Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-1991)

Like most all of the units at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, the 20th Engineer Battalion deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990 in support of Operation Desert Shield.  This compilation is based on an oral interview conducted by MAJ Robert B. Honec III of the 116th Military History Detachment with LTC Frank D. Ellis, commander of the 20th Engineer Battalion and a historical summary compiled in 1991 by the unit historian, 1LT David H. Tavassoli.

At the time of notification on 18 August 1990, the 20th Engineer Battalion was a nondivisional engineer asset assigned to the United States Army Forces Command,  though the Battalion habitually supported the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault).  In preparation for deployment, the soldiers, NCOs, and officers of the 20th Engineer Battalion conducted numerous training exercises, including MOPP and NBC training, weapons qualification, and road marching in preparation for the heat of the Arabian desert.  The battalion was also integral in manifesting and mobilizing the 101st Airborne Division for deployment to Saudi Arabia.  After the 101st troops left Fort Campbell, the 20th began its own preparations by shipping vehicles by road and rail to the port of Jacksonville, Florida .  The Battalion deployed with 674 officers, NCOs, and soldiers between 2 and 20 October 1990.

Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, the Battalion was separated in two different locations - MABCO (an industrial park and co-located with the Brigade Rear) and Camp Beacon Hill.  Camp Beacon Hill was comprised of two-story dormitories with a kitchen facilities that were converted into a Battalion mess facility.  The vehicles, which had been shipped from Jacksonville on seven different ships, arrived at Dhahran two days after the Battalion closed there.  As the vehicles were off-loaded from the ships, the battalion consolidated at Camp Beacon Hill and remained there for about two weeks.  The vehicles were staged at Guardian City while the soldiers remained at Camp Beacon Hill.

Originally the Battalion was ordered to provide general engineering support for  the 101st Airborne Division, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), and the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), but as the mission became more clear the Battalion was organized under the 20th Engineer Brigade from Fort Bragg, North Carolina commanded by COL Robert Flowers.  Under the 20th Engineer Brigade were its two organic units, the 27th Engineer Battalion (ABN) and the 37th Engineer Battalion (ABN).  All of these units were aligned under the 937th Engineer Group, the same group to which the 20th Engineer Battalion provided support during the Vietnam Conflict.

The 20th Battalion was the center Battalion of the Group, stationed near the Group headquarters and supporting the 101st Airborne Division while the 37th supported the 3rd ACR, and the 27th was charged with building a large road.   The battalion then moved north about 20 kilometers due west on the Tapline from the town of An Nariyah, to Camp Bastogne where the 101st was camped.  Though the 20th supported the 101st, the battalion found it difficult establishing normal support channels through the division.  The battalion learned very quickly to support itself and regularly made trips back to Ad Damman for mail and supplies.

The Battalion built a very functional base camp intended to house approximately 700 soldiers.  The Battalion used GP Medium tents, though not organic to the unit.  Eventually the Battalion would upgrade each tent to have a wooden floor and an electrical power system.  The Battalion built its own shower facilities with a water distribution system that could process about 12,000 gallons of water per day.  They also built a road system around the base camp which was suitable for running, even in formation.  A viable PT program followed, a luxury not afforded to many units stationed in the Gulf.

The Battalion also constructed an elaborate bunker system to protect against possible SCUD missile attacks.  With the construction of the bunkers, the soldiers conducted missile attack simulations, reaction force drills, and NBC alerts.  Since most of the work distribution was for equipment operators, the combat engineers of the battalion continuously trained and conducted exercises in preparation for potential attack from Kuwait by the Iraqis.

Initially, LTC Ellis was concerned about the forward position of the Battalion.  The Battalion was one of the most forward units in Saudi Arabia, and LTC Ellis wondered why the Battalion had not been directed to emplace minefields or tank ditches to stop an attack into Saudi Arabia.  Though stopping Iraqi aggression into Saudi Arabia seemed to be the purpose of Operation Desert Shield, senior officers knew that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were more concerned with American aggression.  Iraq was busy installing its own defense to conduct an effective attack into Saudi Arabia, so the Battalion went to its primary mission of horizontal construction.

The first big road construction project was to construct an ammunition supply point known as Skibbie.  It became a 47,000-ton short-ton ammunition supply point approximately 20 kilometers south of An Nariyah.  Upon completion, this ASP had a four-mile, graveled access road and internal gravel roads to accommodate the M915 tractors. The Battalion also upgraded a 42-mile section of the Tapline Road to all-weather standards and constructed survivability positions for the 75th Field Artillery Brigade and the 212th Field Artillery Brigade.  

The Battalion also built an entire base camp for the 561st Combat Support Battalion including facilities, berms, pads, and roads, and provided logistical support to many other units in the area.  Just before the air war began on 17 January 1991, the Battalion was tasked with constructing a helicopter pad for Vice President Dan Quayle's visit.  The platoon in charge of the project was able to meet and shake hands with the Vice President and the XVIII Airborne Corps Commander, LTG Gary E. Luck.

As the air war progressed, the Battalion was prepared to move on short notice.  The Battalion was given four hours notice to move from Log Base Charlie and had the first echelons moving within only two hours.  After some minor issues with the transfer petroleum point, the Battalion's main objective, Tactical Assembly Area Elm was established on 17 January 1991.  Within 36 hours, they had met the initial requirements of the log base. The Battalion constructed:

an ammunition supply point that could handle 25,000 short-tons with three access and egress routes, pads for two million gallons of bulk water, roads for retail points for both fuel and water, seven hospitals, a Class I yard, as well as some logistical assistance for neighboring units.  The Battalion also assisted in the construction of MSR Texas and a Forward Landing Strip.  During its time at TAA Elm, the Battalion was finally able to get soldiers' weapons zeroed and conduct training fire of AT-4s (shoulder-fired, anti-tank weapons).

The 20th Engineer Battalion was also tasked to cut access through the Escarpment, the route for the French 6th Light Armored Division and the American 82nd Airborne Division into Iraq.   This mission was complete on 20 February 1991, and plans for the ground offensive were laid.

At G-2, 22 February 1991, the Battalion moved about 10 miles to be in position to launch the attack into Iraq on the MSR Texas extension.  The soldiers of the Battalion spent the night of G-2 sleeping in their vehicles in preparation for the attack.  On G-1, 23 February 1991, the Battalion moved another 10 miles closer to Iraq and again slept in their vehicles in preparation for a 0400 move.  On G-1, the day before the start of the ground war, the Battalion was again tasked to cut another access route through the Escarpment for the French combat trains.

On G-Day, rather than moving at 0400 as planned, the Battalion could not move until approximately 1600 while they waited for the French and the 82nd Airborne to roll through the Escarpment.  Once on MSR Texas, the Battalion moved within four kilometers of the 27th Engineer Battalion.  On G+1 as the French and the 82nd took Objective Reauchambeau, the Battalion continued to move along the MSR to Objective White where they bivouacked for the night near the town of Al Salman.  At first light on G+2, the Battalion moved down MSR Virginia, clearing it as they went, and wound up in Objective Brown.  Objective Brown had been cleared by the 24th Infantry Division, and the 20th began construction of Log Base Romeo.

At Log Base Romeo, they began to build facilities for the 44th Medical Brigade's hospital and fuel and water points.  As the offensive actions continued to move at a rapid pace north and east into Iraq, the need for Log Base Romeo diminished.  The 20th Engineer Brigade Commander informed LTC Ellis to be prepared to move immediately to support the ongoing attack.  They were to move to Objective Purple near the town of Al Bussayyah at first light on G+4, the next day.

As the Battalion prepared to move out at first light, LTC Ellis heard over the radio that President George Bush had just announced that all offensive actions in Iraq would stop within two hours.  LTC Ellis called the Brigade Commander, COL Robert Flowers,  who then instructed the Battalion to stand fast.  After standing fast for two hours, the Brigade Commander directed the Battalion move to down MSR Virginia to Objective Purple.  MSR Virginia near Al Bussayyah was littered with unexploded American ordnance left behind from the air campaign.  Because of the amounts of ordnance littering the desert, the 37th Engineer Battalion, leading a 20-mile long convoy of American combat support units, was clearing and grading a route around much of the ordnance.  This slowed traffic to a near standstill while they completed the bypass route.  As the battalion began to move, the Brigade Commander ordered the 20th to clear Objective Purple of unexploded ordnance, destroy bunkers and ammunition, and to clear and destroy the weapons and munitions in the town of Al Bussayyah.  The Battalion also had to clear MSR Virginia and 100 meters on each side of the road for safe trafficability.  After LTC Ellis conducted a reconnaissance of Al Bussayyah with the Brigade Commander, he asked to be absolved from the mission of clearing the town.  He contended that the town was too large and the mission too dangerous for his soldiers.  The Brigade Commander agreed and the Battalion continued the mission of destroying weapons, munitions, and bunkers.

Little did LTC Ellis know at the time, but three other engineer units in the area had been given the same mission of clearing Al Bussayyah and the neighboring area.  The 326th Engineer Battalion, 101st Airborne Division; 588th Engineer Battalion; and an Explosives Ordnance Disposal unit were all around Al Bussayyah clearing the area of unexploded ordnance and destroying equipment.  LTC Ellis took control of the situation, contacted the 326th Engineer Battalion commander, and diffused the situation before any soldiers were injured.  With the situation under control, the Battalion moved into Al Bussayyah and destroyed 750 AK-47 assault rifles, subcaliber ammunition, and an NBC vehicle closely resembling the American Fox vehicle.  The 20th, along with the 326th and the 588th Engineers, also concentrated on the areas surrounding the town destroying six tanks, six anti-aircraft guns, and tons of munitions.  The Battalion cleared the MSR of over 60 cluster munitions.

The next morning the Battalion resumed work on MSR Virginia with only Company D remaining in Al Busayyah to clear remaining enemy equipment.  While Company D cleared the town, a soldier from another unit picked up a cluster bomb and threw it.  The resulting explosion put shrapnel in his arm, chest, and leg, but the soldier lived.  The doctor assigned to the 20th Engineers treated the soldier and evacuated him.  The next morning the Battalion was ordered to be prepared to move at first light back toward Log Base Romeo.  

Once at Log Base Romeo, the Battalion again began providing general engineer support.  Though desperately short of surface material, the Battalion continued to maintain approximately 60 miles of MSR Virginia around Romeo.  LTC Ellis was told that the Battalion would remain at Romeo for approximately seven days, but two days later they were ordered to move back to Tactical Assembly Area Elm from which the Battalion had launched the ground campaign.  

At TAA Elm, the 20th Engineer Battalion began a stand down consisting of intensive maintenance, turning in ammunition and supplies, and cleaning and accounting for all property.  Equipment was cleaned, inventoried, and loaded into conexes and milvans.  Physical fitness was also stressed during the stand down and the 20th Engineer Brigade encouraged this with the Best Company competition in which D Company won the award as the Best Combat Engineer Line Company in the Brigade.  On 22 March 1991, the main body convoyed back to MABCO in Second Industrial City.  On 6 April, the Battalion moved back to Khobar Towers, the final redeployment staging area.  By 12 April 1991, the main body of the Battalion arrived at Campbell Army Airfield to be welcomed by the families and the 101st Airborne Division Band.  On 25 April, all elements of the 20th Engineer Battalion had returned to Fort Campbell after the single most successful military campaign in American history.

--End of Chapter 7, Desert Shield/Desert Storm