The Gulf War remembered

February 28, 2011

I bolted up from a deep sleep to the sound of my phone ringing in my hotel room in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

I looked at my clock it was 4am. I fumbled for the phone in the dark knocking it to the floor. After at least three more rings I finally got my hand on the receiver and answered. The calm voice at the other end was Photo Editor Herman Beals on our Washington, DC Picture Desk. “How ya doin?” he asked “I have been trying to get through to you for an hour”. I have no recollection of what my rebuttal was. “Andy, they are bombing Baghdad”, “Uhhh??” was my only answer. Crap!!, I had just slept through the first two hours of the Gulf War.

As I found out later I had not only slept through the uncountable number of fighter jets taking off nearby, that would literally vibrate my room but the loud wail of air raid sirens all around the hotel combined with the apparent pounding on my door of hotel staff. It was expected that once the bombing had commenced in Iraq there was high expectation Iraq would answer with a large Scud attack thus sending everybody to the air raid shelters minus yours truly Rip Van Winkle.

A file photo dated February 26, 1991 of a U.S. soldier standing night guard as oil wells burn in the distance in Kuwait, just south of the Iraqi border on the last night of the Gulf War. Hundreds of burning oil wells lit up the sky after they were sabotaged by retreating Iraqi soldiers.  REUTERS/Andy Clark

I had been in Dhahran a little over two weeks having arrived several days after Christmas 1990. The Dhahran International Hotel was right beside a major coalition airbase in the small city about an hours drive south of the Kuwait border on the shores of the Persian Gulf. The hotel was the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Joint Information Bureau (JIB) and also had been taken over top to bottom by every major news and television organization in the world. Reuters had six rooms in a row in one of the wings. Four were used as living quarters while the last two adjoining had been converted into a small newsroom, darkroom and picture desk.

This was the first time the U.S. military had instituted their embed program. Unlike the ones of today everything was pool. All agencies, newspapers or magazines that were part of the embed program had to pool their images through a central editing point in Dhahran headed up by Reuters and the Associated Press along with the three major U.S. magazines, Newsweek, Time and US News and World Report.

Two Kuwaiti Air Force fighter pilots greet each other on the tarmac after landing at the coalition airbase in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in January of 1991.  REUTERS/Andy Clark

All this was, of course, a number of years before any of us used digital cameras, laptops, e-mail or portable sat-phones so there was no way to file anything from the field. Thus, all film had to be shipped back via the military to Dhahran where it was processed and edited by the pool group. Before the ground war started and during the many weeks of the initial air war it took an average of three days for the film to get from frontline units back to us. In several cases it took even longer. I remember one situation when a photographer was taken to the secret stealth fighter base to spend a few days. He shipped his film after a day or so and then returned to Dhahran four days after that. He beat his film back by two days.

File photo dated February 28, 1991 of Kuwaiti citizens walking south along the Basra highway heading back to Kuwait following the end of the Gulf War, past a burning Iraqi APC destroyed  by U.S. aircraft while retreating from Kuwait.   REUTERS/Andy Clark

Communications at the hotel were generally good. Everything was filed over phone lines using a leafax or a T-1 and film scanner. On some days though it was difficult to get an international line and created havoc trying to file pictures and therefore it was decided each morning either myself or the desk would call the other and then leave the line open for hours as need required. We did have a satellite phone just in case, or as I called it the “Steroid Phone”. It was twice the size of an average suitcase and weighed enough to anchor the QE II. Fortunately we never had to use it until we were in Kuwait City after the war was over.

About three weeks before the ground war eventually began I was called up, as it were, and given my marching orders to join the army unit I had been assigned to, namely a brigade of the U.S. 2nd Armored Division (Forward). My experiences with the 2nd Armor were not much different than the many other photographers embedded and I am sure many had similar or more harrowing adventures than I. Therefore I thought I would just write down a few observations and small stories that I remember.

Me, leaning against a blown out Iraqi tank while embedded with the US 2nd Armour (Forward) inside Iraq north of Kuwait border.

Once the air war had begun we would get approximately three or four Scud attack warnings a night. The air raid sirens would go off, the hotel would cut the power to go dark and most people would head for air raid shelter in the basement. Myself and two photographer colleagues decided we would rather stay above ground in the event of a hit. We actually felt safer, though it wasn’t, and the three of us would gather up our flak jackets, helmets and gas masks and go outside and meet around the hotel pool. On most occasions we would set up our cameras for time exposures to try and get images of the Patriot Missiles from nearby batteries blasting into the sky to intercept incoming Scuds. We even tried on a couple occasions to get the missiles as they flew skyward reflected in the pool, but that never worked. I have always felt it must have been a bizarre site as the three of us sat in deck chairs around the pool with our cameras pointed skyward wearing flak jackets, helmets and gas masks.

When arriving at the 2nd Armour’s camp for the first time I was traveling with a couple soldiers in their Humvee, in the middle of nowhere and well after dark. When approaching the camp perimeter we came within a hairs breath of being fired upon when both soldiers either forgot or failed to shout out the password….what a great start, or finish, that would have been.

I remember talking to a soldier once about the upcoming combat and I never forgot what he said. “If there is a bullet out there with my name on it there is nothing I can do. It’s the bullets that say To Whom It May Concern, that bother me.” Amen to that.

In the days leading up to the ground war we moved our camp closer to the Iraqi border maybe three or four kilometers from their defenses. By this time there was constant artillery barrages firing into Iraq from the left and right of us all day and all night. Just after midnight on several nights the B-52 bombers came in and dropped their loads up and down the Iraqi line. The ground literally shook even from our distance away and on the first night I came out of the tent to watch. With the flat unobstructed view in the desert, it was without a doubt like watching the Gates of Hell open up. I also found it interesting that once I got used to it I could actually sleep through an artillery barrage even if the battery was only 100 or so meters away.

While spending a couple days with U.S. Marines prior to the war I was given the opportunity to fire a couple of mortars with the hand held during a live fire exercise.

About a week before the ground war started a patrol from our unit was out on a night mission in Bradley Fighting Vehicles and had come upon a similar Iraq patrol of BMPs and a very intense fight ensued. At one point the U.S. patrol called in air support and several Apache helicopters came in. Unfortunately, one of the Apaches accidentally mis-identified one of the Bradleys and took it out with a missile. Luckily no soldiers were killed but several were wounded. Once the war started as we moved through the desert mostly at night we had Apaches overhead hunting and protecting. This constantly kept me on edge fearing a similar mistake might occur.

On the morning the ground war started we mounted up and headed into Iraq just before dawn. Resistance was very light if at all, probably thanks to those B-52 strikes days earlier. The imminent danger though were the hundreds of unexploded bomblets everywhere. About the size of baseballs they were leftover from the MLRS rockets fired at the Iraqi lines. At one point, a few hours after dawn, we stopped for about 20 minutes and I noticed a soldier get out of his vehicle a fair distance away. I turned to the guy beside me to say something. At the same instant there was this muffled “whumph” like explosion. I looked back and saw nothing but a cloud of sand where the soldier had stood. It seems for reasons I will never understand, he decided to “Play it Like Beckham” and kicked one of the bomblets. I heard later that he survived but was minus a foot.

File photo of a Saudi Arabian resident trying on a gas mask issued to him by the government in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on January 10, 1991.  REUTERS/Andy ClarkTwo days before the ground war started everybody was ordered into their chemical warfare suits and began taking our nerve gas pills. Another item we put on was a type of masking tape around our arms and lower leg. It was treated in someway so that if you came in contact with any chemical agents in the air, red spots would appear on the surface. On the second day of the war we briefly stopped to check and clear a small fortification. A soldier standing a few feet away glanced over at my arm and his eyes went wide. I looked down at myself and there on my right arm were small but distinct red spots on the tape. I checked my other arm and there were a few there too. A quick look at the tape on my legs revealed nothing. Nobody else I had been around over the last 48 hours had any red spots but the fact that I did, put everybody on edge nevertheless. We never did figure out what it was but 20 years later there is no sign I might grow a third arm or second nose so I can only assume whatever caused it must have been harmless.

Once I rejoined my Reuters colleagues in Kuwait City, fuel for our vehicles was a problem. Obviously, fuel stations were closed and on a couple of occasions we drove north out of the city. There were hundreds of vehicles both military and civilian abandoned by the retreating Iraq Army sitting by the roadside. We would check the vehicles for any fuel in them and siphon what we could into several gas cans we carried with us. Once, while heading out of town we found a petrol station open but the lineup was hundreds of meters long. So we pulled over and I got out with my cameras and began shooting pictures. The owner looked over and saw me and welcomed me. “Are you press?” he said, I sure was and that made his day. After a few moments he said “do you need any petrol?” I said we sure do. “Come my friend, bring your truck I fill it for you.” I waved to my colleague who was driving over and not only did we fill the truck but all the gas cans we had in the back and all for free!” I did feel guilty that we had cut into line, but I guess war is hell.

My total time covering the story came to just over three months. Upon my return I took my camera gear to be cleaned and technicians spent a week trying to get the desert out of every nook and cranny not to mention I continued to find bits of Iraqi desert in my clothing and belongings for months later.

Its funny how 20 years later one looks back and thinks how exciting a time it was and even laugh at some of the adventures endured but at the time, as many soldiers said, it was 50 percent boredom and 50 percent terror.

A dead Iraqi soldier lies near vehicles abandoned on the 'Highway of Death' north of Kuwait City, Kuwait March 1, 1991. REUTERS/Andy Clark

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