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Long-Waiting Marines Cheer Distant Blasts Heralding War

A 25,000-member convoy preparing to enter Iraq welcomes the light show on the horizon. 'We're ready to go,' gunship pilot says.

March 21, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

ON THE IRAQ-KUWAIT BORDER — For hours throughout the night, a ceaseless barrage of rocket fire illuminated the desert horizon, as far as the eye could see, and the ground shook from the explosions.

As the shells screeched above, Marines who watched the light show from a distance cheered.

The rocket attacks meant one thing: The war was on.

The day had come for U.S. ground forces who had long been waiting in the Kuwaiti desert to launch the invasion that is meant to end in Baghdad.

Mechanized infantry and artillery batteries from the 1st Marine Division in Kuwait finally breached the southern Iraqi border late Thursday and were fighting rear-guard Iraqi troops of Iraq's 51st Division, in Soviet-made T-55 tanks. The Americans were meeting what commanders described as little resistance.

"In about 12 hours, I suspect the 51st will be history," said Col. John Kelly, assistant commander of the division.

The thrust into Iraqi territory followed a massive movement of tens of thousands of troops and vehicles to the border. Viewed earlier in the day from a Black Hawk helicopter flying over the northern Kuwaiti desert, the array of armor and troops was mind-boggling. The convoys were a distant flow of brown specks -- trucks, trailers, tankers, Humvees and armored personnel carriers, all marked with distinctive colored panels to identify them to U.S. aircraft.

They were hauling troops, fuel, food, water and other supplies. At regular intervals, Humvees stood watch, their .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 grenade launchers locked and loaded.

Twenty-five thousand Marines from the 1st Division arrived in an overnight convoy. With lights turned off, the vehicles raced down Highway 80, the main north-south freeway in Kuwait.

Although most arrived at their new locations on time, several dozen got lost when a corporal who apparently missed the pre-move briefing took a wrong turn and almost ended up in Iraq, way ahead of schedule. The group made a last-minute U-turn, then wandered until nearby British forces directed them to their proper location.

"It's the Slinky effect -- you stretch out a convoy too much and somebody is going to get lost," said Navy corpsman Lemar Hooper, 26, of Vallejo, Calif.

Kelly, the assistant commander, said the Iraqi army is moving troops to the border region and laying mines. But there are also indications, he said, that some troops are willing to surrender.

"We're getting conflicting signals," he said.

For the Marines, there were conflicting signals of another sort.

"There's anxiety but also anger [against Hussein] in the air," said Lance Cpl. Rajai Hakki, 22, of Washington, D.C.

The beginning of the invasion came at the end of a tense day on which troops in the Kuwaiti desert watched half a dozen Iraqi missiles fly south toward Kuwait City. Patriot missile batteries intercepted at least two of them. The Iraqi fire triggered fears of a possible chemical or biological attack and sent troops and civilians rushing into gas masks and protective suits.

At the 1st Marine Division, troops were in and out of their special "bio-chem" gear no fewer than 15 times.

The Iraqi missile strikes put U.S. forces on a full-scale war footing, interrupting but not slowing their preparations for imminent combat.

When the alert went up, troops at the half-mile-long camp belonging to the 3rd Army's 2nd Brigade dropped what they were doing and scrambled to pull on the gas masks kept in canvas bags strapped to their legs, then scurried to dig out bulky chemical suits, which look like camouflage ski wear.

Soldiers milled around, checking on one another for signs of chemical poisoning, shouting to be heard from behind the masks. Inside the cloying gear, beads of sweat formed on their faces.

Twenty-seven tense minutes later, the alert was over.

Sgt. Maj. Doug Falkner tore off his mask and shouted, "That son of a buck couldn't hit us if he was 10 miles away!"

At Camp Udairi, home to Apache and Kiowa Warrior helicopters of the 101st Aviation Brigade, pilots and crew chiefs tested their engines and went through the list of last-minute checks. Crates of rockets, cannon rounds and machine-gun ammunition lay on the flight line, ready for arming the helicopters when the order came to attack.

The aerial gunships are at the forefront of any U.S. attack, along with fighter jets and bombers, and will be responsible for destroying Iraqi artillery, armor and radar installations. That will help clear the way for ground assault forces ferried by UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters or by ground convoys.

The gunship pilots have been placed on "reverse cycle," meaning they grab a few hours of sleep during the day and stay up all night.

They are conditioning themselves to fly long attack missions, which typically are carried out in darkness.

Several times Thursday, warrant officers screamed to the crews on the tarmac: "Masks on! This is no drill! This is for real!" The pilots and crew chiefs interrupted combat preparations to don gas masks and duck into concrete bunkers at the edge of the flight line.

The Iraqi missiles offered the first taste of what the gunship crews might face once they attack their targets inside Iraq.

WO-3 Lyle Harmon and his fellow pilot in the two-man Kiowa, WO-2 Mark E. Gardner, said they worry most about Iraqi small-arms fire and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. But they said they were confident that their night-flight capabilities and their sophisticated avionics -- not to mention their array of armaments -- would eliminate any threat.

"We're ready to go," said Harmon, 35, of Pell City, Ala.

Perry reported with the 1st Marine Division. Contributing to this report were


Times staff writers Geoffrey Mohan with the 3rd Infantry Division and David Zucchino with the 101st Airborne.

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