17 January has come and gone and with it the 12th anniversary of the brutish, nasty, and short Gulf War. With Gulf War II looming, the media has sought out veterans of Gulf War I to tap their nostalgia. Channel 10, for example, interviewed an F-14 pilot and a nurse. As I watched the interviews I thought of a Navy SEAL I’d talked to about his experiences in our first encounter with Saddam.
Retired Lieutenant Commander Bill Davis and I had served together in the Navy. Davis now lives in Oceanside and recalled he had retirement orders when the balloon went up in the gulf. “I was due out on 1 January ’91 but had deployed to the Middle East with Naval Special Warfare Group One, the head shed for West Coast SEAL Teams. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting out on the eve of fucking battle.”
Davis had been a Marine Corps platoon leader in Vietnam before he became a SEAL and was a plank owner, or original member, of SEAL Team Six under the command of Dick Marcinko. In his best-selling autobiography, Rogue Warrior, Marcinko identified Davis as “Cheeks,” because Davis looked somewhat like a chipmunk. Davis retains his distinctive cheeks and the sturdy build of the college tight end he once was. SEALs considered Davis a “shooter,” a hardcore combat guy. I asked how he’d managed to stay onboard for the war.
“The commodore, Ray Smith, and his chief staff officer, Tim Holden, went to bat for me, and after phone calls to Washington I got extended through September ’91.”
So you were in the gulf for Desert Shield and Desert Storm?
“Yeah, Desert Shield was when we were gearing up, between September and December. Not much going on. I was in charge of a SEAL compound on this little island off Saudi Arabia. When I got there, the place was a mess. This lazy fucking chief was in charge, and about all he did was chow down and sleep. He’d taken virtually no defensive measures, and all I could think of when I looked around was those dead Marines in Beirut. I put everybody to work digging trenches, filling sandbags, getting concertina out, and building cement barriers. Wanted to plant mines and set claymores, but higher authority nixed that.”
Sounds like you thought you were back in Nam.
“Better safe than fucking sorry. Anyway, we hardened the site pretty good and just waited. Played a lot of basketball on an outdoor court we built. Jungle rules. When Desert Storm began, I was put in charge of a task element and ordered to serve as liaison with the Kuwaiti navy. The navy consisted mainly of two frigates and a converted U.S. Coast Guard repair ship the Kuwaitis had named the Sawahil. We called her the Happy Duck. She could make seven knots max.
“I was disappointed with the assignment at first. Wanted to be liaison with the Marines because I was an ex-Marine and figured they would be in the thick of things. Thought I’d just tag along, you know, and watch the Mother of All Battles.”
You were a platoon leader in Nam?
“Yeah. Worked up north in I Corps, Quang Tri Province. Charlie and Clyde all over the place. As a platoon leader, you didn’t want to get in a long conversation because you probably wouldn’t be around to finish it. Scariest thing I ever did was crawl into these narrow little tunnels to flush out whoever might be in there. All I took with me was a .45, flashlight, and tight asshole. Lead by example. As bad as Desert Storm might be, nothing could be worse than Nam.
“But my time with the Kuwaitis worked out great. I took a squad of SEALs on board the Happy Duck, which was the flagship for the Kuwaiti navy. Also had two RIBs — 24-foot rigid inflatable boats powered by a Volvo inboard/outboard that could make 28 knots.
“My Kuwaiti counterpart and squadron commander was Colonel Nasser. Terrific guy. All he wanted to do was kill Iraqis. He’d scare me shitless taking the Duck and the frigates within three miles of the coast looking for targets. His ships had Exocet surface-to-surface missiles, and he was just dying to fire them, but every time he got a radar signature from a target, the U.S. wouldn’t let him pull the trigger. Broke his heart. But what concerned me was the Iraqis had their own surface-to-surface missiles — Chinese Silkworms — with a range of about 40 miles and warheads that could hold chemical and biological agents. I did not like to close that coast, which was just wall-to-wall with booger-eaters.
“My boss and task unit commander was Eric Olson. He was on a U.S. destroyer and had several SEALs riding various ships. He was top shelf. Deserved to make admiral, especially after what he did during the battle of Mogadishu, when he led a rescue force to help extract those Rangers. Got the Silver Star for that op. Do you know Eric?”
I know Eric. First met him when he was a jaygee at Team 12. Little guy. We called him “Sweet Pea.” He’s one of the few SEAL admirals ever who’ve had significant combat experience.
“Uh-huh. Ain’t that something. Anyway, Eric ordered us forward as lead element in case pilots got shot down over the gulf. He assigned a fast frigate to cover us. The ship, USS Nicholas, was to stay within 13 miles and close if we got in trouble. Message traffic said we could expect hundreds of pilots to be shot down during the air war. Main mission for SEALs was search and rescue. We thought we’d have a lot of work. Only had to pull one pilot out of the water.
“We had a ringside seat for the air war. Started on 17 January and lasted 39 days. Hundreds of planes flew over us day and night. I’d seen Arc Light strikes in Nam, and they were nothing compared to what I saw in the Gulf, especially at night. We’d be 15 miles out, and the ship would shake and shake and shake as the bombs detonated. The sky would light up like the aurora borealis. The noise was like Surround Sound pumped up to max volume plus. Only problem was, we got strafed by some British Lynx helos, and fast movers were doing figure eights over us. To identify us as friendly, we’d painted this stupid symbol on top of our ships, which of course did absolutely no good at night. I also got hold of a transmitter that planes use to squawk a friendly signal, but it never worked. Supposed to keep the thing in an air-conditioned space that we did not have. So whenever I saw friendlies overhead who looked like they were about to blow us out of the water, I’d get Olson on the horn and scream, ‘Get these motherfuckers off my ass, man!’
“Olson tasked us with our first assault mission on 15 January. Ours was the first surface battle — such as it was — of Desert Storm. Eric ordered us to steam to the Dorra oil field, 30 miles off the Kuwaiti coast. The Nicholas, who had SEALs and Little Birds, maintained station 13 miles out to sea.”
What are Little Birds?
“Small helos kinda like the Loaches in Nam, except the Little Birds are more heavily armed and mainly used for fire support instead of observation. Frigates and destroyers have them so you don’t need carriers to provide air support for SEALs.”
What was the Dorra oil field like?
“Lots of second-stage oil platforms about 60 feet high. I felt right at home around those rigs, because when I was at Six with Marcinko, he’d have us work against the rigs in the oil fields off Louisiana. We’d insert on top of the rig by helo and also climb up from the water. And I mean those were some big ’n’ tall mothers. The rigs in Dorra were puny by comparison.
“Eric put us on point, and I was worried because we’d be within Silkworm range, and our Navy was 50 miles away except for the Nicholas. We steamed into the oil field with one of the Kuwaiti frigates at night on the 18th. We immediately drew fire. Iraqis had heavy weapons on all the rigs. We returned fire and withdrew to link up with the Nicholas and develop a better plan.
“CO of the Nicholas was a real go-getter, especially for a black shoe. He had Little Birds and said they would hose down the platforms with rockets and automatic weapons. After the birds made their runs, the Nicholas and the Kuwaiti ships would bombard the platforms with three- and five-inch gunfire. SEALs in RIBs would go in to clean up the mess. Four of my guys ended up going in with the SEALs on the Nicholas. I stayed aboard the Happy Duck with Colonel Nasser.
“Plan worked like a charm, even though the platforms were bunkered and mounted 37 millimeter AA and .51 cals. It was essentially all over after the helos made their strafing and rocket runs. SEALs went in and cleared the bunkers. Took 25 prisoners without any friendly casualties.”
I recall reading allegations the SEALs shot prisoners.
“That’s bullshit. The ragheads surrendered without a fight; our guys hooked them up and took them back to the Nicholas. There was an investigation later because someone — probably a flower child in the Nicholas crew — claimed that the helos ignored a white flag the rags were waving. But you gotta remember, nothing had happened yet in this war, and all we’d been hearing is that we are all gonna die because of the gas and shit, and here we are drawing fire. Nobody is thinking nothing except wipe these fuckers slick.
“Dorra turned out to be the most action we’d see for the rest of the war, but we had plenty of hairy moments, like the time we tried to disarm a huge floating mine, lost it, and thought we might steam into it at night.
“The incident began on our way out to sea after a provisioning run into a Saudi port. We were accompanied by two U.S. frigates when we spotted a floater.”
A dead body?
“No, another kind of floater — a horned mine about the size of a Volkswagen, like they used in World War II. It was dusk at the time, and not much daylight remained to neutralize the beast. The ships came to ‘all stop,’ and I got my three-man explosive ordnance disposal [EOD] detachment topside. I also had a SEAL SDV platoon onboard and called them up with the EOD.”
What’s an SDV, and why was the platoon with you?
“Swimmer delivery vehicle — it’s a mini-submarine that’s open to the sea. You take her down by flooding the compartment where three or four SEALs sit breathing compressed air from their own rigs or from the boat’s system. SEALs breathe mixed gas for long missions and at depth. We had the platoon to search for bottom mines in shallow water in case we had an amphibious landing to put the grunts ashore.”
How does an SDV find a sunken mine?
“The boat has an OAS — obstacle avoidance sonar — that’s supposed to detect the mine. The mission is difficult and dangerous. See, sonar signals detonate lots of these mines, and if that happens, the SDV guys are goners. Something that pissed me off is that three guys always went out on missions — the platoon commander and two enlisted — even though the platoon had eight operators. I asked the chief about this once, and he told me the other guys got clausty — claustrophobic — and, anyway, the three who went were volunteers. I thought that was bullshit but didn’t want to micromanage the platoon so let it go.
“One thing I didn’t let go, though, was the incompetence of the SDV guys when it came to basic skills you need to shoot, move, and especially communicate. Even your average plain-vanilla SEAL had these skills, but not SDV SEALs. All those guys knew was how to maintain and operate their boats. They couldn’t even fire our .50 cals or use a Stinger to launch a rocket.”
What’s a plain-vanilla SEAL?
“Someone assigned to a regular SEAL Team as opposed to the Jedi Knights of SEAL Team Six, which is now Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or just DEVGRU. DEVGRU is the Navy’s answer to Army’s Delta Force.
“Anyway, I got my EOD guys ready to get underway and blow that floater in place. And I got a couple SDV guys to take them in a RIB to the mine that was out about 500 meters. Before the RIB got underway, of course, I wanted a radio check to ensure I got coms with them.
“I’m on the bridge and shout at the coxswain in the RIB to turn his radio on for a check. He fools around with the radio for a while and then yells, ‘I don’t know how to work this radio!’ See, it was a UHF radio, and SDVs have VHF or something. This kid doesn’t even know how to turn on the radio, and it’s getting dark fast, and pretty soon we ain’t going to be able to find the floater.
“I’m getting hot enough to fuck about that time, and the other SDV guy grabs the radio and tries to figure out how to turn it on. Now here I am with a complete radio suite with everything from covered SATCOM to single sideband. I can talk to anyone anywhere in the world, but I can’t fucking talk to that RIB 20 meters away.
“When the second guy says he don’t know how to turn the thing on either, I send down a Motorola walkie-talkie — the kind you can buy at Radio Shack. Guess what? They can’t even get up on the walkie-talkie. Now it’s just about dark, and I’m going to have to scrub the mission, so I launch ’em without coms.
“I’m not one to hide my feelings, so when they take off without a working radio — or a radio they know how to work — I just go ballistic. I take the Motorola I got and smash it against the bulkhead, saying stuff to the SDV platoon commander like, ‘You motherfucking incompetent fucks! You can’t turn the radio on, the fucking Motorola! What the fuck can you do above water!’ I apologized to him later — he really was a good officer, but, man! Stuff like that just didn’t happen at Six.
“And that wasn’t the end of the pigfuck. EOD gets the mine loaded with C4, but when they crank it off, it’s a hang-fire — doesn’t detonate. I can’t see the mine and ask EOD if he’d marked it with a chemlight. He goes, ‘Gee, I guess not, sir.’ By this time, I don’t have the energy to do anything but shake my head.
“We wait 30 minutes, and when the mine still doesn’t blow, we all settle down and post mine watches — us and the two frigates, whose COs must be thinking, ‘These are the world’s most elite fighters?’ ”
Hey! The fog of war! War is the province of chance!
“Yeah, right. Morning dawns with no mine in sight, so we get underway. Learn later the mine drifted several miles and ended up in Bahrain with the EOD demo still rigged and ready to go.”
You mentioned how well you got along with Colonel Nasser. That didn’t happen very often with U.S. officers and their counterparts in Nam.
“Nasser wasn’t like most slopes I’d known. He was the consummate professional and absolutely fearless. He also listened to me, and we never, but never, had a disagreement we couldn’t work out.”
That’s impressive, given your notorious temper.
“Well, I sure as shit don’t suffer fools, a trait I probably picked up from Marcinko. But Nasser and I got along great, and we enjoyed a mutual trust. I remember one time I got a message from our Navy that the Iraqis were massacring old men, women, and children in Kuwait City. The message said I was not to tell the Kuwaitis.
“I knew Nasser’s family had escaped to Bahrain but that his grandfather, who was a tough old guy and devout Muslim, refused to leave. I figured Nasser had a right to know what was going on in his own country, so I took him the message and said, ‘I want you to read this, because I’m not supposed to tell you, but you need to know this.’
“He read it and tears came to his eyes and he said, ‘I’ll handle this. Thanks a lot.’
“Another time we were putting Kuwaiti marines on these islands because of a dispute with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis claimed the islands were theirs, and the Kuwaitis wanted to occupy them first. We were transporting the marines ashore with our RIBs and covering them with Little Birds when I get this call from Schwarzkopf’s staff saying we were to cease and desist. The State Department said under no circumstances were we to help the Kuwaitis.
“So here I am in the midst of getting the marines ashore, and I am not about to stop. I say, ‘Okay, no problem,’ and just keep on doing what I’m doing. I even had SEALs go ashore and help the Kuwaitis prepare defensive positions and set up generators. Fuck a bunch of REMFs [rear-echelon motherfuckers].
“Nasser really appreciated what we did for him. Like I said, he and I enjoyed a mutual trust. After the four-day war ended, of course he wanted to take the Duck into Kuwait City, and he didn’t want to tell the U.S. Navy because he was afraid they’d deny permission.
“I told him, what the hell, go for it. The place was mined, but we figured damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead! Which was not very fast with the Duck. We made it fine, anchored out, and I sent SEALs ashore in a launch to patrol and make sure we wouldn’t draw fire. No U.S. forces were to be seen. Just Saudis, Iraqis, and Palestinians. Reminded me of Beirut. When the SEALs gave the ‘all clear,’ we started making liberty runs.
“After about three days, I noticed Nasser hadn’t left the ship. I asked him what was up, and he said he didn’t want to go in because he was afraid he’d find out his grandfather was dead. I said, ‘Fuck that, let’s go in. You told me your grandfather was a tough old guy. He’s okay.’
“Nasser agreed, and in we went. We commandeered an old Chevy Impala near the pier and took off. After a few blocks, we run into a Saudi roadblock. Now we’re wearing our robes and are not in uniform. A Saudi sticks his rifle into the car and starts jabbering to Nasser, who starts jabbering back. Suddenly the Saudi brings the rifle up to his shoulder, and Nasser floors the Impala. We’re zigzagging down the street with rounds popping all around us and a few hitting the car. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, Christ! We’re all gonna die! What a way to go.’ Then Nasser yanks the Impala around a corner and we’re clear.
“I asked Nasser what the Saudi was saying, and he tells me he doesn’t know. Couldn’t understand the Saudi but knew he was pissed so took off.
“We reached the old man’s house okay, and there he was all decked out in his robes. Nasser hugged him, and they kissed twice on both cheeks the way Kuwaitis do, and of course Nasser is crying. He’s just overwhelmed with joy.
“We go inside and get treated to tea and sweets. The grandmother is in the kitchen, and we never see her. The old man has Nasser waiting on us, offering us tea and stuff. I told Nasser, ‘Hey, man, you don’t have to wait on me,’ but he says no, his grandfather had ordered him to take care of his American guest.
“I ask the grandfather through Nasser how he’d managed to survive, and he said he’d gone to the rooftop every day and prayed to Allah. He was one tough old bird, and, boy, did he hate the Iraqis.
“After we left the grandfather, we drove downtown, and it was a madhouse. Millions of Kuwaitis yelling and screaming and happy and dancing. We got out and danced with them. People would come up and kiss me and bring their babies for me to kiss. It was just great. World War II must have been like that after the GIs liberated the French.”
Not like Vietnam?
“You shittin’ me? I couldn’t wait to leave that place. Like everybody else, I had my short-timer’s calendar and was counting down the days. This was different. This was the way it should be. We really helped some people, and I got them back with their families and helped get their land back, and I could see the result. In Nam we didn’t take any land back and probably killed more Vietnamese civilians than we saved. In Nam nothing was accomplished, and your guys were, you know, dead.
“Yeah, this was definitely different. We helped the Kuwaitis get their country back and their wives and kids and grandparents back. It was a helluva feeling. I didn’t want to leave.”
When did you leave?
“A week or so later. We had a ceremony with the commodore, Ray Smith; chief staff officer Tim Holden; Eric Olson; and me present with Nasser and other Kuwaiti officers. The Kuwaitis gave us a flag they all had signed. Then they followed Nasser down the line shaking hands with us. Except when Nasser came to me, we embraced and kissed each other twice on the cheeks. I saw Ray Smith looking at me and probably wondering, what’s going on here? I had just become a lot like the Kuwaitis and loved them like brothers. After Nasser moved on, I started crying, and now all the Americans are looking at me kind of funny. I’m telling you, even though I had my own family back home, I did not want to leave Kuwait. I’ll never experience anything like that again.”