Worm was right there with us
“Worm” was a bedouin.
He looked like a bedouin–almost a Hollywood stereotype of a bedouin.
His face was narrow and pointed with a huge, hooked, hawk nose. But it was his unctuous, ingratiating manner, more than his looks, which caused T-bone to nickname him “Worm.”
I can’t for the life of me remember his real name. Faris, a Saudi warrant officer and our liaison to the King’s Amn (security) forces, had introduced him to us.
Worm worked in our sector, which is to say we worked in his. The area, which we called Echo 14, was the northwestern most on the civilian side of King Khalid International Airport. KKIA was north of Riyadh, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
“We” were Fire Team Alpha, Third Squad, of Alpha Flight, 1703 Ground Defense Force (provisional), assigned to the 1703 Aerial Refueling Wing (provisional).
The 1703 AREFW(p) was made up mostly of KC-135 tankers, both A and R models, from various Strategic Air Command (SAC) bases in the US. We also had EC-135s and AWACS, based on the Boeing 707 airframe.
We were there, initially, to keep the Iraqis from driving further south into the oil fields of our ally Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon planners called that operation Desert Shield. Later, when we had enough personnel and materiel on hand, Coalition forces kicked the Iraqi squatters out of Kuwait (Op Desert Storm).
We had arrived from cool Wyoming the previous August (of 1990), when the temperatures on the flightline were in the upper 120s. I distinctly remember standing 2 or 3 feet away from Sgt Lyle Finch, who’d just come in from the flightline, by the armory window. I could feel the heat radiating off of Lyle, his M60, and his equipment.
Throughout Operation Desert Shield, we had been confined to the King’s side of the airport. He had is own, quite magnificent terminal, which he was gracious enough to let us use. More importantly, King Fahd had his own runway and parallel taxiway, which our tankers parked on to stay out of the way of the busy civilian side of KKIA.
During Desert Shield, we worked six 12-hour shifts a week. It was actually about 14- or 15-hours, by the time we armed up, held Guard Mount (daily roll call and briefing), convoyed over to the airport, relieved the off going posts and patrols, and later did that in reverse, getting relieved and turning in our weapons at the end of our shift.
Alpha flight’s work days started midnight to noon, but eventually that changed to dusk to dawn. We worked the night shift. The cooler temperatures were nice, especially at first (the Arabian desert got bitterly cold at night that winter).
More importantly, if there were going to be any attempts at infiltration, they would probably be at night. That had been our flight sergeant’s experience during the previous war. Master Sergeant (MSgt, E-7) Mark Galpin, a red faced, red haired bear of a man, been a young airman in the Security Police at Bien Hoa and Cam Ranh Bay in Viet Nam.
Before the war, we also rotated between various posts, and didn’t always work together as a fire team. Some of my personal favorite duties were rooftop marksman in the 1703 cantonment compound (where the chow hall and most of the enlisted quarters were), and Ambassador 1, in the Saudi Amn command post, which monitored their state-of the art cameras.
Security cameras are commonplace today but back then, closed circuit TVs mated to traversable cameras which could zoom in were quite remarkable. The Saudis had more money than they knew what to do with, so everything they bought–including their security system–was first class.
Ambassador 1 also had the advantage, early on, of being one of our few air conditioned posts. The US Central Security Command post (CSC, known today as a Base Defense Operations Center, or BDOC) for KKIA was in a trailer with a window AC unit, but Ambassador 1 was in the King’s terminal. The bathrooms were marble with gold fixtures.
Ambassador 1 was really a job for a Tech Sergeant (TSgt, E-6) or above, and I was only a Staff Sergeant (SSgt, E-5), but I got assigned to it because most guys hated working there. The language barrier was the main reason; racism might also have played a part. I had made some small effort to learn Arabic and thought of our hosts as different rather than weird, so I got assigned to Ambassador 1 fairly frequently.
The call sign was just Ambassador initially, but later we also added a liaison to the British, so the Saudi liaison job became Ambassador 1.
As anyone who’s ever been in a language immersion program can tell you, it strains your brain a lot, especially at first. But some of my counterparts enjoyed practicing their English, and I learned the answers to several mysteries a young man wondered about, concerning life in the Kingdom.
For example, “Do you guys really practice polygamy?” and “How does that work?”
Most men, they said, couldn’t afford more than one wife. I wondered how that was possible, in such a wealthy land, but now that I’ve been married for three decades I realize they weren’t talking about money. I can barely keep one woman happy.
Only princes could afford as many as four. I was sternly admonished that one should either have one or three wives–but NEVER two. With three, they said, there were always shifting alliances among the spouses, and a healthy balance of power. A man with two wives was always caught in the crossfire of any family disagreements, would never know any peace.
We did not get into any details about what went on behind closed doors or how that worked. They did admire the photo of my girlfriend (now my wife) I kept in the nametag window of my gas mask pouch.
One other perk of working Ambassador, that I had nearly forgotten till I was speaking with 1703 GDF vet Jeff Jones, was the meals.
Instead of box nasties (in-flight meals) or MREs (“Meals that would even be Rejected by starving Ethiopians”), the TCNs (Third Country Nationals, Sri Lankans or Pakis or other “Hodgies” imported by the Saudis to do their grunt work) would bring a 6×4 foot tray into the Amn Security Control Center and set it on the floor. The silver platter (wouldn’t be surprised if it was actually silver) was completely covered with rice. Set around inside it were various delicacies, often including chicken or dove.
We would sit cross-legged on the floor around the platter, reaching in to grab something, and drinking chai (sugar with a few drops of strong tea in it).
Transitioning to the other side of KKIA
The civilian side had 4 half-hexagon shaped terminals, with numerous gates. The gates, importantly, each had access to underground tanks full of jet fuel. Hydrocarbons were the one thing that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had in abundance (not takin’ anything from Stormin’ Norman, but Patton and his Third Army could have driven the Nazis all the way to the Urals with that much free gas on hand).
So when the air war (Desert Storm) kicked off, we gave Saudia, the Saudi Arabian national airline, just enough time to push all their aircraft back from the boarding gates before taking over their side of the airport and setting up shop. Our tankers pulled in, refueled, and pushed back, all day and all night, every day and night.
The previous November, the United Nations had passed UN Resolution 678, giving the Iraqi squatters till 15 Jan 1991 to pull all their troops out of Kuwait. Saddam kept his troops in place up to the deadline and after it.
On the evening of 16 January, we waited outside the CSC while the leadership briefed within. MSgt Galpin came out after the meeting broke up and announced, “This is it, men. We’re going to war.” It was something I’d always expected to hear at some point in my career, but it was still surreal.
Funny, I seemed to remember he’d always referred to us as “boys” before that.
When the war started in the wee hours of 17 January 1991, we kept the same schedule, but went to 7 days a week for several weeks. We had also stopped rotating posts, for the most part, and worked together with the same guys on the fire team and in the same sector. No more Ambassador 1 for me.
For the next few months, the duration of Desert Storm, Fire Team Alpha’s call signs were
- E-14 (“Echo Fourteen”): Me, the fire team leader, armed with an M16 and my limited wits
- E-14A (“Echo Fourteen Alpha”): Sergeant (Sgt, E-4) Robert C. “Chris” Williams, aka “Jethro,” armed with an M203 grenade launcher mounted to his M16
- E-14B (“Echo Fourteen Bravo”): Sgt David A. “T-bone” Tenorio, armed with an M60 general purpose machine gun and an M9 pistol
- E-14C (“Echo Fourteen Charlie”): Airman First Class (A1C, E-3) Jason T. “Jase” Bilyeu, our assistant machine gunner and driver, armed with an M16
All four of us blundered into Worm’s patrol area in a Humvee (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, HMMWV).
Worm drove a Suzuki Samurai, or something very similar to it. He was always solo, although a Saudi warrant officer would sometimes come around for their equivalent of leader’s post checks.
One of their warrants spoke English well, and early on I asked him about Worm’s beard.
“Your men will have to shave those off,” I said, “if their gas masks are to do them any good.” They had facemasks, the most important part of chemical agent defense, although as far as I could tell they did not have complete chemical ensembles, the charcoal impregnated suits we wore.
The warrant patiently explained that the men wore their beards to honor Allah.
“Yes, but surely God would not want them to die horrid deaths,” I countered. Saddam had gassed his neighbors the Iranians and his own people with Tabun and Mustard and probably also Sarin. We were fairly certain that when the Scuds began falling, they could be bringing chemicals with them.
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was concerned enough about Saddam’s WMDs (weapons of mass destruction, including chemical agents) to issue a promise few doubted “the Iron Lady” had the resolve to keep: If any WMDs were used on British coalition troops, she would not hesitate to nuke Bagdad. Thankfully, Saddam didn’t end up calling her on it.
The warrant even more patiently explained that they would rather die horrid deaths than to offend Allah by removing their beards. I learned to admire both the courage and the faith of our Amn counterparts. Indeed, the two are inexorably intertwined.
“Fear is having no faith.”
–Ken Good, quoted in Tiger McKee’s The Book of Two Guns, p. 47
We patrolled randomly around sector Echo 14, which was not too large for foot patrol but large enough that being away from our rig might find us quite literally flat footed and unable to respond quickly to any trouble that came up on the other side of our area. Accordingly, we almost always stayed in or near the Hummer.
There was a large rectangular hole dug in about the middle of sector E-14. I think it was there to store fuel bladders or perhaps the start of excavation for an underground tank. The Coalition forces at KKIA, which included Aussies, Brits, AnZacs, and French as well as us Americans, were for some reason forbidden from digging into the King’s soil, but that hole was already there.
It was just deep enough that we could park hull down, which afforded some protection for our unarmored Hummer. It would allow T-bone’s hog (M60) in the turret to lay grazing fire in all directions (although we would naturally be circumspect about directing the 7.62x51mm, which had a maximum range of 3725 meters, back south toward our own aircraft).
The rectangular Hole was oversized for a 4 man fighting position–a few vehicles could maneuver around within it–but we could easily defend it on foot. Should it be attacked from the north and then get flanked from the east, for example, we could displace a rifleman or grenadier from one side to another without exposing him to direct fire from either side, because the Hole was deep enough.
It had no overhead cover to protect us from indirect fire, be that mortars from the huge wadi (dry gully or riverbed) that ran north of the airport, or Scuds from Basra.
The Hole was somewhat steep sided. Our Hummer could easily climb out of it.
But the first time Worm visited us in the Hole, he got his Samurai stuck trying to get out. He got high-centered on the rim. We tried to push him over the top but the best we could do was to push him back in. He tried once more, faster this time, but no joy. Stuck again.
I owned a Jeep Scrambler back in the ‘States, and had actually read the manual for it, which included some four wheel driving tips.
Through hand and arm signals, I convinced Worm to let me drive his rig out of the hole. I took the bank at about a 45 degree angle. This allowed the chassis to stay high as the front left and right rear tires pivoted over the rim, rather than the middle of the chassis trying to clear the rim with both front tires out of the hole and both rear tires on the bank.
I drove around in a circle, back into the hole, and delivered the Samurai to Worm, as if to say, “Now you try it.”
He did, easily cresting the ridge, and returned again and again, faster and more confidently each time, grinning from ear to ear. After that, we were fast friends, though I only knew about 7 words of Arabic.
About that time, T-bone started calling him Worm. It was alright as a reference between us–it was a mnemonic descriptor–but Dave called him that to his face, or spoke about him using that name when he was there, as if he wasn’t.
I thought it was rude at best, and dangerous at worst. I was certain Worm knew more English than he let on, and although he was only armed with an MP5, those H&K submachine guns were murderous enough at close range.
One thing soldiers do when they meet with allied soldiers is to show each other their weapons. Most of us thought the Saudi MP5s were quite sexy. We had all seen the Christmas movie Die Hard, and I remembered May of 1980 when real SAS commandos had stormed the Iranian embassy at Princes Gate in London with H&K MP5s.
Worm never stopped smiling at us, though. And he was far from the only one on the receiving end of Dave’s rapier wit. T-bone teased everybody to their face, including me.
Because I almost always wore my flak vest and helmet, Dave called me “EEALT”: the “Ever-Elusive American Land Turtle.”
We all called Chris “Jethro,” ’cause he could be dopey at times, like “Jethro Bodine,” the Beverly Hillbilly. Even his mom called him that, Chris claimed.
Sgt Charlie Gibson, with a nose almost as big as Worm’s, was “Snuffleupagus,” after the furry elephant-like character on Sesame Street.
SrA (Senior Airman, E-4) Jeff Parrish, with his gigantic jaw, was known to all as “Chin.”
No person, race, gender, or creed was immune from Dave’s burning wit. He could get away with it, too.
For one thing, T-bone was a combat vet. He’d been on a “boondoggle TDY” (a supposed-to-be laid back, in-the-rear-with-the-gear temporary duty assignment) at Albrook Air Force Station in Panama on 20 Dec 1989, when Operation Just Cause went down. Howard AFB saw little action in that one, but Albrook felt a lot of heat.
Combat vets got cut more slack in the military than those who had not yet “met the Elephant.”
Besides, people still had a sense of humor in the early ’90s. Political correctness was only beginning to reach its pernicious fingers around the throat of our freedoms of speech and thought. Americans could speak their minds in those days much more freely without fear of censure.
In terms of skin color, the US armed forces had for decades been among the most integrated workforces in the world (though it was still almost exclusively a heterosexual male occupation in the early 1990s). We reveled in our diversity, instead of trying to hide it, or to blame race for all our problems as many who are fixated on identity politics seem to now.
A Native American of the San Fellipe Pueblo between Santa Fe and Albuquerque (one of his parents was from the Taos Pueblo), T-bone referred to himself as a Red man and an Indian. “As soon as anyone finds out you’re Indian,” Dave later told me with a sense of wonder, “they instantly love you. People are funny.”
Dave told the greatest stories. He spoke of being stationed in Hawaii, and hanging out in hotel bars near the airport. He claimed to have successfully picked up on Australian flight attendants (we still called them “stewardesses” in those days) by convincing them he was Hawaiian and could give them a tour of all the good spots known only to the locals.
Dave, Chris, and Jase lived in the same room adjacent to mine (I bunked with the other fire team leaders from third squad) and two doors down from the armory (which was adjacent to my room on the other side). Because Jason pronounced his last name, Bilyeu, like the color blue, they put a sign up on the outside of their door:
Speaking of Reds, our first Alarm Reds (incoming fire alerts) had happened the month before the war began.
Scud launches were first detected when a satellite would pick up the heat bloom of a launch. A few minutes into the Scud’s ballistic flight, it would be high enough above the horizon to be detected by radars in Turkey and on airborne JSTARS battlespace management aircraft. Long enough into its parabolic trajectory, and it would be painted by sufficient telemetry to guesstimate about where it was going to land.
JSTARS had downlinks to CentCom, Central Command in Riyadh, but some of the older missile launch detection systems (satellites and radars in Turkey that had been initially placed to track launches out of the USSR) sent their information around the world to NORAD, the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense command in Cheyenne Mountain outside Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Information about the Scud launches and subsequent telemetry would be sent up the North American chain of command, over to CentCom in Tampa, Florida, and thence to Riyadh and down our chain to us. By the time a better idea of there the missiles were headed bounced around the world, 8 or 10 minutes had passed.
By that time, the Scud was about at its destination.
So rather than waiting to see where it was headed, they put us in Alarm Red as soon as a launch was detected. This helped because it took a litle bit of time to don our chemical ensembles.
When I had grown up on AF bases, they tested the alarm speakers on Fridays at noon. The siren would spool up, but it would be a steady tone. That was the signal for a peacetime emergency, like a tornado or hurricane.
The signal that we were being attacked was a wailing noise that rose and fell and rose and fell again. I’d never heard an “air raid siren” (except in movies like The Battle of Britain), till Desert Storm. To this day, when I hear a rising and falling alarm noise on TV, the hairs stand up on the back of my head.
On 02 Dec 1990, Saddam’s rocket boys had test fired a Scud. I awoke from a sound sleep in the barracks to the sight of “Chin” in full chemical ensemble, screaming “Incoming! Get your shit on!”
They test-launched another about an hour later, so we jumped into our gear again. We found out later that both missiles had landed in an opposite corner of Iraq, and never left Iraqi airspace.
We had to jump into our chem gear again on 21 Dec 1990 when Israel test fired a Jericho missile.
On Christmas morning, Saddam again launched a Scud that landed in Iraq, and we jumped into our gear.
The next day he tested his longest range Scud yet, the al Hussein (also Anglicized al-Husayn). Again we donned our chemical gear.
Throughout the war, we wore our charcoal infused chemical suits, less the mask and gloves. When we got an Alarm Red, we would throw on our masks, then pull on a poncho over everything. The Iraqis had something called “Dusty Mustard,” a granular dry chemical agent that could work its way through our chem suits. The ponchos allegedly would shield our suits from Dusty Mustard, at least a little.
We had upgraded from MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) level 2 (GCE, Groundcrew Chemical Ensemble jacket, pants, and boots) to MOPP level 4 (MOPP 2 plus mask, poncho, and gloves) for six different Alarm Reds after the war began, from 17 through 20 Jan 1991.
Each time we saw and heard no incoming. After about 40 minutes or an hour, they would give the “All Clear” signal, and we would downgrade to MOPP 2 (or what we euphemistically called MOPP 2V, for ventilated, unzipping to let the sweat out).
Nothing had ever come of it. We got a little more lackadaisical about it each time we jumped into our gear, only to be given the “all clear” a few minutes later, when the Scuds landed somewhere else (like Dhahran or Israel).
Then came what would later be known in the annals of air defense as the Battle of Riyadh.
After midnight on 21 Jan 1991, about nine Scuds were launched toward Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Toward us.
I say “about” because no one is actually sure how many. In extending the range of the al Hussein Scud, the Iraqi rocket scientists had added a fuel section that weakened the SRBM structurally. That made each al Hussein tend to break up on re-entry and became 3 or more inbound objects. “Our screens lit up with all these missile fragments that were coming at us,” said Col Thomas Smith, in command of the Air Defense effort for Riyadh.
Even with their recently upgraded ABM (anti ballistic missile) software, the Patriot radars could not tell which part was the warhead, which was a motor, and which was a mostly empty (but still dangerous if it fell on you) fuel tank.
Consequently, they fired at everything falling out of the sky. 32 Patriots–almost the entire on-hand inventory of 36 (3 batteries of 3 launchers each, 4 missiles loaded in each launcher)–rose into the sky from the batteries defending Riyadh (ours at KKIA, one at an air base in Riyadh where our sister flight from Warren AFB was stationed, and one at an oil refinery on the south edge of town) that night.
We were in the Hole when we got that Alarm Red. As we bailed out of the Hummer and started climbing into our gear (somewhat without enthusiasm), Worm pulled up and climbed out of his Suzuki. He walked over to where we were struggling to get our ponchos on over our masks and suits.
The air raid siren was blaring.
In any language, Worm’s eyes and tone of voice said “What the hell’s going on?”
I was about to pull the hood of my poncho around the filter and face piece of my MCU-2/P gas mask when we heard loud BOOMs from the southwest. They came from the opposite side of the huge international airport, but we still felt as much as heard them.
The noise took me back, suddenly, to 1972 . . .
. . . when I was a 10 year old at an “open house” at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. We were watching the launch of a surface to air missile. I had been expecting something like the Saturn V Apollo launches I’d seen in the previous few years: a continuous, roaring sound, as the missile slowly left the pad and accelerated as it went up.
But, suddenly, BOOM!
And it was gone.
One moment it had been sitting there, upright, on the ground; the next, there was just a column of smoke from its exhaust reaching straight up, high into the sky.
Two decades later, at about 0113 hours on 21 Jan 1991, I was still holding the head opening of my poncho open with my fingertips, about to work my masked head, filter first, through that tiny hole. Peering out of that hole, holding it open with my fingers on each side, I turned toward the source of the noise: the Patriot battery on the opposite side of the airport.
Then came the WHOOSHes! and the flames.
Two Patriot missiles arced up across the airport and then went vertical over our Hole.
Explosions, like white thumbprints in the sky, flashed and were gone.
Directly, I mean directly, over our heads.
I looked at Dave.
Dave looked at me.
I pulled my poncho the rest of the way on–with somewhat more enthusiasm than I had previously been displaying–and looked at Worm. His eyes were as wide as mine.
My first responsibility was to my fire team, but here was this human being, this comrade in arms, with no mask on and no suit. For all we knew, Sarin could have been raining down from the sky at that very moment.
I grabbed Worm by the arm and dragged him to his Suzuki patrol vehicle.
I shoved him into his driver’s seat, leaned in across his lap, turned off the heater fan, and flipped the lever to recirc (recirculate cabin air, rather than taking in fresh air from outside).
I rolled up his window and slammed his door shut.
He raised a hand, jabbered loudly in Arabic, and drove off–at an angle–out of the Hole.
Then I turned to my fire team. We mounted up, and drove around looking for debris. Bits of Scud (or Patriot) on the runways or taxiways could easily be sucked up by the KC-135Rs huge, low slung, high-bypass ratio turbofans, so it was important that we find any FOD (foreign objects) on the tarmac.
We came to find out that the Iraqis had far more Scuds, and far more mobile launchers, than our intelligence had initially estimated. They had gotten quite adept at hiding them under overpasses and in neighborhoods and at moving them as soon as they launched. They’d had plenty of practice during the War of the Cities with Iran.
As time went along, we got smarter about how we responded to the Scuds. We posted a liaison with the British (Ambassador 2). The Bloke chain of command had fewer intervening levels of bureaucracy, so they got the word a few minutes before we received official notification through our own chain that there was inbound high explosive attached to unguided rockets. Of course, to say so would be bypassing our own chain of command, a no-no. His code phrase on the radio for incoming was “75, 75, 75” which told us all we needed to know.
After 22 Jan 1991, instead of donning our complete chemical ensembles first, we would race to the nearest culvert or bunker with overhead cover. A piece of Scud (or Patriot) falling on you would probably kill you, whether or not it was tainted with poisonous chemicals.
Then, and only then, we would make sure we were completely suited up in MOPP 4. Most of us had our gloves on by the time we got there. Jason, our driver, had to play catch-up.
One of my greatest concerns after we adopted the “race to the nearest hole and jump in it” TTP (tactic / technique / procedure) was that we would be bunkering down during a Scud attack when sappers would launch a coordinated ground assault on our base. Fortunately the bad guys never capitalized on that bunkered down vulnerability.
Till we figured out the rough patterns in the timing of their Scud attacks, it seemed like I would always have just filled my canteen cup with some MRE coffee when the Alarm Red would come, and the siren would blare its haunting rising and lowering moan. If I didn’t want it in my lap while Jason played Dukes of Hazzard with our Hummer, I had to pitch my Lifer Juice out the window.
We got our hot water at a Fire / Crash / Rescue outfit on the edge of our area. It was run by retired firefighters from the UK. Seemed like most of the fire fighters were Korean and Philippino TCNs, but Blokes ran the shop.
Blokes like their “brew” (tea), and they had a teapot. We would frequently stop at the fire station to boil some water for our MRE coffee or hot chocolate.
Eventually, the attacks tapered off a little, and seemed to arrive on a schedule.
“Wanna roll by the fire station and get some coffee?” one of us would suggest.
“What time is it?” I would ask. “Half fast midnight? Naw, let’s wait till after the Zero One Hundred Scud attack.” Of course, it was never really that regular, but acting like it was made us feel like old pros.
When we’d roll up to the fire station after the All Clear was given, our nerves were still a little on edge. I’d pour the hot water into my tin canteen cup, with just a little bit of tremor in my fingertips.
The Chief of the fire station was the oldest guy I remember seeing at KKIA. He looked ancient to me, but in retrospect, he was probably about the age I am now. He would sit at his desk (I seem to recall huge picture windows behind him), smoking a cigarette. Nothing seemed to flap him.
“Mind if I ask you a question, sir?” I ventured after one of the nightly Scud scrambles.
“Please,” he replied, motioning for me to take a seat.
“Well, it’s just that–Don’t these Scud attacks bother you? You seem totally at ease. Is it that you’ve grown fatalistic, because most of your life is behind you?” (Before I turned 60 myself, the 60s seemed near the end to me).
He smiled at the assertion. “Well, you see, Yank, I was a boy of 14 when Hitler’s V-2s were falling on England.
We would get 5 or 6 [V-2s] at a time raining down on us. There was no warning. One moment you’d be bicycling down the road, and the next, buildings would be falling down around you.
We didn’t have any Patriots to intercept them [he pronounced the “Pat” of Patriots like “Patrick”]. So this is really quite mild by comparison.”
From Sep 1944 to Mar 1945, 1,115 V-2s had rained down on the UK, killing 2,754 and maiming 6,523 severely. 1,524 V-2s fell on Antwerp and other targets in Europe, killing hundreds more.
Sitting across the desk from that fire chief at KKIA, who had been a combat veteran at age 14, I thought it was a pretty sad commentary on humanity that half a century later we hadn’t advanced as a species beyond lobbing ballistic missiles at the other guy’s population centers. The Iraqis and the Iranians had shot Scuds at each other in the War of the Cities, Mar – Apr 1988. The Soviets had fired Scuds and Frogs at the Afghans. More recently, starting in 2015 (seven decades after Hitler’s V-2 attacks) Houthis, aided by Iran, have been launching Scuds and other missiles at Saudi Arabia.
Technically, not even missiles. Although its flight path is parabolic, technically making it a “short range ballistic missile” (SRBM), the Scud, like the V-2 it was copied from, lacked internal guidance. It was basically just a rocket. All the aiming took place before launch.
If I recall correctly, the Scud had a CEP (circular error probable, the radius inside which half the warheads would fall) of 500 meters. There was a 50% chance that a Scud would impact inside a circle a click [kilometer] wide around its target. Useless for, say, taking out a command bunker, but useful to sow terror when aimed at an area target like a city–or an airport full of tanker jets.
There were also several field hospitals set up at our base. Not to hide legitimate military targets (the aerial refuelers that supported our air campaign) behind the red crosses on the hospital tents, but because the proximity of the runways to the hospitals was essential for aeromedical evacuation of the wounded from the front, and trans-shipment to more definitive care at better hospitals in-theater and farther to the rear (like Ramstein, Germany).
Scuds aimed at the airport terminal were as likely as not to hit any one of several hospitals. The inbound Scuds cared little more about the medical facilities than they did about the fact that we had females working at KKIA. Congress still hadn’t permitted females to serve in so-called “direct combat roles,” but the Scuds did not differentiate. Yet another example of the disconnect between DC’s perception and reality.
Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf described the Scud as a tactically “insignificant” weapon, and perhaps he was right. But years before, in a military history class I took, one of the questions on the final was “What was the most important battle of the Civil War, and why?” I had prefaced my answer with “To the participants, the most important battle is whichever one they happen to be in at the time. However, in terms of its effect on the outcome . . . ”
“To a soldier in a hole, nothing is bigger or more vital to him than the war which is going on in the immediate vicinity of his hole.”
–Bill Mauldin, 45th Infantry Division cartoonist in WWII
Our sister flight from FE Warren AFB in Wyoming had stayed in Riyadh to guard the airbase there when we moved north to KKIA. One of my troops from before the war was proned out, taking shelter under his patrol vehicle when a nearby Scud impact blew the windows out of his truck.
His hair turned grey after that.
He was a square jawed, handsome young man. That salt ‘n’ pepper hair made him appear more mature than his youthful face. I understand the combination made him quite popular with the ladies after the war.
Eventually, the Scud attacks tapered off. They picked up again in February.
On 25 Feb 1991, a Scud slipped to the side of a Patriot battery’s defensible “footprint” and landed on a barracks in al Khobar, a suburb of Dahran in Saudi Arabia, killing 28 Americans, including Army Reserve Specialists Christine L. Mayes, Adrienne L. Mitchell, and Beverly S. Clark: women who were directed by Congress to avoid combat roles and stay safely “in the rear with the gear”–which is just where they got killed. That Scud maimed 98 more Americans.
We almost never saw the inbound Scuds. They came in fast, several times the speed of sound, from the edge of space. Usually, our only direct evidence of their existence was their scattered parts that would be found laying around when the sun rose the next day. I do remember watching one (or part of one; possibly a fuel tank) burning, high and to the southeast of us, as it tumbled over and over out of the sky after being hit by a Patriot.
That verse in the Star Spangled Banner about “the rocket’s red glare” has never meant the same to me since.
We still saw Worm from time to time out there, but after that first bad night, the so-called Battle of Riyadh, he must have found a place to seek shelter as well. Never figured out where he went.
I’ve completely lost track of Jethro . . .
but recently visited T-bone . . .
. . . and Jase.
Even after all these years I still get a warm feeling whenever I reconnect with folks from the 1703 GDF(p). But if there’s one person in the world I’d like to catch up with, it would be Worm.
I feel more kinship with Worm than with the vast majority of my own countrymen who never served.
For that matter, though I didn’t like them much at the time, I feel more kinship with those poor bastards whom Saddam ordered to launch Scuds at us–and were quite often pounced upon by Coalition aircraft within minutes of sending their rockets aloft–than I do with these spoiled Antifa hipsters and their ilk, who’ve never heard a shot fired in anger, never known a day of hunger, and yet are filled with loathing for all things this great land has given them. Or with these Boogaloo idiots who claim to be defending traditional Western values from anarchy and mob rule, but many of whom are really just White supremacists.
“For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
–Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 4
Wherever you are today, Worm, I wish you health, happiness, and enough wealth to afford three wives, regardless of how many you wound up with. Fi Amanillah, rafiq.
–George H, TSgt, USAFR (ret)
Best — TDY — Ever
The closest I personally came to getting killed over there was in a traffic circle in Riyadh. The second closest we came was when the crew of our KC-135 freedom bird tried (several times) to stick a landing in the severe cross winds of the Azores on the way home.
We were the second Security Police flight to arrive, and the second to leave after the war ended. When MSgt Galpin told us anybody who wasn’t ready to leave by our estimated departure time was going to be left behind, we went into a mad scramble to pack up our gear. It amazed me how much junk we had accumulated in a little over 6 months.
We gave some stuff to our allies or left it for other security flights, but a lot of the more dangerous hardware, like Claymore mines, we blew in place.
Every boom box at J-1 was blasting Motley Crue’s “Home Sweet Home.” The lyrics are kind of inane, and I thought the hair bands of the ’80s were mostly silly, but to this day when I hear that tune, I break into a shit-eating grin.
During a recent visit to his home, Jason and I reached the same conclusion. Despite its many hardships and hazards, Op Desert Shield / Desert Storm was the best TDY (temporary duty assignment away from one’s home base) we ever had in the Air Force.
Why was it a great TDY? Four reasons:
FIRST of all, the jefes were more a lot more concerned about mission accomplishment than they were about nit-noy rules. This was quite a change from the Iron Fist of the Strategic Air Command back home, with its checklist mentality and lack of flexibility.
SECOND, we were blessed to have excellent flight-level leadership. MSgt Galpin was a been-there, done-that, no-nonsense senior NCO who knew what he was about. Capt Terry Morgan was a prior enlisted cop, knew ground defense “from muzzle to butt plate,” and cared a lot more about us and our coming home than he did about his personal performance reports.
I had issues with some of the decisions made at the group or wing level, but both of our Flight leaders ran interference and stood up for us.
THIRD, what we were doing was important. Guarding nukes in Nebraska had been important, but for the most part they guarded themselves, under tons and tons of concrete. The tankers and field hospitals at KKIA were very necessary for the war effort (the tankers ended up being more needed than the hospitals, God be praised), but unlike ICBM silos, both were highly vulnerable.
Everywhere around an aerial refueling outfit, you saw murals and morale patches of “the Phantom” (an image parodied from the mascot of the F-4 Phantom II fighter pilots) holding an aerial refueling boom. The boom was a pipe with wings, hanging off the back of a tanker aircraft.
The boom operator, or “boomer,” lying on his or her belly in the back of the KC-135, would literally fly the nozzle of the boom till it was directly over the refueling receptacle on the receiving aircraft, then punch a trigger that would shoot it into the receptacle and lock it in place for the duration of the fuel transfer.
Underneath the Phantom with his boom was written NKAWTG . . . Nobody.
Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas.
Flying tankers wasn’t glorious, but it was absolutely essential to the war effort. As the A-10 pilots liked to say,
“You can shoot down all the MiGs you want, but if you return to base and the lead Soviet tank commander is eating breakfast in your snack bar, Jack, you’ve lost the war.”
Saddam’s tanks weren’t much of a threat to our tankers, so far “in the rear with the gear” (at least not after the first few months of Desert Shield, when enough soldiers and Marines had arrived to block them). In the unlikely event we had to face off against armor, or had to take out what would later be called a “technical,” or had to re-take one of our own bunkers, each of our Humvees had a compliment of LAW (light anti-tank weapon) rockets.
But with their soft underbellies full of fuel and complex gas-turbine engines, our KC-135s were certainly vulnerable to sabotage and small arms fire.
Who was there to stop that?
The 1703rd Ground Defense Force, provisional.
Like every security policeman (now every security forces troop) at every airbase knows, if the base does get threatened or (God forbid) overrun, we would be the last out.
The View from the Top
I was qualified on the ’60 and would man the machine gun from time to time, just for a change of pace.
I remember one night when we convoyed from Juliet One (our barracks and armory) to KKIA for change-over; I was riding in the gunner’s hatch. Just after we rolled through Golf One (the main gate), the convoy split, traveling diverging tangents like the top of a Y. Half went to guard the King’s side of the airport, and our half went to guard the civilian side. The lead vehicle went left, the one behind it right, the one after that left, and so on. Not a complicated maneuver, but it looked very well orchestrated–magnificent, even–as each rolled off the hard top and began kicking up a dust trail across the desert, clearly visible in the moonlight.
As I bounced along in that hatch in my flack vest and helmet, wind in my face and dust goggles over my eyes, watching the convoy bifurcate with the feed cover of that powerful hog under my palm, a belt of 7.62mm hanging out of the feed tray, I felt part of something much bigger and far more important than myself.
Mine ears have felt their pounding throb, a hundred thousand strong
A mighty airborne legion, sent to right the deadly wrong
But now it’s only memory; it only lives in song . . .
—Air Corps Lament (to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic)
THE LAST REASON it was such a great TDY was that every member of that 44 man flight had been hand-picked for competence and motivation.
On 02 Aug 1990, I’d been on duty as a Flight Security Controller at Charlie One, a Minuteman III ICBM launch control facility east of Harrisburg, Nebraska. The news was showing video of Iraqi tanks rolling through the streets of Kuwait City. I had done a 6th grade report about Kuwait during the first oil crisis (in 1973), so unlike many watching that broadcast, I’d actually heard of that tiny country and had some idea of where it was.
The desk phone rang. It was the 90th Security Police Group’s assistant mobility NCO. “Hey, Hupp,” he asked, sounding a little hard-pressed, “is your chem warfare up to date?” meaning: had I taken the annually required training on defense against chemical attack sometime since August of 1989?
“Pretty sure,” I replied. “You’ll have to check with the back office weenies at 89 MSS [specifically, the 89th Missile Security Squadron Training NCO, who kept track of stuff like that and scheduled things like recurring firearms qualification or chem warfare or Laws of Armed Conflict training] to be sure. Why do you ask?”
“No reason. Gotta go. Bye!” He hung up.
I looked back at the tanks on the TV screen. It didn’t take long to put 2 and 2 together.
The 90 Security Police Group was initially tasked with sending two 44-man flights to support what would be dubbed Desert Shield. The two commanders had, between them, 1100 gun-toting security policemen to choose from.
Many times, when asked to send people TDY, a squadron will fess up with its slackers and trouble makers.
This was different. We could very well be going to war. Col Chris Gugas, formerly a B-52 pilot in Southeast Asia and then commander of the 90 Security Police Group, gave the two flight commanders carte blanche to cherry-pick whomever they wanted.
They hand-selected people who had:
- previous combat experience (like T-bone, SSgt Scott Christensen, and SrA Ed “Corky” Hunter had the year before in Panama, and MSgt Mark Galpin decades before in Viet Nam),
- been laterals from the Army and Marines (like Ron Bradshaw, who’d been in Army artillery, and Mike Cloud, former USMC scout-sniper),
- served previous tours in Europe or Korea (like Scottie Christensen and SSgt Jeff Jones), and therefore had extensive training in defensive countermeasures against chemical attack,
- received additional Airbase Ground Defense (ABGD) training (as several of us, including A1C Carlos “Macho” Camacho, had gotten at Volant Scorpion in Arkansas),
- been members of the FE Warren Emergency Services Team (the base SWAT team, including SSgts Tracy Huff and Steve Pre’tat), and
- those of us from the Olympic Arena missile combat competition teams (including A1C Mike Sullivan, TSgt Craig Smith, A1C Jason Bilyeu, SSgt Doug Lineen, and me).
Maybe not the best of the best, but certainly among the top 10% of the group, at least when it came to airbase ground defense. TSgt Nick Liberti, who came over as a replacement later, had also been on Olympic Arena.
And just about all of us–especially Galpin and Morgan–had a sense of humor, which made even the worst of times more tolerable.
It wasn’t always sunshine and roses. When you work with the same people, all day, every day, for months on end, folks sometimes get on each other’s nerves.
But to this day, I love each and every one of those guys we deployed with. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, with anybody else.
In refreshing my memory and bouncing it off of recorded histories, I made use of the following sources of information:
Atkinson, Rick. Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1993.
Carus, W. Seth. Ballistic Missiles in Modern Conflict. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1991.
Hallion, Richard P. Storm over Iraq: Airpower and the Gulf War. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Mauldin, Bill. Up Front. The Word Publishing Co, by arrangement with Henry Holt and Co, 1945.
Mills, David R. 1703 AREFW “A” Flight FE Warren AFB. Dave Mills was 2nd Squad’s leader, and quasi-official flight historian. He compiled a series of primary sources (for example, portions of our Security Police “blotter”) into a booklet outlining the Alarm Reds we went through, dates of significant incidents, names of the people on that deployment, etc. It has been my go-to source for information about what happened locally to us, when.
Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully: The United States Air Force in the Gulf War. No author is listed for this 58 page white paper published in September of 1991. It was handed out at the Red River Valley Fighter Pilot’s Association (“River Rats”) reunion in 1992.
Smith, Thomas E. “Our Screens Lit Up”: Shooting Down SCUDs During the Gulf War. The West Point Center for Oral History. Interview videotaped 29 Apr 2022. Smith graduated from the USMA in 1971 and commanded the Patriot batteries around Riyadh. Although the launchers were also located in Riyadh proper and south of town, the command center for all three batteries was at KKIA, so we and Col Smith “sure as hell chewed some of the same dirt,” as Clint Eastwood said in Heartbreak Ridge. The first hour and 15 minutes of this video deals with Col Smith’s experiences as a cadet at West Point and with his career before Desert Shield. The most relevant parts of Col. Smith’s story to this one occur between 1:20 and 1:45 in the two hour and twelve minute video.
Much love back H! Very few days go by without thoughts of those months.