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

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