing U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and was forward deployed in the Persian Gulf so Arthur oversaw the U.S. Navy buildup for Dessert Shield, then directed the operations of more than 96,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel and 130 U.S. Navy and Allied ships in Operation Desert Storm. This represented the largest U.S. naval armada amassed since World War II. He continued directing Naval Forces Central Command until April 1991, when he returned to Yokosuka to take up Seventh Fleet duties once more.

I was neither excited about going to war, nor was I particularly afraid. One thing about being the Iraqi “subject matter expert” on the intelligence staff was that I had the most realistic knowledge of anyone on just how much danger we were really in, or weren’t. Vice Adm. Stanley R. Arthur decided he preferred to fight from at sea, so a week before the start of the war, the Blue Ridge got underway from Bahrain and began operating in the north-central Arabian Gulf. Some of us suspected the real reason for his decision was to unplug the phones since U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) had become increasingly meddlesome as more and more colonels arrived at the headquarters in Riyadh as the war approached. But, getting underway did make us safer in my view. By no longer acting as a fixed target welded to the pier in Mina Salman, we eliminated the threat from Iraqi ballistic missiles and commando/terrorist attacks, and we made it much more difficult for the Iraqi Air Force to find us. The Iraqi Mirage F-1′s would have to fight their way past several Aegis cruisers, and fighters from three carrier air wings, to get to us. Unlike the Stark attack in 1987, we would be ready and waiting for them. Iraqi missile boats would have to fight their way through a similar gauntlet of warships and fighter-bombers. The aircraft flying into Iraq, and U.S. ships and Marines operating closer to the Iraq and Kuwait coastlines, would face serious threats. About the only way the Iraqis could hurt the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) flagship would be if we were unlucky enough to hit one of the drifting mines. While this was definitely possible, the odds were against it.

Nevertheless, as the expression goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” Did Saddam Hussein have any surprises up his sleeve?  We assumed that all the threats of “making the sand burn under our feet” were just a bunch of propaganda bluster, but it stuck in the back of our minds nonetheless. The big unknown concerned if and when Saddam would resort to using weapons of mass destruction.

For Part II of this blog series click here.

 

DN-SC-91-05320 Ten ships of Task Force 155 gather during Operation Desert Storm. Leading the formation at left is the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60), flanked by the guided missile cruisers USS SAN JACINTO (CG-56), top, and USS THOMAS S. GATES (CG-51). At center is the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser USS MISSISSIPPI (CGN-40) flanked by the aircraft carriers USS AMERICA (CV-66), top, and USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67). At rear are, from top, the guided missile destroyer USS PREBLE (DDG-46), the guided missile cruisers USS PHILIPPINE SEA (CG-58) and USS NORMANDY (CG-60) and the guided missile destroyer USS WILLIAM V. PRATT (DDG-44)

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Ten ships of Task Force 155 gather during Operation Desert Storm. Leading the formation at left is the aircraft carrier USS SARATOGA (CV-60), flanked by the guided missile cruisers USS SAN JACINTO (CG-56), top, and USS THOMAS S. GATES (CG-51). At center is the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser USS MISSISSIPPI (CGN-40) flanked by the aircraft carriers USS AMERICA (CV-66), top, and USS JOHN F. KENNEDY (CV-67). At rear are, from top, the guided missile destroyer USS PREBLE (DDG-46), the guided missile cruisers USS PHILIPPINE SEA (CG-58) and USS NORMANDY (CG-60) and the guided missile destroyer USS WILLIAM V. PRATT (DDG-44)