H061.3: Sealift, Seabees, and Navy Medicine Corps in Desert Shield/Desert Storm

Sealift in Desert Shield/Desert Storm

With the exception of the WWII Normandy invasion (which had two years to build up and prepare,) Operation Desert Shield represented the largest,  fastest and farthest (8,700 mile average voyage) sealift in the history of warfare.  The U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC) moved 2.4 million tons of cargo – four times that across the English channel during the D-Day invasion, and six-times that of peak force build-up during the Vietnam War.  MSC moved more than 95% of the combat equipment used to fight and win Desert Storm – over 2,000 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 1,000 helicopters, hundreds of self-propelled artillery, along with ordnance for hundreds of U.S. Air Force aircraft.  In a truly herculean effort, 172 MSC ships were underway on 1 January 1991.  Without the U.S. Navy’s control of the sea, largely taken for granted during the war, Operation Desert Storm would not have been possible.   

Seabees in Desert Shield/Storm

By the onset of the ground offensive phase of Desert Storm, 2,800 Seabees with 1,375 pieces of construction equipment had deployed to the Arabian Gulf region, the vast majority in forward areas of Saudi Arabia supporting Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT)/1st Marine Expeditionary Forces (I MEF.)  U.S. Navy Construction Battalion personnel performed absolutely vital work in establishing and maintaining the massive logistics infrastructure capability that enabled the successful U.S. Marine attack into Kuwait, which in turn enabled the U.S. Army’s “end-around” attack 

The first Seabees arrived in time to offload the first Maritime Preposition Ships that arrived in Saudi Arabia on 15 August 1990.  Next two Seabee units commanded by women (a first) and medical personnel built the first and most capable Field Hospital in the region (Field Hospital FIVE.)  From then on, additional Navy Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCBs) arrived in a non-stop seven day/24-hour operation upgrading roads, airfields, digging wells,  building massive tent cities, ammunition and water resupply points, defensive berms and tank barriers, some of which were the largest Seabee projects since the Vietnam. 

Perhaps the Seabees’ finest hours came in the last two weeks before the commencement of the ground offensive, by turning a two-lane dirt track into 200 miles of eight and six-lane highway, connecting the coast just south of the Kuwait border with two massive logistics resupply points, built by the Seabees, further inland.  For operational security reasons, this work could not commence until the last possible days, and was completed in time despite the wettest conditions in Saudi Arabia in decades.  Seabees worked with the Marines in building a decoy army of fake tanks and artillery pieces, and clearing lanes through berms under Iraqi artillery fire and then following closely behind as the Marine breeched the Iraqi defensive lines in order to establish the 1 MEF forward headquarters inside Kuwait and upgrade the main supply route into Kuwait.

MARCENT’s initial plan for the assault into Kuwait called for an amphibious landing on the coast of Kuwait, through mine infested waters and beaches, to ensure adequate logistics support for follow-on Marine attacks.  However, it was the MARCENT Commander’s (Lieutenant General Walt Boomer) confidence in the Seabees’ ability to execute the massive shift westward of roads and logistics points, and to do it just in time, that alleviated the need for an amphibious assault, no doubt saving many lives and probably ships too. 

Navy Medicine in Desert Shield/Storm

Navy Medicine played a key role in the preparation and execution of Operation Desert Storm throughout the entire theater, not just afloat.  The first significant medical facilities in the theater arrived on board U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, rapidly augmented by the arrival in mid-August 1990 with the “pre-packaged” 500-bed fleet hospital on the afloat pre-position ship M/V NOBLE STAR.  Quickly set up with the aid of Navy Seabees, Fleet Hospital FIVE was operational by the end of August. The two 1000-bed hospital ships MERCY (T-AH-19) and COMFORT (T-AH-20) arrived by early September, and for most of Desert Shield the Fleet Hospital and two Hospital Ships (augmented by even more capability on arriving amphibious ships) constituted the great majority of medical capability across the entire theater.  Two more Fleet Hospitals would arrived in February 1991 in anticipation of significantly increased casualties arising from the onset of offensive ground combat operations (fortunately the number of casualties was vastly less than anyone anticipated – even so, the three Field Hospitals treated over 32,000 patients, including military, enemy prisoners, civilian refugees and expatriates.)

During Desert Shield/Storm, 5,800 Navy Corpsmen deployed with their Marine units, and Hospital Corpsman Third Class Anthony Martin was awarded a Silver Star for heroism in tending wounded Marines during an Iraqi mortar barrage.  In addition, 6,100 Navy medical personnel, mostly active duty, were deployed to the theater, while an additional 10,400 Navy medical reservists were mobilized to backfill gaps left in hospitals and clinics in the U.S. when active-duty personnel were quickly sent forward, thus maintaining the high level of care for military personnel and dependents still in the States.

An unsung hero of Desert Shield Storm was the years of research and work by Navy Medical Research Unit (NAMRU) No. 3 in Cairo on infectious diseases endemic to the region.  The Navy Forward Laboratory, set up on short notice in Jubayl, coupled with Navy Preventive Medicine teams, and armed with a vast store of knowledge of disease and ailments in the region, supported all services and ensured that Desert Shield/Storm suffered the fewest casualties per capita due to disease of any such major operation.  Fortunately, Navy Medicine’s capability to detect, monitor and treat the effects of biological warfare was not tested, but Navy Medicine made extensive preparations to be ready in the eventuality biological weapons were actually used.


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