Music Behind the Lines – Gulf War 1991, Part 3
In the first two parts of this series I spoke about how we got out to the Gulf and our initial reactions to adapting to it. Part three tells of the daily life aboard a ship full of war-weary troops.
*In an update, I have re-established contact with some of the people we met in the Gulf and I am happy to report a rekindling of friendships as I type.
I wanted to start this part with a disclaimer. It’s very easy to overlook that we were in relative safety and comfort during our stay. We lived on a cruise ship almost 500km from Kuwait. We were surrounded by warships and air bases, full of Tornado fighter planes, which were a target, but as Saddam’s air force had been crippled, they were much less of an attraction than they could have been had the allies not gained air superiority. The ships and planes were also armed and ready for an attack with many troops on duty all day and night. It felt quite safe, despite the undercurrent the military backdrop provided.
Some of the antics we got up to were not the norm for a theatre of war. As you will see depicted in some of the photographs in this article, we had the job of taking the guys and girls minds off the situation they had come from (and they were imminently going back to) and we really got stuck in to that.
The real bravery was in getting back on the bus after three days rest and going back to war. I know I can speak for all the band when I say that our utmost respect and admiration goes to all of those that volunteered to be there and do what they were doing. Some of them didn’t come back at all and others never made it on to our ship in the first place, and I think of them often.
We had befriended the “local” Marines and Coast Guard that were protecting the quay side each hour of every day. We couldn’t leave the ship or get back on it without having our bags x-rayed by a control set up at the bottom of the gangway. In our breaks we used to get coffee for the guys operating the x-ray machine and random Coast Guards who were always present, and chat for a while. They were a great bunch. I remember Tony saying something that sparked him being fed into the x-ray machine and they had a hoot freezing the frame on his groin, or at least that’s what they told us it was.
One night, wearing our army uniforms, Tony, the drummer (and therefore licenced to be unbalanced and unpredictable) and I were messing around with some of the guys on the dock. It was late and quiet and a few stragglers were still returning from a night on the town. The local Hilton hotel was a favourite haunt of many troops from the other warships that were not able to get on-board our ship. Tony, with his pony tail asked if he could – for a laugh – take an M16 semi automatic rifle and “patrol” the dock with me, “to see what it felt like”.
A rifle was made “safe” for each of us and we strolled down the dock with M16s in the crossed chest position. A group of French guys, a bit drunk had cleared the first security gate and were staggering back to their ship at the far end of the dock. Before I could stop him Tony approached and asked the civilian-dressed guys where they had been, and could he see some ID. My heart was racing, the cheeky bugger.
They could have been officers for all we knew and I could hear the guys on the x-ray machine laughing at us. The French lads, however, sobered up VERY quickly and after checking out my shorter but still too-long-for-military hair and sergeants stripes on my uniform (I had traded my leather stage trousers for a full uniform, the owner of which had been a Sergeant), quickly saluted and got out their passes. Tony, who can’t read French glanced at them all one by one then looked at their faces and said “ok lads, have a good sleep” and thumbed them towards their ship. There was much hushed French coming from them as they walked away turning back occasionally to check where we were. I got the feeling they were saying something like “WTF!!! Who in hell were those guys?” as Tony patrolled on with his pony-tail swinging out of the back of his cap.
We must have looked the part because they gave us what he asked for, but for the record, here’s what a real soldier looks like, taken the next night on a different shift.
A few nights later I was alone on the dock with the x-ray operators while Tony was getting more coffee. A noise was approaching the top of the gangway, like a scuffle going on. Presently there appeared four MPs (Military Police) restraining a limb each of a guy flailing about like a fish on a boat. The x-ray guys got a chair ready and pulled out handcuffs and the guy was dragged down the gangway and sat in the chair, his feet handcuffed to the legs and arms behind his back, also handcuffed to the chair back. Following down the gangway was “the Major” as we called him, a high-ranking official from the US forces.
He was always in civilian clothes when I saw him and he came down to see what was going on, it looked like he had been paged to be there and deal with it. The guy in the chair was like a rabid dog, completely flipping out. I swear I have no idea what happened next but the Majors appearance coincided with the mad man passing out some how. I thought I saw him touch his neck and he had just asked one of the Coast Guard for a pistol, but the mad guy just relaxed, head rolling onto his chest. I was really nervous about being there but was mostly ignored while they dealt with the situation. I was pleased that the guy was subdued though, he was kicking out and trying to jump the chair back towards the gap between the boat and the dock. It turned out that the guy was a native American and had gone a bit mad with the booze. Having a traumatic job back in the war he had come from, mixed with a low tolerance to, or too much alcohol had made him flip out. They took out his dog tags and processed him in writing and a doctor was called for, but before the doctor arrived he woke up and began his mad man dance again, screaming and shouting and wailing. Once more the Major somehow put him out again.
Our days had settled into a routine. We awoke mid morning, went for breakfast in the indoor – outdoor café and then split off to do an activity along side the troops. They had all kinds of stuff laid out for them to do. Aerobics, arm wrestling, gym, table tennis, martial arts training, experts in all fields were on hand to keep them occupied led by an ENORMOUS sports team leader called Adam.
There was a game up on the pool deck in which pairs of fighters, one on his partners shoulders in the pool, would fight to stay on while under full attack from their opponents trying to pull or knock you off. Despite our sensitive musicians nature, and lack of aggressive military training, Bernie and I were rather good at this, though it may have had more to do with Bernie’s height, and thus ability to breath longer above water. We also did well in the “belly flop” competition, but the pain was a bit much doing it most days so we quietly backed out of that activity.
Steve was a dab hand at arm wrestling and was the man to beat among our band. His gibbering at his opponents in pure Geordie was a very off-putting asset as it pervaded the American ear, but credit where it’s due, he won his fair share of matches with only the biggest of the guys beating him. I would say, in his own weight category, he was pretty much the man.
Tony had embraced many disciplines, including martial arts, but the sight of him and Allan, the bass player from the show band, in Lycra doing aerobics was a sight to behold. The girls doing the class were super fit and normally the only people standing at the end of a class were the Marines, who trained constantly all the time we were there. You couldn’t look out onto the dock without seeing twenty or so of them doing an exercise and I pitied those that had to come up against them in any capacity.
I had taken to martial arts training and, despite not being able to walk for three days after my first session of ”calf strengthening”, had learned how to flip-up off my back on to my feet. The martial arts expert Richie Branden did daily demonstrations of his art and despite his small stature looked like he could take down people in groups of four at a time if he wanted to. He was a very nice guy though, very dedicated to his art and it was great to see him pushing even the Marines into submission. I am pleased to find that he is still going strong and has amassed many awards and accolades including some interesting film and TV roles. He’s the guy doing the splits in the Sports Team photo above, his right leg supported by Adam.
We were still subjected to gas mask drills and alarms every day along side the more irritating lifeboat drills, but it was important on the off chance anything happened. The main fighting had moved to the ground, but we still often had allied plane after plane thundering overhead loaded to the hilt with missiles.
We had gotten used to wearing the masks, and discovered they had a drinking straw built-in so often we’d pull them on during an alert and continue our conversations over coffee.
The gigs were always lively and passed without much incident. Quite a few of the military had good singing voices and we had a lot of fun playing with them. One of them, a medical officer, even had his own album out in the US and as he was based in Dhahran, in Saudi Arabia, came over for any excuse and jumped up on stage with us. He suggested one day that it would be an experience to see Saudi, being just a short trip across a causeway that joined Bahrain to the Arabian Peninsula. I decided to give it a try, and talked two MP’s into taking me over. They had sweethearts on the massive air base in Dhahran and were travelling over in two days time for a quick conjugal visit, I would tag along in the hope that I could bump into any of the friends I knew were stationed there.
I went first to get my hair cut short, but I had a small tail left on that I could hide under a hat, my little protest that would identify me not as military around the ship. Then I took my passport to the Saudi embassy in Bahrain. I spent all morning in a queue at the embassy trying to get a short stay visa but each time I got to the front I was turned back for some minor error in my paperwork and had to start again.
At noon, when the sun was at its peak in the desert sky, I stepped outside to buy a bottle of water from the Seven Eleven and bumped into an officer from the ship. I told him I was getting nowhere getting my visa. Take your earrings out, he said to me, and try again. I did what he had suggested and this time the fully robed Arab guy behind the counter responded totally differently. He asked me why I had removed my earrings and I told him that I was under the impression they were somehow offending him. He asked me why I wore them in the first place. I told him it was vanity. He told me I was stupid and handed me my passport stamped and signed with an active visa to enter Saudi Arabia for 24 hours!!!
When I got back to the ship there was a message waiting for me at the x-ray machine to page the MP’s. They told me to meet them at 6am at the top of the gangway and handed me the MPs shoulder epaulette that you put your arm through and fix to your uniform with a pin shaped like two pistols. I still have it today.
I was to wear my uniform, the one I’d swapped my leather pants for, including the socks and boxers. I quickly took it all to the Chinese laundry on the ship to have the whole uniform cleaned and ready for service by the next morning. They even put a deep shine on my boots, good job really, I had no idea how to do any of it. I didn’t need my passport in the end, in fact it would be a hindrance as the way they were taking me it wouldn’t have any relevance. In the event I tucked it down my sock and didn’t even tell them I had it.
The next morning I turned up just before 6am. Even thought it was early there were people milling about and more than one person saluted me as I waited for the boys to arrive. I really had no idea how to salute back so tried to look confident and I just smiled. One time I ventured the words “carry on”, but my stupid English accent made me sound ridiculous, so I just smiled and nodded after that. The MPs came by at 6 sharp looking typically relaxed and bearing coffee in paper cups and a back-up flask. They smiled and joked with me as they inspected me and tucked my hair tail further under my cap after gelling it to the back of my head with something that smelled like shoe polish. If we met a senior officer I would have to remove my cap and I couldn’t be seen with that stupid thing hanging down. They also handed me a driving licence and a set of dog tags from one of the guys they had paraded up to stand next to me during the gig the night before. I didn’t click until that moment, but last night they were looking for someone that looked like me to “borrow” ID from.
They also fixed my belt to include a gun holster and gave me a very quick lesson on taking the safety catch off, a feat they could do in one swift movement but took me a good 20 seconds and two hands to do. Clearly I would be no use in a fire fight so they removed the magazine and checked the gun was clear and told me to practice once I got in the car. It was a Colt 45 I’m led to believe but the way I was handling the thing it would only be any use to me as a club.
After some other instructions we headed out. I was to sit in the back and look like I was being driven and not speak at the check points. Hang on Check Points – plural?? We headed out of the quay area and up to the first checkpoint at the start of the King Fahd causeway. It was US manned and we sailed through it, I flashed my drivers licence at the window as requested and was saluted and waved through. The guys realised with abrupt alarm that I had no idea how to salute and we had just a few hundred meters to go to the next checkpoint, this time manned by the Egyptians, to teach me. They took my ID and decided to give me some work to do, make it look like I was busy with paperwork, which would make it less likely that I be asked to get out of the car. The MP’s would present all three ID’s at once and I was told to put my gun in the drinks tray between the two front seats, which would show that I was not a threat to a foreign trained guard. The guards took a long look at my ID but seemed satisfied and waived us through. This was both thrilling and terrifying. We were now on the causeway and heading towards Saudi Arabia.
What we were doing was I suppose OK as I had the back up of my passport and hence permission to be in Saudi, but for the sake of the guys, I pixelated their faces just in case.
When we got to the other side we reversed check points, Egyptian then US and then a third Saudi checkpoint. They were the most intimidating by far and kept us waiting a good few minutes. Once clear it was on to Dhahran.
Saudi was clinically clean, the streets and buildings all seemed pristine and the guys on the air base checkpoint were friends of my drivers so getting on to the base was no problem. Also they had been recently on the ship and recognised me with a wave. The base was enormous, a giant maze of huts and tents and a surreal collection of high end domestic goods roped off was a superstore of stuff the troops could buy and have shipped home. There was a hole in the ground that would have swallowed a bus where a scud had landed and killed some troops earlier in the conflict. Everywhere it was desert coloured, desert dry and desert hot. The guys wandered off to do their thing, after showing me around where I could get a coffee and I was to meet them at 4pm.
The ground war had begun by now and the sky was darkening by the day. Saddam had set fire to a load of oil wells and the smoke was drifting all over the Gulf. In the high 30ºCs every day it was uncomfortable and everything seemed coated in sticky stuff. There was a massive hangar at the far side of the base and planes were landing and seemingly going through the hangar to be re-armed, out of the other side and back off up to the war zone. I stood on the very edge of the runway, far back from the action, and having been advised to leave my camera in the car, watched for over an hour as the planes came in and out. F16 after F16 – it was a phenomenal sight but I couldn’t help thinking of the destruction they were causing. I saw pictures after the war of the road from Basra, Iraqi troops trying to escape Kuwait and the scale of devastation was mind boggling. The cost was difficult to comprehend also, both human and financial. We were told by one of the pilots that once they reached a target zone they had a very short life expectancy with the odds stacked well against them, if the position was being properly defended. Their hope was that they were just better trained and organised and could get in and out with the minimum of fuss.
Come 4pm we were back on the road to Bahrain. I had had a unique experience in being able to visit that air base and I thanked the guys for taking the trouble to get me there. Even though we were barely 60Km from Bahrain, this was a real war zone, an active target for the scuds and had seen plenty of action. But even then, it was a walk in the park compared to the improvised bases further up the lines. Dhahran was organised and bustled with activity, the distance from Kuwait giving them a small but workable time difference that served as an early warning system. We headed back to the ship in silence, all satisfied with our day.
Part 4 will continue the last stage of our stay
Our return date was set and we were working towards that when we had a change of Cruise Director, a complete jobs-worth who swooped in and immediately began bossing everyone around and figuratively “rocking the boat”.