Music Behind the Lines. Gulf War 1991 part 2
Part two, Entertaining the Troops
The morning after we had played for the first time I had a phone call in my cabin from the cruise director. Could I come up and see him. I rubbed my eyes and dressed quickly and set off to find the office. When I arrived he was in a good mood, beaming. He offered me a beer which I declined, I didn’t even know what time it was, but it seemed early. The staff and troops had loved what we had done, keep that up and everyone would be happy, he said. There was just one thing. Swearing.
He referred to a part of the night just after we had started. We had played two songs to silence, even though the room was full. It wasn’t that they weren’t listening, more like they didn’t know how to react to these four English lads on stage. At least that’s what our drummer, Tony, picked up from them. In order to break the ice he had stood up and screamed at them, holding his pony-tail in the air he said we were all here fighting for freedom, and his right to have long hair among many other things. I remembered he’d been a bit fruity with his language, but we were playing in front of front-line squaddies and it hadn’t occurred to me that we would upset anyone.
It was all very motivational stuff, but his message was basically, “come on, get stuck in and let your hair down because you are doing such a kick ass job up front and we looked like we had already gained the upper hand”. This fired up the troops like you wouldn’t have believed. They were now whooping like only US audiences can, and Tony began an improvised rap in which he cleverly tore into “Saddam Hussein” something about him being “insane”, and not being able to fight a war if you “don’t have no brains”. He then leapt from the stage and started soloing – playing round the room, on soldiers heads, arms, watches, chests – male and female – and along the bar. It had the desired affect and we never played another song to silence, in fact it was the opposite and we struggled to get off the stage that night. It was an inspired move by Tony and just the kind of unpredictable action we had come to love him for. Audiences everywhere loved him.
The cruise director turned to me with a straight face and said “We don’t mind F**k or sh*t, but Motherf***er and C**t are definitely out” – he smiled. We had hit the spot and they were grateful that we had taken the time to mix with the guys for quite a while after. Just one last thing, could he please stay on the public side of the bar when he does his solo as he had dented the tops of all the fridges and broke 3 glasses and a bottle of gin as well as traumatising the Polish waitress by doing a few paradiddles on her bosom.
Tony “entertaining” the troops.
As I left the office I made my way to the back of the ship where there was an indoor/outdoor café. I piled a plate with bacon and eggs and grabbed a coffee and sat at a table. It was very early, the sun had barely risen, it was damp and had recently rained. The photo below was taken at this very point in the story.
This became our morning routine, a meeting point to chat and plan the day to the backdrop of Chinooks loading and unloading missiles and spewing out more troops. The ships were from all over the place, a Belgian flag flew from a mine hunter, a French ship had a little remote controlled submarine on the back of it . There was a permanently docked factory ship that made just about anything, each deck being a different kind of factory. Damaged ships and other vehicles were brought to this ship for repairs. There was often piles of crates that were guarded by marines. Our little cruise ship looked so pathetic amongst all of this brute force, we had a little pool on the top deck and we often sat in a jacuzzi while helicopters brought stuff to and from the dock.
We had to play a set in the afternoons, at about 3pm and two more sets in the evening from 10pm until midnight. The rest of the day was ours and we had various trips out which were never without incident. I was called once again to the cruise directors office after a trip into town with Bernie, our young guitarist who was hardly in his 20’s when we arrived. Bernie is big, a strapping lad with the loveliest sweet nature and a phenomenally talented guitarist. He also has quite red hair, which does not bode well in the heat we were in, given the usually related light skin-tone that affects red-heads.
We had nipped into town and had a pleasant walk around the souk. You could buy anything from rip-off perfume and aftershave scent sold in little bottles of oil that you mixed yourself with alcohol to create the lotion. You could have a shirt hand-made from just about anywhere and stall after stall sold a multitude of patterned rolls of material.
We did stick out a bit, I had dyed blond hair and as we know, Bernies was (is) red. Typically for the mid Persian Gulf it was constantly in the high 30ºCs and we had gone out in t-shirts and shorts. When we got back to the ship and the cruise director had me in the office he told us they had had a phone call from the “Mutawwa’în” or religious police, on the bridge, and asked that, if “the ginger one”, Bernie, went out again, that he wore long trousers as his lanky white legs had caused some distress in the market. I was in fits of laughter when I had to break the news to him. For the record, I was also warned about wearing just a vest top and not having my shoulders covered, but my shorts clad stubby brown hairy legs were not of any interest to them. Strange, I thought, but we were in no position to argue.
Being in town was always a bit fraught with tension. We didn’t normally travel into town with the troops, they were a real target and were trained in dealing with an attack. We normally used public transport but had to keep our gas-masks with us and concealed. One evening, Allan, a bass player from the other band, whom I had befriended, needed to go into town for bass strings and pick up a shirt he had had made. It was dark and the intention was to nip in and out quick and get back for the 10pm sets. A mini bus was parked on the dock with a hand full of uniformed troops on board. Allan talked us on to the bus to save us time walking up for the public bus and waiting for it and then enduring all the stops along the way.
We got close to Manama center and the bus stopped in a crowded street full of shoppers and other troops. The driver shouted something from the window and a man outside beckoned him so he left the bus, closing the door behind him with a hydraulic hiss. The troops were ambivalent but we started to get anxious. We kept looking at our watches and scanning the street for the driver. He was gone, nowhere to be seen. The engine was still running and the troops just chatted, although one or two were looking about outside now as well. Eventually Allan looked at me and said “F**k this…..!” and started kicking out the window. The top window was open and I began to climb out head first after throwing my bag with my gas-mask out first to cushion the inevitable fall. I landed with a thud about the same time that Allan landed next to me. We stood and moved away from the bus as fast as we could and headed into town on foot.
We didn’t wait to find out what happened but back on the ship we saw some of the guys who had been on the minibus and they said the driver had stopped for a comfort break (a coffee and a pee) and was gone for almost ten minutes. We just did what was natural at the time and acted. I was surprised at how the tension had gotten to us, being in a war zone was intense, the daily drills and many real alarms kept us on our toes and being alert for strange situations was now second nature.
Generally the days passed peacefully, with one or two alerts and having to stop where we were and put on our gas masks. After 15 minutes or so the all clear would sound and we would go about our business. Occasionally the alarm would go off mid song, and the power would cut and we’d stand on stage putting on our gas masks while the crew shut all external doors and windows and sealed the ship up tight. A few scuds landed near Bahrain, one dropped into the sea near us and I swear we could feel the boat moving with the disturbance in the water.
Steve and I were coming back from dinner one day and made for the night club to do some work on our gear while Tony and Bernie went off to do something else. We arranged to meet in the café afterwards and had just plugged in the soldering iron when the alarm went for a gas mask drill. We duly pulled on our masks and waited for the all clear. It seemed to take a while and when it was sounded we changed our minds about the gear and went to meet the others in the indoor/outdoor café. We were there first and had just filled the coffee cups from the pot on the counter when the alarm went off again. “GAS GAS GAS……..THIS IS NOT A DRILL…………..GAS GAS GAS”
This was serious, we had not had this before. The drill in this situation was to get our masks on and head as far down into the ship as possible. We were just a couple of flights of stairs from Steves cabin so we threw on our masks and ran. We passed the PX, a small shop that sold everything, where a guy was flailing around on the ground and another was trying to get a gas mask on him. The troops were in possession of self administered ampoules of Atropine which they injected into their leg in the case of a gas attack. They then had a second self administered syringe of something that they needed to take quickly in case the atropine sent them into convulsions. I may be wrong on this but my memory says the second injection was Valium or similar. A few had managed to get the first one in, but maybe because adrenaline had kicked their metabolism into hyper activity, had not managed to get the second drug in to themselves. We didn’t stop, we had no training regarding any of this, our instructions were very clear. Cover your body as best you can and wait for the all clear. We got to Steves cabin and pulled on extra layers of clothes, even grabbing stuff from the washing basket. We then sat on the beds and pulled the covers around us. The volume of our hard breathing was amplified by the masks, and we looked at each other. This could be it, we said, sounding like scared Geordie versions of Darth Vader. It was a very tense time and took an age for the all clear to come. All the time we could hear noises of people running past the cabin and doors slamming shut.
Eventually we were given the all clear and we stripped off all the extra clobber and headed for the café. The missile had landed in the sea close to where we were docked, our port location obviously now being a major target since the USS Missouri had docked along side. This ships massive guns were to be made famous by Cher straddling them in the video to “Turn Back Time”. It certainly got the attention of the Iraqis on this day.
We met the other guys and the mood was sombre. We had gotten used to the extra danger that life on the ship offered but this attack was on a different scale altogether and it scared the hell out of us all. Normally we would have had a nervous laugh about something like this, even taken the mickey out of it as we did to cope with other difficult situations in the past, but it affected us all that day.