Monday, March 21, 2011

Ground War Day 3 - Cease Fire Declared

I woke up on the morning of Day 3 drier and quite a bit warmer. I draped my sleeping bag on the stabilator of our aircraft and let the wind dry it out. By the time we had breakfasted and gotten ready for our day of missions, it was completely dry. One advantage of living in the desert: if you hang your clothes out to dry it doesn't take that long.

We were set to leapfrog our missions with our platoon's other aircraft just as we did the previous day. I don't recall if we had been officially told at this point, but I do remember having the feeling that a cease fire would be called sometime soon. Reports from our leadership as well as the BBC confirmed the war was progressing quite steadily and Saddam's forces were well on their way to defeat. "Auntie Beeb" seemed to know everything that was going on.

We flew what turned out to be our only mission of the day first thing in the morning. It was rather uneventful for the most part.

During the first hour or so, one of us spotted a bright orange piece of cloth lying on the ground next to what appeared to be a box. When we approached and hovered over the object, we found it was an ejector seat from an plane. There didn't appear to be anyone nearby, so we landed nearby to investigate. My fellow crew member jumped out and confirmed the seat was empty and there was, again, no sign of anyone hiding nearby. So, up we went and we reported the location to our headquarters just in case.

A little while later, something else caught our attention which caused us to land again. Once on the ground, I jumped out to see whatever it was up close. We noticed somewhat quickly that we were in an area surrounded by yellow plastic tape - similar to crime scene tape you might see on one of the "CSI" shows. We never figured out if we were in a mine field, a contaminated area or something else. It didn't really matter, whatever we were in the middle of, we certainly didn't want to be there! I hopped back into my seat and we took off, thankful we weren't blown up.

Towards the end of our flight, we flew near a building out of which poured a half-dozen or so Iraqi soldiers with their hands up looking to surrender. We certainly weren't prepared for that, so we radioed the location back to the headquarters. As the Scrounger said, and I quite agreed, "We don't have enough people to take that many prisoners. Besides, it only takes one idiot to change his mind and start shooting to take us down." Collecting POWs was certainly best left to ground units.

The Squadron's refuel points weren't moving around nearly as quickly as they were the day before. As we wrapped up our flight, we found the one closest to the headquarters and spent the rest of the day listening to the war play out on the radio. We mostly tuned into the BBC World Service, though we did catch some news via Saudi and Kuwaiti Radio stations which Ahmad translated for us.

One of my favorite lines from that day was from one of the BBC news readers. Before the war, Saddam kept promising in his propaganda broadcasts that if coalition forces attacked there would be the "mother of all battles" that would mimic the battle of Armageddon told about in the Bible. As the BBC man talked about the utter defeat and mass surrender of Iraqi forces, he said Saddam "has painted himself into the mother of all corners ... ." I still laugh at that line today.

As the day drew to a close, we set up camp in the  middle of nowhere - again. We listened in as President Bush announced the cease fire and spelled out the details of getting the formal Iraqi surrender. Needless to say, we were all quite happy to hear that news. Our joy soon turned to panic, though.

As were making coffee and digging into some of the goodies we had from home, to the east we saw a tremendous flash, which was followed by a fireball floating up into the sky into a mushroom-shaped cloud that resembled a nuclear blast. Of course, none of us had ever seen a nuclear blast up close and for real, but we were convinced that this was one. After a few minutes came the tremendous "BA-BOOM" of the blast along with a concussion wave that staggered me.

I don't remember who yelled, "Let's get the hell out of here, mount up we're leaving," but I think it was the Old Dog. It was like a bunch of kids running around with their hair on fire. We were struggling to put on our protective masks while running in a blind panic towards our aircraft. Jed, one of our augmentees, just before the blast, was relieving himself behind a sand dune. We later learned he had to change his flight suit because in the panic of being mid, well let's say, business, he pulled his clothing back on and ran for his assigned bird.  (Not to be out-done, I had my own similar embarrassing moment once a few years previous to this.) Someone in the darkened night after the glow burned out yelled, "Shit! Someone nuked the bastards before we had a chance to leave!"

We got into our assigned aircraft and cranked up in preparation to leave. Later, the Old Dog told us he was trying to tell T-Bird to get into the cockpit because our Lieutenant was nowhere to be found and someone needed to be his co-pilot. In an emergency, a crew chief is better than no one according to the logic he was processing at the time. The Lieutenant wasn't really missing, though. He was at a meeting at the Squadron operations center when the explosion went off and was out of contact as we were prepping to leave in a hurry. Just as we were ready to pull pitch and head out of the area, someone spotted our platoon leader running towards us waving his arms. He put on his flight helmet and plugged into the intercom cable of the first helicopter he came to and told us to stand down. I think it was Digger who passed the word via radio that we didn't need to leave because the blast was "one of ours."

"One of ours?" I thought to myself. Something didn't see right.

Well, everything was right, and the blast was one of ours. It wasn't, however, a nuclear device at all. The explosion resulted from a Fuel-Air bomb being dropped in order to clear out a mine field which had been discovered earlier in the day. The Lieutenant was supposed to get out of his meeting in time to come tell us to expect the blast so we wouldn't panic thinking it was something it wasn't. In typical Army SNAFU fashion, that didn't work out very well since he was delayed getting out of the meeting. Another minute or so and we would have been gone!

Once we shut everything down and climbed out of the aircraft, he told us the whole story and let us know there would be another dropped soon. After we had a chance to calm down, we set up the coffee pot again and made ready for more celebration. The atmosphere became more like that of a Fourth of July evening with everyone sitting around waiting for a fireworks show. Only we were sitting around the Coleman stove waiting for a single explosion.

When the second fuel-air blast came, it was a lot more fun to watch. Still, when the shock wave came I was not expecting the concussion to be as strong as it was. This was another time I was glad to be on the delivering side of this kind of weapon and not on the receiving side.

That night, we learned that some of the Iraqi forces had either not heard about the cease fire or chose to ignore it. We watched from a distance as the Regiment's Second Squadron was in a pitched battle with some Iraqi Republican Guard armored forces. It was quite spectacular to watch the muzzle blasts from a distance as the battle went on for a couple of hours.

We spent the night in the new-found peace in the Middle East. The next day, we'd get to see the resulting destruction of the war first hand.

This is part 15 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Friday, March 04, 2011

Ground War Day 2 - Another One of Those Days

We woke up on the morning of Day 2 to learn that the war was progressing much faster than had been anticipated. The pre-war predictions indicated the Regiment should have advanced a certain distance into Iraq by the morning of Day 2. In reality, they had gone about twice as far as planned. Not that you ever really can follow a plan in a real war, if you could we would have been a week ahead of schedule.

We turned on the radio to hear reports on the BBC World Service of entire Iraqi units trying to surrender to their reporters. So many Iraqis were surrendering that the biggest problem the Coalition Forces had was keeping up with the influx of prisoners of war. The second biggest problem was extending supply lines to keep up with the rapidly advancing forces - a problem which affected us in a quite personal way.

Our mission became to one of observation and radio relay. Since things were moving so quickly, it was thought an airborne radio-relay would be a good idea. We were also to act as spotters and report any enemy activity in the rear area. The three aircraft in our platoon were going to "leap frog" the missions. Each of the three aircraft would take turns flying a 2-hour mission. At the end of the 2 hours, the next aircraft would take off, the mission would be "passed on" to them and the first aircraft would go to the Squadron area to wait until their next turn.

Ah, but the plans of mice and men ...
We took off from our camp in Saudi Arabia and headed north. If you remember from a previous installment, we weren't allowed to tell Ahmad what was going on until it actually happened. He was a pretty smart guy, though, and I figure he had to know something was up. Still, as we flew over the berm marking the border and crossed into Iraqi airspace, I told Ahmad "officially" that the war had started and we were in the process of liberating his homeland. He was quite excited and mentioned he was happy to be a part of kicking Saddam out of Kuwait.

We spend the next two hours flying around Iraq looking for suspicious activity. Most of what we found were U.S. Army vehicles which had broken down during the advance's first day and night. We didn't see any Iraqis, but we did see a lot of Americans. There were dozens of broken down vehicles ranging from small to large all over the place.

We passed over a 155mm self-propelled Howitzer and the crew burst out of the gun's rear hatch and waved frantically at us. Thinking someone might need medical attention or there might be some other emergency, we landed nearby and I hopped out to assess the situation. It turned out that the gun's engine died and they were merely stuck. Their battery commander left them with 1 round for the main gun, 20 gallons of water, 3 boxes of MREs and enough small-arms ammunition to hold off a wave or two of enemy troops. They hadn't heard anything about what was going on and were merely curious as to how the war was going. When I told them how far I heard we'd advanced they were all quite surprised at our success and equally disappointed to have missed the action. They were also afraid of enemy forces sneaking up on them. I reassured them that most of the Iraqis were surrendering and they had little to fear. This lightened their mood quite a bit. After our exchange, I ran back to the aircraft and we took off again.

We flew around reporting positions of the broken down vehicles we spotted. It really wasn't all that exciting, but we were helping the overall effort so it wasn't totally useless. After about two hours the next aircraft met up with us. I radioed the other crew what we were doing and let them take over. Once that was done, The Scounger pointed the aircraft in the direction of the Squadron's nearest refuel point.

Last Chance For Gas Next 100 MilesWhen we arrived where the fueler was supposed to be, there was no one to be found. To be sure, they had been there. There were telltale signs of garbage and tire tracks all over the area. The pilots radioed the Squadron Headquarters reporting the missing fuel point only to be informed that they had, indeed, moved and were now located elsewhere.

We flew to "elsewhere" and found no one there, either. Again, there were sure signs someone had been there, but they were gone by the time we arrived. Another radio conversation took place, this time with The Scrounger getting a bit impatient as we were quickly running out of fuel. The location was relayed to us, and off we went again.

But, again, there was no one to be found. The war was progressing so rapidly, that the fuelers had to move quickly to be in position to take care of the Squadron's Cobra attack helicopters, which got priority over other aircraft. Since they were miles north of us at the forward edge of the Squadron's area and we were at the very back, we were running way behind them.

Another location was relayed to us and off we went. Meanwhile, we were in contact with our partner aircraft letting them know what was going on. As we approached where the next fuel point was supposed to be, the low fuel signal started beeping. For obvious reasons, this alert is very loud and comes with a very bright flashing light in the cockpit area.

At this point, I was starting to get a little nervous. The loud alarm had the desired effect to get our attention and it wasn't very reassuring that no one seemed to know that the fuelers were moving around so quickly. Someone must have known, but in the chaos of everything in the Squadron's headquarters the word wasn't getting to us quickly enough.

Scrounger called back to us over the intercom. "Guys, we're low on fuel and I don't want to risk trying to make it to the next refuel point. We're going to land here. Elmer, radio the other guys, tell them where we are and ask them to contact HQ to send a fuel truck out to us." As we descended, I did as I was asked. The other crew acknowledged the location and flew over to us to make visual confirmation of our place in the desert.

Just as the wheels hit the ground, the engine above me stopped. I got on the intercom and mentioned to Scrounger, "Hey, that was a good trick shutting off the engine just as we touched the ground." His reply: "I didn't turn it off, it flamed out on its own." I guess we really were that low on fuel.

We climbed out of the aircraft and started to assess our situation:
  • We had plenty of food and water to last us at least one day.
  • We had weapons and ammunition to defend ourselves if necessary. Though with the dearth of Iraqi soldiers around and the fact that most were giving up, we weren't too concerned about that.
  • Someone knew where we were and they would relay our position to the headquarters.
  • But, we didn't know how long it would take for someone to rescue us.
So we waited. I remember in the distance on a short rise we saw a large, black bird. Even Ahmad didn't recognize what kind it was. I guessed it might be a vulture and thought it rather ironic that we were stuck in the desert with an operational multi-million-dollar aircraft which only needed gas and we were in a scene like one in an old western movie.

We decided to eat lunch, each of us looking out in a different direction watching for anyone approaching. After a time, an OH-58 helicopter from our squadron landed nearby. Scounger went over to talk to them. He had a hard time convincing them that we'd merely run out of gas and only needed fuel. Once they were convinced of this, they took off with the promise they would relay our position to the headquarters. That was good - now two groups of people knew where we were.

Sugar Ray is Born
I made a joke about the bird and how we were in the odd position to be stuck in the middle of Iraq because we ran out of gas. When I said this, Ahmad looked over at me and his mouth dropped wide open.

"You mean, we're in Iraq? I thought we were in Saudi Arabia."

"No," I replied, "Don't you remember, I told you when we flew over the berm at the border that we were going into Iraq to liberate your homeland?"

"Yes, I do. But I thought we were going to fly to Iraq, do our mission, then return to Saudi Arabia. I didn't know we were going to stay in Iraq. This is very, very bad."

He started pacing back and forth along the tail boom of the aircraft, muttering to himself in Arabic.

"Ahmad, Dude, you have nothing to worry about. People know where we are and help will come soon."

"I'm not worried about being stuck in the desert. My father and I used to camp in the desert all the time. No, I am worried about being captured by Iraqis."

"But there probably isn't an Iraqi soldier around for miles. You saw all the broken down American vehicles. The Iraqis have either run away or have surrendered. I don't think you need to worry about that."

"You don't understand! You are Americans, they will let you live. But I am Kuwaiti, they will kill me!"

He paced back and forth a bit more. I could see from the look on his face he was very concerned. My words were not reassuring to him at all. I was pondering how best to help him when he stopped suddenly and pointed his finger in the air as an idea came to him.

"I have a great idea. If we are captured, you will tell them I am 'Sugar Ray' Ahmad from Bronx, New York. Then, they will let me live."

I tried not to laugh, because I could see he had been genuinely concerned, but "Sugar Ray" was pretty funny. Although I felt that, given the situation, capture was probably the remotest possibility, creating the persona of the guy from the Bronx brought him a bit of comfort.

My main concern was getting stuck out there for days and running out of food and water.

To put his plan into action, Ahmad took the plain, green "hook and pile" patch off the front of his flight suit and wrote on it "Sugar Ray Ahmad, U.S. Army, Bronx, New York." He even drew some wings to make it look "official." He visibly relaxed after he showed us his handy work.

Just as I was considering starting to dig defensive positions, just in case, a fuel truck came lumbering over the rise where we'd seen the large bird. Our rescue was at hand.

As the fueler crew filled our tanks, they made sure to let us know we were the morale booster for the day. Apparently it was quite humorous to everyone else that we'd run out of gas. We didn't find it nearly as funny considering it was more their fault than ours for not keeping track of where the fuelers were. At any rate, we were glad to be rescued.

Once we got the aircraft fueled up we flew to the location the Squadron command picked to bed down for the night. We weren't allowed to fly after dark, so our day was done.

And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'
It looked cloudy and threatened rain, so Spiff and I set up a nice lean-to type shelter over our cots. On the one hand, it was good we did because it did rain very hard during the night. Unfortunately, my foot was touching the bottom part of my shelter and the water soaked through and was absorbed by my sleeping bag. By the time I noticed, the sleeping bag was wringing wet up to my chest.

I was freezing. It wasn't all that cold outside, perhaps in the mid 40s. But the water pulled the heat from my body to the point where I had hypothermia. How ironic was this? A few weeks ago I was flat on my back with heat exhaustion and IVs poked in my arm and now I was suffering from hypothermia. I climbed into the helicopter and sat in my crew seat with my head leaning on the radio rack. I shivered uncontrollably for at least two hours. My crew mate, TD, loaned me his nylon blanket (a nice, soft, quilted thing issued to each of us before we left El Paso which we dubbed the "Woobie" after the kid's blanket in the movie "Mr. Mom").

That was a night to remember - and possibly to forget.

Next ... Day 3, the final day of the ground war.

This is part 14 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19