17 January has come and gone and with it the 12th anniversary of the brutish, nasty, and short Gulf War. With Gulf War II looming, the media has sought out veterans of Gulf War I to tap their nostalgia. Channel 10, for example, interviewed an F-14 pilot and a nurse. As I watched the interviews I thought of a Navy SEAL I’d talked to about his experiences in our first encounter with Saddam.
Retired Lieutenant Commander Bill Davis and I had served together in the Navy. Davis now lives in Oceanside and recalled he had retirement orders when the balloon went up in the gulf. “I was due out on 1 January ’91 but had deployed to the Middle East with Naval Special Warfare Group One, the head shed for West Coast SEAL Teams. I couldn’t bear the thought of getting out on the eve of fucking battle.”
Davis had been a Marine Corps platoon leader in Vietnam before he became a SEAL and was a plank owner, or original member, of SEAL Team Six under the command of Dick Marcinko. In his best-selling autobiography, Rogue Warrior, Marcinko identified Davis as “Cheeks,” because Davis looked somewhat like a chipmunk. Davis retains his distinctive cheeks and the sturdy build of the college tight end he once was. SEALs considered Davis a “shooter,” a hardcore combat guy. I asked how he’d managed to stay onboard for the war.
“The commodore, Ray Smith, and his chief staff officer, Tim Holden, went to bat for me, and after phone calls to Washington I got extended through September ’91.”
So you were in the gulf for Desert Shield and Desert Storm?
“Yeah, Desert Shield was when we were gearing up, between September and December. Not much going on. I was in charge of a SEAL compound on this little island off Saudi Arabia. When I got there, the place was a mess. This lazy fucking chief was in charge, and about all he did was chow down and sleep. He’d taken virtually no defensive measures, and all I could think of when I looked around was those dead Marines in Beirut. I put everybody to work digging trenches, filling sandbags, getting concertina out, and building cement barriers. Wanted to plant mines and set claymores, but higher authority nixed that.”
Sounds like you thought you were back in Nam.
“Better safe than fucking sorry. Anyway, we hardened the site pretty good and just waited. Played a lot of basketball on an outdoor court we built. Jungle rules. When Desert Storm began, I was put in charge of a task element and ordered to serve as liaison with the Kuwaiti navy. The navy consisted mainly of two frigates and a converted U.S. Coast Guard repair ship the Kuwaitis had named the Sawahil. We called her the Happy Duck. She could make seven knots max.
“I was disappointed with the assignment at first. Wanted to be liaison with the Marines because I was an ex-Marine and figured they would be in the thick of things. Thought I’d just tag along, you know, and watch the Mother of All Battles.”
You were a platoon leader in Nam?
“Yeah. Worked up north in I Corps, Quang Tri Province. Charlie and Clyde all over the place. As a platoon leader, you didn’t want to get in a long conversation because you probably wouldn’t be around to finish it. Scariest thing I ever did was crawl into these narrow little tunnels to flush out whoever might be in there. All I took with me was a .45, flashlight, and tight asshole. Lead by example. As bad as Desert Storm might be, nothing could be worse than Nam.
“But my time with the Kuwaitis worked out great. I took a squad of SEALs on board the Happy Duck, which was the flagship for the Kuwaiti navy. Also had two RIBs — 24-foot rigid inflatable boats powered by a Volvo inboard/outboard that could make 28 knots.
“My Kuwaiti counterpart and squadron commander was Colonel Nasser. Terrific guy. All he wanted to do was kill Iraqis. He’d scare me shitless taking the Duck and the frigates within three miles of the coast looking for targets. His ships had Exocet surface-to-surface missiles, and he was just dying to fire them, but every time he got a radar signature from a target, the U.S. wouldn’t let him pull the trigger. Broke his heart. But what concerned me was the Iraqis had their own surface-to-surface missiles — Chinese Silkworms — with a range of about 40 miles and warheads that could hold chemical and biological agents. I did not like to close that coast, which was just wall-to-wall with booger-eaters.
“My boss and task unit commander was Eric Olson. He was on a U.S. destroyer and had several SEALs riding various ships. He was top shelf. Deserved to make admiral, especially after what he did during the battle of Mogadishu, when he led a rescue force to help extract those Rangers. Got the Silver Star for that op. Do you know Eric?”
I know Eric. First met him when he was a jaygee at Team 12. Little guy. We called him “Sweet Pea.” He’s one of the few SEAL admirals ever who’ve had significant combat experience.
“Uh-huh. Ain’t that something. Anyway, Eric ordered us forward as lead element in case pilots got shot down over the gulf. He assigned a fast frigate to cover us. The ship, USS Nicholas, was to stay within 13 miles and close if we got in trouble. Message traffic said we could expect hundreds of pilots to be shot down during the air war. Main mission for SEALs was search and rescue. We thought we’d have a lot of work. Only had to pull one pilot out of the water.
“We had a ringside seat for the air war. Started on 17 January and lasted 39 days. Hundreds of planes flew over us day and night. I’d seen Arc Light strikes in Nam, and they were nothing compared to what I saw in the gulf, especially at night. We’d be 15 miles out, and the ship would shake and shake and shake as the bombs detonated. The sky would light up like the aurora borealis. The noise was like Surround Sound pumped up to max volume plus. Only problem was, we got strafed by some British Lynx helos, and fast movers were doing figure eights over us. To identify us as friendly, we’d painted this stupid symbol on top of our ships, which of course did absolutely no good at night. I also got hold of a transmitter that planes use to squawk a friendly signal, but it never worked. Supposed to keep the thing in an air-conditioned space that we did not have. So whenever I saw friendlies overhead who looked like they were about to blow us out of the water, I’d get Olson on the horn and scream, ‘Get these motherfuckers off my ass, man!’