Persian Gulf War: U.S. Marines’ Minefield Assault

6/12/2006 • MHQ

As twilight approached on February 23, 1991, U.S. Marine Colonel James A. Fulks was getting desperate. Although the ground campaign of Operation Desert Storm would not begin for more than twelve hours, Fulks had nearly twenty-seven hundred U.S. Marines a dozen miles inside of Iraqi-occupied Kuwait and had orders to move that night through the first of the two thick minefields the Iraqi army had planted just to the north. After days of searching, however, his scouts still had not found a path through the mines. Now Fulks was preparing to order a rapid and potentially dangerous effort to clear a way through the deadly obstacle belt.

At about the same time ten miles to the east, Corporal Michael Eroshevich was hunkered down in a small, hastily dug hole on the edge of that same minefield, trying to stay unseen until night fell. The twenty-one-year-old marine was tired, cramped, cold, and a little nervous about his unit’s exposed position.

Fulks’ marines, designated Task Force Grizzly, and Eroshevich’s unit, Task Force Taro, commanded by Colonel John H. Admire, had marched into Kuwait two days earlier. Alone, with no tanks and few heavy weapons, the fifty-three hundred marines were vulnerable to an attack by any of the five heavily armed Iraqi divisions waiting on the other side of the mines. Admire recalled that ‘We were essentially up there alone.’

Admire and Fulks had orders from the First Marine Division commander, Maj. Gen. James M. ‘Mike’ Myatt, to infiltrate through the first minefield well before the start of the ground war. They then were to march farther into Kuwait to shield the breach of those mines by Myatt’s two powerful mechanized regiments the next morning. In the midst of the most technologically advanced conflict in history — the so-called Nintendo War — most of the marines in the two task forces marched the twenty miles from the Saudi border to their blocking positions, carrying their gear on their backs or pulling it in crude handcarts.

According to Fulks, the risky infiltration ‘was part of our strategy in the division to be very aggressive.’ The idea was to mentally overwhelm the Iraqis, who had shown little ability to respond quickly to changing conditions. The Task Force Grizzly commander, who had conceived the infiltration plan months earlier while he was the division’s operations officer, conceded that initially ‘it was not a very popular idea.’ But it embodied the boldness that enabled two marine divisions to punch through the Iraqi minefields on ‘G-day,’ February 24, jump-starting the allied ground assault that ended with a crushing victory in one hundred hours. That attack was the culmination of the largest deployment of U.S. Marines in history, which had started six months earlier, just days after Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s army overran Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

President George Bush, backed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, quickly decided that the West had to respond forcefully to Iraq’s aggression, which threatened neighboring Saudi Arabia and much of the world’s oil supply. But the allies could not effectively help unless Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd was willing to accept an army of Christians flooding into the home of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. After a briefing in Jeddah by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney and U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander in chief of the U.S. Central Command, Fahd agreed on August 7 to accept allied troops.

Bush immediately ordered forces to the Persian Gulf under the label Operation Desert Shield. Air force fighters, army paratroopers, and navy aircraft carriers started arriving the next day. The Seventh Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB), commanded by Maj. Gen. John I. Hopkins, began flying into Saudi Arabia on August 14, while three ships of Maritime Preposition Squadron (MPS) 2 sailed toward the gulf with the unit’s heavy weapons, vehicles, and supplies. Within two weeks, 15,248 marines were deployed in the desert north of the Saudi port of Al Jubayl, learning to cope with 110-degree heat and talcumlike sand that covered their bodies and fouled their weapons and equipment. According to Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, who as commanding general of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) would lead most of the U.S. Marines’ Gulf War contingent, ‘The quick arrival of the 7th MEB and the MPS squadron must have put Saddam Hussein on notice that our president was serious about defending Saudi Arabia.’

As more marines arrived from their bases in California, Hawaii, and Okinawa, Hopkins’ brigade was integrated into Myatt’s First Division. It was the first time a full marine division had deployed overseas since Vietnam. At the same time, helicopter, fighter, and attack squadrons of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing, under Maj. Gen. Royal Moore, flew from air stations in California and Arizona to occupy airfields prepared by marine engineers and navy Seabees.

Myatt organized his division into five task forces with different capabilities and purposes. The first was Task Force Shepherd, which would use its nimble eight-wheeled light armored vehicles (LAVs) for screening and scouting. Myatt then formed two assault units, Task Force Ripper, commanded by Colonel Carlton W. Fulford, and Task Force Papa Bear, led by Colonel Richard W. Hodory. In anticipation of a fast-moving battle in the desert, these units were equipped more like army mechanized brigades than the usual marine light infantry regiments. Each assault force had two infantry battalions plus combat engineer and reconnaissance units. For the mobility essential in desert warfare, each had two companies of thinly armored, tracked assault amphibious vehicles. Ripper also had two companies of M-60 main battle tanks, and Papa Bear had one. Task Forces Taro and Grizzly were more typical marine units, with two battalions of infantry but no tanks or armored vehicles.

While the marines of the First MEF were moving into defensive positions in the desert, fifteen thousand more leathernecks were sailing for the gulf aboard ships. And tens of thousands of soldiers of the U.S. Army’s Eighteenth Corps and hundreds of U.S. Air Force warplanes and support aircraft flooded into Saudi Arabia and neighboring nations. Military forces also came from Great Britain, France, and several Arab countries.

As their military strength in the Persian Gulf region grew, the allies began to shift their focus from the defense of Saudi Arabia to an attack against the Iraqi army in Kuwait. General Boomer recalled that he and his commanders ‘began to think and talk among ourselves about offensive ops as early as October.’ By November, President Bush was doing the same with his advisers. He ordered Schwarzkopf to begin planning for an offensive to liberate Kuwait. At Schwarzkopf’s request, Bush authorized additional deployments that nearly doubled the U.S. troops in the gulf in order to provide the combat power required to defeat an Iraqi force estimated at more that six hundred thousand men. The reinforcements included the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps, with two divisions from Europe and two from the United States. Boomer’s First MEF was strengthened by the Second Marine Division and the Second Marine Aircraft Wing from bases in North and South Carolina.

The Second Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. William M. Keys, was augmented by hundreds of reservists, including B Company, Fourth Tank Battalion, from Yakima, Washington, which was the first marine unit to get modern M1A1 Abrams tanks. In all, Bravo Company had fourteen of the powerful armored vehicles. The Second Division was also reinforced by the army’s First Brigade, Second Armored Division — the ‘Tiger Brigade’ — with their M1A1s and Bradley fighting vehicles. When fully assembled, the division had 20,500 personnel and 257 tanks, including 185 Abrams, some 170 of which belonged to the Tiger Brigade. ‘It was probably the heaviest marine division, with the most combat power, ever to take the field,’ Keys recalled. The First Division, meanwhile, had 19,500 marines and sailors and 123 of the older and less potent M-60A1 tanks. With his air and support units, General Boomer would command about seventy thousand marines and navy personnel at the start of the ground war. Counting U.S. amphibious forces in the Persian Gulf (some twenty-four thousand marines commanded by Maj. Gen. Harry Jenkins), the corps had nearly ninety-four thousand men and women in the Gulf War — more than in the biggest battles of World War II.

Just after midnight on January 16, 1991, Desert Shield became Operation Desert Storm, with attacks into Iraq and Kuwait by allied aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from navy warships and submarines. Marine aircraft joined the air war the next day, with pre-dawn strikes against targets in Iraq and subsequent attacks against enemy troops in southern Kuwait.

The First Division later used its 155mm artillery in a series of combined-arms ‘raids’ with marine aircraft, aimed mainly at the estimated twelve hundred artillery pieces arrayed against them in Kuwait. The much-feared Iraqi artillery would have little effect during the ground war. The Iraqi army, however, staged poorly coordinated multiple attacks into Saudi Arabia on the night of January 29, triggering a three-day fight known as the Battle of Khafji.

The initial attacks by Soviet-made Iraqi T-62 and T-55 tanks and BMP armored personnel carriers against U.S. Marine border posts were stopped by marine LAVs equipped with 25mm guns and TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) anti-tank missiles, attack helicopters, and marine and air force fighters. But two LAVs were destroyed by friendly fire, killing eight marines and wounding others.Another Iraqi armored column survived air attacks to occupy the abandoned Saudi town of Khafji, trapping two marine recon teams. American commanders realized that U.S. forces should not dominate a fight in which Saudi territory and Arab pride were at stake. According to Colonel Admire, ‘We decided we would be the supporting force’ during the recapture of the town. The attack to liberate Khafji and to rescue the trapped marines was conducted by Saudi and Qatari units, backed by marine aircraft and artillery.

Although a relatively small engagement, Khafji had a major impact on the planning for the ground war. The Iraqis’ poor coordination and lack of aggressiveness persuaded the marine commanders that the attack into Kuwait would not be as difficult as they had feared. ‘At that particular point, there was a significant psychological change in all of us,’ Task Force Taro commander Admire recalled. ‘We realized that if we hit the Iraqis hard and fast, they would back down. There was no fight in them.’ According to Admire, the successful counterattack by the previously untested Arab troops also emboldened their commanders to offer to make their own attack up the coast highway during the ground war, instead of following the marine assault. That allowed Boomer to move the focus of his attack about eighty miles to the west, into the area of Kuwait known as the ‘elbow,’ and to revise his battle plan.

Initially, the marine general had planned to have Myatt’s division clear paths through the minefields, then allow Keys’ more powerful Second Division to pass through their lines and lead the attack. But neither Boomer nor his commanders liked that idea. ‘Any passing of lines under combat conditions is a horribly complicated evolution. And the thought of a division-size passage — with troops and vehicles strung out for miles, vulnerable to artillery — really made me uneasy,’ the First MEF commander recalled. With more mine-clearing equipment provided by Israel and the Tiger Brigade available, Boomer accepted Keys’ proposal for his division to make its own breach of the Iraqi barriers. Schwarzkopf, who had allowed Boomer great freedom in planning his attack, also approved the new plan.

The leeway Schwarzkopf gave Boomer was a reflection of the Desert Shield commander’s view that the marines’ assault was intended to fix the Iraqi army’s attention on the Kuwaiti border, not to be the main battle. The main attack, in northern Kuwait and southern Iraq, would be by the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps far to the west. It was set to start twenty-four hours after the marines’ assault began.

The two marine division commanders devised different plans for breaching the minefields, but with similar goals. The First Division would use Task Forces Grizzly and Taro to protect the main assault forces — Ripper and Papa Bear — which would conduct their own breaches. The Second Division would rely on artillery and air cover to defend against counterattacks and assigned only one regiment — the Sixth Marines — to make their breaches. Each of the regiment’s three battalions would cut a single lane. The desire in both cases was to move through the minefields quickly. ‘We were concerned about speed, and building momentum going north, to get through those two obstacle belts, because the worst thing that could happen was to get trapped between them,’ Myatt said.

Moving closer to the Kuwaiti border, most of the Marines left behind their tents and sleeping bags, only to suffer through surprisingly wet and frigid nights. The ground war initially was set to start on February 22, but Boomer asked for a delay in the hope of getting better weather to allow full use of the vital marine air support. The weather, however, did not improve, and in a situation similar to what General Dwight D. Eisenhower had faced on the eve of D-Day in 1944, Schwarzkopf decided to attack despite the poor conditions. ‘We fought the ground campaign over the worst four flying days of the whole war,’ Moore, the marine air commander, later complained. ‘General Schwarzkopf and every weather guy in Southwest Asia promised 72 hours of good weather, but we probably didn’t get 72 minutes.’

Corporal David Jackson, a radio operator with Grizzly, recalled that the task force’s marines felt ‘a lot of excitement and some confusion’ but ‘not a lot of fear’ about their mission: ‘People asked me if I was afraid. The honest answer was `no.’ Our battalion had trained so hard….By the time we got to the Gulf, we really were family.’

Corporal Eroshevich recollected a more fatalistic reaction among the marines of Task Force Taro. ‘We all looked at each other and said, `Well, it was nice knowing you,” he recalled. ‘This was pretty much a Nintendo war. But we were going to walk 30 miles and go through a minefield on hands and knees.’ And Taro’s commander, Admire, knew his unit faced a daunting task: ‘It would be clandestine, with no armor, no tractors, or artillery. We were literally going to walk across that minefield.’

The First Division began its move into Kuwait on February 18, when Myatt sent reconnaissance teams across the border to look for paths through the first minefield for Taro and Grizzly. The scouts located a clear route in Taro’s sector, but could not find one for Grizzly. Even so, Fulks marched Grizzly into Kuwait shortly after midnight on the twenty-second, stopping most of the regiment just south of the mines, where they could see the minefield but could not be observed by anyone on the other side of the barriers. The marines dug two-man fighting holes and used slight depressions in the desert and camouflage nets to mask their vehicles. Meanwhile, Fulks’ scouts resumed the search for an opening through the mines.

After daylight, the Iraqis apparently became aware of the marines’ presence and fired poorly aimed artillery at them. Return fire from the marines’ 155mm howitzers back at the border, however, quickly silenced the enemy guns. Iraqi tanks then approached Grizzly’s position, and Fulks had to withdraw, covering his movement with artillery and air attacks.

Taro began its long walk into enemy-held territory that evening. Both task forces had a number of vehicles loaded with radios or carrying TOW missiles or other heavy weapons. And in a throwback to pre-mechanized times, some marines pulled four-wheel handcarts loaded with equipment. Most of the marines marched into Kuwait, carrying heavy loads of their personal gear and extra ammunition.

Eroshevich called the trek ‘the most grueling physical experience of my life. Each of us carried over 100 pounds of equipment and our ammo for 30 kilometers.’ The fire team leader’s load consisted of his own gear, including chemical protective suit and gas mask, his M-16 rifle, and three bandoliers of ammunition. In addition, Eroshevich carried a vest with ten 40mm grenades for his M-203 gunner, a two-hundred-round magazine for his team’s M249 squad automatic weapon (SAW), and two 60mm mortar rounds. Some men also carried night vision goggles, telephones, and extra barrels for the machine guns. ‘The guys I really felt sorry for were the Dragon [anti-tank rocket] gunners and the machine-gunners,’ Eroshevich said. (Each Dragon weighed fifty pounds, while an SAW weighed fifteen and an M-60 light machine gun twenty-six.) When the marines started to march from the border, Eroshevich recalled that ‘we had to help each other stand up. I thought: `There’s no way in hell I’m going to make this.”

The unusually cold and damp weather may have prevented the heavily burdened marines from overheating during the strenuous march. But when they stopped, the cold cut through their sweaty clothes and chilled them. The only casualty of the potentially dangerous movement was a young marine killed by an accidental hand-grenade blast. By midnight, Taro had reached the edge of the minefield and then hurried to get into defensive cover before daylight. Most of the marines then dug fighting holes into which they squeezed, knees against their chests. They remained in the tight foxholes all day.

In preparation for the next night, Admire had his combat engineers and some infantrymen begin marking the task force’s path through the minefield. With no mine detection equipment, they advanced on their knees, probing into the sand with bayonets and listening for the clink of metal on metal. Mines would be marked with glowing chemical light sticks.

Task Force Grizzly, meanwhile, was still attempting to find a way through the mines. Its latest attempt was curtailed when allied aircraft started bombing Iraqi positions just across the barrier and Fulks withdrew his men to avoid the risk of friendly-fire casualties. With only hours left before the ground war was scheduled to start, Fulks was getting desperate about being able to complete his mission. As sporadic Iraqi artillery fire landed nearby, the colonel called his battalion commanders together to plan a rapid breach, using explosives to clear a path through the mines. Before he had to launch that effort, however, Fulks received a radio message that his scouts could see Iraqi defectors walking through the minefield with their hands over their heads. Thinking quickly, Fulks told the recon teams to run down and give the surrendering Iraqis chemical lights to mark the lane through the mines. Three Marines followed the defectors’ path and attacked a bunker, killing three Iraqi soldiers and capturing others. At last, Grizzly had a way to get to its blocking position.

But then the two task forces’ leaders received a disturbing radio call from Myatt, who relayed word from Boomer that President Bush wanted to give Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev more time to attempt to persuade Saddam to withdraw his army from Kuwait. That meant Taro and Grizzly were not to push any farther into Kuwait until the deadline passed, about midnight.

Both commanders protested that the delay would not give them time to reach their assigned positions before the division started its attack. Fulks, moreover, was reluctant to pull back the company of marines he already had on the other side of the mines, guarding the lane. ‘Boss, you can’t do this to me,’ he told Myatt.

After a brief delay, Myatt called back to tell him that Boomer had given permission to put a reconnaissance team across, but not to do anything irreversible. Fulks said he quickly ordered an entire battalion through the mines, as ‘a recon in force.’ Given the same warning, Admire said he told Myatt: ‘I will do nothing irreversible. But I can’t guarantee that the Iraqis won’t.’

While Taro and Grizzly were making their difficult treks deep into Kuwait, the two U.S. Marine divisions moved toward the border, reaching their assault positions on February 23. That night, Boomer sent a message telling his marines that they would attack into Kuwait the next day,

not to conquer, but to drive out the invaders and to restore the country to its citizens….We will succeed in our mission because we are well trained and well equipped; because we are U.S. Marines, sailors, soldiers and airmen, and because our cause is just….May the spirit of your Marine forefathers ride with you and may God give you the strength to accomplish your mission.

Semper Fi.

As night fell on the twenty-third, the marines and navy corpsmen in Taro and Grizzly climbed out of their holes, pulled on chemical protective suits, and checked their gas masks and weapons. Suddenly an explosion stunned the marines of Task Force Taro and destroyed their artillery fire-direction radar van, killing one marine and wounding another. A U.S. HARM anti-radar missile had caused the explosion, another of the friendly-fire incidents that were to blame for nearly half of the marines’ casualties thus far.

Shortly before midnight, Corporal Eroshevich and the rest of Taro shouldered their heavy loads and started following what they hoped was a clear path through the minefield — a narrow route outlined by chemical lights. Once through the obstacles, the marines formed into a wedge and moved north, reaching their blocking position about six miles beyond the minefield well before dawn.

The cold, misty, rainy weather was miserable but ‘almost ideal for an infiltration,’ Admire said. It reduced visibility, limiting the chances that the Iraqis would spot them. The Taro commander hoped for better weather the next morning, when marine air cover might be needed if Iraqi tanks attacked.

While Taro had reached its position without major incident, Task Force Grizzly’s troubles continued. First, the march through the mines was delayed when the lead elements had to deal with more Iraqi defectors. Corporal Jackson, driving a communications vehicle carrying two of his battalion’s staff officers, had followed a barely visible light on the vehicle ahead of his. ‘My biggest worry was the guys off to the side on foot,’ he recalled of the slow advance. ‘I thought about them, hoped they didn’t step on anything,’ meaning mines.

Grizzly passed through the first minefield belt without incident. But about eight hundred yards farther, they ran into an unexpected belt of anti-personnel mines. A team of engineers led by Staff Sgt. Charles Restifo crawled through the field probing for mines with bayonets, as TOW gunners used their thermal sights to watch for any Iraqi movement. Restifo earned the Silver Star for his actions.

Despite the new delay, Grizzly was at its blocking position near the second minefield by dawn. The ground war officially began at 4:30 a.m., with the Second Division and the First Division’s Task Forces Ripper and Papa Bear starting their penetrations at the first minefield. Rocket-propelled mine-clearing line charges, or ‘mick licks,’ were used to make the initial breaches. Each line charge consisted of a 110-yard-long cable along which explosives were attached. A rocket on the cable’s end would carry the line across the minefield, and the subsequent detonation of the charges was designed to set off any nearby mines.

Problems with the explosive devices, however, slowed the operation and resulted in damage to several tanks that hit live mines while sweeping the supposedly cleared lanes with mine-clearing plows. The operation also was delayed by numerous false reports of chemical agents. With little Iraqi resistance, however, the marines pushed through the first minefield and reached the second barrier by noon, but they were then plagued with more defective line charges, more damaged tanks, and increased Iraqi artillery fire.

The leathernecks’ biggest problem, however, was what to do with the thousands of surrendering Iraqi soldiers, who threatened to bog down the advance. Commanders of the assault units soon turned the flood of POWs over to marines from the supply columns behind them. Others, recognizing that the dispirited Iraqis were harmless, had their men simply direct them toward the rear. Happy to be alive and out of the war, Saddam’s soldiers marched to the south, waving dirty white rags and smiling at the marines rushing northward.

The push through the two minefields had left eleven tanks damaged and fourteen men wounded. There had been concern about massed artillery fire catching them bogged down among the mines. But, ‘None of our fears materialized,’ Boomer said.

Despite low clouds, scattered rain, and dense smoke from burning wells in the sabotaged Kuwaiti oil fields, the marine aviators did their best to support the ground forces. Cobra helicopters had to get under the clouds in order to attack Iraqi tanks or artillery firing on the marines. ‘I had six or eight Cobras air taxiing down highways in Kuwait with their landing lights on to get into the First or Second division areas to help them out,’ Moore recalled.

The two heavy task forces ran into only scattered pockets of opposition from dug-in Iraqis, most of whom would surrender after being hit by long-range TOW missiles or tank fire. By late afternoon, Papa Bear had cleared its first objective just behind the second minefield belt.

Ripper had to postpone its move onto the sprawling Al Jaber Airfield about nine miles to the northwest due to premature darkness. Still, the marines’ aggressiveness and light Iraqi resistance had put the advance hours ahead of schedule, creating a major problem for General Schwarzkopf. The marines’ rapid drive increased the risk that they would expose their left flank or would push the Iraqi troops out of Kuwait before the main attack could hit them. As a result, Schwarzkopf ordered the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps to begin its assault by 3 p.m., about fifteen hours ahead of schedule.

After a relatively easy first day, both marine divisions faced their toughest fights of the war on the twenty-fifth, when Iraqi armored units staged strong counterattacks. For the First Division, the battle included a precarious defense of Myatt’s forward command post, featuring an aggressive attack by a company of marine LAV-25s against a superior force of Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles.

The Second Division, meanwhile, was fighting off separate attacks from Iraqi mechanized and armored units in what was called the biggest tank battle in marine history. In one fight, the ‘Reveille Engagement,’ marines, including Bravo Company, the reserve tank unit with its M1A1s, were roused from their sleep to destroy thirty T-72s and four T-55s — in minutes. Counterattacks and darkness, however, prevented both divisions from moving north.

Although the weather remained bad on February 26, Boomer ordered Myatt to move on Kuwait International Airport and had Keys sweep to the west of Kuwait City to cut off the highways out of the capital. With supporting shellfire from the battleships Missouri’s and Wisconsin’s sixteen-inch guns, the assault units broke through the defenses. Shortly after dawn on the twenty-seventh, marines raised the U.S. flag in front of the airport terminal.

To the south, Grizzly had worked its way through the maze of bunkers and buildings at Al Jaber Airfield, meeting no resistance. Meanwhile, the Second Division quickly occupied a ridge northwest of Kuwait City, sealing off major roads and trapping hundreds of fleeing Iraqis. On February 28, Arab troops passed through the marines’ lines and entered Kuwait City, which erupted in a joyous celebration. Later that day, President Bush ordered a cease-fire and the Persian Gulf War essentially ended for the marines.

The U.S. Marines had driven about one hundred miles in one hundred hours, defeated seven Iraqi divisions, destroyed 1,040 tanks, 608 armored vehicles, and 432 artillery pieces, and taken 22,308 prisoners — at the cost of five killed and forty-eight wounded. At a February 27 press briefing in Riyadh, Schwarzkopf praised the marines: ‘It was a classic, absolutely classic, military breaching of a very, very tough minefield….And I think it will be studied for many, many years to come as the way to do it.’

This article was written by Otto Kreisher and originally published in the Summer 2002 edition of MHQ. For more great articles, subscribe to MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History today!

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