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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 battle.

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 of sagebrush.

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 night.

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 Guard.

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 War."

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 hulls.

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."


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