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Incoming! Surviving SCUD Attacks in Dhahran

Ken Stammerman was economic counselor in Kuwait from 1986 to 1987 before becoming consul general in Dhahran in 1989. Home to the Saudi Arabian Oil Company, or ARAMCO, Dhahran hosted many American citizens during Stammerman’s service.  It was also the target for numerous SCUD missile attacks during Desert Storm. Here he talks about the fear in the American community over the attacks, the difficulty in trying to evacuate people while SCUDs are falling and the “silly, stupid, media-driven game” of gas masks. You can read U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman’s account of Desert Storm here.

Fear of Iraqi SCUD Attacks

STAMMERMAN: When I applied to be the Dhahran consul general, as I recall there were two applicants.  The requirement: they wanted someone with an economic background because the reason we are in Dhahran is ARAMCO.  They wanted someone who had energy reporting background.  Well, I had that – I did in Kuwait, doing energy reporting.  Embassy Riyadh was well aware of my kind of reporting…once Riyadh said okay, it was okay.

Q:  When you arrived in Dhahran, what was the situation?

STAMMERMAN:  Well, things were fairly quiet because the Iran-Iraq war had finished by then, pretty much.  The Saudis were nervous about Iran, but there was no war going on in the north.  There were economic problems because the price of oil had fallen, and the Saudis weren’t able to pay their bills.  The princes were being told to cut back on their lifestyle.  But one of the good things about Dhahran was that very few of the Saudi princes lived there…and that helped because it meant Dhahran was the creature of ARAMCO and pretty much what you focused on in our reporting and our relationships was the Saudis at ARAMCO…. ARAMCO was a wonder.  ARAMCO is this American city, town, American suburb, out in the middle of the Saudi desert.  It is – once you pass inside those gates, you are, for all intents and purposes, in America.  Women drive, whereas in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive.  There are swimming pools where men and women swim in the same pool, which is unheard of in Saudi Arabia… ARAMCO was very much an American place.…

There was a risk, but I was personally convinced that there was no risk to American personnel, either to my staff or American citizens, except through a very, very random chance that if the Iraqis ever fired SCUDS they might by chance hit something.  I’d been briefed by the military on SCUDs, about how they tended to have a target radius of 3 miles, in those days.  I’m sure characteristics are different now.  But in those days, the Iraqis would be lucky to hit Dhahran, Khobar, very unlikely to even hit all of the entire ARAMCO compound if they aimed at it….

As we got closer to the war, though, within the consulate we had some problems…. We were all saying that the important thing is we go to war and liberate Kuwait. It will be over soon, and we aren’t in any particular danger. We should be prepared to evacuate Americans, because the war is going to happen.  Others on the staff continued to be upset because they thought we were putting them in harm’s way for no good reason. I’m talking about the State Department employees. There got to be this whole big thing about gas masks, which we kept arguing to the ARMACO Americans, you don’t need them….

David Dunford came down from Riyadh, along with the senior army guy on biochemical weapons defense to brief the ARAMCO civilians at their request.  They wanted David to come down and wanted a briefing…and he briefed them and said in general how you’re not in much danger from incoming SCUDs.  Even if they’re loaded with chemical weapons, unless they land on your head, the topography and geography of the Eastern Province is such that the small weight that the SCUD could throw, in those days, would just blow away in the desert and would be so diluted before it hit any of us that we wouldn’t have to worry.  Of course, they didn’t believe that either.

Demand for gas masks: “It was a silly, stupid, media-driven game.”

I got a phone call at 2:00 o’clock in the morning or whenever it was on the 16th, because it was the 16th in Saudi Arabia when the war started, the 15th in the USA.  Of course, at that point we kind of knew something was up since every aircraft at Dhahran airbase had taken off and the place smelled of airplane fuel, kerosene, just everywhere.  And I went up to the consulate.  Nothing much happens, the war starts, everybody’s watching TV, nothing happens at Dhahran.

Then, within the next few days, the Iraqi ambassador to Belgium says, “We will react.”  At this point we were bombing the Iraqi positions, killing a

lot of people, all on TV. Within a few days after the start of the air war, around the 19th, somewhere along there, of January, the Iraqis started firing their SCUDs.  One of the first ones went into Tel Aviv, actually Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, and we had drills.  The Saudis had set up sirens and everything.  One came in to the Dhahran area.  The SCUD came in, met by Patriot missiles, after the SCUD had reentered the atmosphere….

We were holding off.  We were fighting it.  We said, “It’s not going to get to the point that we need gas masks; this is crazy, if we need gas masks, we should evacuate.”  And then as I remember the sequence. The American ambassador to Bahrain somehow had access to American military stores.  And he was under tremendous pressure same as we all were.  So when the first SCUDs landed, he told the American civilian community in Bahrain that they could have U.S. military gas masks.

So at that point, we went to the military and said we better get them.  The State Department then went to DOD.  The Defense Department sent out bunches of gas masks to us with the Political/Military part of State being the intermediaries.  In the end, I thought the entire episode was amusing, since I knew, despite all the CNN-driven hysteria, that the Iraqis were not going to use chemical weapons against American civilians.  I thought it was hilarious…. I thought it was a silly, stupid, media-driven game going on, which – since nobody in the U.S. government ever does a lessons-learned exercise – was played out again in the Gulf War of 2003.  All this panic over weapons of mass destruction when the Iraqis, even if they had them in 1990-91 or 2003, would not use them.  But, to carry on the charade, the U.S. military in January 1991 then sent out a shipment of gas masks, care of the U.S. consulate general in Dhahran.  It was a big shipment of gas masks, hundreds of them.  Enough to take care of American civilians who wanted them….

Once the masks arrived, we were ordered. The embassy said, “You will do it; you will carry gas masks.  The State Department is now saying U.S. Foreign Service personnel will have gas masks at all times.”  I said, “Okay, we got orders.”  So we also had ours.  At first there was this huge mob…. Then after they got them and brought them back to ARAMCO and people were saying “Is THIS what you got?”  And the numbers dropped off tremendously.  They had to sign for them, though…with a pledge that when the emergency was over that they’d give them back to the U.S. government.  I’ve still got mine, as a souvenir.  Never did turn it back in.  After the Department issued orders, I carried it around like I was supposed to…. Anyway, the air war starts.  At this point the SCUDs start.  Then we start evacuating American civilians.  That is to say, we had it arranged, and we set the plan in motion.  The plan was to evacuate dependents.  Anybody who called in and said they wanted to go, anybody eligible for evacuation, and this would have included any American citizens, employee or not, we didn’t turn them away…. So as the planes would arrive with munitions, they’d be unloaded, and then the crew would turn them into passenger transports…. They would then come inside our compound and go into a gymnasium where they had Air Force personnel who would fill out the roster….

Meanwhile, my wife Patty and several of the ARAMCO ladies had set up a childcare facility.  They were keeping the children entertained while everybody was in this gymnasium, worried about nightfall.  Because at nightfall, the Iraqis would fire the SCUDs.  They did this many nights after the 19th of January.  They were firing at the airbase, we were convinced, because the airbase was flat as a table, and even though there’s not much of a SCUD payload at that distance, a fully loaded C-5 has got nothing but fuel at that point, to go back.  If you just had a little shrapnel hit it, it would blow up.  Some of our planes were within these so-called revetments, the fighter aircraft.  But the transport aircraft were simply loaded with fuel out there on a runway.  So if a SCUD hit near any one of them, they would go up in flames.  We figured that’s what the Iraqis were shooting at.  They never did hit one, it turns out.  And they fired lots of SCUDs.  It’s a matter of odds….

Evacuating during SCUD attacks

As it got darker, we all got very nervous.  We wanted to get these people on the planes and off the ground.  It was a matter of you’ve got to do certain procedures, and that plane’s got to be ready to take people.  So once the plane was ready, once all the documents were done, we would get on the buses…. Night fell, the SCUDs starting coming in.  They were already on the plane.  The plane couldn’t roll because it had not started rolling down the runway, had not gotten to a go/no-go point, when the SCUD alert went off….

So everybody piled off the airplane out at the airbase and went to a shelter.  They got in a U.S. military bus or truck or something and got to a shelter…. SCUDs hit.  Of course the SCUDs missed.  Then they said, “Okay, let’s try this again.” Got on the plane again.  Got ready to roll again.  Again, incoming SCUDs.  Back to the shelter.  People were crying, people were getting sick.  The consul called and in the end I said, “Get them back to the consulate general.”  One of our floors is underground in the main building; it’s safe, so unless something actually falls on top of you, you aren’t going to get hit by shrapnel or anything.  If you’re out at the airbase, you’re liable to get hit by shrapnel; if one of those planes went due to a SCUD hit or near-miss, we’d have a lot of people dead out there, if they were anywhere near that plane or that fuel…

So they came back to the consulate, and everybody’s upset.  Kids are crying, people are sick.  We got them into our underground floor, that long aisle in one building that’s underground.  We all went to the consulate building.  Sure enough, another SCUD alert.  The MPs were with them of course.  Very interesting what happened.  The MPs sort of looked around at each other, and their sergeant indicated to them, don’t put on your gas masks, because the American civilians didn’t have any.  And they didn’t.  Even though they were trained to, their orders were, they stood there and didn’t put their gas masks on.  Afterwards, I wrote them up a commendation for their unit, to their commanding officer.  They all got awards for that, which I heard back through the system, which I was very happy to hear.  Then after the third one, we waited a while; there were no more SCUDs.  They got out and got going.

The only other incoming SCUD of interest was one afternoon when I was out there at the airbase. We had four busloads of evacuees…. As we’re rolling in to the entrance of the consulate, going through the concrete barriers, I see our local guards start running.  So, I told the driver, open the door, and you could hear the SCUD-alert siren…. So we piled off, four of us on one bus, and started running for the consulate building…. We were running across an open plaza, and before we started running across that plaza, the SCUD reentered the atmosphere, the Patriots fired, there were explosions overhead, and the plane had just taken off.  The plane was taking off near us.  It was one of those things, “bombs bursting in air” things. You can imagine the poor people on the plane. SCUDs and Patriots are not heat-seekers, so the odds of them hitting a plane are very low, but nevertheless… explosions in mid-air near their plane are going to shake people up. Plus, by the time we were running across the open plaza, you could hear click-click-click-click-click, things falling.  Pieces of SCUD, pieces of Patriots falling.  Some windows got broken that day on the consulate compound, cars, pieces of SCUD fell and hit cars.  We made it across…. We got into the doorway of the consulate….

Q:  Now, when the SCUDs started falling, how did this affect the ARAMCO community?  What happened?

STAMMERMAN:  Oddly enough, once it started falling, they went out and started taking pictures, not much panic at all once they saw what SCUDS

were really like.  In the daytime they’d go out on the roof.  They did a film with music in the background showing SCUDs coming in at night.  And we heard very little after that at the consulate…. It made pretty clear that the SCUDs were not that big a deal, that the Iraqis were not going to fire chemical weapons….

There was still some concern I’d say, for the first week or two weeks, that there might be some Iraqi suicide attacks on Dhahran by what was left of the Iraqi air force.  But shortly after that, people started figuring that that wasn’t going to happen, that they wouldn’t have an air force left.  That’s when the Iraqi air force fled to Iran, what was left of it.

At that, people said, well, the oil market’s calmed down, the oil prices fell, the ARAMCO Americans went to work.  And that was it…. Then there was a SCUD hit just before the end of the war that hit American military…, hit the barracks, which was about a mile from the consulate general.  It was just incredibly bad luck.  If it had happened on the first day of the SCUDs, who knows what would have happened with ARAMCO, but it happened as the war was almost over.  It was just one of these things. It was a barracks that had 50 yards of sand on every side.  It was bad luck.  Metal fell out of the sky and hit them.  The hero of the encounter was the mayor of Dhahran, a Saudi.  There is a mayor of Dhahran itself, which is a small town.  Not al-Khobar, not Dammam, but Dhahran.  He’s a Saudi, and later, after the war, the American military gave him a medal.  One of these commander’s medal, and a plaque for his work in organizing the rescue effort.  He came in and took charge and made sure our people got to the right hospitals, that all the medical personnel were called in.  Great organizer, a good man.

The end of war – A tree grows in Dhahran

Q: Immediately after the war, what was your overall reaction, and sort of the peace, and what was happening in the Eastern Province?

STAMMERMAN:  Our overall reaction was a great relief.  The Kuwaitis were very, very happy, of course.  The Kuwaitis in Dhahran had a spontaneous celebration when the TV pictures were showing American troops being mobbed in Kuwait with welcome open arms…. At the embassy and consulate general, of course, we were all relieved.  It was not really at the time a case of thinking what comes next but, more, just relieved that it was over.  We didn’t have to worry any more about SCUDs, about evacuations; we could get our breath a while…. Not quite the hectic kind of thing like before, because we weren’t worried about SCUDs and evacuating any more American dependents….

I stayed until the summer of ’92.  I was there a whole year afterwards and saw the American drawdown…. One of the nicer events after the war was an awards ceremony given by the American military command to the Emir of Dhahran…. As I mentioned, the governor of Dhahran had played a key role in helping when our troops were killed and wounded in the SCUD attack in Dhahran, which was the largest loss of life in the Gulf War for the American military.  He had played a key role in getting the survivors to hospital.  The U.S. Army gave him an award, which was very, very nice.  And shortly afterwards, we had a ceremony at the consulate general where he and I together planted a tree.  I’m glad to say that as of 1997, that tree was still there.