By John Fialca
Wall Street Journal, Pentagon Press Pool
March 1, 1991
WITH THE THIRD ARMORED DIVISION - The attack started on Sunday,
a day earlier than planned, and the unexpectedly rapid disintegration
of the Iraqi Army forced a number of other modifications in the
plan as the battle unfolded.
The wide-sweeping hook for the eight divisions of the American
tankanny masquerading as a corps was shortened into a sharp right
turn that wheeled into Iraq. The Allied forces did not know they
had hit the Republican Guards until they found themselves battling
modem Soviet-made T-72 tanks used by the elite Iraqi force.
Pushing ahead through a sandstorm, the Third Brigade called in
massive artillery and air strikes on Guard defenses and pushed
through a large sand dune honeycombed with tank bunkers and a
series of prepared defenses.
Iraqi defenders appeared to be shocked from the bombardment.
"As we passed through each layer of defenses, we saw guys
just out standing around," said Capt. Richard Turner, whose
tank company destroyed 40 armored vehicles. "At the next
defense barrier, they just didn't know what was happening."
"It was real confusing, " said one M1A1 tank gunner,
Sgt. Glen Wilson, 27, of New Haven, Ohio. During the nighttime
tank battle, he found himself between two Iraqi armored vehicles
and facing a T-72 sitting squarely in the sights of his main
gun- It was one of five armored vehicles he was credited with
destroying during the battle.
Despite close-range fighting that lasted through Wednesday and
into the early hours before the ceasefire, the brigade lost two
men killed and three that were wounded when their Bradley Fighting
Vehicle was hit by a T-72 round. Some Iraqi soldiers among the
300 captured during the battle said that Allied air strikes had
stopped shipments of food and ammunition for five days before
The secrecy-shrounded plunge into the Iraqi desert began early
Sunday morning as the huge baggage trains of two armored corps
-- tens of thousands of vehicles - were strung out at least 50
miles. Hundreds of columns of supply trucks headed north, following
the tanks that kicked up big rooster tafls of dust as they pushed
through what had been a trackless desert dotted with dusters
Although it was just a tiny sliver of the attacking force, the
convoys of the First Brigade looked like a Los Angeles freeway
at rush hour. Ten lanes of vehicles, all heading north, passed
the 6-foot-high double benn of sand marking the Iraqi border.
The columns appeared to extend to the horizon and each vehicle
carefully followed the tracks of the one ahead as a precaution
against mines. The tracks soon became deeply rutted as the columns
jounced ahead, making an average of 4 mfles an hour.
Oil tankers, trucks carrying sausage-shaped water bladders, hulking
tank repair vehicles and tanks carrying bridges to cross the
mine fields, along with trucks carrying all manner of ammunition,
food and spare parts crept on through the afternoon and into
The columns were almost entirely blacked out. Headlights were
dark and tail lights had been taped so that only pinpoints of
light peeped out Drivers, muffled in their flak jackets and chemical
protective suits, drove by the light of night vision goggles
that made the desert sand appear stark white, as if the Army
were heading into an endless field of snow.
At night, soldiers in the convoy slept in its tracks, as refueling
trucks crept along the lines in the darkness, topping off tanks.
The battle erupted mid-afternoon Tuesday, as the 3rd Armored
Division was turning east in a sandstorm to chase elements of
the Iraqi 52nd Infantry Division, which was not part of the Republican
The 52nd retreated so quickly the skirmishing meant little difference
to the convoys until 5 p.m., when the roar of incoming artillery
shells and tank guns signalled that the 3rd Armored Division
had run smack into the right flank of the Republican Guard.
Fighting erupted on three sides of the convoy as U.S. rockets,
missiles and artillery dotted the evening horizon with flashes
and shook the earth with their rumbling concussions. "They
asked for it," said Master Sgt. Richard Cox, 34, of Cincinnati,
one of the wagon masters for the convoy. They bit off more than
they could chew."
The final phase of the war ended as it had begun. Although the
tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles of the armored units were
engaged, when the time came for killing, it was still the "Pilot's
The voice of 1st Brigade's commander, Col. Nash, rasped over
the command frequency, assigning missions to Apache helicopters
and tank-killing A-10 aircraft stacked up in the darkness overhead.
He was following the orders laid down by President Bush to make
every effort to minimize American casualties. After tersely polling
his units to be sure that none of them was close to an enemy
bunker, he called in an Apache oodeoamed "Death Dealer."
The Apache created a huge ball of orange fire that soared over
the battlefield, clearly visible from over ten miles away.
Assigning such a central job to the pilots was frustrating to
Nash's junior officers, one of whom broke into the command network
to blurt, "Get a company in there and shoot 'em up. Give
them a freaking chance to die."
But Nash explained after the battle ended why he chose to override
the eagerness of his crews. "If I can send aircraft over
the hill and kfll people, why should I send my guys to do it?"
The luxury of using so much air power ended late Wednesday when
the brigade's armored column became so intermingled with fleeing
Iraqi units that Nash decided he could no longer safely call
in the A-10s without risking friendly casualties.
Then the sky darkened, lightning began to flash, and the lead
tanks of the unit found themselves encountering a series of dug-in
Iraqi T-62 tanks in bunkers "At that point, I thought Iwas
going to lose a whole bunch of guys," said Maj. John Lough,
38, of Bridgeport, West Va.
However, the Iraqi tank gunners appeared to be confused, allowing
precious seconds to pass before aiming their guns. That was just
enough time for the MIAls and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles of
the First Brigade to kill them.
The brigade's tanks overcame all manner of troubles during the
night, including a dust storm that fogged their range-finding
lasers, and mysterious hot spots that appeared on their infared
targeting screens. The spots turned out to be camels, some of
whom were found on the battlefield the next day, killed by tank
and artillery fire.
Fighting went on all through the night. Nobody seemed to know
who was fighting and who was giving up. Pockets of stragglers
were all over - some shooting, some wanting to surrender. Nash
surrounded his baggage train of 550 vehicles with Bradleys to
guard them from the stragglers.
On Thursday morning, soldiers first learned of the cease-fire
on the sunrise broadcast over the Voice of America on their radios.
Though tired, the fatigue did not hide their jubilation.
But Nash's men didn't pause. After the cease-fire, they went
to the job of blowing up bunkers. Inside many, they found huge
stores of anti-tank ammunition, including fearsome Soviet-made
"Sagger" anti-tank missiles. Looking around the battlefield,
one saw bunker after bunker, and tank after tank at all points
of the compass going up in balls of flame.
The T-62 and T-72 tanks and BMP Armored Fighting Vehicles made
sounds like popcorn popping as the small arms ammunition inside
them exploded while their turrets "cooked off." Tracer
bullets streamed from newly-made openings as tank shells blowing
up inside arced the turrets outward and away from the decapitated
By the time the battle ended, knots of confused Iraqis were clustered
in circles of concertina wire where they proceeded to devour
packets of the Army's field rations, called Meals, Ready-to-Eat.
Soldiers insist that title contains at least three separate lies.
Plans captured from the Iraqi bunkers showed what U.S. commanders
called elaborate and "very professional" plans to annihilate
U.S. forces attacking from the south. But the wheeling movement
brought the Third Armored Division in from the northwest, surprising
the dug-in soldiers and causing their commanders to desert the
battlefield, leaving the soldiers to fend for themselves.
Capt. Tom Lewis.who interviewed some of the prisoners, said,
"It was very interesting. They weren't told to attack. Even
a battalion commander that we interviewed said he had no orders
to attack at all. Just orders to sit there."
Lewis said that, all told, the First Brigade had run through
at least two Iraqi brigades but the fight that had been advertised
in their elite force seemed to have gone out of them. "They
have been shelled so much they were ready to give up," he
said. "They're scared of our air war more than anything
else. A lot of them want to go to Saudi Arabia just to get away.
They're not inclined to go back."