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 U.S. Army officials.
In the first two days of ground fighting in Operation Desert Storm, three brigades of the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division, "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 for his role in the assault.
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 straddles the border between Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Not a single American was killed during the attack that made an Iraqi body count 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 Moreno's left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade, commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. Maggart estimated that his force buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers.
Estimates could not be obtained from 3rd Brigade commanders. The 3rd Brigade was made up of units from the Germany-based 2nd Armored Division. Officers of that unit were unavailable for comment.
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. The only mention of burying Iraqi troops came when Cheney acknowledged that 457 dead enemy soldiers were buried by U.S. forces at 56 sites during the ground war.
In most cases, each section of trench line was assigned 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," Moreno said. "What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people's 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," Moreno said.
Moreno acknowledged 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.