Iraqis' capture made war real for Americans Crewmen surprised by POWs' fears WAR IN THE GULF

January 22, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Sun Staff Correspondent

ABOARD THE USS NICHOLAS -- Of all the early events of the war, none has been more sobering or more strongly felt for the crew of the Nicholas than the capture of Iraqi prisoners of war.

Officers aboard the guided missile frigate say that nothing has brought out as much sympathy as seeing Iraqi prisoners face to face, or caused as much unease as the recognition that Americans captured by Iraq are as utterly powerless as the Iraqis who were detained on the ship.

"I had an image of fierce, ruthless fighters, but, really, these men weren't different from you or me," said Coast Guard Lt. Walter Westin, one of the men in charge of guarding 23 Iraqis captured Friday when the ship raided a cluster of oil platforms.

"They were frightened, and understandably so," he said. "When I started working with the first prisoner, I saw the fear in his eyes and saw him shaking. I think I would have had the same fear if I was in his situation."

It was one of the first moments in which the sheer fright that is part of war had worked its way through the men's discipline and fatigue, and become recognizable. While the Iraqis trembled, the Americans were seeing the war as altogether real, something with consequences beyond the sound of a gun aimed at a target that is out of sight.

Part of the shock came from a Navy team recovering five Iraqis killed in the skirmish and bringing them to the ship in body bags.

"In the Navy, you don't usually see the results," said Lt. Cmdr. Rob Cullinan of Annapolis, the ship's second-in-command. "You see a missile fly over, or you shoot your guns on the shore. It was really very eye-opening to see the body bags brought in."

For the first time, there are faces to go with the war, making it harderfor anyone to pretend that the conflict is an event that might leave individuals untouched.

Lieutenant Westin is a member of a four-member Coast Guard detachment that specializes in search-and-rescue missions, and that had hoped to use its expertise to rescue downed pilots. So far, air controllers have detected the emergency signal from only one downed aircraft in the northern gulf, wreckage helicopters from the Nicholas were unable to find.

Handling prisoners of war was not supposed to be a job for either the Nicholas or Lieutenant Westin, but it was thrust upon them by a raid against the platforms in the Dorra oil field, 35 miles from the Kuwaiti coast and taken over by Iraq.

U.S. forces suspected Iraq of using the field's 11 platforms to observe allied ship and aircraft movements, to fire at them or to direct the fire of others.

To clear the platforms, the frigate and an accompanying Kuwaiti patrol boat used helicopters, precision-guided rockets, high-explosive shells and stealth. The operation was conducted at night with lights blacked out and, to avoid telltale emissions, radar turned off.

Over a period of about eight hours, the Nicholas demolished sandbag-and-plywood shelters on each platform, blew up an ammunition dump, captured weapons and, finally, cleared the platforms of Iraqi soldiers.

Mahdi Ali, an Arabic-speaking crew member born in Kuwait, used the ship's public address system to broadcast the same message at each platform: The warship is American, it means them no harm if they surrender.

"I reassured them again and again it was an operation to rescue them," Mr. Ali said. "You can imagine that it was kind of hard for them to believe it."

Six of the Iraqis tried to flee in a high-powered boat but were stopped and brought to the Nicholas. They were greeted by sailors armed with shotguns, handguns and nightsticks, and by a second Arabic-speaking member of the crew.

"I kept telling them they would be all right," the crew member said. He asked each one his name and rank and translated the commander's remarks: "You are under the custody of the United States. You are going to be taken care of and fed, and you'll be treated with respect."

Lieutenant Westin helped search and strip the prisoners and gave them coveralls. Five of the Iraqis were seriously injured by shrapnel and were treated by a Navy physician, a reserve officer flown to the ship two weeks ago with the expectation of caring for rescued pilots.

Lieutenant Westin said he had never seen such extremes of fright, especially among the injured. "I never thought I'd be involved in something like this, and I never thought I'd be affected the way I was," he said. "I saw the results of what we do."

All the wounded survived. They, along with the other prisoners, were taken by helicopter to a POW camp in Saudi Arabia. Then the Nicholas resumed its patrols and revisited the oil platforms, in case there were more Iraqis still there.

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