For many, the 1991 Persian Gulf War was a quick, relatively painless and one-sided conflict for the United States. Unlike the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, press access to the front line was still relatively well-managed and censored by Coalition forces, giving a somewhat sanitized perspective of the war that implied US forces and their allies simply steamrolled over Iraqi positions with little to no resistance.
However, a closer inspection of historical accounts shows that US and Coalition forces found themselves in predicaments on several occasions, including an incident involving a little Saudi Arabian border town named Khafji, where twelve Reconnaissance Marines of the 1st Marine Division would find themselves cut off and surrounded- a harrowing three-day ordeal in what would be the first major ground engagement of Operation Desert Storm.
Prior to the Iraqi assault on 29 January 1991, Khafji was a small city of about 20,000 people, which had quickly been rendered a ghost town thanks to Iraqi shelling on the first day of the war. With empty streets, Khafji’s “combat population” consisted of mostly Navy SEALs, US Marine Force Recon personnel and US Army Green Berets, who set up observation posts around the area, the eyes and ears of the Saudi Arabian, Moroccan, Senegalese and other small components of the Coalition tasked with protecting the area.
On the night of the 29th, however, a 2,000-man strong Iraqi mechanized infantry unit and several armored assets assaulted the town, forcing several Coalition units to withdraw, including an American observation post that left only after being given a direct order to do so.
Peering through their then-advanced night vision devices, Recon Marines watched as an Iraqi blitzkrieg-style attack unfolded in front of them. Attempting to radio their command, they were not able to initiate contact until thirty minutes after initially trying to report the incident.
Covering the withdrawal of the observation post teams, a Marine LAV tank-hunting platoon of light armored vehicles moved in to provide anti-tank capabilities. Unfortunately, they would prove to be rather unlucky- in the flurried response to the Iraqi assault, one LAV would disable another and a second LAV-AT (the anti-tank variant) was taken out by a USAF A-10, after a flare deployed by the aircraft landed on the vehicle and caused an AGM-65 anti-tank missile to lock onto it. Only the driver survived.
Following the friendly fire incidents (which cost 11 Coalition fighters their lives), all troops in the area were ordered to fall back as an Iraqi Armored brigade pulled away, both factions reeling from a sharklike feeding frenzy of Coalition air attacks.
Through the night, US and Coalition aircraft continued to pound Iraqi positions, resulting in several elements being pushed back over the Kuwaiti border. A-10s, F-16s, AV-Bs, B-52s and even an AC-130 aircraft were deployed in the counterattack, smashing Iraqi armored units before many could even reach the city.
During the battle, a Kuwaiti tank crew was wiped out. Two US Army trucks became lost and were ambushed by Iraqi troops, resulting in several wounded and two captured. Of those two soldiers, Specialist Melissa Ann Rathbun-Nealy had the distinction of becoming the first American female prisoner of war and later reported to have been sexually assaulted.
Despite resulting in massive casualties for the Iraqis, the town of Khafji was theirs and was hailed back in Iraq as a massive victory, in which they “expelled Americans from the Arab territory.” There was just one problem with this claim: the Iraqis may have had control of Khafji, but they were most certainly not alone.
On the rooftops and top floors of several buildings, two six-man Marine Recon teams remained in the town of Khafji, having been cut off before they had time to escape. Surrounded, separated, outgunned and with little to no food or water, the Marines knew they had to make the best of a bad situation.
Moving stealthily and doing as little as possible to attract attention, the two recon teams were separated by about 700 meters of city, which just so happened to be crawling with Iraqis.
One team was led by Corporal Charles “Chuck” Ingraham III, who was most certainly in over his pay grade by the time the Iraqis stormed the town. Looking amongst his men, Ingraham sought counsel from his team’s seasoned Navy Corpsman before determining that they could still unleash a lot of damage upon the Iraqi positions by way of a radio and top-notch calls for fire.
Meanwhile, US personnel were unaware of what happened to the Recon Marines, finding only damaged vehicles, rucksacks and web gear, known colloquially as “deuce gear.”
“The tires were spinning, the deuce gear was in there, but they weren’t in the vehicle,” 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines executive officer Major Craig Huddleston tearfully told reporters at the time. “We don’t know if they fled or were captured.”
However, Ingraham, his men and the other team (led by Corporal Lawrence M. Lentz) were alive and kicking, ready for revenge. Armed with only rifles, radios and a few Claymore mines, they quickly began setting up booby traps and taking stock of the situation unfolding around them as they established contact with friendly commanders.
During their time on the roofs, the Marines -by sheer luck or providence- barely managed to remain unseen. At one point, Iraqis began heading up the stairs to the top of the roof, with their helmets visible. The Marines would later report Iraqis shuffling around in the floors below them.
Afraid, surrounded, but undeterred, Ingraham and his team began doing the only thing they could to keep their nerves about them while trying to ward off the Iraqis: they began calling for fire.
Utilizing the power of the radio, the two 3rd Recon Battalion teams spotted targets for artillery and airstrikes, which were answered almost immediately by US troops all-too-eager to help out the trapped Marines. Calling in “danger close” strikes close to their position, the Marines were so close to impacting ordnance that Corporal Jeffery D. Brown was wounded by artillery shrapnel. Despite being injured, the Marine remained quiet as to avoid detection.
Ingraham would later tell reporters that calling for fire was the only way for the Marines to cope with the incident.
“I don’t know what everyone else’s mind[set] was, but I wasn’t going to be taken alive,” he said. “The only time we stopped shaking…Well, I should speak for myself…Was when I was calling in fire- and it was devastating.”
On January 30th, a plan was cobbled together by Coalition commanders and set in to motion, with the primary focus of the mission being to rescue the stranded Marines and recapture the town. Determining where the two Recon teams were, US, Qatari and Saudi forces began pounding enemy positions and sending in troops, with Saudi troops soon finding themselves pinned under fierce Iraqi resistance. After a couple tries, the Arab forces began making advances with the help of US airpower.
With their friends in danger, US aircrews were reportedly “thrown into a bloodlust type of frenzy,” attacking anything and everything that looked like an Iraqi military target. At one point, an AC-130 had refused to return to base as the sun began to rise, attacking enemy targets until it was shot down by an Iraqi missile, killing all 14 aboard. US Marine Harrier pilots, knowing their own Marine brothers were trapped on the ground, flew low and within range of enemy small arms to provide devastatingly accurate air support.
Shifting their forces under heavy fire, the Iraqis would ultimately find themselves at the very mercy of the silent Recon Marines they had surrounded. Unwilling to let them escape, Marines began calling in even more airstrikes. Despite the en-masse slaughtering of enemy forces, Corporal Ingraham knew his men couldn’t remain in place.
Just like the pinned down Army Rangers during the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, the Marines knew they had to take matters into their own hands. The young corporal ordered his men to leave everything behind but their M16s and a radio. Cradling a rifle in one hand, a radio in another and gnashing an orange signal panel between his teeth, Ingraham and his men ran half a mile through an exploding city to the Saudi lines.
While the run was half of what the Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers completed -famously known as the Mogadishu Mile- it was likely equally as harrowing.
“We escaped, linked up, extracted when the Saudis and their V-150s were just on the outskirts of the city. Either an Iraqi tank or APC was burning on the side of the building when we hit the street,” Ingraham would later recall. “The smoke and secondary explosions from it helped to cover our egress. We were very, very, very lucky throughout the whole ordeal.”
By the end of the three-day battle, the town of Khafji would be liberated, with Saudi troops being deliberately pushed into the city as the first wave for Public Relations purposes. The American Marines, however, did not need press fanfare. They knew what their duty was and they performed it, with the ultimate prize being the successful rescue of both six-man Marine Recon teams.
In the end, the Iraqis had been dealt a killing blow, with 400 men captured, 90 armored vehicles destroyed, 60-300 Iraqi soldiers killed and 148 wounded. Saddam’s forces soon found themselves shaken by the incident, while Saudi troops developed a newfound confidence that would steel their resolve until the end of the war.
For the Recon Marines who spent what seemed like an eternity silently slithering along the roofs of Khafji, the ordeal was more than just a victory. To them, the battle was proof that no force -no matter how mighty- could match their courage and resolve in the face of what seemed like impending annihilation.
As Ingraham said, they had no intention of being taken alive.
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