FORT RILEY, Kan. -- The U.S. Army division that broke through Saddam Hussein's defensive front line used plows mounted on tanks and combat earthmovers to bury thousands of Iraqi soldiers -- some still alive and firing their weapons -- in more than 70 miles of trenches, according to Army officials.
In the first two days of ground fighting in Operation Desert Storm, three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division, known as "The Big Red One," used the grisly innovation to destroy trenches and bunkers being defended by more than 8,000 Iraqi soldiers, according to division estimates.
While 2,000 soldiers surrendered, Iraqi dead and wounded as well as defiant soldiers still firing their weapons were buried beneath tons of sand, according to participants in the carefully planned and rehearsed assault.
"Once we went through there, other than the ones who surrendered, there wasn't anybody left," said Capt. Bennie Williams, who was awarded the Silver Star.
The unprecedented tactic has been hidden from public view. Reporters were banned from witnessing the Feb. 24-25 attack that occurred near the tip of the neutral zone that straddled the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Not a single American was killed during the attack, in which an Iraqi body count was impossible.
"For all I know, we could have killed thousands," said Col. Anthony Moreno, commander of the 2nd Brigade that led the assault on the heaviest defenses. A thinner line of trenches on Colonel Moreno's left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade, commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. Colonel Maggart estimated that his force buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers.
Colonels Moreno and Maggart were among 1st Division troops to provide the first public details of the trench-line attack during a series of interviews with Newsday. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made no mention of the 1st Division's tactics in a recent interim report to Congress on Operation Desert Storm.
In most cases, each section of trench line was assigned to two Abrams main battle tanks with plows shaped like giant teeth. The tanks took up positions on either side of the trenches, most of them 3 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Vulcan armored carriers straddled the trench lines and fired into the Iraqi soldiers as the tanks covered them with mounds of sand.
"I came through right after the lead company," Colonel Moreno said. "What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with peoples' arms and things sticking out of them."
Every American in the assault was inside armored vehicles, impervious to Iraqi small-arms fire. As the juggernaut rolled along, it had a dramatic effect on Iraqi troops watching the operation.
"As [Iraqi] soldiers saw what we were doing and how effective and fast we were doing it, they began jumping out of their holes and surrendering," Colonel Moreno said.
Colonels Moreno and Maggart said the tactic was used as a means of minimizing U.S. casualties.
"I know burying people like that sounds pretty nasty," Colonel Maggart said. "But it would be even nastier if we had to put our troops in the trenches and clean them out with bayonets."
Colonel Moreno acknowledged that the attack was at odds with an Army doctrine that calls for, but does not require, troops to leave their armored vehicles to clean out the trenches or to bypass and isolate fortified positions.
"This was not doctrine," Colonel Moreno said. "My concept is to defeat the enemy with your power and equipment. . . . I'm not going to sacrifice the lives of my soldiers -- it's not cost-effective."
"There were times when we knew they were in a bunker and we gave them a chance to give up," Captain Williams said. "I'd tell my guys to fire off to the side and give them a chance. I would say about 60 percent of the guys gave up.
"Some fought but saw they were going to lose and then gave up. And there were some who decided to gut it out. A lot of guys were buried in bunkers, I'm sure. We just drove over them or backed into them to make the walls collapse."
In most cases, the tank plows only half-filled the trenches. They were often followed by armored combat earthmovers that completed the job.
Pfc. Joe Queen of the 1st Engineers was awarded a Bronze Star for piercing a sand berm while under fire and burying the Iraqi trenches with his combat earthmover.
"A lot of the guys were scared," Private Queen said. "But I enjoyed it."
Colonel Hawkins ordered construction of a 3-mile-wide replica of the front lines at the Iraqi-Saudi border so that the division could practice the burying tactics prior to the actual assault.