Putnam III, Samuel G.
Putnam III, Samuel G.
Excerpt from a letter to his wife describing his participation in the ground war with the U.S. Army
Letter dated February 28, 1991; reprinted in War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars, 2001
After bombing targets in Iraq and Kuwait for nearly six weeks, the U.S.-led coalition launched a major ground assault on February 24, 1991. The goal of the ground war was to force Iraqi troops to withdraw from Kuwait. Rather than simply attacking the Iraqi defensive positions from the front, however, coalition leaders came up with a daring plan to surround the Iraqi forces and attack them from the rear.
Coalition forces made it appear as if the ground attack would come from Saudi Arabia (south of Kuwait) and the Persian Gulf (east of Kuwait). In the meantime, a large coalition attack force called the VII Corps secretly moved west along the Saudi Arabia-Kuwait border and then north into Iraq. The VII Corps included two-hundred-fifty thousand allied troops, thousands of tanks and armored vehicles, hundreds of heavy artillery guns, and enough fuel, ammunition, and supplies to last them for sixty days of fighting. This huge attack force moved 500 miles around the flank of the Iraqi army.
When the ground war began, the VII Corps was involved in several intense battles. But they soon fought their way through Iraqi defenses to reach the Euphrates River, cutting off the main escape route for Saddam Hussein's troops in Kuwait. Thousands of desperate Iraqi soldiers surrendered to the coalition forces as they advanced. The coalition succeeded in liberating Kuwait after only four days of fighting, and U.S. President George Bush declared a cease-fire on February 28.
U.S. Army Captain Samuel G. Putnam III was a thirty-one-year-old flight surgeon with the VII Corps. He spent the four-day ground war traveling across Iraq as a member of the 1/1 Cavalry Squadron, 1st Armored Division. On the day the fighting ended, he wrote a letter to his wife, Sharon, back home in Pennsylvania. In this letter, which is excerpted here, Putnam describes his experiences during the VII Corps' dramatic push into Iraq.
Putnam is impressed by the awesome strength of the U.S.-led force that rolled across the Iraqi desert. He talks about the overwhelming power of the American weapons, which seemed to crush Iraqi resistance fairly easily. Although the first few days of combat go extremely well, Putnam's unit eventually comes under attack. He describes the fear he felt under fire, and the change that he noticed afterward in his fellow soldiers' attitudes toward war. After spending four days in often intense combat, Putnam is exhausted and glad to be alive.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from U.S. Army Captain Samuel G. Putnam III's letter to his wife:
- Putnam recalls an incident in which he accepted the surrender of eleven Iraqi soldiers. As the coalition ground forces advanced, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their defensive positions and surrendered to allied troops in waves. Many of these Iraqi soldiers were desperate for food and water, and some of them had been wounded in the allied air attacks. A total of around eighty thousand Iraqi troops surrendered during the war. The coalition forces did not expect so many Iraqis to surrender and were not prepared to deal with this situation. They had no way of caring for the mob of prisoners, and mass surrenders threatened to halt the progress of some units. As a result, Putnam took away the weapons of the Iraqi soldiers he encountered, then sent them off to another U.S. Army division.
- Putnam says his unit was a victim of "friendly fire." This term is used to describe situations when military forces accidentally target their weapons at their own "friendly" troops instead of at enemy troops. He believes that the bomb that wounded twenty-one American soldiers connected to VII Corps was dropped on them accidentally by fellow coalition forces. The U.S.-led coalition experienced very light casualties during the Persian Gulf War, with a total of 240 soldiers killed and 776 wounded. American casualties accounted for 148 of the dead and 458 of the wounded. Military analysts claim that around one-third of these casualties were the result of friendly fire.
- Putnam closes his letter by describing oil fires on the horizon. Retreating Iraqi forces set fire to hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells at the end of the Persian Gulf War. These huge blazes filled the air with thick, greasy, black smoke that blocked the sun over parts of the Middle East. The fires burned up millions of barrels of Kuwaiti oil and polluted the air across the Gulf region. Putting the fires out required seven months of expensive and dangerous efforts by international firefighting teams.
Excerpt from Captain Putnam's letter to his wife
It's great to be here, even if this place is windy, dusty, and ugly—it's just great to be able to write a letter after the past 4 days.
We're now in southeastern Iraq, about 12 miles west of the Kuwaiti border. It was a truly incredible trip to this spot, which I'll tell you about from the beginning.
On [February] the 24th, at about 8AM, we started moving north from our last holding area in Saudi Arabia. We've known for about 4 weeks what our mission was—to go into Iraq andoutflank their forces, focusing in on theRepublican Guards ....
We thought this would be our first big battle day. We thought we'd be getting shot at as we moved north that day, but instead we ran into a bunch of surrendering Iraqi soldiers. Thespot reports started slow, maybe 3 EPW's (Enemy Prisoners of War), then 7, then 15, then 60, then 120 Iraqis surrendering. There were a bunch at abunker complex that was targeted forartillery, so we had to get them out before our artillery could blast it. It stopped us for a couple hours, so I stood up on the aid station and watched the entire 1st Armored Division pull up behind us—it was incredible. Thousands of vehicles rolling across the desert. It visually showed me what a feat it was getting all this stuff here—and that [was] just one division out of the 8 that the army has here. A herd of camels got caught up in the movement and were totallyperplexed —didn't know which way to go.
Outflank: Circle around.
Republican Guards: An elite, one hundred thousand-man force that was the best-trained and best-equipped part of Iraq's army.
Spot reports: Reports passed back from other vehicles in the division.
Bunker: A protective chamber dug into the ground.
Artillery: Large, cannon-like weapons used to launch bombs and missiles.
Leaflets: Pieces of paper containing Arabic messages encouraging Iraqi troops to surrender.
Saddam: Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Back to the EPW's—they knew exactly how to surrender, thanks to theleaflets that our air force dropped on them. They had no desire to die forSaddam. I saw lines of them, hands over their heads, waving anything white that they could find. One guy was dancingwith a white sheet over his head. One group had a dog surrendering with them. They looked pretty hurting—torn up uniforms, thin, many without shoes. They just left their weapons sitting on the ground. We picked up so many of them that we stopped stopping for them and just pointed them south—let someone else in the division pick them up.
Our troops made a bit of contact with Iraqi troops not willing to give up—but they blew up the vehicles and took care of that. None of our guys were injured. The day ended about 70 miles into Iraq....
The next day we moved out at first light. Theterrain changed dramatically—it was hilly with lots of small scraggly bushes and more camels. We went through a largeBedouin camp. I wonder what they were thinking as this division rolled through camp....
By nightfall we were at ourobjective that was supposed to take 4½ days to reach. Things were going so well that we kept going. We were still the furthest unit into Iraq, and moving northeast towards Kuwait, we started to pass more enemy positions with blown up tanks and unexploded bombs and mines that we had to avoid. Everyone did avoid them.
Further on that night we started to hear and see a lot of boom-booms to our south. That was the Republican Guards fighting our 3rd Armored Division. Our guns wiped them out that night. That's also when our artillery started firing from behind us right over our heads. I was a bit nervous about around falling short—but it didn't happen. At about 11:30PMwe stopped to let our artilleryprep the battlefield in front of us. Our troops were sendingmortar on a road to our north, artillery was going off to my west, there was a major battle to our south. I saw a vehicle blow up and fly about 100 feet into the air—and to our east were the Republican Guards that we were going after—the Medina division. Every direction I turned there were explosions. Our vehicles were lined up in columns, mine being the last vehicle of our column. I was standing outside, when I saw something fire into a hill not 200 feet from me. I dove behind myhumvee along with 2 other guys—we were sure we were getting shot at. We had our weapons out, ready to shoot at anything that moved. I thought the worst, but it turned out one of our ownBradleys had fired that shot at a bunker near us. Scared by our own troops.
Terrain: Characteristics of the land.
Bedouin: A nomadic Arab people that live in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East.
Objective: Goal or target.
Round: An explosive artillery shell.
Mortar: An explosive shell fired from a large cannon.
Humvee: Nickname for the rugged truck used by U.S. troops (short for High-Mobility, Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicles, or HMMWV).
Bradleys: Bradley fighting vehicles (a type of U.S. military vehicle that had armor and weapons but was smaller than a tank).
Barrage: Artillery fire designed to screen and protect friendly troops.
We moved a little further after the artillerybarrage, then stopped for another one. I can't describe to you the power that you feel when artillery goes off anywhere nearby. The earth shakes, your body vibrates,the sound is deafening. I watched as these rockets were being fired directly behind me—coming right at me and over my head, hitting about 10 miles to our front. They were beautiful to watch, but it must be hell on earth to be anywhere near where they land.
Elite: Highly trained and prestigious.
Seized: Took away.
Disheveled: Messy or rumpled.
Resounding: Loud and emphatic.
Most of our guys were sleeping at this stop, but I stayed awake and kept my eyes open to our rear. I wasn't going to take any chances. I saw about 10 people coming over a hill with their hands over their heads—figured they were Iraqis surrendering. I rounded up a few guys with M-16 rifles and drove over to them. It turned out they were 11 soldiers from the Tawakalna division of the Republican Guard—supposedly the mostelite forces, surrendering to me. My guysseized their weapons and searched them. They were thin,disheveled, cold and dirty. I asked if any of them spoke English and I got aresounding "no" from most of them. I laughed at that and most of them responded with a nervous chuckle. I'm sure they were worried that we might just shoot them. We put all their weapons in my humvee and pointed them west—towards the rest of the division following us. They were a little hesitant to walk away—I thinkthey thought we would shoot them. Eventually they walked. I was left with 7 AK-47's, Soviet-made assault rifles. I got a picture of me holding them all, thenMascellino and I buried them. Now I can boast about how I single-handedly captured 11 enemy soldiers....
We stopped again about 3AM. Everyone was tired butecstatic that things were going so well. It seemed to good to be true—and it was. We heard a loud "crack"—much closer and different sounding than the ones we'd been hearing the last 2 days. Mascellino and I jumped out of our humvee and beelined for the nearest armored vehicle—an ambulance 2 up from me. As I ran up I twisted my ankle and limped towards the ambulance. I saw multiple explosions very close—right in front of me. I heard guys screaming and saw people running as I dove into the ambulance.
It stopped soon after I got in. We had been attacked by someone, somehow, somewhere—no one knew where it came from. I hobbled out and heard we had a lot ofcasualties at the TOC (tactical operations center) where about 100 soldiers live. I drove over there and saw guys laying out all over the place. I went to each one and checked them out—we had 21 casualties, but no one had a life-threatening injury. It was a miracle. The artillery that hit us exploded over our head, where it shoots out a bunch of little bomblets that then explode when they hit the ground. They sendshrapnel in all directions. We dressed all the wounds, sorted the patients, and put guys on ambulances who couldn't walk....
We were incredibly lucky. With all that shrapnel flying around, no one had any vital organs or eyes pierced. Someone was definitely watching over us then....
That scene totally changed the attitude of thesquadron. Immediately, we all realized what war really meant, and everyone hated it. I have never been as scared as when that stuff exploded. Since then, everyone wore theirfrag vest (body armor) and most slept in armored vehicles. We all jump a bit more when we hear explosions.
We still don't know where that came from—but it was most likely from our own guys.Friendly fire that wasn't.
Mascellino: Name of a fellow U.S. soldier.
Casualties: Killed or wounded soldiers.
Shrapnel: Fragments of bombs or missiles.
Squadron: Military unit.
Frag: Short for "fragment"; clothing designed to protect soldiers from shrapnel or shell fragments.
Friendly fire: A term used when military forces accidentally shot their weapons at their own troops instead of at enemy troops.
We moved up a few more miles yesterday morning, then stopped and let the division pass us by. They battled all day yesterday with tanks, Apache helicopters, artillery, and jets going after the retreating Iraqis. By last night I was delirious—I hadn't slept in 38 hours. I crashed in the ambulance and slept a solid 10 hours, wokenupintermittently by the explosions around us, hoping that they were outgoing and not incoming.
This morning I woke up and heard the second best news in my life—Pres. Bush announcing a cease-fire. I was working on patients later this morning when I heard the best news in my life—that Iraq had accepted the cease-fire terms. Hopefully that's it, but I won't believe it for sure until I'm out of here.
The sun's now setting and to the east I can see the red glow of an oil field burning under dark clouds, with a full moon rising above the clouds. It's beautiful....
Intermittently: Once in a while.
Pres. Bush: U.S. President George Bush.
What happened next...
The official end of the Persian Gulf War came on April 3, 1991, when the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 687. This resolution lifted economic sanctions (trade restrictions designed to punish a country for breaking international law by harming its economy) on food shipments to Iraq, but left other trade restrictions in place until Iraq met a number of requirements. For example, Iraq was required to respect its border with Kuwait and to pay for damages caused by its occupation. The resolution also required Iraq to destroy or remove all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons and provided for UN inspectors to monitor its progress.
Once the war ended, U.S. troops returned home to triumphant celebrations. In the meantime, both Kuwait and Iraq struggled to overcome the terrible destruction the war had caused. The Iraqi people rose up in rebellion against Saddam Hussein's weakened government after the war, but Hussein used the remains of his military to violently crush the uprisings.
Did you know...
- Doctor Putnam retired from the military following his service in the Persian Gulf War. He returned home to Pennsylvania and entered private medical practice as a radiologist (a doctor who uses X rays to diagnose and treat disease).
- The letter Putnam wrote to his wife at the end of the Persian Gulf War was one of two hundred letters included in a 2001 collection called War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars. The editor of this book, Andrew Carroll, selected the letters from more than fifty thousand he received through the Legacy Project. Founded in 1998, the Legacy Project is an effort to honor U.S. military veterans by collecting and preserving their wartime correspondence, from the American Civil War (1861–65) to the present. For more information, visit http://www.warletters.com.
For More Information
Carroll, Andrew, ed. War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars. New York: Scribner, 2001.