CAMP COMMANDO, Kuwait—The war came to Pfc. Justin Davis as he stood watch at a gate at Marine headquarters in northern Kuwait.
With no warning, Iraq's first missile exploded in a ground-shaking fireball close to Davis' post Thursday morning and sent Marines racing for helmets, gas masks and sandbagged bunkers. Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the commander of 85,000 Marine Corps and British troops, joined the scramble.
No one was hurt in the attack or in three others against U.S. positions later in the day. U.S. Patriot missiles knocked down the later missiles, which apparently were armed with conventional high explosives, not with chemical or biological weapons.
The attacks gave thousands of troops at desert camps and air bases their first taste of war. Radar detected the later attacks in time to warn troops to don protective suits and masks.
At Camp Commando, the first missile hit about 10:20 a.m. local time (2:20 a.m. EST). It cut power lines, left a crater 2 feet deep and darkened sand in a 50-foot circle.
Davis saw the explosion, thought Iraqi soldiers were attacking his position and raised his gun to fire. "I was a little shook up, but then I thought, well, we're finally at war," said Davis, 19, of Chattanooga, Tenn.
In the scramble that resulted, Marines grabbed the wrong helmets, dropped equipment, squeezed into sandbag bunkers and bantered uneasily. In one bunker, Capt. Binnie Vandervoort, a tactical air coordinator, calmly took snapshots with a digital camera and showed them around. "It's just the mommy in me," she said.
The second attack, which happened shortly after noon, changed the status level at an air base near the Iraqi border from "All Clear" to "Code Red: Under Attack" in an instant. For 25 minutes, airmen and women hunkered down in steamy hot, rubber protective suits.
After several minutes of silence in one building, Senior Master Sgt. Elizabeth Czyszczon tried to break the tension. "At least we are losing weight," she said.
When the all-clear came after 1 p.m. local time, she said, "I was more worried about people passing out, not getting hit or slimed."
Farther south at Camp Virginia, an Army post of several thousand logistics and supply troops, the attack warnings produced both mild panic and odd relief that war had finally begun.
"OK, now it's game on, game on," said Staff Sgt. Eric Luley, 27, of Palm Bay, Fla. "We've been living with this feeling that something's coming. Well now it's here."
Master Sgt. Henry McNair, who lived through similar attacks in the first
Gulf war, said he was less nervous than he was then. "With the hype over the first scare, you know you're probably a target and there's this eerie feeling," he said. "I'm over that now ... I know the Patriots are going to go up and knock that thing down."
But at the camp's mess hall, an Indian contract worker watched nervously as troops put on their protective gear. "We want to get them masks but they're just not here yet," said Chief Warrant Officer Georgine Pipkin, who runs the kitchen.
The missile that hit outside Camp Commando was a Soviet-era CSSC-3 anti-ship cruise missile, known as a Seersucker, fired from Um Qasr in southern Iraq. Because the slow-moving missile is designed for use over water, its effectiveness in the air is limited. Military officials said the later attacks were Ababil missiles fired from near the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
Conway, the Marine commander, was meeting with his senior staff when the first missile struck. He ordered some of his staff to another part of the desert camp to make sure a lucky hit didn't kill them all.
"I saw the white streak coming, then heard the loud boom," said Cpl. Benjamin Steel, 23, of Carthage, Mo. "First I thought it was an airplane coming in low, then I just knew it wasn't."
But late Thursday, an unmanned, Iraqi-owned small plane crashed in northeastern Kuwait, fanning rumors that the Iraqis were releasing biochemicals into the air. But the plane turned out to be clean, said Capt. James Wilson, an Army intelligence officer at Camp Virginia.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Meg Laughlin also contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.