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Gas Masks and Sealed Rooms: Serving in Israel During the Gulf War

The First Gulf War. The Persian Gulf War. Desert Storm and Desert Shield. All of these titles and operation names are associated with the same war, the first major U.S. military action since the Vietnam War.

During the 1980s, while at war with Iran, the Iraqi government borrowed heavily from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to fund the nation’s growing army.

U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org
U.S. Troops in the Persian Gulf War (1991) U.S. DOD | commons.wikimedia.org

As a result of the devastating eight-year conflict in which no side claimed clear victory, Iraq emerged with the fourth-largest army in the world.

Iraq’s newfound military prowess and resentment towards Saudi Arabia and Kuwait (after the two nations refused to forgive $30 million of Iraqi debt) worried the United States and its allies about the actions that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, was willing to take.

Their concerns would prove to be justified.

On August 2, 1990, Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait; and Iraqi troops immediately started to occupy the small oil-rich country.

The international community was quick to react. The following day, on August 3, the United Nations Security Council called for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait. After the Iraqi government’s failure to do so, the council implemented a worldwide trade ban with the country.

In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that although Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the Middle Eastern nations most commonly associated with the Gulf War, Israel also felt its effects. Soon after his invasion of Kuwait, Hussein echoed his past threats to attack Israel, this time pledging to burn half of the country. However, with the Iraqi government already at war and an unpredictable actor at the head of the government, the Israeli government’s fears were elevated. They rightfully suspected that Hussein’s threats were legitimate.

In response to the international coalition’s ejection of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Hussein ordered the firing of ground-to-ground missiles into Israel, especially around the Tel Aviv and Haifa regions.

Even the U.S. diplomatic community was affected. Foreign Service Officer Philippe Du Chateau was serving in Jerusalem when the Gulf War started in August 1990. Despite the State Department giving him the option to return to the United States, Du Chateau decided to remain in Jerusalem, where he believed he was safe from Hussein’s missiles. Du Chateau lived through all the precautions put in the place by the Israeli government, and he also experienced first hand the fear of the local population.

At various other points in his career, Du Chateau served in the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and Finland.

Du Chateau’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on August 18, 2011.

Read Du Chateau’s full oral history HERE.

Read about the start of the Gulf War HERE.

Read about Du Chateau and other FSOs’ experiences with “honeypots” HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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“They suddenly realized that they were Americans.”

Americans in Israel:
But I think more vivid in my memory, certainly, is the first Gulf War. It is not related to the intifada in any way, but certainly was something that got our attention at the time.

Q: Okay, how did that impact on you all?

DU CHATEAU: Oh, immediately and completely. We know how it all came out, now, so that’s fine and dandy, but nobody knew what was going to happen at the time. There was a long run up to the Gulf War, you may recall. December 1990 was particularly interesting, with lots of threats around and lots of speculation, but we continued to operate normally in the ACC (American Cultural Center). I recall setting up a program for my FSI (Foreign Service Institute) professor, Dr. Reich, during November or December, and of course all we talked about was what Saddam and Israel would do.

During that period, of course, we had, inside the embassy and consulate, our own long buildup. First of all there was a drawdown of staff, people could leave voluntarily if they wanted to. I didn’t want to leave and my wife didn’t want to leave. We felt safe in Jerusalem, and anyhow we had no place to go in the U.S.

In Jerusalem, what was happening was a lot of the religious folk, mostly the ultra-Orthodox living in northern Jerusalem it seemed; they suddenly realized that they were Americans. They came out of the woodwork, these Americans, and registered with the consulate. There was a lot of Xeroxing going on, too much for the consulate, so we just took on a lot of it to try to help. There was just such a volume of people coming in.

These were Americans who came to live in Israel, usually ultra-Orthodox, but not necessarily, though I do recall lots of black coats and black hats. I think that they were convinced that we would have an airplane to take them out when things got bad.

“Saddam had threatened it and the Israelis took him at his word.”

Preparing for a Gas Attack:
During this whole period, the Israelis were getting ready too, and their big issue was a gas attack. There was a very big fear of gas attacks. Saddam had threatened it and the Israelis took him at his word. So eventually we were issued gas masks. My little daughter, who was maybe eighteen months old at that time, she had a plastic cage-like thing, because she was too young, too small, for a mask. The three older people in the family, we all had masks. The Israeli government issued them, but I think we got them through the consulate. Eventually we had to give them back, which was too bad as they were an interesting souvenir. Guzel had to take hers to school every day, of course, and she decorated the gas mask box quite nicely.

The masks were an issue, because a significant part of the population in Israel is Arab and they are Israeli citizens. They did not get gas masks. So that was constantly discussed and added to the tension. I think they eventually got them, but I don’t know, I no longer recall. Of course no one on the West Bank got them and I seem to recall some problems inside the Old City.

We had them, we had to go through instruction on how to use them. We also had to make a so-called sealed room in the apartment, a place that we were supposed to go to when under attack. So we got the plastic sheeting and tape and sealed up a room just so we could say to those that worried about this stuff that we had done it. I strongly remember thinking that this was a farce, that there was no way to protect ourselves from gas. It would get everywhere. But we did it.

“It must have been horrible for the people running the airport in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport.”

Leave Now and Don’t Look Back:
So December and January 1991 there’s this constant rise in tension. Then the war started on January 17, and we watched it on Israeli television. The first missiles went over the next day, heading for Tel Aviv, and at that point, we were told that everybody except for very essential personnel were supposed to get out.

It wasn’t that simple. There were no planes, or no space on places down at the Tel Aviv airport, so people from the Tel Aviv embassy came up through Jerusalem and went by bus down to be evacuated by a U.S. government plane from the southern desert area, an airport down there, a military airport down there. A lot of embassy people left.

Q: I’m told that one of the things on Israeli TV was all of these Orthodox, with the dreadlocks and the hats and all, getting the hell out.

DU CHATEAU: Well, they tried to get out on El Al. It must have been horrible for the people running the airport in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion Airport. Yeah, but I wouldn’t want to say it was just the ultra-Orthodox. A lot of people got out. Certainly all the tourists had long since left.

It’s interesting. Around this of course is the problem of dual nationalism and loyalty. I felt that constantly in the air. Americans who were living in Israel who were part of the Israeli military, they didn’t leave. People who were in the country for just purely religious reasons probably had a little bit less attachment to Israel as a political body, to the government, which the extreme ultra-Orthodox didn’t recognize, anyhow. Their motivations were different.

Phil (Philip) Wilcox, he was the Jerusalem consul general at the time and my wife, who was the consulate CLO, community liaison officer, worked very closely with him. We were instructed to pack up our bags and meet down at the West Jerusalem building consulate that evening. We were going to go get on that bus that was taking people from Tel Aviv down to that field in the Negev. We were not essential.

“This was looking like a disaster coming.”

           
Gulf War 1991 in Israeli Shelter (3 February 2005) Jane Fresco  | commons.wikimedia.org
Gulf War 1991 in Israeli Shelter (3 February 2005) Jane Fresco | commons.wikimedia.org

Trust Your Gut:
So I shut down the center. I talked to all my staff and explained the situation, that I had orders, told them to just go home and I’ll be back whenever, we just closed the place down. I was extremely conflicted about doing this. I was very comfortable living where I was, even with missiles coming over. One always takes chances in life, you do it every day driving down the road, and being in Jerusalem, which was not a target, I wasn’t all that worried. I did not feel threatened any more than any Israeli did, than my staff did. I just didn’t buy it at all. I couldn’t see Saddam attacking Jerusalem. My wife was a little bit more concerned, but I think it’s because of the children.

So we went down to the consulate with our luggage, and we sat around waiting. We sat around there and we were very unhappy, because we didn’t want to leave at all. I felt very guilty about leaving my staff, I didn’t think that was right. We had no place to go in the U.S. either. This was looking like a disaster coming.

And then after an hour or two Phil came down and said, “Well, you know, I’ve got permission that anybody who wants to stay here can.” I guess it was Ambassador Brown that made the decision, I don’t know, but I’m sure that Phil Wilcox was lobbying for us. And so we were very happy. I couldn’t thank Phil enough for letting us stay. They brought around a van and we went home. I remember Simon, a consulate driver, I think he was originally from Australia, anyhow he told us how happy he was that we were staying.

Cindy, Phil Wilcox’s wife had to leave. One of the communicators in the consulate had a young son, maybe in his early teens, and someone had to be with him on the flight, so Cindy did it, took him to the U.S. Apparently the trip was just horrible: it took forever to get down there to the airfield in the Negev, there were air raid warnings while they were driving down there that evening, and she couldn’t get back for months, as I recall.

“It was a time when we could walk everywhere in the city, it was so quiet.”

Ghost Town:
This is horrible to say, but in a strange way it turned out to be a good time—you know it was a wonderfully calm and quiet time up in Jerusalem. Everybody had left. All the tourists were gone. The East Jerusalem consulate offices had to be closed down and we were just working with minimal staff. Of course and it was scary for people down in Tel Aviv because the missiles were going towards it. We would hear the sonic boom as they came over.

I let my staff know I was back in town, that I wasn’t going anywhere, which made me feel very, very good. We were in touch with each other, but there was no work we could do. I had things to do in the center and I could record the news on videotape for the consulate. We had a satellite disk on the roof to take down television and a good recording system.

It was a time when we could walk everywhere in the city, it was so quiet. One time, towards the end of the war, we went down to Masada with one of my daughter’s friends. Her parents were Mennonites who were living in Jerusalem and in charge of an NGO on the West Bank.

And it was eerie, because there was of course very little traffic on the road. But as we were driving south down towards Masada, along the Dead Sea, we were down, right next to the water and there are cliffs over to our right, to the west, and we looked over and we saw an Israeli jet flying very low, very slow, below the horizon, ducking behind buttes, and it was just eerie to see, it was fascinating.

Close Calls:
So we went through a lot of air raid alarms, they came most evenings. When the sirens went off, you were supposed to go to your sealed room that I mentioned. The sealed room, we put plastic up on the windows, we sealed it down with brown tape and then we put wet towels around the door. We were supposed to stay in there until there was an all clear and we were supposed to put our gas masks on as well.

After a while we got pretty used to this. We used to go into the sealed room, which was actually little Leyla’s bedroom with her crib and all, and we older folk played Hearts and we didn’t put on the gas marks and my little daughter would go to sleep in her crib. The three of us had a running game of Hearts and so that’s what we did.

And we had our communications radio, we were part of the consulate security net and so they’d call us up for a radio check and we’d say, “Yeah, we’re here” and then they would report on what was happening as they learned it. And then “All clear” and then we’d go out and go on watching TV.

The Israelis had a code in Hebrew, which everybody knew, I mean, it wasn’t trying to be a secret, of “an airstrike’s imminent” and then “go to your sealed rooms” and then “all clear.” So you see I’ve got this tee shirt on today that I got during the war, it’s an Israeli tee shirt. And to describe it for the tape, what this tee shirt is, it’s got three squares on it and the first one shows a snake, the first square on top, and underneath it in Hebrew is written “venomous snake” and it was what they’d say on the radio to announce that there’s an attack coming, that missiles have been launched. And then the second box here in the middle has, it’s pretty appropriate as it looks like my family, it has a bunch of people with gas masks, including a little one, a little child in a gas-proof cage, here and it’s labeled in Hebrew “patriots.” And the third one shows an open sky and that’s “all clear.” Those were the three parts of Israeli air raid announcements over the regular AM and FM radio during an attack.

Q: Patriots were an anti-missile missile.

DU CHATEAU: They came in to the Tel Aviv embassy, these American anti-missile people, all in uniform. They practically took over the embassy, but then so many regular embassy people had left. They ran the mailroom. The American military was all over the place.

“The Israeli way is to not allow any other country to inflict damage on Israel.”

           
Empty Street at Jerusalem Old City with a Stand of Bread | 1 December 2006 | commons.wikimedia.org
Empty Street at Jerusalem Old City with a Stand of Bread | 1 December 2006 | commons.wikimedia.org

What Ifs:
Anyhow, after a time you got used to this stuff, this new way of living, and life went on. So I went down for meetings in the embassy, or to send mail or something like that and I’d go past these fields of these ground-to-air missiles deployed along the Jerusalem to Tel Aviv main highway. As far as I know, they didn’t work, but they were there, a lot of military, American military. It made everybody feel good and I guess that’s important.

I recall one time very strongly. In the run-up and at the beginning of the war, our main worry was that the Israelis would go it alone and retaliate against Iraq for its missile strikes. Everybody knows the outcome to the war now, but that sure wasn’t clear after the missiles started to fly. The Israeli way is to not allow any other country to inflict damage on Israel. We knew about this, it was a constant discussion, what would happen, what would the Israelis do. As I recall, my staff thought they would bomb, and then things would get seriously out of hand. Remember, we all had our gas masks and SCUD missiles were coming in.

And so Secretary of State Eagleburger, I guess he was deputy secretary then, he came to town. Harry Sindel, an Israeli colleague from the center who was in charge of audiovisual stuff, and I were outside the prime minister’s office, staking it out, to see if there would be any statement following Eagleburger’s meeting. We had to be there because that was our job, but I recall also that we were a little worried because the day was getting late and the missiles could come.

It was a very, very worrisome few hours, to find out what the Israelis would do. Shamir was the prime minister at the time and he was under a lot of pressure to strike, but ultimately he did not.

Later that day of course Eagleburger gave a press conference, it would have been at the King David Hotel, I think, which we recorded, and then we sent the transcript back to the U.S. It was quite a relief that the Israelis decided not to do anything for the time being. I think that was about the time our Patriot missiles came in. It would have been real interesting had the Israelis attacked – who knows what would have happened, I can’t imagine.

“The only way she could go to school was with her gas mask.”

Return to Normalcy:
As it happened, I think the missiles only did some physical damage in Israel. I don’t recall that anyone died from being hit, but I could be wrong. But they were dangerous. I think there was a bad hit on Saudi Arabia where lots of people died.

Q: I’ve interviewed various people about this period. Our effort was to keep the Saudis mobilized and keep the Israelis out of the war. And the gas mask thing, an awful lot of hanky panky went on. The military and CIA were distributing gas masks to their people, but not to the rest of the embassy and they were trying to do it surreptitiously, which of course didn’t work.

DU CHATEAU: I don’t recall that. We didn’t have any problem with it in Jerusalem.

Q: There were big problems around…

DU CHATEAU: We stayed there and the Anglican school continued to function and my daughter, my older daughter, I’d take her over to the school, drive her over, but the only way she could go to school was with her gas mask. So she’d go with her gas mask in a box, which she decorated, she’d put it on table outside the classroom and then everything went on. It became a new kind of normal life.

I think I said that my beard was quite full before the war, kinda bushy. In order to wear a gas mask, I had to cut my beard way back and so I did. It still wouldn’t have worked as gas would have leaked in, but it made everyone feel good. I wonder what the ultraOrthodox men did? It must have been a problem.

We continued in Jerusalem another year after that, went back to normal operations, as before.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
Chinese, Indiana University 1963–1964
BA in Russian, Cornell University 1968–1971
Russian Language Program Middlebury College 1970
MA in Soviet Studies, Harvard University 1971–1975
Joined the Foreign Service 1979
Sofia, Bulgaria—Assistant Public Affairs Officer 1981–1984
Moscow, Soviet Union—Assistant Information Officer 1984–1987
Tel Aviv, Israel—Chief of American Cultural Center 1988–1991
Helsinki, Finland—Public Affairs Officer 1995–1999