EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA — Eric Wilp, armed only with a hand-held mine detector and a bunch of wooden stakes, will be among the first troops into the killing zone between American positions and the waiting Iraqi army.
The 22-year-old Marine is a combat engineer, the prosaic title for one of war's most dangerous assignments. His task, if there is a ground attack by allied troops, will be to clear a path through the layers of minefields, bunkers and flaming ditches for the full assault.
It's one of those hair-raising jobs that loom large in imaginations fueled by war films. But for the Sunbury, Ohio, native, it's all too real.
"I'm scared, but not as scared as I will be," Wilp said as he and other Marines practiced their craft in the seemingly endless expanse of sand. "Somehow, we'll get the job done."
Iraqi forces have had nearly six months to fortify their positions on the Kuwait-Saudi border. Satellite and reconnaissance photos provide the grim details--layers of minefields, razor-sharp concertina wire and tank-trapping ditches that may be filled with flammable liquid and set afire once the battle starts. Maps hanging in officers' tents at the front detail these emplacements all the way to Kuwait city.
"Each belt could be miles (deep), with infantry and gun emplacements between them," said Marine 2nd Lt. Chris Simmler, 23, of Franklin, Mass.
The Iraqis have used the Soviet doctrine of ground warfare, establishing this tiered system of defenses. Allied troops must breach the lines if they are to succeed in routing the enemy troops waiting behind them.
American B-52s have bombed the minefields and other installations mercilessly for 10 days. The U.S. Central Command said Saturday that it plans to increase the air barrage on these types of targets in the coming days.
Precision air strikes and artillery are expected to clear many of the remaining mines just before the assault commences. But the outcome of the opening attack will depend heavily on how quickly the remaining mines can be cleared to make a path for the bulldozers that will fill the ditches and the troops and tanks that will follow.
"We just want to punch through real quick," explained Simmler.
To make that possible, Wilp and others will have to clear the final path by hand. Under protective fire from helicopter gunships and artillery, they will use hand-held detectors, similar to those employed in World War II, to find mines concealed in the sand. Then, they will mark the location with a wooden stake for an explosives expert following behind to blow up the device.
The risks are the gravest for the ultimate success of the attack and for the individuals carrying out the delicate task.
"If you fail to find something right in front of you, you will buy the farm (be killed)," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Kur of Detroit as he showed his men how to use the detector to find simulated mines--soda cans--buried in the desert.
Although a squad's engineers are assigned the mine detection task, the others are being trained to perform it, too. That is so that someone else can take over the task if the sweeper is killed.
The Marines have been warned not to carry any excess gear; it might accidentally fall to the ground and detonate a mine.
"All you Rambos who've got knives and other garbage hanging from your gear, I don't want to see that garbage any more," Staff Sgt. Rick Taylor shouted at his men.
Wilp's fear is the norm, not the exception.
"Everybody's scared, but everybody has their own way of dealing with it," said Lance Cpl. Paul Vanek, 20, of Moulton, Tex. Another Marine sweeper, Lance Cpl. Carlos Morales, 20, of the Bronx, N.Y., said: "We all know there are going to be some casualties, some deaths. But we try not to think of it. We just try to live day to day."
As often happens, humor helps relieve the tension.
"We kind of joke about it," said Lance Cpl. Gilbert Stainbrook, a 20-year-old Marine from Clearwater, Fla. "It keeps us from going crazy, I guess. If you think about it every day, all day, that's going to make you more nervous."
This article was compiled from Pentagon combat pool reports reviewed by military censors.