As the allies’ air-and-ground war against Iraq reached a rousing climax Wednesday night, many of the 17,000 members of the much-feared Marine amphibious assault force felt an understandable twinge of regret.
“So now we know what it’s like if they gave a war and nobody showed,” said one of the American fighting men who sat on the sidelines as the forces of the anti-Iraq coalition swiftly routed the enemy occupiers of Kuwait.
But that’s not to say that the amphibious force didn’t play an important role anyway in the greater scheme of things.
Indeed, its mere presence in the northern Persia Gulf led Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to keep a defensive force of 60,000 to 80,000 troops along the Kuwaiti shoreline. That deployment significantly lessened the threat to the coalition’s ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq.
” . . . It became very apparent to us early on that the Iraqis were quite concerned about an amphibious operation across the shores to liberate Kuwait,” Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of Operation Desert Storm, said during a Wednesday night briefing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “We continued our heavy operations out in the sea because we wanted the Iraqis to continue to believe that we were going to conduct a massive amphibious operation . . . (and) to concentrate his forces, which he did.”
To further freeze in place the Iraqi troops guarding against an amphibious assault, the Marines, elements of the 4th and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigades, actually feigned a full-fledged beach landing just after the ground invasion of Kuwait and Iraq began.
That ploy kept the Iraqis in place, bracing for an amphibious assault. Instead, they were rousted by allied ground forces that poured across the Kuwaiti border from Saudi Arabia.
Still, many members of the amphibious assault force, which has been sailing aboard U.S. vessels in the gulf for months, expressed mixed feelings about missing out on the action.
“I’d be very disappointed--to be among the first ones out here, to be on the first ship to sail, and not do anything,” said 1st Lt. Bob Wondra.
Cmdr. William Marshall, captain of the amphibious assault ship Gunston Hall, understood.
“We have been here for six months--training and preparing, and if we never got to do anything, I’d be disappointed,” said Marshall. “Then again, if we did an assault, there would be casualties.”
“If I had my druthers, I’d just as soon the war ended tomorrow and not have to expend those lives,” he said.
The Gunston Hall has been plying the Persian Gulf since Sept. 14.
As Schwarzkopf made clear in his hourlong briefing Wednesday, massive deception was a significant component of his overall war strategy, and the constant threat of a Marine amphibious assault was central to that plan.
Indeed, the expectation had been so high that there would be such an assault that the BBC actually broadcast a report four days ago saying the Marines had successfully landed on the well-fortified and strategically located Faylakah Island in Kuwait Bay, about 20 miles offshore from Kuwait City.
But elements of the 4th and the 5th Marine Expeditionary Brigades were hardly the only ones who have sat out the war.
This report was compiled in part from Pentagon pool reports reviewed by military censors.