DESERT STORM-THE NIGHT OF THE TOMAHAWK The First Night 16/17 January, 1991

 

On the afternoon of 16 January, 1991, I was sitting at my General Quarter’s (GQ) Station, “Sky 4”, which was a 5 inch gun mount director station, aboard the USS Wisconsin (BB-64), located somewhere in the Persian Gulf. As the Marine Detachment Executive Officer, manning the 5 inch Gun Mount Director Officer’s Station was one of my collateral duties. My primary responsibility was to command the ship’s Marine Detachment (MARDET) Guard Force. The MARDET consisted of over 60 Marines who conducted a myriad of tasks to include guarding ”special weapons”, providing the Security Alert Force, Back-Up Alert Force, manning a 5 inch Gun Mount, and operating 4 – .50 caliber machine guns located around the main deck of the ship. My immediate boss was a Marine Captain who commanded the entire detachment and also manned “Sky 3”.
By way of background the USS Wisconsin was a World War II, Iowa class battleship. At 887 feet long and weighing in at over 57,000 tons it is one of the most powerful ships ever constructed. In its modern day configuration it is armed with 9-16 inch guns, 12-5 inch guns, 4-20mm Phalanx Close-in Weapons Systems (CWIS), 16 Harpoon ship-to-ship missiles and 32 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM). The ship was originally commissioned on 16 April, 1944, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She participated in some of the most fierce battles and campaigns of World War II to include the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and even bombarded the mainland of Japan on more than one occasion.   In 1951, during the Korean War, she would once again be called into action and deliver naval gunfire support for our troops. Wisconsin earned five battle stars for her World War II service and one for Korea. After service in 3 wars and multiple campaigns over a 50 year span she is one of the most highly decorated ships in the history of the United States Navy.

In November of 1957 Wisconsin was decommissioned and mothballed. She remained in mothballs until she was modernized during the 1980’s. President Ronald Reagan began an effort to expand the Navy to 600 ships. He never reached that goal, but he was successful in re-commissioning and modernizing all 4 Iowa Class battleships.

Over the last six months I’d spent a lot of time in my GQ station. It was a painful sweat box of a place; a saddle bicycle seat that had no back support, in a completely armored turret, with only a plexiglas bubble to look out of. In the searing heat of the Persian Gulf it could become a very miserable place to live. Inhabiting and enduring this armored sweat box, with me, were three superb sailors who manned and operated the tracking radar attached to the top of the station. Our ship had departed Norfolk, Virginia, on 7 August, 1990, originally scheduled to do a normal Mediterranean (Med) Cruise. However, after the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, our ship left port and steamed immediately into the Persian Gulf. From August until January the routine aboard the ship involved countless gunnery drills, training events, Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) exercises, general quarter’s drills, underway replenishment and refueling operations.

As I sat in my GQ Station on 16 January, I watched as a helicopter landed on the deck.  It was one the standard “milk-runs” by a Navy squadron known throughout the gulf as the “Desert Ducks’. One of my unofficial jobs, while I sat in my station, was to count the number of mailbags that came off the helicopter. You could determine how high or low the morale on the ship was going to be over the next day by the number of mailbags that came off the helo. Long before the advent of email this was the only way to maintain contact with home. Mail usually took about 3 weeks to reach us in the middle of the Persian Gulf.  I also noticed some “pool” reporters get off the helicopter, and I observed some departing sailors, who were transferring off the ship, climb aboard the helicopter. Before long the helicopter lifted off the deck and within moments, before the helo was even out of sight, the Captain of the ship came across the loudspeaker. He announced to us that later that evening we would go to GQ and the war with Iraq would finally begin. After having spent over six months in the Persian Gulf most of us had come to the stark realization that the only way we would ever go home was after we had ejected Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi Army from Kuwait. This was welcome news to us, we were eager for battle. After all the countless drills and training we had undergone over the last 6 months, we knew we were ready.

Just before 0100, on the 17 January (1700 EST 16 Jan), the ship sounded GQ. I couldn’t sleep and was already manning my GQ Station by the time the GQ Alarm was sounded and the crew was ordered to “man battle stations”! As I peered out from my perch in Sky 4 (which was approximately 50 feet or more above the sea) I noted that there was an inky darkness about this moonless and cloudless night. The weather was calm and the water was smooth as glass. The ship operated at blacked-out conditions, at night, so it was hard to see anything except the glow of some of the instrumentation in the gun director’s station.

Finally, at 0141, the USS Paul F Foster lunched the first Tomahawk against Iraq. I watched from my front row seat as many ships, all around us, fired their Tomahawk missiles.  It was a rather spectacular sight to behold. It’s seared into my memory and I immediately knew that this would be an historic night. I also remember thinking, as I watched the fiery tails of the Tomahawks arch into the sky, that it reminded me of the famous line from our national anthem – “the rockets’ red glare”.

Almost a half hour passed since the first missile was launched and Wisconsin had yet to shoot. None of us had actually seen a Tomahawk missile fired. At last, the loud ringing sound of the alarm told us that a missile was about to be fired.  A Tomahawk, from the armored box launchers located amidships, blasted out of its box with a loud roar and a bright ball of flame. It reminded me of a large telephone pole, with a rocket attached, as it streaked effortlessly into the sky. One could clearly see the rocket engine burning into the night and its eerie reflection upon the mirror like water as it flew towards its objective. Once the rocket booster burnt out the ship was once again shrouded in darkness. I looked up into the night sky and I saw hundreds of our aircraft with their navigation lights still on, circling overhead waiting for the Tomahawks to go in and destroy early warning sites, key command-and-control centers and electrical power stations. It was all very surrealistic.

While this was going on the sailors on my crew in Sky 4 had the radio tuned to the British Broadcasting Channel. It was the only channel we could pick up in our isolated part of the Persian Gulf. We listened as a reporter discussed last minute peace negotiations were ongoing. I remember thinking – “Too late for that!” Later that morning we would hear President Bush announce the beginning of hostilities and his famous quote, “that Kuwait would once again be free.”

We continued to fire Tomahawks. There was an armored box launcher immediately next to our GQ Station, the alarm sounded again, and we could see the launcher rising up to fire the next Tomahawk. As that Tomahawk roared out of its launcher we could look directly up its tailpipe. The violent boom of the rocket engine shook our mount and the fiery blast from the ignition blinded us while the smoke of its rocket propellant filled our GQ Station with an acidic smoke. We choked and gagged for a while and wondered if we should have put our gas masks on.

We stayed at GQ most of that night and waited to see if there would be any response by the Iraqi Army or Air Force. There was none. We would continue to fire Tomahawks over the next few days. In later weeks we would sail up off the coast of Kuwait and blast the Iraqi Army with our 16 inch guns.

Little did I know then that 17 January, 1991, would only be the opening shots in a war that would last over 25 years and consist of unintended multiple phases.  As Winston Churchill once said, during World War II, “This is not the end; this is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is the end of the beginning.”  The same could be said for Desert Storm. It became the first campaign in the long war with Iraq. The second campaign would begin almost immediately after Desert Storm, the quasi-war with Iraq, as we maintained a “no fly zone” over most of the country. The third campaign of this war would be Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) in 2003. The fourth phase (the bloodiest and most difficult phase of the war) was the guerilla war by insurgents and the allied “surge” to ensure victory. Presently, we are in the fifth phase of the war- the war for the soul of the Middle East.

It remains to be seen how all this will turn out. Did we withdraw too soon? Will Iraq remain a stable country? Will it collapse into anarchy and civil war? That’s a question that deserves debate. But now is the time to honor those Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who, over the last 25 years, sacrificed so much so that millions of people in Kuwait and Iraq can have a fighting chance to live in a free and democratic society.

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