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CH-46Es glow in a view through night-vision goggles aboard the flight deck of the USS Saipan. (James Cox)

Through Darkest Iraq with Gun and Cobra

A month of war through the night-vision goggles of a Marine AH-1W SuperCobra pilot.

Flying north along Highway 80, our flight reached the grid coordinates marking the point where we would split up. The first two Snakes, with me in the lead, turned east to a position where we would fire our first rounds. The second section headed west. At the Iraq border, Kujo began to work the forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor to locate the target. It seemed like it was taking him forever. Looking down to ensure that no one was trying to sneak up under us to shoot us down, I saw a Kuwaiti family outside their farmhouse, looking up and watching the war unfold around them.

Kujo finally located the border post. Three missiles away. Border post destroyed. Thank God that’s over.

After struggling through the pitch black back to our base in Kuwait, a flight that should have taken 10 minutes but lasted more like 45, we finally landed. As I climbed out of the cockpit, my legs were shaking—not exactly a sign of manly courage. I thought I was the only one experiencing such intense fear until I spoke to the other pilots. To a man, each was ghost white. Finally drained of adrenaline, we made our way back to the tents.

But we didn’t sleep a wink the whole night. Every time we’d lie down, the air raid siren would start howling again, and we’d trudge back to the bunkers. Just after first light, we launched from Kuwait to head back to the Saipan. I was punchy from lack of sleep. Safely aboard, I stumbled across the flight deck and down to the ready room. As I set my gear down in one of the chairs, the Marine Aircraft Group commander walked up to me and gave me a comforting pat. I felt the tears well in my eyes. He told me how proud he was of all of us. With a huge lump in my throat, all I could manage to say was “Skipper, it was so goddamned dark out there.” I thought that if the rest of the war was going to be like that first night, I wouldn’t survive.

Early in the afternoon of March 24, my two-Snake section launched from the ship and proceeded to the Iraq city of Nasiriyah. Marine ground units had entered the city days earlier and seen the bloodiest action of the war so far. This was my first daytime flight. Night flying in the desert was difficult, but daylight left us feeling naked and exposed. We made our way around the edge of the city, and I radioed a Marine ground unit on the city’s north side. As we approached, we were directed to engage an enemy mortar position along a riverbank. We rolled in to attack with rockets and guns, and Kujo slewed the cannon, strafing up and down a trench. I fired rockets, which cracked with loud explosions. While we were orbiting over friendly units, Kujo had spotted Iraqi artillery to the west. We got clearance from the forward air controller and began firing missiles.

On one of the holding orbits, I noticed two burned-out hulks. I’d heard that the Marines had lost two armored personnel carriers in an ambush the day before, and some men had died. We raced back for fuel and ammunition, then returned to join up with the Marines as they starting moving north.

My section scoured the fields, ditches, and small enclaves beside the road as we escorted the convoy. A few kilometers to the north, I spotted some Iraqi soldiers waiting in ambush in an irrigation ditch. Hidden in the trench and undetected by the convoy, they began to move toward the road. I called the FAC and he cleared me to engage. The Iraqis were now within 50 meters of the convoy. From 500 feet, I lowered the nose, and with my left hand reached down to the weapon switches and selected the cannon to shoot fixed forward. Looking through the glowing symbols of the transparent head-up display, I lined the gun pipper up on the Iraqi closest to me. In that split second, I realized that until this moment I had destroyed things—buildings, vehicles, weapons—but I hadn’t shot at a man.

A million thoughts raced through my mind. Guilt. Fear. Sorrow. And, finally, anger that these men were trying to kill my brother Marines. I pulled the trigger.

After a refuel and reload, we set out after sunset to where the Marine unit had stopped for the night. Like the pioneers with their covered wagons in the old west, the Marines had their tanks and armored vehicles in a tightly coiled formation, with each vehicle assigned a sector of fire. As we approached, I could see that they were engaged in a firefight, with fire spewing out in every direction: TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided) missiles, 25-millimeter chain gun, M-1 tank main gun, and heavy machine gun fire. Orbiting at 150 feet, we were so low that the machine gun rounds made our teeth rattle. Every couple of minutes, the FAC gave me a rollout heading, and I’d either ripple a pod of rockets or blast away with the cannon. Every clearance added the words “danger close”—meaning that the fire is close to friendlies. It was chaos.

A British GR1 Tornado jet checked in with the FAC to work with us. The FAC was having trouble talking the jet’s crew onto the target. Finally the FAC identified the target by using a large fire as a reference, and the Tornado began its target run. As the jet passed over the city of Nasiriyah, all hell broke loose. Large-caliber anti-aircraft artillery (triple-A) and SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) streaked through the sky in every direction. The 100-millimeter triple-A rounds arced up and exploded, looking as though they were moving in slow motion.

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