I was pulling Guard duty when someone ran out to me some time in the early morning hours of the 17th wearing a gas mask. "Corporal Lovell, we're under attack. Don your mask!" I knew the war would be starting any minute of any day, but us, under attack, here, now? I didn't hesitate to don my mask. I had my weapon at the ready. "Where is the attack coming from?" I asked. He answered, "They're firing missiles at us." "Like, right now a missile is heading our way?", I asked. It was then I learned that the air war had started and everyone was given the order to be prepared for a counter-attack from Saddam's Scud missiles. The port of Al Jubayl was within range for their artillery as well as their Scud missiles, and could carry chemical and/or biological weapons. The port was a prime target because we were holding many armored and tactical vehicles here for units to pick up when they arrived in country and were deployed to the front. It would turn out to be a false alarm. And it would not be the last false alarm while at the port. Rumors were always circulating.
Desert Shield turned into the Desert Storm just after midnight. At 0001 on the 17th, two dozen F-117 Stealth fighters from 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron started taking off from a secret airbase located deep in the mountains of Saudi Arabia. Within an hour, over three hundred additional attack aircraft began taking off from aircraft carriers and airbases all over the Persian Gulf. Two teams of four AH-64 Apache helicopters from the 101st Airborne Division - the "Screaming Eagles" - and an Air Force Pave Low Helicopter from the 20th Special Operations Squadron took off at approximately 0100. This small but deadly force was codenamed Task Force Normandy. At exactly 0140, the USS Wisconsin and USS San Jacinto started launching Tomahawk Cruise missiles from the Red Sea. They would be the first weapons to penetrate Iraqi airspace flying low under the radar between 50 to 100 feet above the ground as they raced toward their targets. The timing of their launch was strategic in order to reach their targets at the same time as the rest of the air attacks.
At 0215, the two teams of TF Normandy crossed the border into Iraq in separate locations. Their objectives were two Early Warning Radar facilities in Western Iraq. When they approached their objectives at high speed, they acquired their targets, locked on with their lasers, dropped down to only a few feet above the ground, and advanced "low and slow." All the lights in both facilities were on suggesting that their approach was undetected. Once they came within range they launched their Hellfire missiles. At exactly 0238, the first missile struck its target like a thunderbolt from the skies. In all, twenty-seven Hellfire missiles were launched destroying radar antennas, operations centers, generators, and barracks. All of the missiles hit their targets. Once they were out of missiles, they raked the area with their rockets and thousands of rounds of 30mm cannon fire.
Bird's Eye View
Within minutes of this, the F-117s from the 415th Tactical Fighter Squadron bombed a radar control center one hundred sixty miles southwest of Baghdad, a radar facility in western Iraq, and an air defense site outside of Baghdad. Next in line was a swarm of eagerly awaiting attack aircraft such as the EF-111 Ravens, EA-6B Prowlers, and EC-130 Compass Call Aircraft. These aircrafts bombarded Iraq's surveillance, air defense radars, and communications equipment. F-14 Tomcats and F15C Eagles raced into Iraq to their assigned Combat Air Patrol (CAP) areas. Their mission was to fly cover for the allied planes and engage any approaching Iraqi aircraft.
Air Force Captain Steve Tate approached Baghdad in his F-15C just before 0300 with a bird's eye view of early moments of the war.
"Baghdad was a really pretty city at night. As we started flying over the populous areas...F-117s started dropping their bombs and then we started getting concussions all over the entire country. You could see it. At that point then, the sky started lighting up with AAA (Anti-Aircraft Artillery)...It looked like sparkles going off all over...I figured we had some kind of cosmic weapon system out there just sprinkling over the city...Then I started looking a little closer and I said, 'Man, that's triple A that their shooting.'" Just after 0300, Captain Tate was informed about an approaching Iraqi Fighter plane by an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was flying just south of the Iraqi/Saudi border. At 0315 he shot down an Iraqi F1 Mirage with a single radar-guided Sparrow missile. This was the first air-to-air kill of the war.
Iraq's Air Defense System
Prior to the war, Baghdad was considered to have had one of the most formidable air defense systems on earth. They had the Russian ZSU23-4 (pictured here) radar guided Anti-Aircraft Artillery guns, 57mm and 85mm guns, and Surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) for higher altitude. They had an integrated Air Defense System containing an interconnected, nationwide network of Radars and Command and Control centers. The F-117A Stealth Fighters, Apache attack helicopters, and low flying Tomahawk Cruise missiles strategically disabled their early detection capabilities and air defenses, practically in one night. The only ones that were not taken out were the ones that were turned off to prevent detection. Other radars that stayed on were subject to High Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARMs) which would lock on to these radar antennas and take them out.
At 0409, a forty-eight plane Marine strike package made up of F/A-18s and A-6Es attacked the airfield and Scud missile maintenance buildings at Qurnah, thirty miles northwest of Basra, Tallil and Shaibah air bases, and a thermal power plant at Nasiriyah. The Marines' first air strike of the war was the largest Marine Corps air attack since World War II. Twenty other aircraft from the Air Force, Navy, and the Royal Air Force supported the Marine aircraft.
During the first night, over three hundred American attack aircraft flew missions against Iraq and Kuwait and over one hundred Tomahawk Cruise missiles were launched. Twenty-three Iraqi fighters were destroyed in their hardened shelters at Tallil Air Force Base, twenty-eight power plants were destroyed, and nine Iraqi aircraft were shot down. Our losses in the first 12 hours were miraculously low.
A British Tornado was shot down by a SAM missile over Iraq and a Kuwaiti A-4 Skyhawk was downed over Kuwait. Both pilots were able to eject safely but were captured by Iraqis. A US Navy F/A-18 from the USS Saratoga was hit by a SAM missile. The pilot, Lieutenant Commander Michael S. Speicher, was the first American to lose his life in Desert Storm.
New Breaks Out
Once the news reporters in the Gulf region became aware that some sort of an attack was going on, journalists on TV and the radio began reporting it. The White House then made an official announcement coming from Marlin Fitzwater, the White House Press Secretary. "I have a statement by the President of the United States: 'The liberation of Kuwait has begun. In conjunction with the forces of our coalition partners, the United States has moved under the code name Operation Desert Storm to enforce the mandates of the United Nations Security Council. As of 7 o'clock pm Eastern Standard Time, Operation Desert Storm forces were engaging targets in Kuwait and Iraq.' President Bush will address the nation at 9 o'clock pm tonight from the Oval Office. I'll try to get you more as soon as we can. Thank you very much." He then left without fielding any questions.
Back home, my family watched the news broadcasts on TV or heard it on the radio. My mother had a temporary job in Copperas Cove, Texas, just west of Fort Hood, and was staying at the Holiday Inn when she saw the announcement on TV. She would continue watching the news coverage that evening, the next morning, and on her lunch break at work, but she could hardly eat. "I had no appetite," she said.
My Sister, Robin, shares her memory of that day: "I was driving home after class at El Centro and heard the announcer on the radio interrupt a song to say "We are at War"! It was a frightening thing to hear as I knew at that very moment my brother was in the fight of his life, and I may not see him ever again. My heart was in my throat, and it remained there until it all ended."
As further reports came out, one of them included US Defense Secretary, Dick Cheney, who said that the operation appeared to have gone "very well". Two hours after the raids began, President George H. W. Bush made a televised address. He said, "As I report to you, air attacks are under way against military targets in Iraq...I've told the American people before that this will not be another Vietnam. And I repeat this here tonight. Our troops will have the best possible support in the entire world, and they will not be asked to fight with one hand tied behind their back...Our objectives are clear. Saddam Hussein's forces will leave Kuwait. The legitimate government of Kuwait will be restored to its rightful place and Kuwait once again will be free. Iraq will eventually comply with all relevant United Nations resolutions..." In Baghdad, Saddam Hussein remained defiant. He said the "Mother of all Battles had begun". He urged the Iraqi people to "stand up to evil."
First Allied Prisoner of War
As daylight began to break, more sorties took off for further missions, more dangerous than the night ones without the cover of darkness. Two pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado were shot down over Iraq. The Pilots, Squadron Leader John Peters (pictured here right side) and Flight Lieutenant John Nichols (pictured here left side) were captured, tortured, and paraded on Iraqi Television. Flight Lieutenant John Nichols shared his story about being hit by a SAM missile:
"It knocked the aircraft sideways and almost out of the sky - we were within a few feet of hitting the ground. I can still visualize the missile hitting home and the aircraft tumbling around the sky with absolute clarity. There was no choice but to eject - and ejecting from a military combat aircraft is a phenomenal experience. The Iraqis saw us and fired their AK-47 assault rifles at us. It was a surreal situation. Five or six hours before I'd been having breakfast on my military base in Bahrain, and here I was being shot at by Iraqi troops in the middle of the desert. We were captured pretty quickly and dragged off to Baghdad - there was no point in trying to have a gun battle. Some of my friends didn't make it through the Gulf War - so I guess I'm very lucky."
Air strikes continued throughout the day and night for several weeks. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declares: “The great showdown has begun! The mother of all battles is under way.”
Back at Al Jubayl, Lance Corporal Montero asked me if I was still praying for the end of the war by the 15th of February. I told him that I was, but deep down inside, I really didn't believe it would happen. There was a war waging within my soul. Prior to that prayer request, I would have told you that my faith in God was strong, and indeed it was. I never felt closer to God in my life at that point. I was praying daily and reading my Bible daily; even committing a verse every single day to memory. But my faith was already beginning to waver when it came to believing in my prayer for the war to end on February 15th. I felt like a prisoner of "spiritual" war and my own faith was being tortured. Still, I kept praying.
We all gathered around the radio to get constant updates around the clock once we got the word that we had not yet been targeted and could remove our gas masks. General Schwarzkopf issued the following message:
"Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines of the United States Central Command, this morning at 0300, we launched Operation DESERT STORM, an offensive campaign that will enforce the United Nation's resolutions that Iraq must cease its rape and pillage of its weaker neighbor and withdraw its forces from Kuwait. My confidence in you is total. Our cause is Just! Now you must be the thunder and lightening of Desert Storm. May God be with you, your loved ones at home, and our country."
From the Iraqi Lieutenant's Diary:
"'Say this: all that happens is what God has decided for us.' (A verse from the Qur'an). God has spoken truly. This morning at 2:45 a.m. I heard military aircraft. A few seconds later, the guard came in and told me in a voice tinged with caution, fear and consternation, "Lieutenant, lieutenant, there may be bombing." I dressed quickly and then realized that the American and Atlantic attack against our country was starting and that the war had begun. This is war, with all that the word implies. Afterwards, the enemy planes began their intensive bombing on the airfield that we have been assigned to defend, at As-Salman in Al-Matna province.
I am very worried. Rather I am very worried for my relatives. They are alone out there. And I know how afraid they are. O God! Protect. O God! Patience. O God! Save us all."