Missile launch like 'shooting for practice' WAR IN THE GULF

January 19, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

ABOARD THE USS WISCONSIN -- After initiating the allied air attack against Iraq, a naval task force in the Persian Gulf fired dozens of additional Tomahawk cruise missiles in intermittent barrages Thursday.

The battleship Wisconsin, the ship coordinating the launches, fired missile salvos three times in daylight on the first day of the war. It also coordinated and participated in the initial pre-dawn attack, the first use of cruise missiles in battle.

By late afternoon, the Wisconsin had fired 16 long-range, precision-guided cruise missiles. It can carry up to 32 of the near-supersonic, ground-hugging weapons, and its captain said that further shots might be fired, depending on assessments of damage to strategic and military targets in Iraq.

Pool members observed several other ships firing Tomahawks near the Wisconsin. Officers said those vessels included the battleship Missouri, the Spruance-class destroyers Fife, Leftwich and Foster, and the Aegis-class guided missile cruisers Bunker Hill and Mobile Bay.

On the darkened bridge, people spoke softly and moved briskly.

"Man," one sailor whispered as the Wisconsin fired its second missile. "I never thought it would come to this."

In the ship's engineering sections, the usual banter was replaced by a somber silence.

But after a handful of successful launches and with the realization that Iraqi warplanes posed little threat to the heavily armored World War II-vintage battleship, sailors not directly involved in the launching clearly became more relaxed.

By midmorning, with reports trickling in about damage to military targets and few or no casualties among U.S. pilots, the attitude among many might well be described as celebratory. Officers allowed the crew to stand on the main deck to watch the battleship's third barrage beginning at 10:53 a.m. (2:53 a.m. EST).

"Usually, we just stay down below and feel the vibrations and watch the dirt get shaken out of the ventilation system, and that's our war," said Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Bob Smith, an engineering supervisor.

One of the happiest crewmen was Lt. Guy W. Zanti, the ship's missile officer. He had hoped that his missiles would destroy or confuse Iraqi air defenses, thereby saving U.S. pilots' lives. "I think that the Tomahawks maybe destroyed some things that could have hurt the airplanes," he said, smiling.

News reports for hours mentioned that targets around Baghdad had been hit by warplanes, without mentioning cruise missiles. Lieutenant Zanti rather enjoyed that.

"It was weird," he said.

"I heard the correspondents on the radio in Baghdad saying, 'I hear bombs but I do not see any planes.' And that was because there were no planes."

It seemed almost too easy even to officers.

"I think the majority of the crew is happy to see this. After being here 5 1/2 months, we're doing something," said Capt. Jerome E. Schill, the executive officer (second in command).

Warships in the gulf meanwhile faced heightened danger from mines as the vessels moved closer to the Iraqi-Kuwaiti coastline for the missile launches.

Petty Officer Elijah Smalls Jr., a signalman, spotted a partially submerged mine about a mile from the battleship, a sighting that officers quickly seized upon as a way both to remind the crew of the importance of lookout duties and to reassure them that the danger from mines could be contained.

Capt. David S. Bill, 30, commander of the Wisconsin, congratulated Petty Officer Smalls and promised that the first sailor to spot a mine at night would be awarded the Navy Achievement Medal.

During a midmorning lull, Captain Bill told his crew that initial surveys indicated that at least two of the ship's targets had been destroyed. He did not state how many targets the missiles had been aimed at.

Fireman Apprentice Anthony Husser, 19, of East Orange, N.J., said, "It was pretty to see them go off. It doesn't even feel like we have a war. That's what it really feels like, like we're shooting for practice."

Machinist's Mate 3rd Class Chris Tarver, 19, of Birmingham, Ala., said, "Honestly, I'm happy -- the sooner we do this, the sooner I get home to my family."

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