It was daylight, but so dark you couldn’t see your hands in front of your face.
The smell was stifling.
The sounds of artillery, mortar explosions and gunfire filled the darkness.
Milton D. Whitfield of Goldsboro, a Marine gunnery sergeant, retired, military historian and veterans advocate, was one of the first Marines in Kuwait when Saddam Hussein invaded the country, Aug. 2-4, 1990.
In 1990, Whitfield deployed as part of 1st Battalion, 6th Marines (1/6) to Okinawa, Japan. While he was there, the Iraqi Army invaded Kuwait. Whitfield’s unit was the first from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune deployed to Kuwait in Operation Desert Shield, leading up to Operation Desert Storm, he said.
Since the Marines at Camp Lejeune were still gearing up and would not arrive in Kuwait until December, Whitfield’s unit from the 1/6 was attached to the 3rd Marines based out of Camp Courtney, Camp Smedley D. Butler and Okinawa. He was then attached to the 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, he said.
When his division did arrive, Whitfield said they started training hard and then on Jan. 17, the combat began.
“The United States Air Force brought the B-52s out of retirement and they pounded the Iraqi Republican Guards from Jan. 17 until Feb. 24,” Whitfield said. “That was the ‘Shock and Awe.’ They softened the ground up for us. They did good. But it still didn’t deter the enemy.”
Whitfield said early Feb. 24 the combat started.
“It was probably about 7:30 in the morning when we attacked,” he said. “My timing may be a little off, but it was in the morning, daylight, but it looked like it was pitch black because the oil wells were burning. It looked like you were riding into hell.”
The Iraqi military set fire to 700 oil wells from January to February 1991 while retreating from Kuwait. The last fire was extinguished months later.
Traveling through the darkness of the black smoke, after engineers had breached two minefields with travel lanes, an alert came over the radio in Humvees and other military vehicles, Whitfield said.
“We got the code ‘snow storm,’” he said. “That means a chemical agent has been detected. We were already in part of our chemical suits because we knew that was what they were threatening to do.”
The Marines had to go to MOPP (mission oriented protective posture) Level 4, which means putting on gas masks, Whitfield said.
“So, three things were happening: We were in a mine field, we got hit with artillery and mortars — a lot of it — and we had to go to MOPP Level 4 all at the same time,” Whitfield said. “So, we were actually fighting the first couple of hours in MOPP Level 4. A lot of those Iraqis were shooting and throwing everything they had up on us and when we closed in on them, they’d give up.”
Back in the United States, news programs were showing thousands of Iraqi soldiers surrendering. However, it wasn’t all easy going for the U.S. military, Whitfield said.
“That’s not really the way it was,” he said. “Some of them had to be convinced by U.S. Marines to giving up.”
Many of the Iraqi soldiers would show a white flag, throw their weapons down and as the vehicles passed, they would hide in holes in the desert and shoot at the Marines and soldiers from the coalition forces from the rear. That went on throughout the first day, Whitfield said.
“So, we didn’t take any chances from that point on,” he said. “… It was completely insane. So, apparently the bombing didn’t break them all the way.”
The second day, Feb. 25, is what Whitfield called the “black night” because the smoke from the oil fires was now overwhelming. The sun and sky were blotted out, and no one could see anything, Whitfield said.
“That’s when we started having friendly fire incidents with people thinking the Iraqis were in there and shooting at each other,” he said. “My lieutenant almost got killed because he had a tow missile come not far from him. Someone thought we were the (Iraq) Republican Guard. There was a lot of that going on.”
And then a corporal in his unit got shot, supposedly by an Iraqi, Whitfield said.
“The Iraqi was reaching for something when we captured him, and one of my guys just started shooting, and (he) got hit by somebody,” he said. “And then my guy killed the Iraqi.”
Navy Corpsman Thomas Perry from Colorado, one of the meekest men in Whitfield’s platoon, immediately went to help, Whitfield said.
“He came through a minefield on the hood of a Humvee to take care of my corporal,” Whitfield said. “He was in the minefield under fire on the hood of the vehicle. He got (the corporal) and put him on the hood and he got the EPW, Enemy Prisoner of War, and put him on the hood of the vehicle and tried to save them both. The EPW died and (the corporal) lived.”
Perry was awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts, Whitfield said.
While the convoy was moving toward Baghdad, Whitfield said another surreal sight came into view. The Marines came across many dead animals, camels, donkeys and sand goats that were bloated but had no scars of war. Whitfield knew there could be only one explanation: fallout from chemical weapons, something the government would deny for 10 years, Whitfield said.
Two hours after they once again started toward Baghdad, Whitfield said a cease-fire was called.
“H.W. Bush said ‘we’ve accomplished the mission, cease fire,’ which (made everyone mad),” Whitfield said. “But he’s the president, so we have to follow the order from our commander and chief and stop. We never made it into Baghdad because the cease-fire came.”
Whitfield paused after thinking about those dark days in the desert.
“Memorial Day,” he said, pausing and searching for what it meant to him. “I kind of get somber during Memorial Day. It means to me … It doesn’t mean cookouts and beaches. It means to me … It’s kind of personal.
“It means sacrifices and the hardships men and women make for this country. I think the public really doesn’t understand what that is. And a lot of them didn’t make it back. And for some of those who made it back, they’re not the same.”
Whitfield finally concluded Memorial Day meant honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“And the ultimate sacrifice is one thing, but when people come back and their lives have been changed forever, they are still living it,” he said. “They are still living with the war and what they’ve seen that they can never get etched out of their minds — never.
“Medicine won’t do it. Therapy won’t do it. They just have to live with it and do the best they can.”
Having been a part of that, Whitfield said he tries not to dwell on it.
“To me, every day is Memorial Day,” he said.