War Stories - My Arrival In Saudi Arabia
Leaving Pope turned out to be worse than I'd expected. I was scheduled for a 8pm departure in the back of a C-5 with 70 fully loaded Army soldiers. My friend Jean had Federal Expressed me a care package of her Christmas cookies, since I missed her party, and it arrived just as I was packing the car for the trip to base.
I got to the Air Force terminal at 4:30 and was directed to the Army terminal and the other end of base. There, I threw my gear on a pallet with all the other army gear to be loaded up (DUMB MOVE #1). I was traveling with another officer Brad Prectal and a maintenance technician Mark Ratley. Brad was a transportation officers returning to the Gulf after emergency leave and Mark was a replacement mechanic.
The flight was delayed and we waited around all night because one of the other groups hadn't arrived. Everyone wanted my care package of cookies but I was determined to wait and share them with my friends in the gulf. We finally departed at about 4am. It was horribly cramped on the long flight to Spain. Imagine being in the middle seat of a commercial airliner stuck between four fat football players in full gear. They were sure they were heading to their doom. We didn't talk and we didn't move. It was hot and smelly.
About six hours later we landed in Torrejon Spain. While the plane was refueled, they moved us to a hanger that had been set up as a temporary passenger terminal. I was really happy to be able to stretch my legs and get some fresh air. There were several hundred canvas cots set-up for a quick nap. That's where I had my fist taste of combat rations. The stories of how bad they are, are true. I walked around the place and was amazed at the security precautions. Armed sentries were everywhere. They were really concerned about terrorists and activists - in Spain. Two hours later we continued our flight to the Persian Gulf.
Welcome to Nowhere
I should have asked where the plain was heading (DUMB MOVE #2), but since my staff had made the arrangements, I naturally thought it was heading directly to where the Pope people were stationed. I was only off by three countries and 700 miles.
We landed late in the afternoon at a forward base near Al Jubayl (Jubail)on 19 January 1991. Al Jubayl is about 90 miles south of the Kuwait Border. It was a few days after President Bush's deadline and the start of the air campaign. The Mappers (Mobile Aerial Port - Cargo loading specialists) where unloading the aircraft when I experienced my first SCUD attack. 15 minutes after arriving in the combat zone I was scrambling into a bomb shelter. Of course all my Chemical warfare gear was still at the bottom of the pallet, so I was scared to death watching everyone else don their gear. Fortunately I was carrying my gas mask. I think I would have died of panic otherwise. Half an hour later we climbed out of the shelter and discovered the planes were gone. Since they'd already finished unloading, the pilots decided it was safer to fly back to Spain than stay in the Persian Gulf. Go figure.
There was nothing in Al Jubayl except Army troops marching North, so we (Brad, Mark, and me) collected our gear and began hitch-hiking South. I wasn't exactly sure where I was suppose to go, but there certainly weren't any air bases around there.
My first hop was on a British flight to Riyadh. The Brits were flying south and didn't mind giving us a ride. They were very nice people and were flying in a very nice plane similar to a DC-10. The seats were comfortable and they served us some delicious in-flight meals: Like TV dinners. We landed in Riyadh (the Saudi capital), but at the civilian side of the Airport. About 10 miles from the military side. We couldn't even figure out how to get off the tarmac. We waited a while for someone to pick us up, but since there weren't suppose to be passengers on that aircraft, they never came. Finally we picked up our gear and started marching across the aircraft parking ramp to the nearest building. Imagine doing that at a major airport here in the US. We though the police were going to arrest us any second. But we just walked right up and into the main building without a word from anyone. At the terminal building we waited for someone to open a door and walked right in - passed customs and everything.
We met up with some Air Force MWR people who gave us a ride to the military side in the back of their suburban. The highway signs in English and Arabic were a pretty cool site. It was pretty late, but having a four lane highway to ourselves was a still a little strange. We thanked them as they dropped us off at the military flight terminal and continued on their way. It was too late to continue on that night, so the passenger terminal staff directed us to the temporary shelters and told us to come back in the morning.
Just Paint a Target On My Back
So there we were in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, 20 January 1991.
A little advise: If you find yourself in a War Zone, Don't Head for the Capital! (DUMB MOVE #3).
We were at the gate to the temporary passenger billets (tents again), asking the guard directions to the showers when the next SCUD alert went off. We followed the gate-guards to their sandbagged foxhole nearby. As we lay there, in the muddy hole, a battery of PATRIOT missiles took off over our heads and exploded. Okay, maybe they weren't directly overhead, but I saw rocket trails, I saw the explosion and I felt the thud as something hit the ground nearby. I put on my chemsuit as fast as I could. It was sealed in a packet and I wasn't suppose to use it until ordered, but I figured it was time. Brad, due to bureaucracy, didn't have a suit. I saw the fear on his face and threw him my spare suit. I don't think either of us will ever forget that moment. We (the gate-guards included) we're pretty scared waiting for the all-clear signal as they checked for chemicals from the SCUD. I still have that chemical warfare suit and it still has the mud stains from that night.
The SCUD alerts occurred almost hourly all night long, so of course none of us made it to the showers. Hell, we never got more than twenty five feet from a bomb-shelter all night. Sleep was totally out of the question.
The next day was incredibly frustrating. We'd wait for a plane to arrive, watch it unload, then have to scramble for shelter during another SCUD attack. When it was clear the aircraft would be gone. All day we repeated the process until aircraft 1259 arrived. 1259 was one of my C-130s from Pope and I knew it would take us to the Pope crew. So as soon as it landed we ran out to meet it. Sure enough there was another SCUD alert, but this time we left with the plane.
We were headed to the second Pope Operating Base in Thumrait, Oman near the city of Salala. Despite my stupidity, I was still alive.
©2002 Stefan Oestreicher
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Last revised Nov 11, 2002