by Ryan Labadens, U.S. Navy Public Affairs
It’s been 31 years since the United States and the Allied coalition of 38 other nations liberated Kuwait from Iraqi forces in what was known militarily as Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.
Like they did in World War II when U.S. and Allied forces worked together to defeat Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, the U.S. Navy Seabees played their part in paving the way to victory over Iraq’s military forces and freeing the nation of Kuwait from the grips of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.
Iraq initially invaded the oil-rich nation of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, formally annexing the smaller nation into its territory six days later. On Aug. 7, 1990, then U.S. President George H. W. Bush ordered the start of what was known as Operation Desert Shield, which served as the ramp-up phase for coalition forces to defend Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern nations from the further incursion of the Iraqi military, and setting the stage for the United Nations-backed liberation of Kuwait.
The First Marine Expeditionary Force was one of the first U.S. military units assigned to this region, and four battalions of Navy Seabees were deployed with them to Saudi Arabia to provide support; these were Naval Mobile Construction Battalions (NMCB) 4, 5, 7 and 40.
These battalions unloaded supplies and equipment for the Marine expeditionary force, while Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion 2 worked alongside the Marines to help them in their preparations for a possible amphibious assault in the area.
By Nov. 29, 1990, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) had authorized the use of force to help oust Iraqi forces from Kuwait if they had not already pulled out of the nation before Jan. 15, 1991. U.S. and coalition forces continued their buildup in the region throughout the remainder of the year.
During this buildup, the Seabees worked on numerous construction projects in preparation for what looked like an inevitable confrontation. Seabees from NMCB 411 and 415 constructed a 500-bed hospital called Fleet Hospital Five at Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Other Seabee battalions began rotating into the region during this phase, including NMCB 24 and 74, Details 15 and 16 from NMCB 1, and Seabees from the Navy reserve 3rd Naval Construction Regiment.
By early February 1991, 2,800 Seabees and 1,375 pieces of equipment had been deployed to the region in support of Operation Desert Shield.
The Seabees continued providing infrastructure for the Marine units they were assigned to support at four different airfields, such as constructing parking aprons and building and maintaining the base camps that housed the Marines at these airfields, as well as ammunition supply points.
Another major facility the Seabees built for the Marines was a headquarters complex for the First Marine Expeditionary Force.
For the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, the Seabees constructed a 15,000-personnel camp dubbed “Wally World,” which contained modules with berthing, office space, showers, toilet facilities, a galley, roads and parking areas.
As 1990 drew to a close and the new year became a reality, so did the likelihood of the U.S.-led Allied campaign against Iraqi forces known as Operation Desert Storm, and the Seabees turned their efforts to supporting the ground assault into Kuwait.
The Seabees continued their construction of facilities to support the Marines and the campaign efforts, including the building of a 40,000-personnel capacity enemy prisoner of war camp.
A day after the U.N. Security Council “use of force” authorization went into effect Jan. 15, 1991, coalition forces began a massive air campaign to soften up the Iraqi forces before the allied ground assault, which began Feb. 23-24, 1991.
Before this assault could begin, the Commander of the Allied Forces, U.S. Army General Norman Schwarzkopf, had come up with an assault plan that required the construction of a road network that required more than 200 miles of roads in the desert near the northern and western borders of Kuwait.
For the construction of these roads for Schwarzkopf’s “End Run” attack strategy, much of this needed to be accomplished at the last minute in order to deceive the Iraqi forces. Seabees from numerous units worked non-stop to finish the task in almost two weeks.
The day before the ground assault began, Seabees dug in with the 1st Marine Division command element on the border as the division moved into attack positions. The Marines, along with other coalition forces, rolled into Kuwait Feb. 25, 1991, and Seabees from NMCB 5 and 24 moved into Kuwait with them, repairing roads and airfields along the way and building even more prisoners of war camps to hold troops from the overwhelmed Iraqi military forces.
The Iraqi military was quickly routed and driven from Kuwait, and on Feb. 28, 1991, Iraq officially accepted a cease-fire from coalition forces, and the largest military action the Seabees had been involved in since the Vietnam War came to an end.
Since then, the U.S. Navy Seabees have continued their proud legacy of supporting the construction needs of the U.S Navy and Department of Defense.
Remembering the history of the Seabees and recognizing their continued importance in supporting U.S. military objectives worldwide is one of the main goals of many of the events taking place onboard Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) during this 80th anniversary year, both of the base and the U.S. Navy Seabees themselves.
To this day, the U.S. Navy Seabees continue to provide assistance to U.S. combatant commanders and Allied forces across the globe, building and maintaining facilities and providing support wherever they are called upon to do so.
(Information for this article was compiled from the Naval History and Heritage Command website: https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/s/seabee-history0/desert-shield-desert-storm.html