Lance Cpl. Brad Hallock woke to a very bad software glitch on Feb. 25, 1991.
The just-turned-20-year-old Marine Corps reservist found himself in an M1-A1 Abrams tank as a column of Iraqi tanks rolled along less than 2 miles away from his position. He looked through his sights, but found only a large letter “F” indicating a failure of the 68-ton war machine’s targeting systems.
“I had a different word I was thinking of, at that point,” Hallock said in an interview this week.
What followed in the next 10 or so minutes was the largest tank engagement in Marine Corps history, a designation likely to remain for some time as the service elected last year to eliminate its three tank battalions as part of a restructuring of the Corps’ mission.
The decision to deploy Marine reservists in the push to Kuwait City meant that a company headquartered in Yakima was sent into the desert. That included Hallock, an Olympia native enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman, and another reservist, 19-year-old Craig Meidl.
“We’re in college,” said Meidl, who’s served as Spokane’s chief of police since September 2016. “We’re more worried about, ‘Are we going to have something going on this weekend? Are we going to have a party?’ “
Both men later found jobs with the Spokane Police Department. But the 30-year anniversary of the battle, which brought an end to the first Gulf War, has their thoughts returning to the sands of the desert and the dangers of war.
“My oldest son is about to turn 20. It’s kind of a weird feeling,” Hallock said. “He wants to go in the Marines, he’s in the process of signing up for the Marines right now.
“At his age, I was over in the Gulf, getting ready to fight a war.”
Not a great start
Hallock slipped into a Southern drawl to recall the words of comfort the Marine Reserve recruiter told his mother when she went with him to sign her son up at age 17.
“’You don’t have anything to worry about, ma’am. They haven’t called the reserves up since World War II,’” Hallock said, mimicking the fateful words of that recruiter.
That was 1988. In November 1990, four months after Saddam Hussein had taken Kuwait City ostensibly over an oil dispute, the Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion, 4th Marine Division was mobilized from headquarters in Yakima.
Hallock spent his 20th birthday “somewhere in the desert” in Saudi Arabia, as his company familiarized itself with the Abrams, a replacement for the older M60. He was the youngest gunner in the company, the member of the four-man team in each tank responsible for scanning for enemies and firing when one was identified.
In a satellite phone call before heading out into the desert, Hallock had been able to tell his family that he’d been designated for a support assignment. But when the time came to start rolling, his orders had changed.
“I told my mom, we’re not even going to see combat, you know, we’re going to be in the rear with the gear,” Hallock said.
“It was better this way. It’s not like there’s anything she could have done about it,” he added.
Meidl was in “the rear with the gear.” As combat support, his team would be about 20 miles behind the lines, providing the equipment to the tanks on the front and helping secure villages on the push toward Kuwait City.
The sky was always thick with billowing smoke from the oil fields the Iraqis lit as they retreated to the border.
“You were always covered with a sheen of oil,” Meidl said. “Those fields were just spewing out oil clouds.”
From his vantage point on the front line, Hallock watched on the morning of Feb. 24, 1991, as engineers plowed beneath hills of sand to unearth mines laid by the Iraqis at the Kuwait border.
The field proved tricky in foggy conditions, and the company lost several vehicles, including one tank, to explosions before they were able to carve a line for the remaining 13 tanks to safely travel through. Despite the mine detonating about 6 feet from where the driver of one of the Abrams tanks, named “Four Horsemen,” was sitting, no one was injured, Hallock said.
“It just was not a great start to the conflict for us,” he said.
Once through the line, the company would encounter their first enemy tanks.
The Abrams in Candy Cane
The Abrams tank was a formidable foe for the Iraqis, who were piloting tanks bought from the Soviets that had been used in Iraq’s seemingly interminable war with Iran.
“Even the best tanks the Iraqis had, the Soviet T-72, its round wasn’t strong enough to penetrate the front armor of an Abrams,” Hallock said. “It would have to get side or rear-shot to damage an M1.”
Meanwhile, the Americans were loading what are known as Sabot rounds, kinetic energy bolts that would rip through armor, and HEAT rounds, high-explosive charges that were also intended to destroy armor.
The same evening the Marines crossed the minefield, they encountered the first enemy troops and armor near a row of power poles that were striped with red and white. During what was known as the “Candy Cane engagement” because of these poles, Hallock remembered striking an enemy truck with a round at the same time as one of the other tanks in the company.
“It looked like the whole truck was just engulfed in flames,” he said. “And then I see all four doors open, from the ball of flame, and six guys bail out, and run, and dive in the ditches. I can’t believe that they survived that.”
Hallock now surmises the charge, intended for more armored targets, must have melted through the truck with little resistance.
At the end of the fighting that day, the company had destroyed 10 tanks, 12 trucks and multiple pieces of armor. They’d also taken nearly 400 Iraqi soldiers prisoner, without a single American casualty, all according to the company’s own history of the battle published shortly after the conflict ended.
Hallock was on watch that night, and by the time the sun began to peek out on the morning of Feb. 25, he’d been awake for dozens of hours straight. Just as he curled up into his sleeping bag, there came renewed shouts of enemy contact.
The flashing “F” was likely due to a colleague not properly shutting down the targeting system of the new tank, Hallock said. He’d been lying out in his sleeping bag to catch a few minutes of sleep when the alarm caused him to jump back in his gunner’s seat and look for targets.
“Nobody’s panicking, it was just like, here’s a problem, let’s work our way through it,” Hallock said.
Meanwhile, the tanks all around him were firing on targets. The Iraqis did not appear to be in a combat maneuver and may have been trailing close together because their positioning systems were older than the ones used on the Abrams tanks. That made shooting the targets easy work for the Americans. The company’s executive officer later described the action as “a turkey shoot,” a moniker for the attack that has stuck. It’s also known as the “Reveille Engagement” because of its occurrence early in the morning.
Hallock switched inside to a form of targeting that didn’t include the laser range-finding computer system. But when he’d line up a target, someone else was already firing.
“I put my sights on a third tank, and it gets hit by two rounds at once,” Hallock said. “And I’m like, well, they’re doing a pretty good job without me.”
The Sand Shark, Hallock’s tank, did get a confirmed tank kill before the shelling ceased. Official accounts indicated the battle had lasted less than 15 minutes. The Marines had destroyed 34 tanks and eight armored vehicles in that time, without suffering a single casualty.
It took a while for the first prisoner to approach the tanks. It was the Iraqi tank battalion commander, who Hallock learned had been forced into service under threat of his and his family’s life. The man had studied at Harvard University before returning to Iraq.
“He came in first, because his troops refused to come,” Hallock said. “They had been told that Marines had to kill one of their own family to get into the Marines, and that in combat they didn’t feed them, they just ate whoever they came across.”
Once the battalion commander was assured the Marines would follow the Geneva convention and give the Iraqi wounded medical care, a stream of wounded began to walk toward the company. Hallock, looking for suicide bombers, spied one man who appeared to be hiding something on his right side, and the man trudged very slowly through the desert sand.
“As he got closer, I noticed that the right side of his uniform was a lot darker than the left,” Hallock said. “And as it turned out, his arm had been blown off, and he had used a bunch of wire to create a tourniquet at the shoulder.”
Behind the front lines, Meidl’s support company rode past the charred remains of enemy vehicles.
“They still had bodies in them,” Meidl said. Estimates of the number of Iraqi soldiers killed during the first Persian Gulf War range as high as 50,000. “That’s not something you see in the civilized world.”
A third major engagement, the Battle of the “L,” named for the formation the Americans tank took during the battle, followed early the morning of Feb. 26. Hallock said he doesn’t remember as much, after being awake for several straight days. Again, the reservist company destroyed more than a dozen tanks and armored vehicles without taking a single casualty.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the United States Central Command, told the American press the push to Kuwait City amounted to “a classic tank battle,” the largest since World War II.
Just as quickly as the Marines had been activated, their service ended. The Americans allowed the Kuwaitis and Saudis to enter Kuwait City first on Feb. 27. Bravo Company had been fighting for three days, and a cease-fire had been announced.
“Kuwait is liberated. Iraq’s army is defeated. Our military objectives are met,” President George H.W. Bush told the world in a televised address that day, words that were reprinted under the banner headline “Cease-Fire” in The Spokesman-Review.
Meidl said his first feeling was relief.
“They’d been fighting Iran for years, these were battle-hardened troops. We’re going into their territory,” Meidl said. “I think there was a sense of huge relief when we realized it was over.”
Another Marine division was working its way north to Kuwait City along the coast. It included 20-year-old Cpl. Rich Meyer, now a lieutenant in the Spokane Police Department.
Some of the Iraqi fighters didn’t receive word of the cease-fire, because they’d been cut off from communications by airstrikes.
“Most of the firefighting that we saw was small pockets of resistance,” Meyer said. That included some tanks.
Hallock said the Kuwaitis approached the American tanks in Kuwait City with offers of gifts. One man offered the Americans his car as payment for liberating the city from Iraqi rule.
“We said, ‘We can’t really do anything with that,’” Hallock said.
The tank that had been his home for several months in the desert was loaded onto a barge and taken away. Hallock said he never saw Sand Shark again.
Both men returned to the states and found themselves at the Spokane Police Academy within a few months of each other in 1994. Hallock recently retired as a sergeant, the same rank he attained in the Marines. Meidl got out as a corporal.
The lesson of the Gulf War, Meidl said, shouldn’t be seen in the high body count for the Iraqis and the relatively low casualty count for the Americas – tallies that led Bush to call the tank victories a “rout” in February 1991.
“The POWs that were coming up to our convoy were starving, they were hungry, they were very anxious to surrender,” Meidl said. “Some people will look at that and thump their chest, ‘Look at the United States.’ I just feel like we need to be careful.”
Hallock thinks back to that Iraqi battalion commander and the man who’d lost his arm in the fighting.
“I think back on those times often,” Hallock said. “And I think about how, those were probably kids, just like me. And they were just doing what they were told.”
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