Friday, February 23, 2007

The Unknowable

On 23 February 1991 VII Corps crowded against the Iraq border. At that time, it was the largest United States Army Corps ever deployed in the field. VII Corps included 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), 1st Armor Division, 3rd Armor Division, 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the 11th Combat Aviation Brigade, and hundreds of combat and combat support units. In round numbers, VII Corps had over 1,500 M1A/2 Abrams tanks, over 1,500 M2/M3 IFV (Bradleys), over 300 attack helicopters, over 600 artillery cannons and MLRS’, and over 147,000 soldiers.

It had taken only 108 days to move this august force from Europe and the United States to the border of Iraq and ready it for battle.

VII Corps was not alone. Left and right the entire might of the coalition forces were coiled for the attack. The United States Army XVIII Corps. The British 1st Armored Division. The French 6th Light Armored Division. The 1st United States Marine Corps Division. The 2nd United States Marine Corps Division. All poised with their allies: the Saudis, Egyptians, and Syrians

Below are extracts from my oral histories from the 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor. These are some of their remembrances of the day before the day the war began.


Major Cook: Captain Torro [Captain Vaughn E. Torro, Commander Company B, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor], what was your unit strength on 23 February 1991?

Captain Torro: Team Bravo on 23 February consisted of two platoons of M1A1 Tanks, four tanks each, total tanks ten; one platoon of infantry, having four M2 Bradleys, 25mm chain guns on them, had a total of, well, I also had one platoon of Engineers who had one AVLB [an M60 Armored Vehicle Launch Bridge] with a MICLIC [an M58 Mine Clearing Line Charge vehicle] attached, one ACE [an M9 Armored Combat Earthmover], and one FISTV [an M981 Fire Support Team-Vehicle]. Total head count that day was 146 men.

Major Cook: Thank you. Captain Torro, what were you doing on 23 February 1991?

Captain Torro: On the afternoon of the 23rd we had moved the company up towards the berm on Phase Line Vermont. We had two tanks and four Bradleys over watching; everyone else was in a hide position. I was on the right flank of the company nearest the cut in the berm where we would deploy in the morning. The instructions to the company were to maintain 50% security and to try to relax and rest before going across the berm. We rested and watched. That night it got very dark.

Major Cook: What was the weather like that night?

Captain Torro: It was overcast. The following morning it was still dark. Drizzle and rain most of the night.

Major Cook: Lieutenant Shinaman [2LT Richard A. Shinaman, Platoon Leader, 2nd Platoon, B/2-34, cross attached from Company A, 5th Battalion, 16h Infantry], what was your platoon doing during the same period?

Lieutenant Shinaman: Sir, my platoon was over with Alpha 5-16 and we were getting the tanks ready to roll across the berm, trying to get all the load secured in places where it belonged so it wasn’t on the blow-out panels. And getting my section ready, we had security on the berm that night. We had two tanks and two Bradleys up there at night and four Bradleys in the daytime. That night we didn't really see too much. The Iraqis weren't really throwing as many illumination rounds as they had in the past. We had several batteries of MLRS [Multiple Launch Rocket System] come up behind us and fire off and they were supposed to be followed by some 8-inch howitzers firing. I forgot about the howitzers and there was about a half an hour break and they just went off and I found myself trying to get underneath the sub-turret floor really quick inside the tanks because it scared the hell out of me!

Major Cook: Lieutenant Parker [1LT Charles Neal Parker, Jr. 3rd Platoon Leader, Company B, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor], what were you doing on the 23rd?

Lieutenant Parker: The night of the 23rd I was on the berm. My tank commanders and I talked about sixteen people going through the berm and sixteen people making it the whole way. Basically concerned ourselves about being a part of the team, as far as responsibilities of the platoon as well as the company. And in that mental preparation, the tank commanders got together on the ground because there is no one except the lieutenant and platoon sergeants to talk to about frustrations, what they feel before the unknowable.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Operation Desert Storm, 1991

On 21 February 1991 I was the Commander of the 326th Military History Detachment (USAR) attached to VII Corps and assigned for operational purposes to 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), 1st Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 34th Armor configured for the operation as TASK FORCE 2-34.

The ground war would begin in three days.

My mission was to support the Department of Army’s combat oral history program (in accordance with AR 870-5; FM 101-10-2, Ch 15; DA PAM 870-5; and FONCON, 7 Dec 90, William Stacy, FORSCOM historian).

In other words I was to design and execute rigorous oral history collection projects, supplemented by photographs, documents and personal notes as possible, that would capture the individual recollections, and unit histories of supporting and engaged Army units.

Over the next several days I will share with you some of my personal and professional experiences as an Army field historian commanding a Military History Detachment during Operation DESERT STORM (ODS).

The work-a-day world of most practicing historians consists of finding and studying documents and various historical artifacts that others have collected and deposited in libraries, museums, or private collections.

Military History Detachment historians, however, collect documents, artifacts, and oral histories in real time that will be deposited in archives for others to study.

As a classically trained historian, whose graduate major was the European Middle Ages (the ninth century polyptyques to be precise), I asked myself how does one go out on the battlefield and collect “stuff”?

What historical methodology applies? What differentiates an historian collecting “stuff” on the battlefield from a journalist collecting “stuff” on the battlefield? What distinguishes things that should be saved from things that are just stories?