I was still getting caught up on some mail that I was receiving. I don't know when I actually received it, but my grandmother wrote a letter to me on the 27th, and mailed it the 28th. In it she mentioned mailing me two tapes as well as some Kool-Aid. The water was not so great so I had requested packets of Kool-Aid to put in my canteen. I had one canteen for water since I still needed to drink some. I also needed water for other things. But as far as drinking something with my meals, I preferred Kool-Aid. I remember eating an MRE as I was reading the letter. I had to stop in order to eat the "gorilla" cookie with two hands. The chocolate covered cookies (pictured here) were stuck together like cement and took the strength of a gorilla to pull them apart, hence the nickname "gorilla" cookie.
My grandmother also mentioned sending me a care package. She was concerned that the packages would take longer as they would have to be inspected. She said she spoke to the man at the post office who helped her ship the package and he said my address was not on the list of packages to be held for 30 days. I don't remember how long they actually took, but I seem to remember the packages arriving faster than the letters.
I also received a letter from my other grandmother in Oklahoma. She states that she and her son/grandson, Steven (adopted by his grandparents), were watching the news about the war. Steven says, "Tell him I hope he don't get killed or hurt." She mentions the Scuds that were being launched at Israel and hoping that didn't "mess things up" for the Coalition. General Schwarzkopf says allies have air supremacy and are reducing the Scud threat.
It's hard to read her writing so I can't share too much more than that. I had no time to write anything today. I only read a couple of letters, and enjoyed the contents of a care package. Things were about to change quickly around here. When Ryder came out of the briefing, he immediately wanted us heading to 1st Mar Div's CP for another meeting. He had heard that they were planning on moving their CP forward and were assembling a task force recon team. I had the feeling that we were going to try to be a part of it.
From the Iraqi Lieutenant's diary:
"This evening, after a series of enemy air strikes and watching their in- flight refueling over our territory, I decided to go to Company [redacted] in the tank battalion that belongs to the armored brigade. I went to sleep without eating. All the food I had was a little gruel and tea."
A Desperate Iraqi Plot
Prior to arriving at 1st Mar Div's CP, we had a scheduled stop for another meeting at MARCENT HQ. I wanted to be in this meeting as there was always something interesting discussed.
According to intel, on January 27th, after 10 days of being pounded by air strikes, Saddam Hussein traveled to the Iraqi port city of al Basra to meet with some of his generals that commanded forces in Iraqi-held Kuwait. Hussein demanded a response to what had been an almost entirely lopsided pummeling from the air by the coalition.
This response would come in a tactically bankrupt assault by Iraq’s already heavily degraded armor forces. They would push 10 miles south of the border into Saudi Arabia, to the seaside port town of Khafji. It was a bold plan, one based on arrogance and the need for positive propaganda more than military strategy.
On an interesting side note, during Hussein’s trip back to Baghdad following the meeting, his convoy came under coalition air attack, although he survived the onslaught and made it back to Baghdad safely. (One can only wonder how history would have changed if that strike had taken the “Butcher of Baghdad” out for good.)
The next day, on the 28th, it seemed apparent that Iraqi forces were going to make a move south. Observation posts along the border reported drastically increased Iraqi reconnaissance activity. Additionally, the U.S. Air Force’s E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS - pictured here), a Boeing 707 with a large canoe shaped radar that can detect and track enemy ground movements, reported that a column of Iraqi armor was headed south towards the border. Even maps showing the outposts along the border as part of an Iraqi attack plan were seized.
These warnings were not heeded by Central Command, and at the time, the Combined Air Operations Center was focused on running its war plan. Additionally, the idea of Hussein’s forces attacking across the border was unexpected, to say the least, because such a move would have little strategic value by that point in the war and it would be a suicide mission.
Other than Iraqi counterbattery fire in response to the raids there had not been a whole lot of enemy activity along the border. That all changed about 2030 this evening. The Iraqis suddenly launched a multi-pronged attack which enemy prisoners of war later said was aimed at breaking through our observation post line, seizing Kibrit and Khafji, then driving south to take Mishab. They would have had to go through OP-4 where Recon Marines were stations and then directly through our position to reach Kibrit. To the east, the Iraqis would have to go through two teams of Recon Marines at OP-7 and OP-8, as well as the Saudis 5th Airborne Battalion, to get to Khaji and then 1st Marine Division to advance further south to Mishab.
Initially, the only hint that the Marines had that an offensive was developing came from air reconnaissance which noticed an armored buildup near the coastal highway. I've learned from a report by Lieutenant Colonel Charles H. Cureton, that it was a Pioneer Remote Piloted Vehicle (RPV - pictured here) operated by the 1st Remote Piloted Vehicle Company (1st RPV Company) which flew over a large Iraqi force moving south along the coastal road. The RPV located the enemy force about 3 kilometers north of the border. First estimated at 8 to 10 armored vehicles, a further search discovered elements of a mechanized brigade and indicated that it was organizing for an attack on the town of Khafji. Soon after identifying the Iraqi brigade, the RPV discovered a second brigade assembling east of the Al Wafrah Oilfields, right where we were headed.
Altogether there were three Iraqi Battalions from the 5th Mechanized Infantry Division, one of the better and larger divisions holding the Kuwait-Saudi border. Such groups (the largest was originally estimated at 60 to 100) were reported at several points along the fronts of 1st Mar Div, 2nd Mar Div, and the Eastern Province Area Command (EPAC). What was most alarming to us were the reports coming in from 1st Recon Platoon Marines at Observation Post 4 (OP-4), located close to the Saudi-Kuwaiti border, of enemy armored vehicles entering the division's zone. Recon Marines were stationed at 8 observation points along the border. We had been advancing units into forward positions in this areas in search for a forward CP and to prepare for offensive operations. This brought us together in a "chance" meeting. They were not expecting us to be advancing toward the border, and we certainly did not expect to be face-to-face with them.
Ryder first got the word over the radio. I couldn't hear it because it was a handheld radio with no external speaker. I could hear the tension in his voice. He ends the radio communication by turning to me and saying, "This is it, Corporal Lovell. We got enemy units moving directly toward us. Stop the vehicle." Now typically, we drove day and night to so many places, it would be easy to lose track of where I was. I made my own "roads" by following the tracks I made on previous trips somewhere. I even had names for them. So my first thought was that we must have wandered over the border without knowing it. It was the other way around; Iraqis wandering over the border without us knowing about it. We stopped the vehicle and took up defensive positions. I don't know how many there were of us, but we had plenty of firepower with 3rd LAI Battalion screening us to the west and 2nd LAI to our east. Plus Ryder was "Johnny on the spot" on the radio calling in airstrikes.
Our Deadliest Night
The 2nd Marines were the first to engage the enemy in ground combat today. We used small arms fire, but mostly used TOW missile fire as well as several air strikes that Ryder was calling in. I was excited to finally be in the fight. At this point, we had not yet had the M-60 mounted on our vehicle. That would change pretty quick after this encounter. I only had my M-16. Previously we all had decided that it would be a good idea to tape two full magazines together, one facing up that would be loaded into the weapon, and the other facing down. When one was empty, we would simply eject the magazine, turn it upside down, and then load the full one. I emptied both magazines today. It was my first time ever to fire live ammo at a live target. I was trembling all over my body with an adrenaline rush. In fact, as I write this post, reliving the moment again in my mind, I'm literally trembling all over again.
At first I could hear Marines yelling back and forth to each other, giving orders or instructions. Then it got quiet. It was like the calm before a storm. The only thing I heard, other than the wind blowing, was the chatter from the hand held radio that was sitting next to Ryder. Then I could hear the sounds of vehicles approaching in the distance. The sounds of metal clinging and squeaking is a distinct sound of armored tracked vehicles. I knew they were tanks, and a lot of them. We had NVGs so that was to our advantage. After about 4 or 5 minutes of hearing them draw closer, I heard the first shot fired; it was a TOW missile. And the fight was on.
At 2250, I heard Company C, 2nd LAI Battalion report back to command that we were engaging 29 armored vehicles. By 2345, the 2nd LAI Battalion again reported that we were engaging enemy armored targets, and claimed one kill of a tank by a TOW gunner. I later learned that it was Corporal Edmond Willis III of Company A. This was the 2nd Marine Division's first ground combat kill during Operation Desert Storm. I heard three rounds buzzing over my head and I could swear that at least one hit my Humvee. I could see the muzzle flash of the small arms fire and knew that was infantry, so I concentrated on them. I was too far away from them to get a confirmed kill. I guess it would have to wait.
As the fight continued, orders were coming in across the radio from Central Command. General Keys was concerned with the possibility of an enemy breakthrough into the division's zone. The 6th Marines responded by stating it could have an infantry battalion and a battalion of tanks "ready to move in 30 Mikes" (minutes). The Tiger Brigade (1st Brigade, 2d Armored Division) was given a verbal order to provide one company to move forward and defend the Direct Support Group, one of two supply points. At 2341, General Keys personally discussed the protection of the ammunition supply point with Brigadier General Charles C. Krulak, commanding general of the Direct Support Group. By 2356, the Tiger Brigade unit was in place.
Company D of the 3rd LAI Battalion was positioned two and a half kilometers to the northwest of OP-4. It consisted of twenty-three LAVs, 16 armed with 25mm Bushmaster automatic cannons (LAV-25), while the other seven were armed with anti-tank TOW missile Launchers (LAV-AT). A gunner in one of the LAV-ATs spotted vehicles moving toward OP-4 in his NVGs (Night Vision Goggles). He reported this to the Recon Marines who were in OP-4 who then opened fire on the advancing Iraqis. The Iraqis immediately concentrated their attack on the outpost. I heard a lot of radio traffic between Ryder and "Wild Eagle" which was one of the outpost Marines reporting what they were seeing and relaying for us where to direct counterbattery fire. I saw night illumination flares go up, then a lot of small arms fire as well as main tank guns firing off. For the first time I was feeling a little bit scared, but I'm not sure who I was more scared for, myself, or those marines who were sitting ducks all by themselves. These lightly armed Recon Marines were now in trouble as they began receiving tank main-gun fire and yelling over the radio for immediate assistance. The LAVs were already advancing within range and began picking off Iraqi tanks with TOW missiles. We were successful at repelling the attack, thanks to the LAV-ATs of the 2nd and 3rd LAI Battalions and the air strikes. Khafji would not be as successful, but I'll talk about them in my next post. For now, Kibrit was safe. Although it would come at a cost.
There were some casualties in the battle, but worse of all, there was some confusion that cost the lives of eleven marines. One LAV-AT hit another with its TOW missile. It was completely destroyed and four Marines were killed. The Recon Marines requested permission to evacuate the post. Only lightly armed, they were combat ineffective against the attacking armored vehicles and sitting ducks. LAVs were sent to help the Marines. I saw a red flare go up in the air. I didn't know at the time who sent it up or what it meant. I think it was a signal that they were retreating from the outpost. As the LAVs approached OP-4, they provided covering fire while the Recon Marines abandoned the post and drove to safety in a truck and four Humvees. Company D advanced forward and continued engaging the Iraqi forces while several A-10s began attacking from the air. During one attack run, an A-10 mistook a Marine LAV for a Soviet made BTR-60 and fired a Maverick missile at it. The LAV was destroyed and seven more Marines were killed. I could hear Ryder quickly get on the radio yelling, "Check fire! Check fire!" This would be the deadliest night for Marines during the Gulf War.
"Confusion in battle is what pain is in childbirth - the natural order of things."
- General Maurice Tugwell