CAMP NEW JERSEY, Kuwait (AP) – Hours before opening the ground war, U.S. troops got their first real scare yesterday when Iraqi missiles streaked across the border into Kuwait, forcing Americans in the desert to climb into protective suits and put on gas masks.
“Gas, gas, gas!” came a muffled cry, barely audible inside an armored vehicle of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit at one camp.
The Marines inside slapped on masks and waited, some sipping water through tubes connecting their masks to their canteens. An “all clear” came, but a half-hour later another “gas, gas, gas” warning rang across the camp.
Later in the day, as the sun set, the Marines could hear the sustained sounds of bombs or artillery shells exploding across the border in southern Iraq. The detonations stopped after 30 minutes.
Elsewhere in the Kuwaiti desert, an Associated Press reporter heard powerful explosions near Highway 8, the road that runs from Kuwait City to the Iraqi port of Basra.
Soon after, the howitzers and rocket launchers of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division began bombarding targets in southern Iraq. More than 100 shells were fired in one five-minute barrage, illuminating the big guns against the night sky. There was no return fire from Iraqi troops.
The American military said it used Patriot missiles to shoot down at least one Iraqi missile. No injuries were reported from any of the missiles, and there was no immediate evidence they carried chemical or biological warheads.
The Iraqi attack came several hours after the United States launched precision-guided bombs and more than 40 Tomahawk missiles in strikes it said were aimed at Saddam Hussein and his top leadership.
U.S. Army troops at Camp New Jersey put on their chemical and biological protective gear in response to an alert caused by one of the missiles, but were given the all-clear a few minutes later.
Marines of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force near the Iraqi border were on the highest alert level and were ordered into bunkers three times during the morning.
The Marines dropped food trays and ran out of showers to hastily don gas masks and protective gear. Inside one bunker, Marines traded jokes. “Did anybody take out insurance?” cracked one, hidden by his mask.
At another position in the desert along the Iraqi border, the soldiers of A Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment were eating lunch when an Iraqi missile hit the desert. The locomotive-like roar of the missile flying through the air followed the sound of impact because of the distances involved.
Within a minute, a message came across the radio, reporting that a tactical ballistic missile had landed in the desert near U.S. troops. A few minutes later, all troops were ordered into protective clothing for chemical and biological warfare.
The men moved swiftly but calmly, systematically putting on their masks, then clothing. Once one soldier was done, he would make sure another soldier had his gear on properly.