Gulf War Story (1991, Interview With David Eberly)

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GULF WAR STORY (1991, Interview With David Eberly)

On 16 January 1991 President George H. W. Bush announced the commencement of the air war against Iraq. By the time the Gulf War ended on 28 February, more than 116,000 Coalition air sorties had been flown. Iraq's air force and air defenses were in ruins, its command and control centers largely destroyed, and its ground forces in Iraq and Kuwait bombed to the point that they offered little resistance once the ground war began on 24 February. It was the first time in history that a war was won mainly through the use of overwhelming air power. But as this interview with David Eberly, a captured U.S. pilot, shows, victory did not come without a price. Coalition air forces lost seventy-five aircraft, including sixty-three U.S. warplanes. In all, twenty men serving in the U.S. Air Force died in action. Most American prisoners of war later testified to brutal treatment by the Iraqis; such treatment was graphically illustrated when Iraq released photographs of bruised and beaten Coalition pilots who had been shot down and captured in the early days of the air war. Ultimately, twenty-three Americans from all service branches would be captured and later repatriated. Iraqi prisoners of war numbered more than 71,000—so many that they slowed the speed of the ground assaults into Kuwait and Iraq as Coalition forces struggled to process and gather the surrendering combatants.

Cornell University

See also Persian Gulf War .

[Eberly's story begins at the point where he has spent several days in the desert, successfully avoiding Iraqi detection; he is just about to be captured.]

de: Well we crouched down in some small scrub there …up together in what bit of cover we had, which was merely an aluminium blanket, and we waited and as the sky cleared and the stars came out even more. The wind picked up, and we were sweating a bit from having walked probably seven and a half miles. We began to get extremely cold to the point that we were shaking and, having not eaten for about three days now and having …very little water, our physical strength was …we weren't in the best shape at all. So we decided that we would wait …for the rescue, and I made the decision that if we were going to wait out for the rescue rather than go on into Syria, we needed to at least get out of the cold because we were liable to go into shock from the cold and lose consciousness. So we backtracked a couple of hundred yards to what we thought was a deserted building and …we approached that building again listening, looking, all senses out.

As I approached the building in the complete darkness, I saw a slight flicker of a candle in a window and, much like the pink panther in a movie, I began to take a couple of steps backward as quietly as I could.…I hadn't taken more than about two or three steps back …I was maybe 10 feet from …the actual building, and it simply erupted. There was automatic weapons fire around all sides of the building.…There was automatic weapons fire from the roof, and I found myself in the middle of a fourth of July celebration of fire crackers, and yet we weren't really celebrating. We were actually post mortem celebrating not our freedom but the end of our freedom. The yelling and the firing finally subsided …it was foolish to get up and run …that's not a point at which you run and die for your country. They eventually decided that we were not a threat, and they came up and grabbed us and half way drug us into the building.…The first sensation I had was of the warmth of the building. They took us inside into a small room threw us down on a cot.…As I went through the door, I happened to see a picture on the wall, and my mind tried, without looking at the picture, to recreate the image as, 'I am now face to face with the enemy.' Throughout the portion that they were firing at us, they were chanting Iraq, Syria, Iraq, Syria, and so I felt …it could go either way …then the picture came clear in my mind and the picture on the wall was Saddam Hussein and I knew that it was the enemy.

interviewer: Can you describe to me how you were blindfolded, what they were asking you and what they then did?

de: During the interrogations we were always blindfolded. Always somewhat shackled or hand-cuffed, and on one particular interrogation early on in the prison experience, being dealt with by professionals I guess you would say, they were pursuing a line of questioning with regard to the army ground attack plan, and they had gotten fed up with me it was …and said if you don't cooperate we're going to take you downtown and let some of the people deal with you whose wives and children that you've killed. And it got to a point of disgust where, although blindfolded, I could tell there was a 9mm being cocked and then I felt the business end of the 9mm up against my head …cold steel, just like you see in the movies. And I guess they gave me one last chance and it was a point at which I basically drew my line in the sand and they pulled the trigger. From then on that ploy was useless; I'd seen that act and it wasn't going to work.

interviewer: What were you thinking though that …

de: Well, I visualised the side of my head coming out against the wall. And then the trigger pulled and nothing happened just the click.

interviewer: What does that type of experience do to you?

de: It's one that gives you pause to reflect, and I guess you among the many things you remember throughout your life, you can always remember the sound of the click of that gun going off.

interviewer: Could you recall for me what it was like when you were in your cell and the place was bombed?

de: The night of the 23rd February we had spent …nearly four weeks in a maximum security prison.

de: This particular night was not …much different than any others. I had no watch and couldn't see a clock, but somewhere around the 8 o'clock time frame body time, you would hear the air raid sirens go off. Normally I would stop pacing I'd sit down against …one of the side walls in the cell, and for that particular night, for some reasons, I had put my blanket up over my head sort of in ET fashion although I walked around like that much of the time just to keep warm. And then I hear the front end of a low altitude fighter coming in. And it's very easy to determine when a fighter's pointed at you; it's a very distinct sound, and hearing a crackling sound and then a concussion from the building …is one of those that …is very hard to describe. But the building seems to, I mean you become almost floating in air, and the feeling of being hit or the building that you're in is being hit is, again, an awesome feeling. The building swayed, and the concussion …goes beyond simply popping your ears. As I sat there …trying to again realise if I was dead or alive, I could almost envision that the ceiling was going to come in on me, or at any time I was going to fall through the floor several levels. And then you hear the second aeroplane, and you know that you haven't died, but now you're waiting and what are the odds on the next bomb taking you out. And it followed to the third aeroplane and, …knowing that most formations fly four ships, you are in long wait for that fourth one …It turned out that it was an extra long time before the fourth hit, but the place had become very chaotic by then. Yelling and screaming, the Iraqi guards had left; they had actually started running with the air raid siren two nights before, and so on this night, yes, they had run, and we were left.… After the first bomb hit, the guys were yelling get us out of here, and then we began to yell after the fourth bomb, sounding off our names. Who's there? Have you heard from this guy? Who is it? …It was chaotic.

interviewer: Who do you remember shouting at each other? What voices did you hear? What names did you hear? What do you remember about that?

de: I suppose my mind was flooded with, 'what are our chances now to escape' and in the yelling, my mind was pre-occupied with if somebody's out in the corridor, and I could hear somebody walking out there. Although picture yourself in a strange place; it's completely dark and all you know is the inside of your cell and the path that you've been led on to be interrogated. So we're in an unknown …I thought, if we can get out of the doors, we're going to need transportation, we're going to need to hijack some kind of bus, we're going to need some weapons and we need somebody that can speak Arabic to get out of here and then we're going to need to figure our where we are. So my mind was flooded with what can we do now if we can get free.

interviewer: Was your cell door blown open?

de: No, it wasn't. Mine was not and of course I guess that's why I wasn't preoccupied with running up and down the hall way in the dark trying to locate other people. I heard a couple of other voices and one humorous story. We had no idea who was there, we had no idea there'd been the slamming of the doors, how many people were in these particular cells, and so people would yell out there name and even spell it if it was an unusual name and at one point …somebody said, 'who's that out in the hall?' and …I remember Jeff S.… saying, well it's me and I'm trying to find some keys. And then another voice came up and said something about, 'Whose that down there' and the voices came back 'Well it's so and so, we're from CBS,' and with that I thought holy smoke, how did they ever co-ordinate to have press coverage at the bombing of this.…Very quickly …the voice came back and said 'No, we're in a cell just like you are' and it turned out to be Bob Simon, Roberto Alvarez and the others who were, in fact, held with us.

de: My release came as an absolute surprise. I mean the timing of it, I'd never given up hope that I knew we'd be released. In fact, Griff and I early on said …if we can just stay alive, someday we'll be home. So it was Tuesday morning, and they …began to feed us a little bit in this fourth prison. It had been a rainy night, cold and damp as usual, and in this particular prison there was no protection from that through any sort of glass or whatever. It was …the elements affected us a lot …and I had decided that …to sleep in, as you, might say that morning.

de: The steel door came creaking open, as it always did, with …a rust sound, and there in the lie of the doorway was …an older man in a rather fresh military uniform carrying a clip board. So I wasn't sure at first whether to stand up or stay …sitting down, but I decided I'll stand up. Because you have to be careful not to be too aggressive. And I stood up and walked over toward him. He had two other guards with him, and I said, 'Why do you want to know?'. And he simply said I'm here to take you home. And I looked at him, and I could tell from his eyes that he was telling the truth, that it wasn't another ploy, it wasn't another game to try to get me to talk one way or the other and I put my arms around him in a rather European fashion and slapped him a couple of times on the back and he did the same. But he could tell that …after all the tough guy interrogation, those little words had pretty well broken me, and he whispered in my ear 'Just remember you're a man' and so I pattered him again on the back and mustered and stepped back and he said 'Just wait, just five minutes' and he left.

interviewer: You really …?

de: Well it got to me. You know the facade that I'd put on with every one of these guys, both the good guys and the bad guys, and the routines that they go through and he was somebody that, looking in his eyes, there wasn't any doubt he was there to take us home. And it was one of those just let your guard down for a second. But he could tell that …I knew he meant it.

SOURCE: Frontline. "The Gulf War. An In-Depth Examination of the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf Crisis." Available at

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Gulf War Story (1991, Interview With David Eberly)

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