Tension Grips Base in Germany as Persian Gulf War Erupts

This story appeared on Page 1 of the Jan. 18, 1991 edition of the Racine Journal Times. I filed the story from the U.S. Army base in Augsburg, Germany.

By Joseph Hanneman
Racine Journal Times

U.S. BASE, SOUTHERN GERMANY — Heavily armed military police patrolled in front of a U.S. Army base elementary school Thursday, with battle helmets on their heads and M-16 semiautomatic rifles slung over their shoulders.

It was an unmistakable sign that the United States had entered a war with Iraq, and that any U.S. citizen — even children — was a potential target for terrorists.

As Germany slept Wednesday night and early Thursday, U.S. and allied war planes screamed into Iraq as the offensive began to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait.

And overnight, this large military base in southern Germany transformed from a bustling community into an armed camp, where tension was high and fear so palpable you could almost taste it.

The Army was taking no chances amid terrorist threats against U.S. facilities around Europe and the Middle East.

At every housing facility, school and entrance to the base, military police were out in force. The grim-faced soldiers wore bullet-proof vests and carried high-powered weapons. The protective gas masks were clipped to belts at their sides.

An MP, his rifle on the seat next to him, rode the school bus with children as the vehicle darted off and on base, taking students home. This military base is home to more than 2,500 children.

And while children were being zealously protected, they also were not beyond suspicion. Youngsters returning home from school were required to show ID cards before entering housing complexes.

The author in the German countryside during one of two trips to Germany.

At each gate leading to the base, cars were stopped and searched. Guards looked in trunks and under hoods; they pushed large mirrors under vehicles to check the undercarriages for bombs.

No one, soldiers of all ranks included, escaped scrutiny.

At the entrance to the post exchange, 55-gallon drums filled with concrete were lined up to prevent cars or trucks loaded with explosives from reaching the building, which is usually filled with soldiers and family members.

Barbed razor wire was laid along the length of the sidewalk. Visitors had to pass through an armed checkpoint and were only allowed in the building with two forms of photo identification. Bags were searched.

Inside the PX, yellow ribbons hung fro the ceiling outside the cafeteria. Many soldiers from this base — including medical units and some of the heaviest armor units in the U.S. Army — were sent to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, transformed Wednesday into Operation Desert Storm.

At the commissary (the Army’s version of the grocery store) aisles normally crowded on a weekday were deserted. Families, it seemed, preferred to stay home this day.

Area car dealerships that cater to U.S. soldiers closed early, and one U.S. club posted a sign that it would not be open Thursday, a day the sign labeled “Doom’s Day.”

Even the Burger King just outside the boundaries of the post was surrounded by armed guards. Only persons with military ID cards were allowed to eat.

At the U.S. Army Hospital, soldiers, nurses and visitors crowded around a television set in the internal medicine department, watching live cable news network accounts of the air attacks on Iraq and Kuwait.

Faces were stern. No one spoke. The expressions told of concern and relief that the operation had finally started.

Hospital officials refused to discuss the hospital’s role as a possible airlift treatment center for wounded soldiers. A reporter was told he could have access to medical staff only if he did not discuss Operation Desert Storm.

But it is widely expected here that the medium-size hospital would be pressed into service if casualties in the Middle East become heavy.

Soldiers said mobile hospital beds arrived in recent days to expand the facility’s capability.

And members of the 44th General Hospital, an Army reserve unit from Madison, began arriving here Thursday to fill in for medical staff shipped to the Middle East.

Bases all over Germany were setting up temporary hospital facilities to handle the wounded. German hospitals say they would assist with casualties. And the U.S. Veterans Administration was making ready 25,000 beds in the United States for possible casualties, according to local news accounts.

Elsewhere on base, soldiers listened to Armed Forces Radio for news about the start of the war. In between news dispatches, soldiers called in to request songs. Some were love songs for family members stationed in Saudi Arabia. Others, with titles like “We Will Rock You” and “Heads Will Roll” were dedicated to combat soldiers at the front.

(Joseph Hanneman is the state government/higher education reporter for the Journal Times. He flew to Germany last week to visit his wife, Susan, who is a reservist called to active duty there. Both live in Racine.)

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