Late in the afternoon of 26 February, 1991, barely 24 hours after more than 50,000 soldiers of Iraq’s Republican Guard Corps began their withdrawl from Kuwait and Southern Iraq, the two lead cavalry troops of “Cougar Squadron,” the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, charged out of the sandstorm during Operation Desert Storm and caught it in the open desert along the north-south gridline of a military map referred to as the “73 Easting.” Taken by surprise, defending Iraqi armor brigades were swept away in salvoes of tank and missile fire in what became the US Army’s largest tank battle since World War II.
1630 HOURS, ADVANCING TO THE 73 EASTING WITH GHOST TROOP
Ghost Troop was now approaching the 73 Easting disposed in a loose line, with the two scout platoons on either flank and the tanks in the center forming a lazy wedge—Lt. Andy Kilgore’s tank platoon a little to the left and behind Sartiano and Mecca.
A little to the right and behind Sartiano’s tank in the center was Kinsley’s (not his real name) tank platoon, in reserve. Lieutenant Kinsley, a West Point graduate, had joined Ghost Troop just before the squadron deployed to the Combat Maneuver Training Center (CMTC) at Hohenfels, Germany, and was learning the proverbial ropes when war came. Very young in appearance, Kinsley was the archetypal kid in John Wayne’s World War II movies.
Kilgore, an athletic and aggressive University of Tennessee graduate, arrived just in time to take over the 2nd Platoon tanks and deploy with Ghost Troop to Saudi Arabia. His previous service with a tank battalion in 1st Infantry Division (Forward)—the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (Mechanized), the rest of which was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas—was cut short when his battalion was disbanded. Disappointed with the prospect of filling some bureaucratic position in Germany, Andy Kilgore begged to be assigned to a fighting unit that would deploy to the Gulf, and the chain of command finally granted his wish. Despite his short service with Ghost Troop, Kilgore fit in well with Sartiano’s relaxed, caring, but demanding style of leadership.
Curiously, the middle of Ghost’s zone, just ahead of where Ghost Troop’s tanks were concentrated, was bisected by a rise that ran east to west, with small spurs of one or two meters in height leading off to the north and south. As the night wore on, these modest terrain features, together with bowl-like depressions in front and north of Ghost Troop, would shape the conduct of the fight that was to come.
“MAKE YOUR MOVE”
Staring at the cloud of smoke from a burning BMP blowing across his front, Andy Kilgore decided that sitting behind the growing smoke screen made no sense. Patience was not one of Kilgore’s virtues. He called Sartiano for permission to move his tank platoon forward through the smoke:
“Ghost 6, White 1, request permission to move forward through smoke, over.”
Sartiano’s response was quick and to the point.
“White 1, Ghost 6, make your move, over.”
“White 1, roger, out.”
As Kilgore’s tanks moved forward through the smoke, Sartiano looked at his watch and saw that it was now about 1630 hours. He concluded, shit, this is dumb. Why not send all of the tanks forward? Nine tanks moving forward would be better than four. So Sartiano got on the radio and said, “White 1, Ghost 6, halt on the far side of the smoke. I will bring up the rest of the tanks, over.”
THEN ALL HELL BROKE LOOSE
Thinking that Kilgore had heard his command, Sartiano watched patiently as Kilgore’s four tanks disappeared into the smoke on his left. While he waited for a call from Kilgore that his tanks were halted and ready to fire, he prepared to move the remaining four tanks up on line with Kilgore’s tanks.
But the call never came. Then, to put it bluntly, all hell broke loose. Kilgore’s tanks moved forward. Kilgore opened fire first, yelling, “Enemy tanks direct front, direct frontal fire!” Firing their main guns as they advanced, tearing T72 tanks and BMPs to pieces, the drivers, gunners, loaders, and tank commanders were all filled with that strange emotional mixture of apprehension and elation that is inseparable from offensive action. Yes, they were scared, but they were also ready to kill, nonetheless.
In a few seconds, Kilgore’s four tanks broke right into the Iraqi defensive positions, ripping a big hole in the middle, turning through and around the bunkers that stood near each of the tank and BMP fighting positions.1 Thanks to the smoke of the burning BMPs, along with the suddenness and force of Kilgore’s assault, his four tanks achieved complete surprise. By the time Kilgore’s tank commanders had finished off the dozen or so BMPs and two T72 tanks in the company strongpoint, the Iraqi defenders had fired no more than two or three main-gun rounds and no antitank guided missiles at all.
Kilgore was relieved. His tank commanders looked around, waving excitedly at each other. “What a rush,” Kilgore said quietly under his breath while streams of sweat poured over his brow.
But the action was far from over. In the midst of the wrecked and burning motorized rifle company, an amazing event now occurred. Large numbers of green-clad Iraqi infantrymen suddenly jumped up from the surrounding bunkers and defensive positions and began firing RPGs and AK47s from less than twenty meters away, directly at the four American tanks. While Kilgore’s tanks tried to return fire, a couple of Iraqi troops managed to get into a BMP that wasn’t burning and man the 73-mm cannon in the turret.
TOO CLOSE FOR MAIN GUNS
They got off a round, but it flew too high and just missed Kilgore’s tank. Realizing that the Abrams tanks were too close to engage with main guns, Kilgore told his tank commanders to maneuver their tanks to bring their machine guns into action as best they could against the masses of Iraqi infantry running and firing at them from all directions. What had started out as an orderly advance now disintegrated into pure chaos.
Unable to see the battle that was raging on the other side of the smoke clouds, Sartiano called Kilgore on the radio. Suppressing the feelings of concern and apprehension he knew must be detectable in his voice, he controlled his temper and repeated:
“White 1, Ghost 6, report, over.”
“White 1, this is Ghost 6, answer, goddamn it, over”
“White 1, this is Ghost 6, what is your status, over?”
“White 1, Ghost 6, answer the goddamn radio, over!”
FIGHT THE BATTLE, THEN REPORT
It was hopeless. Kilgore’s radio had slipped off the Ghost Troop frequency. Kilgore couldn’t hear anything and even if he did, what could he do? He had a battle to fight. Fight the battle, then report. That was Kilgore’s thinking, and he was right.
Sergeant Macom, Ghost Troop’s communications chief, hearing the frustration in Sartiano’s voice, dropped down to Kilgore’s platoon net in an effort to figure out what was happening. Upon hearing the chaotic radio traffic on Kilgore’s platoon net, he told Mecca, “Sir, Kilgore’s platoon is in some serious shit. Better tell the old man.”
Hearing the tension in Macom’s voice, Mecca immediately reported to Sartiano that Kilgore was engaging an unknown number of Iraqi troops at point-blank range and was too busy to report.
Sartiano felt that hollowness in his stomach that comes with the realization that for the moment events were beyond your control. He stopped trying to reach Kilgore over the radio. Angry and a little frightened, he kept saying to himself, over and over again: “What the f—k do I do now?” Pushing forward into the smoke and confusion could make things worse, even cause fratricide. No, Sartiano concluded, Kilgore would have to figure it out.
Kilgore was figuring it out. He knew that his tactic wasn’t working. Neither he nor the rest of his tank commanders could get rid of the attacking Iraqis. They swarmed closer through the bunker complex, partially hidden by the smoke from the burning vehicles in their midst, piling on with their automatic weapons and RPGs.
FIFTEEN METERS – NO CLOSER
Kilgore’s tank crews were spraying machine-gun fire from every available weapon to the left and right of the tanks ahead or next to them in order to keep the Iraqi soldiers from reaching the tracks, but it was getting damn dangerous, and there was no time to think. With his own .50-caliber heavy machine gun Kilgore was cutting to pieces Iraqi soldiers who were now no more than fifteen meters away.
Body parts were flying everywhere. The sight sickened Kilgore, but any slackening of fire, and he knew that the Iraqis would be on them. But soon it became clear that the tank commanders and the gunners inside the turrets could not depress their guns low enough to kill the Iraqi infantry that was now “danger close.” If any of the Iraqi troops crawled up next to the tanks, Kilgore thought, they could probably plant charges on the tracks without ever being seen. Without more standoff, he and his tank commanders simply could not reach the Iraqi troops with their streams of 7.62mm and .50-caliber bullets.
“Back up!” Kilgore yelled into his mike at the top of his lungs, “Everybody, back the f—k up now, over!”
Nobody answered, and for a split second Kilgore experienced the anxiety that Sartiano had been feeling. But Kilgore’s men got the message. In a few seconds, the tank drivers slammed their transmissions into reverse and backed up. As the tanks jerked backward, they threw up great clogs of sand and gravel behind them, like warships reversing course to avoid running aground. While the tanks moved backward, the gunners fired their machine guns without pause. Iraqi troops unlucky enough to end up behind the retrograding tanks either ran or crawled out of the way or were pinned under the tracks of the Abrams tanks and crushed.
REPUBLICAN GUARD BLOWN TO PIECES
Kilgore recalled seeing one Iraqi soldier whose legs had been completely blown off. He was propped upright and waving at Kilgore, who was bearing down on him in reverse. Seeing that the man was still alive and now in the direct path of his right track, Kilgore tried to steer the tank around him, but there was not much he could do. It was a tragic moment that for a split second filled Kilgore with sorrow and empathy, but it changed nothing. Moving the tanks back as quickly as possible took priority.
No more than thirty seconds later, Kilgore’s tanks were on line about a hundred meters to the west of where they had stopped. Now, salvos of red hot tracers from the tanks’ .50-caliber machine guns poured like water from high-pressure fire hoses into the Iraqi infantry. Despite the senselessness of it all, the remaining Iraqi troops kept coming. Did they think they had driven off the tanks and were winning the battle? Kilgore and his tank commanders had no idea. They just reloaded their 7.62mm and .50-caliber machine guns and fired, fired, and fired.
Sixty seconds later the battle was over, but Kilgore wasn’t taking any chances this time. He searched the desert thoroughly in all directions for any more Iraqi infantry. Iraqi armor continued to burn like giant flares marking an accident on Interstate 95 between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. In front of the four tanks, Kilgore finally concluded, nothing lived anymore. Where once green-colored uniforms had darted in and out of bunkers, there were now only heaps of corpses. The Iraqi soldiers had been blown to pieces. The Republican Guard company strongpoint was now a heavy-metal graveyard.
Other than the blowing wind, the only thing the tank commanders could hear was the sound of their own blood humming in their ears.
WHERE IS THE REST OF GHOST TROOP?
When no more Iraqi soldiers appeared, Kilgore leaned back in the commander’s hatch. His eyes filled with tears of relief. Then, Kilgore began wondering, where the hell is the rest of Ghost Troop? He realized he needed to report what had happened. Seeing that the tanks were back on line and in good condition, Mecca beat Kilgore to the punch. He called Kilgore on his platoon frequency, prompting him to report to Sartiano.
Kilgore instantly dropped down inside to check his radio and discovered that he was not on the Ghost Troop frequency. He knew exactly what that meant; “F—k,” he said. When the attack began, Kilgore figured, his right knee had struck the radio switch on the junction box inside the tank, where the “spaghetti cord” to his CVC helmet connected, and had cut communications with his troop commander.
Thanks to Mecca’s call, he dialed up the right frequency and moved the switch on his CVC helmet. Kilgore was almost out of breath when he spoke into the mike:
“Ghost 6, this is White 1, report follows, over.”
“This is Ghost 6, where the f—k have you been?”
“IF YOU EVER DO THAT AGAIN, I WILL SHOOT YOU MYSELF!”
“Sir, I mean, Ghost 6, engaged and destroyed a dozen BMPs, tanks, and unknown number of enemy troops, over.”
“White 1, understand. If you ever do that again, I will shoot you myself, goddamn it!”
In retrospect, Sartiano’s comment may seem a bit over the top, but Kilgore knew he’d screwed up. But he was also happy. He and his tank crews had killed the enemy without dying in the process. Not much else he could say at this point, so he kept his response short.
“This is White 1, Roger, sir, uh . . . over.”
Kilgore’s charge into the Iraqi position had taken the initiative completely away from the defending Iraqi soldiers. It was, in Sartiano’s words, a truly great action. How great it was, neither Sartiano nor I would realize until well after the battle was over.
Warrior’s Rage: The Great Tank Battle of 73 Easting is available from Naval Institute Press. 288 pp., $29.95