We deployed to Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. At the time, I commanded the 20th Special Operations Squadron, flying the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, and roughly half of the squadron deployed while half of the squadron stayed home for other possible missions. The split of the squadron in this way was not a healthy thing, as half of us were living in the desert heat and in tents, far away from home and fearful that we might be there a long time with no real war to fight. Half were home and wishing to be in the desert in case there was a war. It was tough on bonding a squadron together, especially after about three months, when family strains were showing for some and not others.
Early in November, the president made an additional decision to deploy most of the troops from Europe to have offensive capability.
Our squadron had two primary missions as we trained in the desert: combat rescue alert and a special ops mission to attack two radar sites just north of the border with Saudi Arabia. These radar sites were far away from Kuwait, west of where we were stationed in Saudi by about 400 miles and straight south of the Iraqi capital city, Baghdad. We began training for these missions, and any other special operations missions that might come up, by late August. It was to be a joint helicopter mission, with us flying to lead Army Apache helicopters to the radar sites, which were their targets. Our helicopters had an integrated GPS navigation system and the Apaches had the firepower to destroy the targets. Our early flying in Saudi had taught us that the mapping of the Middle East was unreliable but our GPS was always right. The Apaches had all the firepower we would need to destroy the sites. The war plan placed this mission first on the attack plan, and the coalition air forces would pour into Iraq through the blind spot we would create in the Iraqi radar picture.
We had established our living conditions in tents and had endured the extreme heat of summer. We were getting used to it by October, when the weather cooled off significantly. We were practicing for the opening mission in earnest by that time. I put our best pilot on the job of planning the mission. He and I were the only guys in the squadron to know the timing of the mission. He included his flight engineer, Master Sgt. Mike Lael, on the planning. Lael would develop the program, navigation points, and timing for our mission computers.
Early in November, the president made an additional decision to deploy most of the troops from Europe to have offensive capability. My wing commander saw it as a two-month delay before any action would occur. As most of the wing was split in the same way as was my squadron, he ordered all of the commanders home for a month. In my case, I attended a Commander’s Training Course in Missouri, then a training exercise at my home base at Hurlburt Field, [Florida]. While I was there, Master Sgt. Bobby Jenkins came into the office and asked for some time to talk.
Bobby had set up his retirement the previous summer and had begun terminal leave at the beginning of October. I was sitting at my desk working on four months of backlogged paperwork. I looked up to see Bobby looking at me around the doorway. His hair was already pretty long and he had a nice looking, full moustache. The home half-squadron had given a hail and farewell in mid-October where Bobby had received his medal, his plaque, and had told everyone that his family needed him to get out of this business. I invited him in. I congratulated him on his now-completed career. I remarked that the recent announcement of “Stop Loss” would have caught him if he had not already been on terminal leave. He told me that he had come to talk to me about just that. He asked me if I thought the squadron needed him and, if so, what he could do to help.
I had an immediate answer for him, despite my surprise at the offer. I told him that we did need him, that the squadron’s helicopter gunner force certainly needed another master sergeant for leadership, and that I would like to see him in uniform to work things here in the states for another month or so, then I would send him over to Saudi Arabia by Christmas. The currently deployed lead gunner had spent four months in the desert and I couldn’t give him any relief without another six-striper. Bobby looked at me for a couple of seconds and said he’d go over to the base personnel office and see what he had to do to come in off terminal leave. By 2 o’clock that afternoon, a clean-shaven and short-haired Bobby Jenkins was sitting in the ops superintendents’ office working over the schedule of training the new gunners in the .50-caliber machine gun. Bobby looked into my office to tell me he had also stopped off at home to get back into uniform. He told me then that his wife, Dottie, might be a little upset at me since I had recalled him from terminal leave and officially prevented his retirement. I consented to taking the blame as long as Bobby didn’t think his wife was a violent person.
The war plan gave our helicopter operation the first mission of the war to cross the border into Iraq. We teamed with an Army Apache helicopter battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Dick Cody, whose unit also moved to Al Jouf.
As expected, we were allowed to trade some people at the beginning of December, and Bobby Jenkins came over and became the ranking helicopter gunner of the deployment. We still did not know if we were going to really have a war or whether we were going to sit in the desert and keep training for months to come. We knew the war plan, continued to train hard, and had a desert Christmas. We also watched the debates at the U.N. and in Congress on authorizing the president to use force and setting the 15th of January as the deadline for the Iraqis to leave Kuwait. The diplomacy and the congressional debates made our training and preparation more urgent in our minds. The U.N. set the deadline for Iraq to leave Kuwait, so we also had a date set to ensure our readiness.
We trained hard the next four weeks, making sure all the newly rotated crew members were integrated into the existing crews and rehearsing what was to be the first mission of the war several times. On Jan. 12, 1991, we received orders from our wing commander, Col. George Gray, to move to our forward operating base for the war plan; this was a call to battle stations. We moved on Jan. 14 to Al Jouf, a small airfield in western Saudi Arabia. It was a 6-hour flight from King Fahd International Airport where we were stationed. We organized air refuelings and the movement of essentially our entire squadron in a day-and-a-half. When there, we were given a fairly large dormitory-style building to live in – it was actually an improvement over the tents we had occupied at King Fahd airfield since August.
The war plan gave our helicopter operation the first mission of the war to cross the border into Iraq. We teamed with an Army Apache helicopter battalion commanded by Lt. Col. Dick Cody, whose unit also moved to Al Jouf. Everyone was in place by the night of the 14th and the machines were all serviceable. We spent the 15th getting the house in order, erecting a tent to serve as a planning/briefing facility on the flight line, establishing communications, ensuring security, and configuring the aircraft. Waiting for further instructions, we planned some local flights on the 16th to plot a dispersal location and to ensure all the aircraft remained ready.
At about 2 o’clock on the afternoon of the 16th, I was at the base HQ with Col. [Ben] Orrell, who was the commanding officer at Al Jouf. He got a secure phone call from Col. Gray at King Fahd. Col. Orrell told me then the war was to begin that night and H-hour was set for 0300 local time. I asked him if he meant that we should be prepared to go at that time or if we were really going. He assured me that we were going in that night, not just preparing a possibility. I know it was a dumb question, but I found it hard to believe. I did some quick calculations and told him the briefing for the crews should be set for 2230 local and the takeoff for our formations would occur around 0100. With H-Hour at 0300, our time for the Apaches to open fire on the two radar sites was 0238, or 22 minutes prior to H-Hour. We went out to the flight line to inform Dick Cody, to cancel all the afternoon flights, and ensure the maintenance folks started preparing aircraft for flights that night.
Dick was working at his aircraft, talking to his maintenance guys, and checking his aircraft forms. He came over to our car and we told him the timing of H-hour. All he said was, “Shit Hot!” and said he’d meet me at our hootch at 2130 with all of his crews. I then went over to the ’53s and told the guys to finish configuring the birds and to go back to quarters for a 1600 meeting.
At that meeting, I informed everyone about the mission that night. I told them to write a letter, get a nap, and be dressed and ready at 2100 for another short meeting. The guys were quiet about the news but obviously excited and apprehensive. They knew they were ready and that the war was probably the only way home, but they also didn’t know how much resistance all this would encounter. The war planning had a worst case of 2 percent losses of the strike fighters going into Iraq. So, up to six to 10 shoot-downs could happen in the first days, meaning our guys doing rescue would probably spend a lot of time flying around in hostile territory trying to pick people up. Since for every 50 Iraqi soldiers there was expected to be an SA-7 or SA-14 [surface to air missile], we anticipated some real danger and possible losses of our MH-53s. The crews scheduled to go to Rafha to stand rescue alert – Capt. [Tim] Minish’s and Capt. [Tom] Trask’s – really were faced with the greatest uncertainty. The four crews ([Corby] Martin’s, [Ben] Pulsifer’s, [Mike] Kingsley’s, and [Bob] Leonik’s) planning to lead the Apaches on the two radar sites would not face such uncertainty until they completed that mission and took up rescue alert posture at Ar’ar.
We knew we were poised on the point of history of starting a pretty significant war for our country. We had nothing left to do but go fly the mission. It went exactly as planned.
Staff Sgt. Jeff Morrison and Master Sgt. Dick Pinkowski had engineered a setup to use our fuel dump tubes and some fire hoses with some nozzles procured off the local economy to dump fuel through the hoses and refuel the Apaches. The guys worked up and verified this method would work; it was far from a certifiable safe operation, but if we had to use it, we had the helicopters configured. We had the kits, hoses, everything on board if we had to use them. We also had a lot of refueling equipment set up at Ar’ar so the Apaches could be refueled and get moving as soon as they landed.
Dick Cody, in trying to prepare for the mission, had restructured his helicopter loads. He could carry an external auxiliary fuel tank on each Apache in place of one of the racks of missiles. In so doing, he wrote new procedures on how to configure and load his helicopters so they had enough fuel to execute the mission. Still, each tank was new to his helicopter and hopefully they would all work and feed fuel. If any of them were unable to feed fuel, we were going to have an Apache in trouble. We had all the back-up plans in place to get them out of the desert if anybody got low on fuel for any reason.
As it turned out, the tanks worked and all of us guys flew really quite well on the mission. It went perfectly that night. We had our briefing and we stood there and we said, “here we go.” We tried not to tell all the maintenance guys what we were up to, but everybody knew it was our job to start the war. There wasn’t much to say, except we were the right people for the job and we knew we had gotten ready for the job properly. We knew we were poised on the point of history of starting a pretty significant war for our country. We had nothing left to do but go fly the mission. It went exactly as planned.
We crossed the border 12 minutes after 2 in the morning for the first formation. Corby Martin’s flight had the westernmost target; the east target was led by Mike Kingsley’s crew and Bob Leonik’s as the second helicopter on their wing. I flew as co-pilot with Leonik. We had Ben Pulsifer and his crew as No. 2 behind Corby. The 1/101 Battalion commander, Col. Cody, flew the trail helicopter in the formation led by Kingsley.
We were tensed and on the lookout as we flew the 40 minutes in Iraq before the war was to start. We were listening and looking for something to happen; nothing did. No one seemed to notice – no tracers of ground fire, and nothing we could hear on the radios. It was anti-climactic, really. Both formations crossed the release point for the Apaches to get in the firing position within 5 seconds of their established time on target, and both formations (based on what we believe our timing was) laid Hellfire missiles on the communications vans of each of the two radar sites within 5 or 10 seconds of each other. Within about 3 minutes, the rest of the radar sites had taken fire and the buildings were in flames. The mission was a perfect success. The Iraqis now had no eyes to see with over a large portion of their border, and a coalition air armada streamed into the country above our two helicopter formations. I do not believe anybody detected our initial wave of fighters going into Iraq.
We had no hits against our helicopters; however, we did take some fire. Corby Martin’s formation did have a couple of SA-7s fired at them. The SA-7s seemed to be fired accurately. The crew members of the Pave Low called out the inbound missiles. Berrett Harrison and Terry Null made the call for the helicopters to break and to jettison some flares to decoy the missiles. The flares did not seem to be effective as the missiles did not swerve at all toward them. The jinking of the helicopters, plus the IRCMs [infrared countermeasures], seemed to be what made the missiles miss the helicopters. Everybody returned – although a little bit frightened by the experience – safely.
Kingsley’s formation went to Ar’ar to refuel and stood by for search and rescue operations while Martin’s formation refueled in the air and returned to Al Jouf. Tom Trask and Tim Minish took their crews and airplanes over to Rafha to stand by for search and rescue operations, out of Rafha into central Iraq. We were very surprised that there were no shoot-downs reported to us the first night. We learned later that one Navy plane went down under fire with the wingman reporting it exploded and no expectation of a survivor. My expectation was 2 percent losses among the fighters. These were realistic expectations that I think all the generals had signed up to. Also, the strike aircraft achieved an almost perfect success rate on hitting their targets. That made for a lot of success down the road in the war plan. We like to think, and we do believe, that the first mission against those radar sites had something to do with the great success that air power enjoyed in our strike and fighter operations over Iraq.
This history remains incomplete until I finish the story of the part played by Bobby Jenkins, who had volunteered to come in from his retirement to try to help. Well, as I said previously, Bobby arrived in Saudi a little later than I’d promised; he got there after Christmas on the 28th of December instead of before Christmas. He briefed in on all the ways we were doing business with Larry Hunter and Dick Pinkowski. I went into the month of January with Ski and Bobby as the ranking flight engineer and the ranking gunner. They worked over the training schedule for classes on the threats, how many gun training flights, and how many desert landings and air refueling flights we needed before the U.N. deadline in the middle of January. They also ensured that all the tent areas were cleaned up, including the snack bar, which was seeing a lot of traffic during the cold weather of winter.
When the war began, I flew into Iraq, crossing the border about 45 minutes before the first bombs would fall on Baghdad. I was watching the helicopter in front of me; piloted by Mike Kingsley, it was the first coalition aircraft to cross the border. Among those in Kingsley’s six-man crew were Ski and Bobby Jenkins, leading the way as we finally got onto the road that would get us home. I couldn’t help but pause in my work as Leonik’s co-pilot and think of Bobby, the most voluntary of volunteers, and of Dottie. I said a short prayer for his safety.
The next day when I finally had done all my debriefs and reports, I left the offices back at Al Jouf and I drove to our barracks after about 39 hours without sleep. Upon arriving in the parking lot, I pulled up beside Bobby, who was standing beside a barrel stirring burning trash. I asked him if he’d slept any. He said a little, but the hootch was getting dirty and he needed to get rid of the trash. He said he liked to have a fire on cold winter days and the warmth felt good. Although he hadn’t felt it during the flight the night before, he said he really had a chill when he got back, said he couldn’t sleep much when the place was dirtied up and needed cleaning. I walked around the corner toward the door and ran into Ski, carrying a bag of trash. He said we had only been in this new barracks for two days and the place needed a GI Party to clean it up. He said the guys would be waking up soon and all the enlisted crews not taking up the rescue alert tonight would be assigned detail duty to get things cleaned up. I walked then into the kitchen area and Master Sgt. Mike Lael was sitting at the table writing out the detail assignments. He left a blank in there for an officer to be assigned to participate each day on cleaning up the kitchen. He said that the pilot schedulers had agreed to put a name in on each day to have the officers help out with the housework.
Things being under control, I went to bed.