FT. RILEY, Kan. — Using plows mounted on tanks and combat earthmovers, the U.S. Army division that broke through Saddam Hussein's defensive front line buried thousands of Iraqi soldiers--some still alive and firing their weapons--in more than 70 miles of trenches, according to U.S. Army officials.
In the first two days of ground fighting in Operation Desert Storm, three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division--"The Big Red One"--used the tactic to destroy trenches and bunkers being defended by more than 8,000 Iraqi soldiers, according to division estimates.
While 2,000 surrendered, Iraqi dead and wounded as well as defiant soldiers still firing their weapons were buried beneath tons of sand, according to participants in the carefully planned and rehearsed assault.
"Once we went through there, other than the ones who surrendered, there wasn't anybody left," said Capt. Bennie Williams, who was awarded the Silver Star for his role in the assault.
A senior Army official in Washington said Wednesday that the use of earthmovers is standard procedure in breeching obstacles and minefields like those faced by U.S. forces in the Gulf War. The heavy equipment moves in ahead of armored and infantry units to level barriers and allow vehicles that follow to pass quickly through enemy defenses.
The Army official said that any Iraqi troops who chose to remain in their earthen bunkers would have been buried and killed.
"This is war. This isn't a pickup basketball game," the official said.
Not a single American was killed during the attack on Feb. 24-25 near the tip of the diamond-shaped neutral zone that straddles the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. No Iraqi body count was possible after the assault.
"For all I know, we could have killed thousands," said Col. Anthony Moreno, commander of the 2nd Brigade, which led the assault on the heaviest defenses. A thinner line of trenches on Moreno's left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade, commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. Maggart estimated that his force buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers.
Moreno and Maggart gave some of the first public details of the trench-line attack during a series of interviews with New York Newsday. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney made no mention of the 1st Division's tactics in a recent interim report to Congress on Operation Desert Storm. In fact, the only mention of burying Iraqi troops came when Cheney acknowledged that 457 dead enemy soldiers were buried by U.S. forces at 56 sites during the ground war.
In most cases, two M1-A1 tanks with plows shaped like giant teeth were assigned to each section of the trench line. The tanks took up positions on either side of the trenches, most of them three feet wide and six feet deep. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Vulcan armored personnel carriers straddled the trench lines and fired into the Iraqi soldiers as the tanks covered them with mounds of sand.
"I came through right after the lead company," Moreno said. "What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples' arms and things sticking out of them."
Every American in the assault was inside an armored vehicle, impervious to Iraqi small-arms fire. As the juggernaut rolled along, it had a dramatic effect on other Iraqi troops watching the operation. "As (Iraqi) soldiers saw what we were doing and how effective and fast we were doing it, they began jumping out of their holes and surrendering," Moreno said.
Moreno and Maggart said the tactic was used as a means of minimizing U.S. casualties.
"I know burying people like that sounds pretty nasty," Maggart said. "But it would be even nastier if we had to put our troops in the trenches and clean them out with bayonets."
Moreno acknowledged that the attack was at odds with Army doctrine that calls for--but does not require--troops to leave their armored vehicles to clean out the trenches or to bypass and isolate fortified positions.
"This was not doctrine," Moreno said. "My concept is to defeat the enemy with your power and equipment. We're going to bludgeon them with every piece of equipment we've got. I'm not going to sacrifice the lives of my soldiers--it's not cost-effective."
The 1st Division engineer, Lt. Col. Stephen Hawkins, who helped devise the tactic, said it was designed in part to terrorize the Iraqis into surrendering and to destroy defensive positions for troops who might reinforce the defensive line.
"It caused an instant hands-up in many places," Hawkins said.
Both Hawkins and Maggart stressed that the assault tactic gave Iraqi forces an opportunity to surrender. But all the participants involved said the prime objective of the burial assault was to destroy the Iraqi defenders.
The Pentagon has withheld details of the assault from both the House and Senate Armed Services committees, according to committee officials.
Senate Chairman Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said he was unaware of the burial of Iraqi troops during the assault. "It sounds to me like another example of the horrors of war," said Nunn, who said he will seek additional information from the Pentagon.
Burying the Iraqi trench lines was part of the bloodiest phase of the war for Iraqi troops as the 1st Division breached an 11-mile-wide gap in the front line. It was opened to permit the four divisions of the Army's VII Corps safe passage for the brunt of the assault on the Iraq's best troops, the Republican Guard.