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Driving Storm: A Vision of Hell - Part Five

Feb. 24, 2016 | 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 (LCC 19)  operating in the Arabian Gulf. This is part five of a five-part series. To see previous posts, from this series, click here

Oil well fires blaze out of control outside Kuwait City. The wells were set afire by Iraqi forces prior to their withdrawal from the region during Operation Desert Storm.

The scale of destruction was astonishing. By this time I'd seen hundreds of photos of Kuwait City taken from satellite and reconnaissance aircraft; none had the resolution to detect the true extent of damage. From the air, most of the city seemed pretty intact. From the ground, it appeared that every window in the city was broken, every shop and house looted, gutted, trashed, and many of them burned. The dense black pall of roiling smoke from hundreds of burning oil wells blocked out the sun. It looked like doomsday. Commander Wayne Perras (my boss, the NAVCENT intelligence officer) and I flew from Bahrain up to Kuwait City about two weeks after the end of the ground war to attend a meeting at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy.

It didn't seem so bad at first. The wind was blowing the smoke away from the airport, and we landed under a blue sky and bright sun, but the sight of dozens of blazing oil wells was unreal; they looked like orange traffic flares dotting the horizon. The airport was in ruins; the terminal, intact on the outside, was burned out and unsafe to enter on the inside. Our transportation plan quickly fell apart and we wound up hitching a ride on the back of a Humvee to the Army headquarters to find the ride that was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Sitting on the cargo on the back of the Humvee, blasted by the hot, smoky wind as we drove the airport perimeter road, I definitely felt out of place in my khakis. Everyone else was still in combat gear; Commander Perras and I may have been among the first "tourists" into Kuwait City. 

A destroyed hangar at Kuwait International Airport after the retreat of Iraqi forces from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.

The drive from the airport to the embassy was mostly in silence; we were literally stunned by the damage. We had not conducted an amphibious landing into Kuwait primarily due to concern about how much destruction it would cause to the city. It was clear the Iraqis had done a pretty good job without our help. They had obviously looted practically everything of value from the city, and much of the booty, and the looters, were burned to a crisp in the smoking carnage of the "highway of death" north of the city. There were hardly any Kuwaitis to be seen. The euphoria of liberation that we had watched on CNN tapes had already passed. The party was over, and the Kuwaitis were engaged in the grim task of trying to determine how many people had been killed, how many were missing and would never be seen again, and starting to rebuild. As we made the turn northward on the coastal boulevard, we could still see the remnants of Iraqi fortifications intended to defend the beach against our amphibious attacks.

The beach remained off-limits because many landmines were yet to be recovered. Much of the barbed wire and obstacles had been removed, but enough remained to indicate that the Iraqis were truly serious about defending the beach against an amphibious assault that they clearly believed was coming. If the defenders had been motivated enough to stand and fight, they could have made any landing quite bloody. Shortly after the liberation of Kuwait City, U.S. forces found an extraordinarily detailed scale sand-table mock-up of the beach defenses, confirming that the Iraqis expended enormous effort to prepare to defend against our deception plan. Although the threat of amphibious assault is credited with tying down several entire Iraqi divisions, thus diverting defenders away from main Coalition ground attack to the west, most of those units were down to skeletal strength before the ground war even began. Those Iraqi soldiers that remained on the Kuwaiti coast at the end of the air campaign took flight before the amphibious landing would have even started.

But even devoid of defenders, just the land and sea mines could have taken a terrible toll. By the time we returned to the airport, the wind had changed and the smoke blacked out the mid-afternoon sun. It was an unnatural darkness not unlike the total eclipse I'd experienced in Nova Scotia in 1972, but far more sinister as this was at the hand of man, not nature. The blowtorch flames of the burning oil wells stood out even more against the black sky in an unforgettably surreal, yet bizarrely beautiful vision.

I felt strangely guilty for thinking that about a scene of hell on earth. As our plane climbed through the smoke and broke through into the brilliant sunlight, the huge extent of the black cloud was clear, covering virtually the entirety of Kuwait and out into the Arabian Gulf. For some reason I was reminded of Wellington's comment after defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, "There is nothing half so melancholy as a battle lost than a battle won."

Civilian and Iraqi military vehicles litter a section of the Kuwait City Highway attacked by Allied aircraft during Operation Desert Storm  
Editor's Note: The offensive action against Iraq, codenamed Operation Desert Storm was carried out under provisions of twelve U.N. Security Council resolutions and resolutions of both houses of the U.S. Congress. Forward deployed naval forces provided protection for early introduction of land-based ground and air assets, and may well have deterred further aggression by Iraq. Maritime superiority and unchallenged control of the sea enabled the safe and timely delivery of equipment, supplies and spare parts necessary to support the allied campaign. Naval aviation complemented allied air operations, added flexibility to the air campaign, and deterred reintroduction of Iraqi aircraft from Iran into the conflict while Tomahawk cruise missiles took out heavily defended targets in Iraq and significantly degraded enemy air defenses. For 38 days, coalition forces mounted continuous air attacks, which, according to historical documents, grew to more than 1,000 sorties a day. During that time, Iraq's air force was destroyed along with its anti-aircraft and command and communication capabilities, as well as military targets in Iraq and Kuwait. The ground offensive began at 4 a.m. on Feb. 24 (8 p.m. EST on Feb. 23) as U.S. and coalition forces began moving into Iraq and Kuwait for the ground assault phase of the operation. The ground offensive advanced quickly, with coalition troops making steady progress against Iraqi troops, many of them deserters waving white flags. By the third day of the offensive, allied troops had liberated Kuwait City. President Bush declared a cessation of hostilities at 8:01 a.m. Feb. 28, just four days after the ground war began. On March 3, Iraqi leaders formally accepted the cease-fire terms, and the first U.S. combat forces returned home five days later. Forward deployed naval forces, which had operated in the region for decades, stayed on station and remain so today. Presence mattered then and continues to today.

This is part five of a five-part series. To see part one posts, from this series click here