Delaware base still on war footing Dover continues to fly hundreds of tons of supplies to gulf. PERSIAN GULF SHOWDOWN

March 05, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

DOVER, Del. -- The workdays have been long and hard for Sgt. Bob Gray and his fellow Air National Guard members and will stay that way for a while -- despite the end of the Persian Gulf war.

But two things have kept the guardsmen pumped up.

More than any other war, U.S. military commanders say, those stationed at Dover are immensely proud that their massive logistics operation has kept the troops in the desert well supplied with everything from peanut butter to tank tracks.

And knowing that the home front overwhelmingly supports the war kindles a huge psychological boost, said Gray, a computer operator in civilian life and one of 57 members of the 135th Aerial Port Flight out of Martin State Airport in Middle River.

"I have more of a sense of pride now than I did in Vietnam," said Gray, a Vietnam War veteran.

Although the war in the Persian Gulf has halted, the 135th and four other guard and reserve units working at the huge aerial port at Dover Air Force Base could be on active duty for many weeks to come. As long as American troops are in the desert, they will need food, spare engine parts, laundry detergent and scores of other supplies.

"Dover Air Force Base went to war on the 7th of August," said Col. Rich Fabbre, who commands the base's aerial port, nicknamed the "Super Port." That was five days after the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait.

"We're still at a very, very high pace of activity," said Fabbre, who has overseen the shipment of more than 150,000 tons of materiel to the gulf region. Tons of equipment will come home through Dover, too.

Despite the cease-fire, the Dover port, operating with its huge C-5 Galaxy transport planes and other aircraft, is still shipping as much as 1,000 tons of materiel to the gulf region each day.

In cavernous warehouses, forklifts zip around with pallets to be loaded onto the transport planes. Guardsmen, reservists and other military personnel are working 12-hour shifts to keep the supply train rolling. A 747, its nose tilted open so it looks like the gaping mouth of a B-movie monster, swallows its cargo on the tarmac.

Although Dover has shipped about half of the materiel coming from the three military aerial ports on the East Coast, its supply operation gets scant attention. People probably are more familiar with the Air Force base in Delaware's state capital as the place that accepts most of the dead from wars and other military conflicts.

During this war, though, the U.S. military decided against any public ceremonies for dead returning to Dover. Base spokesman Chris G. Geisel said that was because it would be logistically impossible to have a ceremony, which in the past were recorded by hundreds of journalists, every time remains came home from the battlefield. Families would feel compelled to attend, he said, and many would find it hard to make it to Dover.

Also, Geisel said, no public ceremonies were held for the dead returning from the Vietnam War.

Ceremonies were held at Dover at other times, however, such as after the terrorist bombing of a Marine headquarters in Beirut in 1983, when 237 soldiers died; after the crash of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, when seven astronauts died; and after the explosion aboard the battleship Iowa in 1989, when 47 sailors died.

The decision not to have public ceremonies during the Persian Gulf war has prompted a group of journalists, veterans and military families to challenge the U.S. government in federal court in Washington. The group, using the American Civil Liberties Union to argue its case, claims that the government is unconstitutionally seeking to "control and manipulate American public opinion" about the war. In other words, the government is trying to shield the public from images of soldiers coming home in coffins, the group claims.

Last week, as the ground phase of the war was being waged, a federal judge denied the group's request for an emergency injunction to force the military to allow the media to view war dead coming to Dover. Still, with American combat and non-combat deaths at 266 as of Sunday -- far fewer than many had expected -- the ACLU will press its case in a hearing to be scheduled later this week.

Personnel at Dover are tight-lipped about how the mortuary was "augmented" to handle dead from the war. In peacetime, the mortuary handles an average of 60 or 70 remains each month. It is one of two such military "port mortuaries" in the United States, handling the remains of active duty military and their family members who die in Europe, Southwest Asia, the Azores, Iceland and Greenland.

The mortuary, Building 121, is a one-story brown and white striped structure tucked behind temporary trailers and olive-colored mess tents erected to handle what some predicted would be thousands of dead. Since just after Jan. 16, when the air phase of the war began, mortuary personnel stopped granting interviews. Authorities said they didn't want a press photographer yesterday to shoot so much as a picture of the door of Building 121.

Fabbre, the aerial port commander, acknowledges that moving boxes of supplies "is not very exciting business." But, he said, "there's no doubt in my mind that I'd rather be recognized for it" than for Dover's mortuary.

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