CHARLIE CROSSING, Kuwait-Iraq border—At 7:59 p.m. local time Thursday, one minute ahead of schedule, outgoing artillery rounds began screaming overhead, and the men of Apache Company of the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division knew their 30-hour wait just yards from Iraq was about to end.
Moments earlier, two Apache assault helicopters had thumped overhead toward unknown targets in Iraq. Bridging equipment stood ready to span a 12-foot deep anti-tank ditch on the other side. A miles-long column of Bradley fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers lay behind them.
Their war had begun.
Young men barely out of their teens joined with grizzled veterans who had fought in the 1991 Persian Gulf War to undertake what everyone knew would be a dangerous mission. The mood was calm, the troops not so much eager as ready. No one really knew what lay ahead after weeks of talk of chemical and biological weapons.
"Take it easy, buddy," Spec. Chad Ream, 21, of Lewistown, Pa., said as he extended a hand to Spec. David M. Beebe, 20, of Gadsden, Ala. "Good luck, if I don't see you."
Thirty-one minutes after the initial artillery barrage, Apache Company pushed into Iraq.
Ninety minutes later they had reached their first objective, an abandoned Iraqi observation post that had been pounded by U.S. artillery. And at midnight local time, Apache Company had reached Objective Baler, a hillock just six miles inside Iraq, and had stopped for the night—to wait until two more brigades of combat troops had filed through the berm behind them and on to positions ahead of them.
Apache Company had yet to engage the enemy or don a gas mask. And though flashes of light from artillery could be seen on the horizon and muffled explosions heard some distance away, it was quiet. Many of the soldiers slept.
Earlier, a relieved Cpl. Graham Ahlstrom, 22, of New York City, had perused the remains of the first Iraqi outpost they had searched, two old trailers, one of them devastated by artillery and said he was satisfied. "There's really nothing up here but a bunch of rubble," he noted. "It feels good. I've been training in the Army for four years, and I'm finally getting to do what I trained to do."
Miles away, along the desert, members of the First Marine Division felt the desert floor shake and heard the rumbles of distant explosions. U.S. aircraft had pummeled an Iraqi base 20 miles away at Safwan, and the impacts were felt by the thousands of Marines waiting to cross the border.
When that air assault ended, the Marines emerged from skirmish holes they had slept in Wednesday night and rumbled into Iraq in a convoy of 5,000 vehicles, driving across the hard-packed desert toward their destination.
Forward units crossed the border shortly after sunset Thursday, and the Marines expected to make more than 30 miles a day.
The bombing that had so shaken the Marines they hoped had shaken the Iraqis even more. "We really don't want these guys to fight," said Marine Col. Joe Dowdy.
The movement across the border came earlier than some had expected. Marines of the 1st Battalion 4th Marines, said they had expected to settle down close to the border and do some last-minute training with their newly arrived amphibious assault vehicles.
It was not to be. "This is not a rehearsal," Capt. Chris Griffin, commanding officer of the unit's Alpha Company, told his platoon leaders.
Early Thursday, as the first air strikes and Tomahawk missiles were raining down on Baghdad, the 1st Battalion 4th Marines held a "warrior anointing" ritual. Battalion commander Lt. Col. John Mayer made a motivational speech to the 1,000 men in his unit, and its chaplain, Maj. Tom Webber, dabbed oil on their foreheads.
"By this time tomorrow, you will be different men," Mayer told his Marines. "This is a great thing we're about to do. Your mission is just."
Late Thursday, three of the Marine regiments loaded their vehicles and headed toward Breach Lanes. Journalists traveling with them had been told the objective but were sworn to secrecy.
Rumors were rife. One spoke of a car bomb at Camp Commando, the headquarters for the 60,000-man First Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF). That was wrong.
But even at headquarters, the war was coming home.
A low-flying Soviet-made CCSC-3 Searsucker anti-ship cruise missile had hit close enough to shake buildings and send Marines scrambling for bomb shelters, including the commander.
The low-flying missile had not been picked up by radar, and there was no advance warning. Maj. Michael Lindeman, 1MEF intelligence officer, said it may have been fired from Um Qasr or Basra in southeastern Iraq.
It left a two-foot deep crater in the desert, plus a 50-foot radius of blackened sand strewn with bits and pieces of shrapnel. It also cut several power lines overhead.
Lindeman said U.S. Patriot missiles later knocked down two Iraqi Ababil missiles fired from the Basra area and apparently headed for Kuwait City and U.S. Army units in the desert.
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With tens of thousands of soldiers moving across the border, other units were still preparing. Humvees and trucks by the hundreds rumbled off ships in Kuwait City Thursday for troops of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. The soldiers had been waiting anxiously for more than two weeks for their rides to get here.
Now, with the war starting, they had them.
After fueling and a final mechanical check they rolled north toward Camp New York.
With events moving swiftly, soldiers of the 101st opened the sealed packages holding their bio-chemical suits and marked them with their names and blood types.
A report of Iraqi missiles sent every man scrambling into small concrete bunkers. Squatting in the heat and sand with biochemical masks on for about 30 minutes, a few of the soldiers wore blank, uncertain expressions.
In the mess hall tent, soldiers lingered to pick up a plastic bag labeled "Rapid Deployment Kit." It contained a camouflage-cover Bible with study material, including references to passages that may answer pertinent questions: 1. "Afraid?" 2. "Afraid of death?" 3. "Angry?" 4. "Grieving the death of a friend?" 5. "Vengeful?"
The very first section highlighted was Psalm 27, which includes "When evil men advance/against me/to devour my flesh,/when my enemies and my foes/attack me,/they will stumble and fall."
Private Perry Maynor, 19, of Omaha, Neb., felt a particular urgency to the days ahead. As a Humvee driver, he'll be responsible for getting his crew in and out of situations fast. But Maynor has never driven a Humvee. He graduated basic training less than four months ago, and there hadn't been time since then for behind-the-wheel experience. He doesn't yet have a truck license, he explained.
Maynor has been reading up on the trucks and participating in battle drills. But, he said, "it's like telling us how to play the violin without the violin."
Maynor still had time to practice. Elsewhere the concert was underway.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Patrick Peterson and S. Thorne Harper contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ