Gen. Schwarzkopf clearly intended to hide the Army's western deployment by publicizing the Marines' amphibious capabilities. However, an actual amphibious assault into Kuwait had not yet been ruled out. In fact, the Navy and Marine Corps wanted to show their stuff and continually lobbied for an opportunity to conduct an amphibious landing.
While the debate raged, the Navy started clearing a sea-lane through the Iraqi mines. Thirty one amphibious assault ships, loaded with the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (4th MEB), began massing in the Gulf. When ordered, they would shoot through the lane, approach the Kuwaiti coastline, and conduct a classic Marine assault from the Sea.
USS Tripoli led the mine clearing operation. On the morning of the 17th, Tripoli struck a mine. The explosion tore a gigantic hole in her bow big enough to drive a semitrailer through. Later in the day USS Princeton (pictured here) hit a mine that shattered her heel and nearly sank the ship.
The crippling of the Tripoli and the near sinking of the Princeton silenced the debate over an amphibious operation. The 4th MEB was immediately relegated to the mission of the reserve force for the marines.
With each day, more an more Army units were closing in on their designated attack positions. Advance units from the front line American divisions were now conducting aggressive patrols north toward Iraqi positions. The 1st Cavalry Division sent more mounted and dismounted patrols into enemy territory. Units from the 1st Infantry Division moved north of the Saudi berm and conducted another heavy artillery bombardment of Iraqi positions. After the artillery barrage, VII Corps headquarters ordered the Division to pull back south of the border berm.
Further to the west, helicopters from 2-229 AATK and 2-17th Cavalry conducted the 101st Airborne Division's third aerial recon in as many days. The first daylight air recon mission included a zone recon about forty kilometers into Iraq, an overflight of Main Supply Route (MSR) NEWMARKET, and a second search of FOB COBRA. The helicopter crews combed FOB COBRA looking for landing zones (LZs) that would not brown out when the attack force attempted to land. The pilots attempted touch and go landings like giant mechanical grasshoppers looking for patches that were not covered with loose sand.
At 0803, two Apaches from A Company, 2-229, found an escarpment where Dub al Haj wound uphill not far north of the border. Three Iraqi bunkers guarded the pass. Iraqi soldiers started shooting at the approaching helicopters. One of the Apaches immediately engaged the bunkers with its 30-mm chain gun. Ten Iraqi soldiers threw down their weapons and surrendered. One of the Apaches landed and called for assistance. The attack helicopters can only carry its own two crew members. The second Apache hovered overhead, guarding against an ambush while several Black Hawks were sent forward to collect the prisoners.
One of the Black Hawks sent forward was carrying a doctor (U.S. Army Major Rhonda Cornium) and a Pathfinder detachment. U.S. Army Pathfinders are an elite force making up less than 1% of the total Army. Their primary mission is to infiltrate areas and set up parachute drop zones and helicopter landing zones for Airborne and Air Assault missions.
As the helicopter approached, they saw the Apache on the ground holding the Iraqi prisoners at bay. The Black Hawk landed near the Apache and the Pathfinders raced to secure the prisoners. They herded five prisoners back to the UH-60. In the confusion of searching the Iraqis and loading them onto the helicopter, the pilot realized that the busy Pathfinders were not watching the enemy prisoners that had already been hustled onto his aircraft. "Hey who's guarding the prisoners?" The pilot called out nervously. Someone replied, "The Doc." Major Cornium, a petite woman, was holding her 9-mm pistol to the head of one of the Iraqis and had the situation completely under control. Ten Iraqi prisoners were collected and flown south.
Pathfinders from another aircraft found an eleventh Iraqi in the bunker after Major Cornium's Black Hawk had left. He had been wounded by the Apache's cannon fire. Later in the day, thirty additional Iraqis surrendered when other helicopters from 2-229th AATK engaged a second bunker complex. The captured Iraqis said that they had not heard from their headquarters in weeks.
The 17th was riddled with accidents that ranged from mundane to bizarre and even tragic. Three Army truck wrecks on the crowded supply roads resulted in four fatalities. An Army UH-1 helicopter (pictured here) crashed. A Navy forklift fell off the pier and drowned the driver. Two soldiers were wounded by an accidental M-16 discharge. An MP lieutenant put a .45-caliber to his head to demonstrate the soundness of the safety mechanism. The weapon went off, instantly killing him. Army Specialist Jeffrey T. Middleton and Private Robert D. Talley were killed and six others injured when an Apache helicopter from 1-1 Aviation Headquarters Battalion mistakenly launched two Hellfire missiles at a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and M113 tracked personnel carrier. Both vehicles were completely demolished.
Iraq hurled two more Scuds toward Israel on the 17th. Fortunately, they landed harmlessly in uninhabited areas.
From the Iraqi Lieutenant's diary:
"I feel so fatigued that I can't breathe, and I think I am going to faint at any moment from my illness. The only thing that you can find everywhere in the world is air, and yet I can't breathe it. I can't breathe, eat, drink or talk. I have been here for 39 days and have not yet gone on leave. The planes came and bombed Battalion headquarters. Most of the positions were destroyed and three soldiers were killed. When the planes came to bomb us, I remained standing because I can't go into the trench."
Another pilot was shot down today. Captain Scott A. Thomas' F-16 was hit by an Iraqi missile. He ejected and immediately radioed his wingman for help upon landing. The wingman, Chief Warrant Officer Thomas A. Montgomery, notified their base and Two Black Hawk rescue helicopters were sent out to recover him. Initially, they flew right over him without seeing him, but Captain Thomas then turned on his infrared beacon so they could see him. They turned around and landed. A Special Forces security team jumped out of the helicopter, ran to the captain, and carried him to the helicopter. As the Black Hawks were returning to Saudi Arabia, an Iraqi antiaircraft missile battery attacked Montgomery's helicopter. A single SAM missile was launched. Fortunately it ran out of fuel as it was closing in on the rescue helicopter.
Slight of Hand
Until the 17th, my Division had maintained our position along the Kuwaiti border south of Wafra. The mission up to this point, aside from the artilery raids, was to protect Tapline Road and the CSSA at Kibrit from an Iraqi thrust into Saudi Arabia. The time had now come to move both Marine Divisions into their attack positions.
2nd Marine Division moved to the second breach point near the top of the heel of Kuwait. When the 2nd Marine Division moved into position, it left a gaping hole in the Coalition defenses. Kibrit and Tapline Road were now exposed to attack. Brigadier General Thomas Drande created Task Force Troy to fill in the gap.
Task Force Troy took up positions south of Wafra, along a twenty nine kilometer front. The Task Force had a dozen wooden mockups of tank and artillery, a real artillery battery (six guns), five real tanks, a few LAVs, some Hummers with TOWs, and one hundred ten reserve Marines. And guess who I see for the first time since being deployed? One of those reserve Marines was Lance Corporal Lang. If you don't remember, because it's been a while, he was the Marine reservist I befriended at Camp LeJeune. He was deployed on December 26th to Saudi Arabia. We became good friends the few weeks we were together. It was good to see him again, even though it was a short visit. Once they were in place, we were moving out. A psychological warfare unit played sounds of moving tanks on loudspeakers while a truck flailing chain stirred up the sand like armor on the move. Electronic warfare was also being employed to jam the Iraqi radio nets. Task Force Troy immediately began daily combined-arms raids against Iraqi positions in the Wafra sector.
All of the "slight of hand" gave the impression that not only were the 2nd Marine Division still in place south of Wafra, but that we were being reinforced and preparing for a breach. In reality, we were on the move. Once we were in position north toward the top of the heel of the Kuwaiti/Saudi border, we would have Arab Joint Forces Command North (JFCN - Egypt and Syria) on our left flank, the 1st Marine Division on our right flank, and to the right of the 1st Marine Division was the Arab Joint Forces Command East (JFCE - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar). This repositioning not only confused the Iraqis, but the news media. To this day you will see battle plan maps on the internet that show the 2nd Marine Division positioned to the right of 1st Marine Division. Deception worked to perfection!
“All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack,
we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive;
when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away;
when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”